James Bulger was a boy from Kirkby, Liverpool England, who was murdered on 12 February 1993, at the age of two. He was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten-year-old boys, Robert Thompson (born 23 August 1982) and Jon Venables (born 13 August 1982). Bulger disappeared from a Shopping Centre, while accompanying his mother. His mutilated body was found on a railway line two-and-a-half miles (4 km) away in Walton, Liverpool two days after his murder. Thompson and Venables were charged on 20 February 1993 with Bulger’s abduction and murder.
The pair were found guilty on 24 November 1993, making them the youngest convicted murderers in modern English history. They were sentenced to custody until they reached adulthood, initially until the age of 18, and were released under new identities and on a lifelong licence in June 2001. In 2010, Venables was sent to prison for violating the terms of his licence of release, and was released on parole again in 2013.
The case has prompted widespread debate on the issue of how to handle Young offenders when they are sentenced or released from custody.
CCTV evidence from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle taken on Friday 12 February 1993 showed Thompson and Venables casually observing children, apparently selecting a target. The boys were playing truant from school, which they did regularly. Throughout the day, Thompson and Venables were seen stealing various items including sweets, a troll doll some batteries and a can of blue paint, some of which were later found at the murder scene. One of the boys later revealed that they were planning to find a child to abduct, lead him to the busy road alongside the mall, and push him into the path of oncoming traffic.
That same afternoon, James Bulger (often called “Jamie” by the press, although never by his family), from nearby Kirkby, went with his mother Denise to the New Strand Shopping Centre. While inside the A.R. Tym’s butcher’s shop on the lower floor of the centre at around 3:40 pm, Denise, who had been temporarily distracted, realised that her son had disappeared. Thompson and Venables approached him before taking him by the hand and leading him out of the shopping centre.This moment was captured on a CCTV camera recording timestamped at 15:42.
The boys took Bulger on a meandering 2.5-mile (4 km) walk across Liverpool to the Liverpool Canal, where he was dropped on his head and suffered injuries to his face. The boys joked about pushing Bulger into the canal. During the walk across Liverpool, the boys were seen by 38 People. Bulger had a bump on his forehead and was crying, but most bystanders did nothing to intervene, assuming that he was a younger brother. Two people challenged the older boys, but they claimed that Bulger was a younger brother or that he was lost and they were taking him to the local police Station.At one point, the boys took Bulger into a pet shop, from which they were ejected.Eventually the boys arrived in the village of Walton, and with Walton Lane police station across the road facing them, they hesitated and led Bulger up a steep bank to a railway line near Walton where they began torturing him.
At the trial it was established that at this location, one of the boys threw blue modelling paint, which they had shoplifted earlier, into Bulger’s left eye. They kicked and stomped on him, and threw bricks and stones at him. Batteries were placed in Bulger’s mouth. Police believed some batteries may have been inserted into his anus, although none were found there. Finally, a 22-pound (10.0 kg) iron bar, described in court as a railway fishplate was dropped on him. Bulger suffered ten scull fractures as a result of the iron bar striking his head. The case’s pathologist stated that Bulger suffered so many injuries—42 in total—that none could be isolated as the fatal blow.
Police suspected that there was a sexual element to the crime, since Bulger’s shoes, socks, trousers and underpants had been removed. The pathologist’s report read out in court stated that Bulger’s foreskin had been forcibly retracted. When questioned about this aspect of the attack by detectives and the child psychiatrist, Dr. Eileen Vizard, Thompson and Venables were reluctant to give details; they also denied inserting some of the batteries into Bulger’s anus. At his eventual parole, Venables’s psychiatrist until he was aged 21, reported that “visiting and revisiting the issue with Jon as a child, and now as an adolescent, he gives no account of any sexual element to the offence.”
Before they left him, the boys laid Bulger across the railway tracks and weighted his head down with rubble, in the hope that a train would hit him and make his death appear to be an accident. After Bulger’s killers left the scene, his body was cut in half by a Train. Bulger’s severed body was discovered two days later on 14 February. A forensic pathologist testified that he had died before he was struck by the train.
