This case still haunts the UK almost 26 years later, not only was this a brutal and heart-breaking murder, but the offenders were both just 10 years old at the time of the crime.
On 12th February 1993 Jon Venables and Robert Thompson abducted, tortured and killed 2-year-old James Bulger. Thompson and Venabales led James away while he was in the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle with his mother Denise. Denise took her eyes off Bulger momentarily while she was inside A.R. Tym’s butcher shop on the lower floor of the shopping centre at around 3.40pm.
CCTV footage from the New Stand Shopping Centre on 12th February 1993 showed the harrowing footage of Venables and Thompson casually observing children and apparently seeing a “target”. On the day of the murder both boys were playing truant from school, which is reported was a frequent problem with them already, throughout the day both were seen shoplifting various items including sweets, a troll doll, some batteries and a can of blue paint.
Venables and Thompson approached James while his mother was distracted, took him by the hand and led him out of the shopping Centre, this moment was caught on CCTV at 3:42pm. They took James on a 2.5 mile walk across Liverpool to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, they dropped James and he suffered injuries to his face from the fall, they began joking at this point that they were going to push James in the canal. They were seen by 38 people during the long walk across Liverpool, James had a bump on his forehead and was crying while they walked, two bystanders challenged Venables and Thompson but they claimed James was their younger brother and they were on the way home or that he was a lost child they had found and were taking to the local police station. Reports show that they took James into a pet shop, from which they were ejected. The boys arrived in the village of Walton just across the road from Walton Lane Police Station, they hesitated about taking James in, but they led him up a steep bank to a railway line near the Walton & Anfield railway station, which was disused at the time, this is when they began to torture James.
One of the boys threw the blue Humbrol modelling paint they stole earlier into James’ left eye, they kicked him, stood on him, and threw stones and bricks at him, they took the batteries they also stole earlier and placed some in James’ mouth, according to police some batteries had also been placed in his anus although never found. They finished their brutal attack by dropping a 22lb iron bar on James, in court this was described in court as a railway fishplate, James sustained 10 skull fractures as a result of the bar hitting his head. The case’s pathologist Dr Alan Williams state that James had suffered 42 injuries in total, too many to isolate as the fatal blow. Venables and Thompson laid James down on the railway tracks and weighted his head down with some rubble, they hoped a train would come and hit him making his death look like an accident. A train came after Venables and Thompson left the scene and James’ body was cut in half, his severed body was discovered on 14th February 1993, the forensic pathologist testified that James had died before the train struck him.
The investigation into James’ murder began and the police already suspected a sexual element as James’ shoes, trousers and underpants had been removed, the pathologist report read out in court also detailed other possible evidence of a sexual element it stated that when James’ body was found his foreskin had been forcibly retracted. A child psychologist interviewed Venables and Thompson about this aspect of the attack after arrest and both were reluctant to give details and denied inserting the batteries into his anus. Venables was assessed years later upon release by psychiatrist Dr Susan Bailey, she 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”.
The police found the CCTV footage showing James’ abduction, it was a low-resolution video images showing James with two unidentified boys. The case shocked and upset people all over the UK when the news of the murder broke, the railway where James’ body was found was filled with tributes and flowers to James, it evoked such an emotional response that when the police detained another young boy for questioning and released him, his family had to flee the city due to threats from vigilantes. The police closed in on the actual killers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson when a woman saw a slightly more enhanced image of the CCTV footage on national television, she recognised Venables and knew that both Venables and Thompson had been playing truant together that day, she gave this information to the police and both were arrested.
The age of the killers came as shock to the investigating officers, the investigation was led by Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, of Merseyside Police. Early reports and witness statements has referred to the unidentified boys as “two youth” this gave the impression that they were looking for teenagers, and the fact the images of the boys on the low-resolution CCTV made it hard to determine the age of the suspects.
