Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger

Ten-Year-Old Suspects

"If I seen them lads, I'd kick their heads in."

James's disappearance made the evening news and immediately calls poured in. Many believed they had seen the toddler in Walton. After one report that James was spotted by the canal, investigators planned to drag the water in the morning. The police interviewed Ralph and Denise Bulger, retracing her steps at the Bootle Strand. As with most child abductions, the parents are routinely considered suspects. But police had too many leads, which took the focus away from the Bulgers. After midnight on the day James disappeared, authorities watched the security videos taken at the shopping center, hoping to catch a glimpse of his abductor. They were especially interested in reports of an older man with a ponytail who was at the Strand, who witnesses say approached other children that day.

Poster requesting information (Ian Cook/TIMEPIX)
Poster requesting information
(Ian Cook/TIMEPIX)

James's video image eventually scattered across the television screen. There he was, with two boys, not the ponytail man. Blurry, jumpy images, almost ghostlike. As they watched in disbelief, they realized they were not dealing with an older pedophile, but two young boys, children themselves. There was no way to identify the two older boys, but the baby's clothing matched Denise's description. They played the tape over and over, watching in horror as James was led toward the exit. Why would two children take another child? Police could understand the motives of a pedophile, but this was incomprehensible.

The next morning underwater searchers grimly searched the canal. Other searches organized to find James on land. Police released the video stills of the boys to the media, which appeared on television and in the papers. They hoped someone would recognize the boys, but unfortunately, the boys were so fuzzy that it could have been just about any neighborhood kid. Mothers suspected their sons. Ann Thompson asked Robert outright if that was him on the video. He denied it. Ann worried and confided her fears to a friend and even threatened to take him to the police.

On Sunday morning, a train engineer noticed something on the tracks that looked like a doll. At first it didn't strike him as unusual — neighborhood kids routinely laid things out on the tracks. But after he thought about the missing child, he called the police that evening.

"It's a cat. It's a cat wrapped up. Then we seen its legs."

Four boys found James's body on the tracks on Sunday afternoon, when they went up to the railroad to look for footballs. At first they thought he was cat, then a doll, torn into two. Jon and Robert had laid out James directly on the track, aware that a train would come by soon. Perhaps they believed that the community would think it was an accident that James had wandered up to the tracks on his own and was run over. Or that if the train hit James, it would destroy all clues.

His upper body was hidden within the coat. His lower body was further down the tracks, completely undressed. He had suffered 42 injuries, most to his face and head and had not died during the attack, but some time before the train hit him. Jon and Robert had left him while he was still alive.

The crime scene at the tracks

Crime Scene (POLICE)
Crime Scene (POLICE)

Investigators stopped all approaching trains. Led by Detective Albert Kirby, police roped off the tracks and shielded the scene from bystanders and reporters. James's body had been severed with some distance in between. It was as if there were two crime scenes, two bodies to examine. The upper part of his body, at first, appeared to be nothing more than a bundle of clothing. His lower half, however, was starkly naked. Police determined that James had been laid by the waist onto the rail, with his upper body on the inside of the tracks. It looked as if his head had been covered with bricks, but the force of the train disturbed the arrangement. The lower half of his body had been carried further down the track.

His clothing, which had been removed from the waist down, was laid near his head. His underwear was heavily soaked with blood. Nearby police found a heavy iron bar, two feet long, with bloodstains, and many bricks and stones with blood. They also found 3 AA batteries near the body. These batteries intrigued the investigators, who had suspicions about their placement before James was hit by the train. A tin of blue paint was also found nearby. James had been severely beaten around the head and neck. There had been fractures, cuts, bruises caused by blows from heavy blunt objects and there had been severe bleeding. On one cheek, a patterned bruise appeared, which indicated the imprint from a shoe. Although there was no conclusive evidence indicating a sexual assault, forensic specialists believed that some of the injuries below the waist were suspicious and sexual in nature.

Even the most experienced investigators were shocked and dismayed by the injuries to James. "You slip into professional mode, but you can never, ever forget," said Kirby, years later. It was bad enough that he had been abducted and murdered, but the beating was brutal, incomprehensible. Although it was common knowledge that a train had severed James's body (the kids who discovered him were already talking to reporters), the police decided to withhold the nature of the James's injuries from the public.

