The Murder Of James Bulger 25 Years On: Shelagh Fogarty On The Distressing Case

12 February 2018, 11:24 | Updated: 12 February 2018, 13:59

James Bulger, being led away by his murderers
James Bulger, being led away by his murderers. Picture: CCTV

By Shelagh Fogarty

Shelagh Fogarty was a reporter in Liverpool at the time that James Bulger was murdered by two young boys. On the 25th anniversary, she describes working on one of the most distressing stories in decades.

Twenty five years ago today in Liverpool a young mother, living in a small flat with her husband and toddler, woke up blissfully unaware that by the end of that day they would all be victims of one of the worst crimes in recent memory.

James Bulger’s parents, Ralph and Denise, had different jobs to do that day. Ralph went to a relative’s house to do some DIY and Denise did the usual stuff of looking after two-year-old James and, on this day, going to Bootle Strand Shopping Centre to get a few bits including meat for the evening meal.

Elsewhere in the city, ten-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables planned for the umpteenth time to skip school and spend the day pleasing themselves instead. That ranged from stealing sweets to stealing ‘a kid’ as Venables would describe the abduction of James at their trial nine months later.

The CCTV images of the boys leading James away were initially a source of comfort to everyone. They’d found him wandering, we told ourselves, looking for his Mummy when these two young lads took his hand to help him find her. In fact by the time the cameras were filming those images, Denise was frantically running shop to shop to find her little boy. She would never see or touch him again.

When James was found dead on a railway line by a group of children two days later, his body was appallingly badly injured and a train had severed it. He had been tortured.

In her recent book about her son, Denise describes how she was told he had been murdered. A police detective knelt down beside the chair she was sitting in, gently touched her arm, and simply said, ‘I’m so sorry’.

Another officer in the station at the time says, “I just heard an almighty screech. Real bottom of the gut stuff, like an animal. I just burst into tears because you just knew what that meant. You just knew her heart was broken”.

Thompson and Venables were arrested within the week after a huge public response to the CCTV and to sightings of a small child with two older boys. At their trial we would learn how they repeatedly lied to adults that James was their little brother.

In November 1993, I was one of around thirty journalists allowed inside Preston Crown Court for the whole of the trial. This was now a story of worldwide interest for a number of reasons I think. We’d seen the beginnings of a murder on grainy security cameras. The murderers were children, their victim a child. Our assumptions about what children might be capable of were shattered.

It was painfully clear early on that Thompson and Venables were guilty of killing James. Prosecutors now had to prove murder. Because of their age, Richard Henriques QC had to prove they knew right from wrong, that they planned it, and then did it knowing the likely outcome. Skilful questioning by detectives, played for a whole week in the courtroom, ended with Jon admitting the crime. Proof of Thompson’s equal part in this horror was provided by forensics, in particular a shoe print on James’s cheekbone.

Hearing the Pathologist describe James’s injuries was the most distressing part of the murder trial. On the press benches, we felt sick and shared fleeting looks of disgust. The jury, holding pictures to accompany the court testimony, must have turned to stone to cope. As for James’ family, I have no words for their courage that day.

As for the boys - guilty verdicts, the rest of their childhood in detention, then freedom. For Thompson that freedom allows him a stable life with a partner who knows his crime. Venables, on the other hand has again revealed himself just as he did in the taped police interviews. Now in prison for a second time convicted of child abuse, the day can’t be far off when the rest of the world catches up with what Denise and Ralph sees, clear eyed: that he should never be released.