Forensic evidence started to incriminate Venables and Thompson when the same blue paint found on James’ body was also found on both of their clothing, both boys had blood on their shoes that was matched to James’ blood, there was a pattern of bruising on James’ right cheek matched the features of the upper part of a shoe worn by Thompson, and a paint mark on the toecap of one of Venables’ shoes indicating he must have used “some force” when he kicked James. During the interviews Thompson asked police if James Bulger had been taken to hospital to “get him alive again”.
Venables and Thompson were charged for the murder of James Bulger on 20th February 1993, they appeared at South Sefton Youth Court on 22nd February 1993 where it was decided that they would be remanded in custody while they await trial. While they awaited trial, they were held in secure units.
The trial opened on 1st November 1993, but during initial court appearances from Venables and Thompson up to five hundred protesters gathered outside South Sefton Magistrates’ Court, fearing for their safety the families of both boys had to be moved to different parts of the country and assume new identities. The full trial was conducted as an adult trial with Venables and Thompson sat in the dock away from their parents. They were facing charges of murder, abduction and attempted abduction, the charge of attempted abduction related to another incident at New Strand Shopping Centre earlier on 12th February 1993, Venables and Thompson had attempted to lead away another 2-year-old boy but were stopped by the boy’s mother.
They sat in raised chairs in view of the court, so they could see out of the dock that was designed for adults, they were accompanied by two social workers and were within touching distance of their families that attended the trial. The media heavily concentrated on the demeanour of the offenders during the trial, this was criticised by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled later in 1999 that they had not had a fair trial being tried in a public adult courtroom, at the trial the lead prosecution counsel Richard Henriques QC successfully rebutted the principle of doli incapax, this presumed that children cannot be held legally responsible for their actions.
The court considered Venables and Thompson capable of “mischievous discretion” this means they can act with criminal intent as they were mature enough to understand that they were doing something wrong. Dr Eileen Vizard was asked in court whether Thompson knew the difference between right and wrong, whether it was wrong to take a young child from his mother, and whether it was wrong to cause injury to a child, Vizard replied with “If the issue is on the balance of probabilities, I think I can answer with certainty” Vizard went on to mention that Thompson was suffering PTSD after the attack, Dr Susan Bailey the Home Office forensic psychiatric who interviewed Venables stated that Venables did know the difference between right and wrong.
Neither Venables or Thompson spoke during their trial as most of the case against them was 20 hours of tape-recorded police interviews with both boys, these were then played back in court. Thompson was considered to have taken a leadership role in the abduction process, though he claimed that Venables had initiated the idea of taking James to the railway line to torture him. In the interviews Venables could be heard describing how he felt James “liked him” by holding his hand and allowing Venables to pick him up on the journey to the scene of the murder. Venables’ solicitor Laurence Lee described Thompson as “one of the most frightening children he had seen” and compared him to the Pied Piper, after he appeared in court apparently Venables was observed taking off his clothes and saying, “I can smell James like a baby smell”.
A number of exhibits were admitted by the prosecution during the trial these include a box of 27 bricks, a blood-stained stone, James Bulger’s underpants, and the iron bar. The pathologist spent 33 minutes outlining the injuries that James sustained during the murder, they noted that many of the injuries were inflicted to his legs after he was stripped from the waist down and that there was extensive brain damage present in James including a haemorrhage.
Both Venables and Thompson, who were both 11-years-old by then were found guilty of murder on 24th November 1993 they became the youngest convicted murders of the 20th Century. The judge Mr Justice Morland told Venables and Thompson that they “committed a crime of unparalleled evil and barbarity. In my judgment, you conduct was both cunning and very wicked” they were sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure with a recommendation that they should be kept in custody for “very, very many years to come” recommending a minimum term of eight years, the judge lifted reporting restrictions at the close of the trial and allowed the names of the killers to be released to the public saying “I did this because the public interest overrode an interest of the defendants…there was a need for an informed public debate on crimes committed by young children” in 2010 Sir David Omand reviewed the probation service’s handling of this case and criticised the decision to make the boys names public and outlined the difficulties created by the decision.
