The full story of how James Bulger killers Robert Thompson and Jon Venables led their two-year-old victim past dozens of witnesses on a grim path to his chilling death.
More than 25 years later, the surveillance image above remains etched in the minds of the millions familiar with the James Bulger case. To those who aren’t familiar, the scene looks harmless enough: Two boys leading a toddler, one holding his hand as they make their way through a normal shopping mall in Bootle, England.
The older boys (Jon Venables and Robert Thompson) seem like they could be the brothers of the toddler (James Bulger), as some bystanders thought in the mall that day. But they weren’t. Instead, they were the toddler’s abductors and, soon, his killers.
Within hours of that surveillance image being captured on the afternoon of Feb. 12, 1993, 10-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had tortured two-year-old James Bulger to death.
And in the time between when that image was captured and when James Bulger was killed in a railway embankment a few miles away, the three boys had been seen walking around the area by dozens of people.
Many of these witnesses later admitted that Bulger looked distressed. Some even saw the older boys punch and kick the two-year-old. But most did nothing and those that stopped and questioned the James Bulger killers soon enough let them go on their way to ultimately murder the toddler.
Before James Bulger’s Abduction
First, of course, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had to snatch Bulger away from his mother in the midst of a busy shopping mall. The boys ended up at the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle (near Liverpool) on the afternoon of Feb. 12 after having skipped school that day.
At the mall, the soon-to-be James Bulger killers wandered from shop to shop, stealing anything they could get their hands on, then toss their stolen booty down escalators — just for the fun of it.
At some point, for reasons that still remain unclear more than two decades later, Venables and Thompson decided to steal someone’s child. Who suggested it is unclear; later, after they were arrested, each blamed the other.
James Bulger was not the first child that the pair tried to abduct. In fact, that first child nearly became the victim.
Inside a TJ Hughes department store, a woman noticed that two boys were trying to get her kids’ attention. Moments later, her three-year-old daughter and two-year-old son were missing.
The mother quickly found her daughter, but there was no sign of her son. Frantically she asked her daughter where he was. “Gone outside with the boy,” she said.
The woman began calling for her son and ran outside, where she found Venables and Thompson beckoning the boy to follow them. When Venables saw the mother, they told the boy to go back to her and they vanished.
Mere luck had saved the boy — and sealed James Bulger’s terrible fate.
Leading James Bulger To His Death
Soon after the aborted abduction, Venables and Thompson were loitering around a snack kiosk hoping to steal candy when they noticed James Bulger by the door of a nearby butcher’s shop. With Bulger’s mother, Denise, momentarily distracted, they got the toddler to come with them. Venables took him by the hand.
Several shoppers later remembered noticing the trio as they walked through the mall. Sometimes Bulger ran ahead, leaving Venables and Thompson to beckon him back with calls of “Come on, baby.”
They were caught by a surveillance camera leaving the mall at 3:42 PM.
By this time, Denise was panicking. She had thought that her son was by her side as she was placing her order at the butcher shop. But when she looked down, he was gone.
She quickly found mall security personnel and described her son and what he was wearing. At first, they announced the boy’s name over the mall’s loudspeakers. By 4:15 p.m., however, there was no sign of James Bulger and he was reported missing to the local police station.
The Witnesses Who Did Nothing
Meanwhile, after Venables, Thompson, and Bulger had left the mall, the toddler began crying out for his mother. The older boys ignored him and continued down to a secluded area near a canal.
At the canal, they dropped Bulger on his head and left him on the ground crying. A woman passing by noticed Bulger but did nothing.
Venables and Thompson then called for Bulger to come. And still he followed. By now, however, his forehead was bruised and cut, causing Venables and Thompson to pull the hood of the toddler’s anorak over his head to try and hide the injury.
Nevertheless, additional passersby could still see the partially-covered forehead injury, and one person even saw a tear on Bulger’s cheek. But no one did anything.
The older boys then meandered around Liverpool past shops, buildings, and parking lots. They walked down one of Liverpool’s busiest streets. Some witnesses later remembered seeing Bulger laughing while others remembered seeing him resisting and even screaming for his mother. One person even saw Thompson kick Bulger in the ribs for resisting. Still, no one did anything.