Denise Bulger, who had been at the police station since her son's disappearance, sensed something was going on. Suddenly, the office was buzzing and police were mobilizing. When she heard that a body had been discovered, she became horribly distressed. There was nothing she could do but wait, hysterical but contained in the claustrophobic station, anticipating the terrible confirmation that they had found James.

Robert later brought a single rose to the crime scene. Other Merseyside mourners had created a makeshift memorial for James near the railway. Robert noticed that television crews were filming the mourners and later argued that if he had killed James, why would he bring a flower for the baby?

At home, Jon showed an intense interest in the story of James's disappearance. He asked his mother if they caught the boys. "If I seen them lads, I'd kick their heads in," he said. On Sunday, when his mother told Jon that the little boy had been found dead by the railroad, Jon expressed concern for "his poor mum." Neil, Jon's father, asked him about the blue paint on his coat sleeve and Jon said Robert threw it at him. When the news reported that blue paint had been found on the boy's body, the Venables did not openly suspect their son, even though he had missed school the day James was murdered and wore a "mustard" colored jacket, the same as the boy in the video.

Perhaps even more outrageous than the brutality of the murder was the search for suspects, who were only boys themselves. How to find the killers? Police would check Friday's absentee lists from schools and held press conferences, partially in hope of finding more witnesses, but also to keep the public calm. It was as if a witch hunt developed overnight in Merseyside, but this time the suspects were boys. Reports came in casting blame on one bad child or another. Even parents called the station to report their own kids as suspects. When police arrested one suspicious 12-year-old boy, residents were so furious that they attacked his house and broke the windows after a mob of police led the boy away. His family had to be moved and the boy hadn't even been officially charged with the crime.

A mother suspects her son

An anonymous woman called the police station, reporting that her friend Susan Venables had a son named Jon, who had skipped school Friday and had blue paint on his jacket sleeve. He resembled the boy in the video. She said he had a friend named Robert Thompson, with whom he skipped school that day. With no other solid leads, investigators decided that Jon and Robert should be brought in for questioning.

At 7:30 in the morning on Thursday, February 18, four police officers appeared on Ann Thompson's doorstep with a search warrant. When Robert realized that he was a suspect, he began to cry. They rounded up his clothes and immediately noticed that there was blood on his shoes.

When they came for Jon Venables, his mother Susan answered the door and said, snidely, "I knew you'd be here. I told him you'd want to see him for sagging school on Friday." Susan mentioned that Jon "came home on Friday, coat full of paint." Officers promptly asked for Jon's mustard-yellow coat, which had indeed been splattered with blue paint. It even appeared that there was a small handprint on the sleeve. Jon grabbed hold of his mother and sobbed. "I don't want to go to prison, mum. I didn't kill the baby." He cried hysterically. "It's that Robert Thompson. He always gets me into trouble." Through tears, Jon told police they should speak to Robert. As they drove him to the police station, Jon continued to ask about Robert. Had they arrested him yet, and where were they taking him?

Despite Robert and Jon's distressed reactions to being arrested, the police did not immediately suspect that they were the killers. They were simply following up on a tip. There were other boys with violent records out there and, besides, the boys in the Strand video looked to be 13 or 14 years old. Jon and Robert were small, still little kids themselves. But, following procedure, investigators interviewed Jon at the Lower Lane police station and Robert at the Walton Lane police station, which was just down the slope from where James had been killed.

The boys, especially Jon, were both terrified and fascinated by the police procedure. As they took Jon's fingerprints, he nervously asked how fingerprints worked. They seemed like invisible ink, magical to him. "Do you leave these on whatever you touch?" he asked. "If you touch someone's skin does it leave a fingerprint? If you drag someone really hard, do you leave your nails in his skin?" He wanted to know if they were taking Robert Thompson's prints too. Police took blood, hair, and fingernail samples from both boys.

In the meantime, a shopkeeper from the Strand called the police. The boys from the video might have been in their store on the day James disappeared, so police came down and took fingerprints. Jon's were matched.


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