The police quickly found low-resolution video images of Bulger’s abduction from the New Strand Shopping Centre by two unidentified Boys. As the circumstances surrounding the death became clear, tabloid newspapers denounced the people who had seen Bulger but had not intervened to aid him as he was being taken through the city, as the “Liverpool 38”. The railway embankment upon which his body had been discovered was flooded with hundreds of bunches of flowers.
The family of one boy, who was detained for questioning but subsequently released, had to flee the city. The breakthrough came when a woman, on seeing slightly enhanced images of the two boys on national television, recognised Venables, who she knew had played truant with Thompson that day. She contacted police and the boys were arrested.
The fact that the suspects were so young came as a shock to investigating officers, headed by Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, of Merseyside Police. Early press reports and police statements had referred to Bulger being seen with “two youths” (suggesting that the killers were teenagers), the ages of the boys being difficult to ascertain from the images captured by CCTV.
Forensic tests confirmed that both boys had the same blue paint on their clothing as found on Bulger’s body. Both had blood on their shoes; the blood on Thompson’s shoe was matched to Bulger’s through DNA tests. A pattern of bruising on Bulger’s right cheek matched the features of the upper part of a shoe worn by Thompson; a paint mark in the toecap of one of Venables’s shoes indicated he must have used “some force” when he kicked Bulger.
The boys were each charged with the murder of James Bulger on 20 February 1993, and appeared at South Sefton Youth Court on 22 February 1993, when they were remanded in custody to await Trial. In the aftermath of their arrest, and throughout the media accounts of their trial, the boys were referred to as ‘Child A’ (Thompson) and ‘Child B’ (Venables). While awaiting trial, they were held in the secure units where they would eventually be sentenced to be detainedv indefinitely.
Up to five hundred protesters gathered atSefon Court during the boys’ initial court appearances. The parents of the accused were moved to different parts of the country and assumed new identities following death threats from vigilantes.
The full trial opened at Preston Crown Court on 1 November 1993, conducted as an adult Trial with the accused in the dock away from their parents, and the judge and court officials in legal regalia. The boys denied the charges of murder, abduction and attempted abduction brought against them. The attempted abduction charge related to an incident at the New Strand Shopping Centre earlier on 12 February 1993, the day of Bulger’s death. Thompson and Venables had attempted to lead away another two-year-old boy, but had been prevented by the boy’s mother. Each boy sat in view of the court on raised chairs (so they could see out of the dock designed for adults) accompanied by two social workers. Although they were separated from their parents, they were within touching distance when their families attended the trial. News stories reported the demeanour of the defendants. These aspects were later criticised by the European Court of human rights, which ruled in 1999 that they had not received a fair trial by being tried in public in an adult court.
At the trial, the lead prosecution council successfully rebutted the principle of “doli incapax” which presumes that young children cannot be held legally responsible for their actions. Thompson and Venables were considered by the court to be capable of “mischievous discretion”, meaning an ability to act with criminal intent as they were mature enough to understand that they were doing something seriously wrong. The child psychiatrist Dr. Eileen Vizard, who interviewed Thompson before the trial, was asked in court whether he would know the difference between right and wrong, that it was wrong to take a young child away from his mother, and that it was wrong to cause injury to a child. Vizard replied, “If the issue is on the balance of probabilities, I think I can answer with certainty”. Vizard also said that Thompson was suffering from postraumatic stress disorder after the attack on Bulger.The forensic psych who interviewed Venables, said unequivocally that he knew the difference between right and wrong.
Thompson and Venables did not speak during the trial, and the case against them was based to a large extent on the more than 20 hours of tape-recorded police interviews with the boys, which were played back in court. Thompson was considered to have taken the leading role in the abduction process, though it was Venables who had apparently initiated the idea of taking Bulger to the railway line. Venables would later describe how Bulger seemed to “like” him, holding his hand and allowing him to pick him up on the meandering journey to the scene of his eventual death.