Shortly after the recommendation for an eight-year term was suggested at trial Lord Taylor of Gosforth the Lord Chief of Justice recommended that they spend a minimum of 10 years making Venables and Thompson eligible for release in February 2003 when they’d be 20 years old. British newspaper The Sun handed a petition of 280,000 signatures from the public to Home Secretary Michael Howard in a bid to increase the time that both spent in prison, this campaign was successful and in July 1994 it was announced by Howard that Venables an Thompson would spend a minimum of fifteen years in prison and would not be considered for release until February 2008, when they’d be 25 years old.
This decision was then criticised by Lord Donaldson, he described the increase in sentence as “institutionalised vengeance by a politician playing to the gallery” and the increased minimum was overturned in 1997 by the House of Lords ruling it was “unlawful” for the Home Secretary to decide minimum sentencing for young offenders. The High Court and the European Court of Human Right have ruled since that though parliament may set minimum and maximum terms for individual categories of crimes, it is the responsibility of the trial judge, with the benefit of all evidence and arguments from prosecution and defence counsel.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair who was then Shadow Home Secretary gave a speech in Wellingborough and he said “We hear of crimes so horrific they provoke anger and disbelief in equal proportions. These are ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name” and the Prime Minister at the time John Major said that “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”. Mr. Justice Morland the original trial judge state that the exposure to violent videos might have encouraged Venables and Thompson in their violence, this was then disputed by the Minister of State David Maclean at the Home Office he pointed out that the police had found no evidence linking the case to exposure of violent imagery.
The horror film Child’s Play 3 from the Child’s Play franchise came under fire as some UK tabloids claimed that Venables and Thompson had been inspired by the murders in the film and this led to a campaign for the rues on “video nasties” to be tightened. The police investigation revealed that Child’s Play 3 had been one of the films that Jon Venables’ father had rented months before the killing, but it was never established whether Venables had watched the film himself. The similarities were highlighted in one scene in the film that shows the killer doll Chucky being splashed with blue paint during a paintball game. One Merseyside detective said “We went through something like 200 titles rented by the Venables family, there are 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 an commit murder” most didn’t and still don’t believe that horror movies, video games or violent imagery can really influence anyone to go and kill themselves, another investigating officer on the case 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 Order Act 1994 clarified the rules on the availability of certain types of materials to children for example the placements of “Think 21” we call them in my job where a person who looks young will go into a shop to buy alcohol, tobacco, or age restricted material like 18+ video games or films and they test whether staff will check for verification of age (driver’s licence, passport) often they are legally old enough to buy what they’re trying to, but in my job in a betting shop the local authority will send someone underage to see if we allow them on the premises without verification of their age.
Venables and Thompson were served their time separate with Venables being detained in Vardy House a small eight-bedded unit in Red Bank Secure unit in St. Helens on Merseyside, where Mary Bell was held after she committed her murders, while Thompson was detained at Barton Moss Secure Care Centre in Manchester. The locations were kept from the public until they were released. While inside the boys lives were recorded twice daily on running sheets and signed by the member of staff who had written them, these records were stored at the units and copies were sent to officials requesting them in Whitehall. They were taught to conceal their identities not revealing their real names or the reason they were incarcerated, parents of both would visit them regularly, Venables’ parents regularly went to Red Bank to visit their son, as did Thompson’s mother, she would go and see Thompson every three days at Barton Moss.
According to staff at both units the boys had access to education and were rehabilitated, there were initial problems reported with Venables, but it is said that he made good progress at Red Bank, which resulted in him staying for his full eight year sentence even though Red Bank is normally a short-story remand unit. There were reports with both that they were suffering from PTSD and Venables told staff that he was having flashbacks and nightmares relating to the murder.
Lawyers for Venables and Thompson appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in 1999 and argued that the trial had not been impartial, since both were too young to really understand the proceedings and follow adult court. Their claim of inhuman and degrading treatment was dismissed by The European Court, but they upheld their claim that Venables and Thompson were denied a fair hearing by the nature of the court proceedings, they also held that intervention by Michael Howard had created a “highly charged atmosphere” which resulted in an unfair judgement. The court in Strasbourg ruled by 14 votes to 5 that there had been a violation of Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights regarding the fairness of the trial of Venables and Thompson stating, “the public trial process in an adult court must be regarded in the case of an 11-year-old as a severely intimidating procedure”.