Soon after, a woman saw Thompson punch Bulger and shake him. But she pulled her curtains and blocked out the scene.
But one bystander provided a glimmer of hope — however fleeting — for James Bulger. With evening approaching, an elderly woman saw Bulger crying, noticed his injuries, and approached the trio to enquire what was wrong. But the two ten-year-olds said, “We just found him at the bottom of the hill.”
Apparently satisfied with their explanation, the woman simply told the two boys to take the toddler down to the nearby Walton Lane Police Station. She called out to them once more as they walked away but they did not look back. She was concerned, but another woman standing nearby said she’d heard James laughing moments ago and so both assumed nothing was wrong. Later that night, one of the women saw the news that Bulger was missing. She phoned the police and expressed regret for not doing something.
Not long after the elderly woman sent the boys on their way, Bulger was almost rescued yet again. A woman concerned for the toddler told Venables and Thompson that she would take the child to the police station herself. But when she asked another woman nearby to look after her daughter while she did so, that woman refused because her dog did not like children. And so Bulger slipped away from safety once again.
Venables, Thompson, and Bulger then walked into two different stores where they interacted with both shopkeepers who, though suspicious of the older boys, let them go. Then Venables and Thompson came upon two older boys that they knew. These boys asked who the toddler was and Venables replied that he was Thompson’s brother and that they were taking him home.
Then they arrived at the railway. The boys hesitated, perhaps reconsidering what they were about to do, and did briefly turn away from the embankment. But then Jon Venables and Robert Thompson turned back toward the privacy of the deserted railway. The brutal torture and murder of James Bulger occurred sometime between 5:45 and 6:30 p.m.
The Murder Of James Bulger
Venables and Thompson had brought blue paint stolen from the shopping mall and splashed it in Bulger’s left eye. They then kicked him, pummelled him with bricks and stones, and stuffed batteries into his mouth.
Finally, the boys hit Bulger over the head with a 22-pound iron bar, which resulted in 10 skull fractures. All in all, Bulger sustained 42 injuries to his face, head, and body. He was so badly battered, authorities later concluded, that there was no way to tell which injury represented the fatal blow.
Eventually, Venables and Thompson placed Bulger’s dead body (a forensic pathologist later concluded that he was dead at this point) across the train tracks, in hopes of making the whole thing look like an accident, and abandoned the scene before a train came along and severed the toddler in two.
The next day, police searched the canal where the boys had been earlier in the afternoon because an eyewitness had reported seeing Bulger there. Other searches were conducted elsewhere, all leading to nothing.
With little to go on, Bulger’s parents were suspects initially. But when the police eventually saw the CCTV footage from the shopping mall, they could not believe their eyes. Despite the fuzzy footage, it was two small boys that could be seen leading James Bulger (identified from the description of his clothing provided by his mother) to the exit.
Once those CCTV images were released to the media, the story went nationwide and the search for Bulger intensified. When Bulger’s father, Ralph, saw that it was just two boys with whom his son had left the mall, he was relieved: “I looked at Denise and smiled with relief. ‘He’s gonna be all right, Denise,’ I said. ‘He’s with two young kids – he’s gonna be all right.'”
The search ended two days after the disappearance when four children discovered Bulger’s body on the railway track — just 200 yards from the nearest police station.
Catching The James Bulger Killers
All of the instruments used in the attack were found strewn around the area — the iron bar, stones, and bricks all covered in the boy’s blood. The stolen tin of blue paint was found nearby.
With some evidence in hand and the knowledge that the James Bulger killers were likely two children, the police checked nearby schools’ absentee lists for the day of the disappearance. This caused various children to be identified as potential killers, with some parents even reporting their own kids.
But it was ultimately an anonymous phone call to the police that implicated Jon Venables and Robert Thompson as the James Bulger killers. The caller told the police that Venables and Thompson were both absent from school on Friday and that they themselves had seen blue paint on the sleeve of Venables’ jacket.