The prosecution admitted a number of exhibits during the trial, including a box of 27 bricks, a blood-stained stone, Bulger’s underpants, and the rusty iron bar described as a railway fishplate. The pathologist spent 33 minutes outlining the injuries sustained by Bulger; many of those to his legs had been inflicted after he was stripped from the waist down. Massive Brain Damage was extensive and included a haemorrhage.
The two boys, by then aged 11, were found guilty of Bulger’s murder at the Preston court on 24 November 1993, becoming the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century. The judge, Mr. Justice Morland, told Thompson and Venables that they had committed a crime of “unparalleled evil and barbarity… In my judgment, your conduct was both cunning and very wicked.” Morland sentenced them to be detained with a recommendation that they should be kept in custody for “very, very many years to come”, recommending a minimum term of eight years.
At the close of the trial, the judge lifted reporting restrictions and allowed the names of the killers to be released, saying “I did this because the public interest overrode the interest of the defendants… There was a need for an informed public debate on crimes committed by young children.”
Laurence Lee, who was the solicitor of Venables during the trial, later declared that Thompson was one of the most frightening children he had seen. He compared Thompson to the Pied Piper
Shortly after the trial, and after the judge had recommended a minimum sentence of eight years, Lord Gosforth recommended that the two boys should serve a minimum of ten years, which would have made them eligible for release in February 2003 at the age of 20.
The Sun newspaper handed a petition bearing nearly 280,000 signatures to Home Secretary, in a bid to increase the time spent by both boys in custody. This campaign was successful, and in July 1994 Howard announced that the boys would be kept in custody for a minimum of fifteen years, meaning that they would not be considered for release until February 2008, by which time they would be 25 years of age.
Lord Donaldson criticised Howard’s intervention, describing the increased tariff as “institutionalised vengeance … by a politician playing to the gallery”. The increased minimum term was overturned in 1997 by the House of the Lords who ruled that it was “unlawful” for the Home Secretary to decide on minimum sentences for young offenders. The High Court and European Court of Human Rights have since ruled that, though the parliament may set minimum and maximum terms for individual categories of crime, it is the responsibility of the trial judge, with the benefit of all the evidence and argument from both prosecution and defence counsel, to determine the minimum term in individual criminal cases.
The case led to public anguish, and moralpanic in Britain.Tony Blair said: “We hear of crimes so horrific they provoke anger and disbelief in equal proportions… These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name.” Prime Minister said that “society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less”. The trial judge Mr. Justice Morland stated that exposure to violent videos might have encouraged the actions of Thompson and Venables, but this was disputed by David Mclean the Minister of State at the Home Office at the time, who pointed out that police had found no evidence linking the case with “Video nasties”. Some UK tabloid newspapers claimed that the attack on James Bulger was inspired by the film Childs Play 3and campaigned for the rules on “video nasties” to be tightened. During the police investigation, it emerged that Child’s Play 3 was one of the films that Jon Venables’ father had rented in the months prior to the killing, but it was not established that Jon had ever watched it. One scene in the film shows the malevolent doll Chucky being splashed with blue paint during a paintball game. A Merseyside detective said “We went through something like 200 titles rented by the Venables family. There were some you or I wouldn’t want to see, but nothing – no scene, or plot, or dialogue – where you could put your finger on the freeze button and say that influenced a boy to go out and commit murder.” Inspector Ray Simpson of Merseyside Police commented: “If you are going to link this murder to a film, you might as well link it to “the Railway Children”. The Criminal Justice and Public Act 1994 clarified the rules on the availability of certain types of video material to children.
After the trial, Thompson was held at the Barton Moss Secure Care Centre in Manchester Venables was detained in Vardy House, a small eight-bedded unit at Red Bank secure unit in St.Helens on Merseyside.
Details of the boys’ lives were recorded twice daily on running sheets and signed by the member of staff who had written them. The records were stored at the units and copied to officials in Whitehall. The boys were taught to conceal their real names and the crime they had committed which resulted in them being in the units. Venables’s parents regularly visited their son at Red Bank, just as Thompson’s mother did — every three days — at Barton Moss.