James’ parents applied to the European Court of Human Rights in September 1999, but were unsuccessful in persuading the court that a victim of a crime has the right to be involved in the determination of a sentence for the perpetrator, this led to the new Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf to review the minimum sentencing in this case and in October 2000 he recommended that the sentence be reduced from ten to eight years adding that a young offenders institution can be a “corrosive atmosphere” for the boys.
After a six-month review in June 2001 the parole board ruled that Venables and Thompson were no longer a threat to public safety, so they could be released now that the tariff had expired in February 2001, the decision was approved by the Home Secretary David Blunkett and both were given new identities and moved to secret locations under a witness protection style programme, this included the allocation of new passports, national insurance numbers, qualifications and medical records. Blunkett added that the conditions of the release was that he was sent daily updates on both of their actions.
Their release came with several terms including no contact with each other or the Bulger family, no visits to the Merseyside region, curfews were imposed for a while and they were made to report to probation officers. If they were found breaching these terms or they were deemed a risk to public safety, they could be recalled to prison. There was also an injunction placed on the media, preventing them publishing any details about Venables and Thompson, although this was initially put in place during the trial it was continued after their release so that their new identities and locations could not be revealed, Blunkett stated “The injunction was granted because there was a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk if their identities became known”.
The Manchester Evening News were ordered to pay a £30,000 fine and £120,000 in court fees for contempt of court when they published the names of the secure units that Venables and Thompson were housed at, this breached the injunction put on the media in 2001.
During their incarceration Venables and Thompson passed A-levels during their sentences through education programmes at the secure units. The observer reported that while both were inside the Bulger family’s lawyer had consulted with psychiatric experts to present to the parole panel that Thompson was an undiagnosed psychopath, mentioning that he showed a lack of remorse during the trial and arrest. This report was dismissed, but Thompson came under scrutiny for his lack of remorse in contrast to Venables. In the psychiatric reports prepared in 2000 for Venables’ release he was described as a “trivial” risk to the public and unlikely to reoffend with the chance of successful rehabilitation being “very high”.
There have been no reports of vigilante action taken against either of them since release, but several people have faced charges for publishing the potential identities of Venables and Thompson. In April 2010 a 19-year-old man from the Isle of Man was given a three-month suspended sentence for claiming in a Facebook message that one of his colleagues was Robert Thompson, while he was sentenced Deputy High Bailiff Alastair Montgomerie said that he had “put that person at significant risk of serious harm and put him in a perilous position” by making that allegation. Another man from Chorley was arrested after he tried to troll the Bulger family online, the 26-year-old made a Facebook page with the disgusting title “What happened to James Bulger was fucking hilarious” the man’s computer was seized for investigation.
The Attorney General’s Office announced on 25th February 2013 that it was instituting contempt of court proceedings against several people who had allegedly released images online showing Venables and Thompson as adults, a spokesperson said “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 it’s enforcement, is therefore intended to protect not only Venables and Thompson, but also those members of the of the public who have been incorrectly identified”. By 26th April 2013 two men received suspended jail sentences after they admitted to contempt of court by publishing photographs that claimed to be of Venables and Thompson on Facebook and Twitter, the post was seen by 24,000 people before it was taken down, and according to the BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman the prosecution was to ensure that the public were aware that Internet users could be subject to the law of contempt. A man from Liverpool received a fourteen-month suspended sentence for posting alleged images of Venables on twitter. On 14th July 2016 a woman from Margate was jailed for three years after she had been sending James Bulger’s mother messages claiming to be one of the killers and sent messages pretending to be James’ ghost, the woman’s sentence was later reduced to 2 ½ years after appeals. As well as horrific trolling in 2016, it has been found out that in 2004 James’ mother also received a tip-off from an anonymous source that helped her locate Thompson, she said that she did not confront him because when she saw him, she was “paralysed with hatred”.