The police then visited both children’s homes and discovered blood on Thompson’s shoes and blue paint on Venables’ jacket. Both boys were then arrested as the James Bulger killers.
Despite this evidence, however, Venables and Thompson weren’t initially the authorities’ prime suspects. Police were focused on other children who already had violent records, and they remained convinced that the two boys from the fuzzy CCTV footage looked 13 or 14, not 10.
But during separate police interviews, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson turned on each other. Over the course of interviews lasting several days, Venables eventually confessed.
“I did kill him,” Venables said. “What about his mum, will you tell her I’m sorry?”
Thompson, on the other hand, was not such an easy interview. “He totally denied everything,” said Detective Sergeant Phil Roberts. “…[B]ut, in the end, he shot himself in the foot by giving me a detailed account of what James Bulger was wearing.” Nevertheless, throughout the whole process, Thompson remained chillingly unfazed, earning him the nickname “the boy who did not cry” from the press.
Venables and Thompson were both charged as the (but because they were minors, their identities were withheld from the public). Nine months later, the trial began. Outside the courthouse, people called for the blood of the James Bulger killers. “Kill the bastards,” people yelled. “A life for a life.”
Popular disgust only intensified when witnesses and the media noted Thompson’s cold, seemingly remorseless behavior at trial (compared with Venables’ hysterical outbursts). Thus it was widely assumed that Thompson was the instigator — even though psychiatrists and authorities have never been able to reach a conclusion on the boys’ motives.
But Blake Morrison, the author of As If: A Crime, a Trial, a Question of Childhood, a book on the trial, points out that “Venables had a temper and had been known to lose control and had done some pretty weird things…[and it was] just as likely that he was the instigator.”
Moreover, court-appointed psychiatrists determined that the two boys knew right from wrong and weren’t sociopaths, but were nevertheless able to uncover any concrete motives for the James Bulger murder — something no professional has been able to confidently determine even in the years since.
Motive aside, both Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were convicted of the James Bulger murder, making them the youngest to be convicted of that crime in Britain in 250 years. As the jury foreman read the verdict, Venables and Thompson were sitting in an adult court dock that had been altered so that the boys could see over it.
Venables and Thompson were then sentenced to serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure, as is standard protocol for juvenile offenders convicted of murder or manslaughter. This indefinite sentence has no maximum but does have a minimum to be determined on a case-by-case basis. In this case, it was just eight years, at which time the boys would be 18.
After that point, the James Bulger killers were to be assessed and, if they weren’t deemed to be a danger to society, released. By all accounts, Venables and Thompson showed no violent or aberrant behavior in prison but instead served their time for the James Bulger murder quietly and without incident.
So, when the eight years were up in 2001, both boys were released.
Jon Venables And Robert Thompson Since Their Release
Upon their release, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were given new identities and granted legal anonymity for life due to the public fury that surrounded their trial and the danger of citizens hunting down the infamous James Bulger killers in order to take vengeance.
To date, no significant attempts at vengeance have been made. James Bulger’s mother, Denise, was able to locate Robert Thompson in 2004 but was “paralyzed with hatred” and could not confront him.
Today, while Thompson is believed to be assimilating back into society and living a quiet life, the same cannot be said of Venables.
In 2010, he was imprisoned for downloading images depicting various kinds of sexual abuse being inflicted upon male toddlers. He became eligible for parole in 2013, at which time Ralph Bulger told the parole board that he couldn’t forgive his son’s killers and that Venables should not be released.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re having a heart attack,” he said at the time. “It’s just a big knot in your chest and that’s been there since day one.”
Nevertheless, Venables was released. But in November 2017, Venables was again imprisoned when more child abuse images and a pedophile manual that provided instructions on having sex with kids were discovered on his computer.
Jon Venables was sentenced to three years and four months in prison, not far from half the amount of time he served for joining Robert Thompson in perpetrating the murder of James Bulger a quarter-century before.
After this look at the James Bulger murder and what’s become of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, see some other haunting death photos taken just before the victim met their end. Then, read up on the most horrific child murderers. Finally, discover the story of Mary Bell, the 11-year-old who killed toddlers and got off light.