The boys received education and rehabilitation; despite initial problems, Venables was said to have eventually made good progress at Red Bank, resulting in him being kept there for the full eight years, despite the facility only being a short-stay remand unit. Both boys, however, were reported to suffer posttraumatic stress disorder, and Venables in particular told of experiencing nightmares and flashbacks of the murder.
In 1999, lawyers for Thompson and Venables appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that the boys’ trial had not been impartial, since they were too young to follow proceedings and understand an adult court. The European court dismissed their claim that the trial was inhuman and degrading treatment, but upheld their claim they were denied a fair hearing by the nature of the court proceedings. The European Court also held that Michael Howard’s intervention had led to a “highly charged atmosphere”, which resulted in an unfair judgment. On 15 March 1999, the court in Strasbourg ruled by 14 votes to five that there had been a violation of Article 6, Human Rights, regarding the fairness of the trial of Thompson and Venables, stating: “The public trial process in an adult court must be regarded in the case of an 11-year-old child as a severely intimidating procedure”.
In September 1999, Bulger’s parents applied to the European Court of Human Rights, but failed to persuade the court that a victim of a crime has the right to be involved in determining the sentence of the perpetrator.
The European court case led to the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, reviewing the minimum sentence. In October 2000, he recommended the tariff be reduced from ten to eight years, adding that Young offender institutions were a “corrosive atmosphere” for the juveniles.
In June 2001, after a six-month review, the parole board ruled the boys were no longer a threat to public safety and could be released as their minimum tariff had expired in February of that year. The Home Secretary David Blunkett approved the decision, and they were released a few weeks later on Lifelong licence after serving eight years. Both men were given new identities and moved to secret locations under a wittness protection style action. This was supported by the fabrication of passports, national insurance numbers, qualification certificates and medical records. Blunkett added his own conditions to their licence and insisted on being sent daily updates on the men’s actions.
The terms of their release include the following: they are not allowed to contact each other or Bulger’s family; they are prohibited from visiting the Merseyside region; curfews may be imposed on them and they must report to probation officers. If they breach these rules or are deemed a risk to the public, they can be returned to prison.
An injunction was imposed on the media after the trial, preventing the publication of details about the boys. The worldwide injunction was kept in force following their release on parole, so their new identities and locations could not be published. Blunkett stated in 2001: “The injunction was granted because there was a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk if their identities became known”.
In the months after the trial, and the birth of their second son, the marriage of Bulger’s parents, Ralph and Denise, broke down; they divorced in 1995. Denise married Stuart Fergus and they have two sons together. Ralph also remarried and has three daughters by his second wife.
The Observer revealed that both Venables and Thompson had passed A-Levels during their sentences. The paper also told how the Bulger family’s lawyers had consulted psychiatric experts in order to present the parole panel with a report which suggested that Thompson is an undiagnosed Psychopath citing his lack of remorse during his trial and arrest. The report was ultimately dismissed. However, his lack of remorse at the time, in stark contrast to Venables, led to considerable scrutiny from the parole panel. Upon release, both Thompson and Venables had lost all trace of their Liverpool accents.In a psychiatric report prepared in 2000 before Venables’s release, he was described as posing a “trivial” risk to the public and unlikely to reoffend. The chances of his successful rehabilitation were described as “very high”.
The Manchester Evening News published details that suggested the names of the secure institutions in which the pair were housed, in possible breach of the injunction against publicity which had been renewed early in 2001. In December that year, the paper was fined 30,000 Pounds for contempt on court and ordered to pay costs of £120,000.
No significant publication or vigilante action against Thompson or Venables has occurred. Despite this, Bulger’s mother, Denise, told how in 2004 she received a tip-off from an anonymous source that helped her locate Thompson. Upon seeing him, she was “paralysed with hatred” and was unable to confront him.
In April 2007, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act confirmed that the Home Office had spent £13,000 on an injunction to prevent a foreign magazine from revealing the new identities of Thompson and Venables.