Despite the strong speculation about Thompson taking a leadership role in the crime, it seems that it is Venables that has re-offended. On 2nd March 2010 it was revealed by the Ministry of Justice that Jon Venables had been recalled to prison for a violation of the terms of his licence, The Justice Secretary Jack Straw said that Venables had been recalled to prison on “serious allegations” and sated that he was “unable to give further details of the reason for Venables’ return to custody, because it was not in the public interest to do so”, by 7th March 2010 it was revealed that Venables had been returned to prison accused of child pornography offences.
The Bulger family were angry that the parole board did not tell them about Venables’ return to prison, it was called that Venables’ anonymity should be removed if he commits a crime. Venables’ second arrest riled the public up and previous false claims from 2005 about a man in Fleetwood, Lancashire, it was reported that this man was Jon Venables and the claim was spread through SMS and Facebook. Chief Inspector Tracie O’Gara of Lancashire Constabulary stated, “An individual who was targeted four-and-a-half years ago was not Jon Venables and now he has left the area”.
Venables appeared in court to face these charges on 21st June 2010, he faced the charges of possession and distribution of indecent images of children, allegedly he downloaded 57 indecent images of children over a 12-month period, he also allowed people to access these images on a peer-to-peer network. Venables appeared via video link for his sentencing in the Old Bailey, visible to the judge only he pled guilty to the charges of downloading and distributing child pornography, he was sentenced to two-years imprisonment. In court it was heard that Venables was posing in online chat rooms as a 35-year-old woman named Dawn “Dawnie” Smith, the persona was a married woman from Liverpool who would boast about abusing her 8-year-old daughter, in the hope of obtaining images from other people in the chat room. Venables was found with the child pornography when he phoned his probation officer worried that his identity had been exposed, when the probation officer arrived Venables was attempting to remove or destroy his hard drive with a tin opener, so the computer was seized and the child pornography was found, some harrowing images on the hard drive included children as young as two being raped by adults, and the rapes of 7 and 8-year-olds. The Judge ruled that Venables’ new identity could not be revealed in light of these charges, but the media could report that Venables had been living in Cheshire at the time of arrest. There was also another arrest revealed, in September 2008 Venables was arrested on suspicion of affray, he was involved in a drunken fight with another man, later that same year he was arrested again for possession of cocaine.
It is reported that his behaviour got worse in 2008 after a period of reduced supervision, he would drink excessively, take drugs and look at child pornography, there are reports that he also visited Merseyside and even attended a football game of one of Liverpool’s big teams Everton, this being a breach of his licence, on two separate occasions in this period, Venables revealed his real identity to a friend.
On 4th May 2011, Venables was provided with another identity following a “serious security breach” which revealed his identity. Details of the breach could not be reported for legal reasons. The Ministry of Justice gave a statement about Venables new identity saying: “Such a change of identity is extremely rare and granted only when the police assess that there is a clear and credible evidence of a sustained threat to the offender’s life on release into the community”. After Venables was given his new identity and he was safe it was reported that the “serious security breach” was a man from Exeter posting photos on a website that is dedicated to identifying and exposing sex offenders, he posted a photo and gave members of the website Venables’ new name.
With Venables’ himself revealing his identity to some friends, then having to have his identity changed again before going to jail, officials on the Parole Board for England and Wales decided in November 2011 that Venables would remain in prison for the foreseeable future because he was likely to reveal his new identity. On 4th July 2013 however, the board approved Venables’ release from prison, and on 3rd September 2013 it was reported that Venables had officially been released from prison.
Currently Venables is in prison, on 23rd November 2017 there were reports that Venables was recalled to prison for possession of child abuse imagery, no comments were made by the Ministry of Justice on this arrest, but again on 5th January 2018 Venables was charged with unspecified offences relating to indecent images of children. Venables appeared in court again via video link on 7th February 2018 and pleaded guilty to three charges of making indecent images of children and one charge of possessing a paedophile manual, in court he admitted to possessing 392 category A, 148 category B and 630 category C child pornography images. Venables was sentenced to 3 years and four months in prison, his release with be determined by the parole board at the end of his sentence.