On 14 March 2008, an appeal to set up a Red Balloon Learner Centre in Merseyside in memory of James Bulger was launched by Denise Fergus, his mother. A memorial garden in Bulger’s memory was created in Sacred Heart Primary School in his hometown of Kirkby, the school he would have been expected to attend had he not been murdered.
In March 2010, a call was made to raise the age of criminal responsibility in England from ten to 12. Children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson said that the killers of James Bulger should have undergone “programmes” to help turn their lives around, rather than being prosecuted. The Ministry of Justice rejected the call, saying that children over the age of ten knew the difference “between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing”.
In April 2010, a 19-year-old man from the Isle of Man was given a three-month suspended prison sentence for falsely claiming in a Facebook message that one of his former colleagues was Robert Thompson. In passing sentence, Deputy High Bailiff Alastair Montgomerie said that the teenager had “put that person at significant risk of serious harm” and in a “perilous position” by making the allegation.
In March 2012, a 26-year-old man from Chorley Lancashire, was arrested after allegedly setting up a Facebook group with the title “What happened to Jamie Bulger was f**king hilarious.” The man’s computer was seized for further investigations.
On 25 February 2013, the Attorneys General Office announced that it was instituting contempt of court proceedings against several people who had allegedly published photographs online showing Thompson or Venables as adults. A spokesman commented “There are many different images circulating online claiming to be of Venables or Thompson; potentially innocent individuals may be wrongly identified as being one of the two men and placed in danger. The order, and its enforcement, is therefore intended to protect not only Venables and Thompson but also those members of the public who have been incorrectly identified as being one of the two men.”
On 26 April 2013, two men received suspended jail sentences of nine months after admitting to contempt of court by publishing photographs which they claimed to be of Venables and Thompson on Facebook and Twitter. The posts were seen by 24,000 people. According to BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman, the purpose of the prosecution was to ensure that the public was aware that Internet users were also subject to the law of contempt.
On 27 November 2013, a man from Liverpool received a fourteen-month suspended jail sentence for posting images on Twitter claiming to show Venables.
On 14 July 2016, a woman from Margaret in Kent was jailed for three years after sending Twitter messages to Bulger’s mother in which she posed as one of his killers and his ghost. The sentence was reduced to two-and-a-half-years on appeal.
On 25 October 2016, a man was jailed for 26 weeks for stalking Denise Fergus. He had previously received a police warning for stalking her in 2008.
Second 2010 imprisonment of Venables
On 2 March 2010, the Ministry of Justice revealed that Jon Venables had been returned to prison for an unspecified violation of the terms of his licence of release. The Justice Secretary stated that Venables had been returned to prison because of “extremely serious allegations”, and stated that he was “unable to give further details of the reasons for Jon Venables’s return to custody, because it was not in the public interest to do so.”On 7 March, Venables was returned to prison on suspected child pornography charges.
In a statement to the House of Commons on 8 March 2010, Jack Straw reiterated that it was “not in the interest of justice” to reveal the reason why Venables had been returned to custody Elisabeth Sloss the judge who made the decision to grant Venables anonymity in 2001, warned that he could be killed if his new identity was revealed.
James Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus, said that she was angry that the parole board did not tell her that Venables had been returned to prison, and called for his anonymity to be removed if he was charged with a crime. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice stated that there is a worldwide injunction against publication of either killer’s location or new identity.
Venables’s return to prison revived a false claim that a man from Fleetwood Lancashire was Jon Venables. The claim was reported and dismissed in September 2005, but reappeared in March 2010 when it was circulated widely via SMS messages and Facebook Chief Inspector Tracie O’Gara of Lancashire stated: “An individual who was targeted four-and-a-half years ago was not Jon Venables and now he has left the area”.