Thompson seems to have gone quiet since his release in contrast to Venables, a documentary called James Bulger: The New Revelations released Thompson’s statement to the parole board when he was appealing for his release in 2001 Thompson said: “I do feel aware that I am now a better person and have had a better life and better education than if I had not committed the murder. There is obviously and irony to this, but it is a part of my remorseful feelings as well. I, personally, wish Mr and Mrs Bulger and their families to know that I am desperately sorry for what I did, and aware of the enormity of what I did. Mr and Mrs Bulger have made statements in the press indicating that they would view any statement of remorse by me as a cynical manoeuvre to secure my release. It is difficult, given that, to see how I could ever communicate my remorse in an effective way. I am deeply ashamed of what I did, and of having played a part in this horrible murder.” James’ dad Ralph still refuses to accept Thompson’s apology and told the newspaper The Sun that his statement was “false words”. Thompson also recalled the murder and said that when they left the Strand shopping Centre, he “became very aware Jon Venables had a little boy with him” he mentioned the CCTV footage showing James’ last moments and said “I had very much regret that I did nothing to stop it at this time and the sight of those photographs fills me with shame and revulsion”. He spoke as well about the suspected sexual assault on James, Thompson denied that they sexually assaulted James and added “Jon Venables and I did not speak to each other at all, as I remember, during the attack and we didn’t speak about it after we left James Bulger on the railway line”. He closed his statement by speaking of his rehabilitation saying “At that time of my life, I was completely out of control and spending time with a group of friends whose main occupation was committing crime and causing trouble, I was out of control because my life on the streets was better for me than my life at home – there was nothing for me at home”.
Initially it was believed that Thompson took the leadership role in the murder due to his lack of remorse in court, but in Thompson’s case it looks like he is somewhat rehabilitated, he was clearly a very troubled youth before the murder when he said “there was nothing for him at home” it shows that the life he had “on the streets” as he put it committing petty crime with Venables and other friends were the closest thing he had to a stable family unit, so Thompson would have done anything to protect his friendships and his life on the streets, this would have made him “go along” with whatever his friends wanted to do in order to keep his status within the friendship. This is clear when Thompson said how him and Venables never spoke during the attack and murder, this implies that one of them was just following the other and “going along with it” both turned on each other in questioning so the real leader was never officially confirmed, but looking at the fact Venables has committed similar offences relating to children of a similar age to James strongly suggests that hurting a toddler would have been Venables’ idea, Thompson could have also spoken out and stopped it long before the murder, but obviously something was stopping him from speaking out against Venables, this could be for a number of reasons, but the most obvious one would probably be fear, when he said “he became aware” that they had a little boy shows the fear was setting in and he must have been somewhat scared for himself as well and thought it’s better to go along with the attack so Venables wouldn’t turn the attack on him.
At the trial Venables showed remorse, but it was clear from the incident where he took his clothes off and talked about James after he was sentenced that he was very troubled, that’s almost like he was pleasantly remembering something about his victim, remembering James’ “smell” as a trophy, something to revisit and relive the crime. Venables has been convicted of offences relating to children meaning he wouldn’t feel any real remorse for what he did to James, he is a paedophile, they prey on and stalk their victims the same way that Venables and Thompson did with James. If they hadn’t committed this murder Venables would have offended against a child at some point in his future. Even though they were only 10 at the time of the attack that is the age where sexual feelings starts to develop, so it’s possible that his sexual interest in children started and he chose to explore it because the sexual elements to the murder may have been denied by Thompson, but the acts seem to be acts of experimentation showing that Venables may have been experimenting with what he wanted to do sexually with a child, after he did whatever he wanted to do he would have felt shame for it like most chid sex offenders do and lashed out and killed James, making sure that he couldn’t tell anyone what had happened or making the sexual acts he committed on James die with him as he was ashamed.