On 21 June 2010, Venables was charged with possession and distribution of indecent images of children. It was alleged that he had downloaded 57 indecent images of children over a 12-month period to February 2010, and allowed other people to access the files through a peer to peer network. Venables faced two charges under the Protection of Children Act. On 23 July 2010, Venables appeared at a court hearing at the Old Bailey via a video link, visible only to the judge hearing the case. He pleaded guilty to charges of downloading and distributing child pornography, and was given a sentence of two years’ imprisonment. At the court hearing, it emerged that Venables had posed in online chat rooms as 35-year-old Dawn “Dawnie” Smith, a married woman from Liverpool who boasted about abusing her 8-year-old daughter, in the hope of obtaining further child pornography. Venables had contacted his probation officer in February 2010, fearing that his new identity had been compromised at his place of work. When the officer arrived at his flat, Venables was attempting to remove or destroy the hard drive of his computer with a knife and a tin opener. The officer’s suspicions were aroused, and the computer was taken away for examination leading to the discovery of the child pornography, which included children as young as two being raped by adults and penetrative rape of seven- or eight-year-olds.
The judge, Mr. Justice Bean, ruled that Venables’s new identity could not be revealed, but the media was allowed to report that he had been living in Cheshire at the time of his arrest.The High Court also heard that Venables had been arrested on suspicion of affray in September 2008, following a drunken street fight with another man. Later the same year, he was cautioned for possesion of cocaine In November 2010, a review of the National Probation Service handling of the case by Sir David Omand found that probation officers could not have prevented Venables from downloading child pornography. Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of theNation Assosiation of Probation Officers commented that only 24-hour surveillance would have prevented Venables from downloading the material.
Venables was eligible for parole in July 2011. On 27 June 2011, the parole board decided that Venables would remain in custody, and that his parole would not be considered again for at least another year. In the aftermath of his imprisonment in 2010, allegations were reported in the media of Venables’s sexual encounters with a female member of staff at the secure unit he was detained in while serving his original murder sentence. In April 2011, these allegations were outlined in a Sunday Times Magazine article written by David James Smith, who had been following the Bulger case since the 1993 trial. Shortly before his 2001 release and when aged 17, Venables was alleged to have had sex with a woman who worked at the Red Bank secure unit where he was held. The female staff member was accused of sexual misconduct and suspended; she never returned to work at Red Bank. A spokesman for St. Helens Bourough Council denied that the incident had been covered up, saying: “All allegations were thoroughly investigated by an independent team on the orders of the Home Office and chaired by Arthur de Frischling, a retired prison governor.”
Venables began living independently in March 2002. Some time thereafter, he began a relationship with a woman who had a five-year-old child. It is not known whether Venables had already begun downloading child pornography at the time of dating the woman, though he denies having ever met the child. In 2005, when Venables was 23, his probation officer met another girlfriend of his, who was aged 17. After a number of “young girlfriends”, it was presumed that Venables was having a delayed adolescence.
After a period of apparently reduced supervision, Venables began excessively drinking, taking drugs, downloading child pornography, as well as visiting Merseyside (a breach of his licence). In 2008, a new probation officer noted that he spent “a great deal of leisure time” playing video games and on the Internet. In September that year, Venables was arrested on suspicion of affray after a fight outside a nightclub; he claimed he was acting in self-defence and the charges were later dropped after he agreed to go on an alcohol-awareness course. Three months later he was found to be in possession of cocaine; he was subjected to a curfew.
On two separate occasions, Venables revealed to a friend his true identity
On 4 May 2011, it was reported that Venables would once again be given a new identity, following what was described as a “serious security breach” which revealed an identity that he had been using before his imprisonment in 2010. Details of the breach could not be reported for legal reasons. A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice commented: “Such a change of identity is extremely rare and granted only when the police assess that there is clear and credible evidence of a sustained threat to the offender’s life on release into the community.” The incident occurred after a man from Exeter posted photographs on a website devoted to identifying paedophiles allegedly showing Venables as an adult and giving his Name.
In November 2011, it was reported that officials had decided that Venables would stay in prison for the foreseeable future, as he would be likely to reveal his true identity if released. A Ministry of Justice spokesman declined to comment on the reports. On 4 July 2013, it was reported that the Parole Board for England and Wales had approved the release of Venables. On 3 September 2013, it was reported that Venables had been released from prison.