Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger

Jon Venables

Jon was unusually agitated the day before James was abducted. He was restless and out of control.

Teachers started noticing Jon's attention-seeking behavior when it began in 1991. He would do strange things, like rock back and forth in his chair, holding onto his desk, moaning and making odd noises. His teacher moved him to the front of the class where she could keep an eye on him, but then he took to knocking things over on her desk. At first, Jon's violence was self-inflicted. He banged his head on the furniture, against the wall, and would throw himself on the floor. Jon cut himself with scissors and tore at his own clothing. But sometimes his self-destruction pivoted outward. He roamed around the classroom, tearing down the displays and artwork of other students. Jon stood on his desk and threw things at other children. Teachers documented his disruptive antics — they had never seen anything like it before.

His strange behavior was growing increasingly violent. In one incident, he approached another classmate from behind and began choking the boy with a wooden ruler. (It took two adults to pry Jon off of the boy.) He was soon transferred to another school. He was hyper and easily distracted. One teacher thought he was lazy. Falling behind in his assignments was probably another way to call attention to himself. No one thought of Jon as a "bad" kid, in fact some teachers thought of him as a sweet child, and felt sympathy for him. They thought he was pleading for help.

What was going on with Jon at home? Did his family life have something to do with his increasingly disturbed behavior?

Jon was born August 13, 1982, to parents Susan and Neil Venables. Neil worked as a forklift driver but was often unemployed. Jon was the middle child, and both of his siblings had developmental problems. His older brother was born with a cleft pallet, which led to communication problems and increasing frustration and temper tantrums. Jon's brother attended a special school, and his parents spent a lot of their time trying to control him. Sometimes he would be sent to foster families. Jon's younger sister also had developmental problems and ended up at a special needs school as well. Jon was stuck in the middle, feeling ignored, and perhaps resentful of the attention his siblings received. Sometimes Jon would mimic his older brother's tantrums.

Susan and Neil Venables had a tumultuous relationship, splitting apart, and then reuniting. The household was in a state of constant upheaval. After Neil left, Susan and the children lived with her mother, and then moved in with Neil again, only to move out to find public housing in Liverpool. Sometimes Neil would return for reconciliation. The instability affected all three kids. Both parents had histories of clinical depression, and Susan was particularly prone to hysterics. She came from a "strict and disciplined" background, and had been observed physically and verbally assaulting Jon. In stressful times she would shuttle Jon off to Neil's house, unable to cope with him. At the age of seven, Jon was showing signs of anti-social behavior. He hated the neighborhood children who would tease him and his siblings. Jon himself had a squint in his eye, which other kids mocked. Jon was an easy target for the other kids, and they teased him mercilessly, because he was so easily worked up by their provocations.

Because he was too difficult to manage, Jon was transferred to another school, but kept behind a year. This is where he met Robert Thompson, another student who was also kept behind. Susan said that Jon was transferred because other students were bullying him, but once he met Robert, the two became bullies. They singled out kids who were weak or easy targets and picked on them. With Robert as his companion, Jon felt tough, emboldened. The two also took to skipping school on a regular basis.

Teachers noticed how Jon and Robert seemed to bring out the worst in each other, and made efforts to keep them apart. Although they could separate them in the classroom, there was nothing they could do when they skipped school. No one saw the boys as potentially violent, or even more troublesome than the other kids. Jon wasn't willing to work and disrupted the class. Robert was quiet, but seemed to be a shrewd liar, and able to manipulate other students. He seemed more mature than Jon.

At home, Jon's mother changed his diet, hoping it would calm him down, but nothing worked. He picked fights with his brother. When Jon stayed with his father Neil, Robert would come by, but Neil would chase him away. Robert had a bad reputation and Neil warned Jon to stay away from him.

But some would later argue that more deadly influences came to Jon at home with his father. Not through abuse, but through rented movies. Neil Venables rented a lot of videos, and much has been made of his selection. Even the judge at the Bulger trial made mention of the bad influence of horror movies. Neil did not rent esoteric or particularly brutal movies. Jon loved the karate movies, and wished he could be like Rocky. He drew scenes from the Halloween films. But it was Neil's January 18, 1993 rental, "Child's Play 3" that called attention to the video/violence connection. In "Child's Play 3," the soul of a serial killer inhabits a doll named "Chucky". The evil doll, about the size of James, runs around slaughtering hapless victims. But in the end, he is killed in a haunted roller coaster/train ride. A battle ensues on the tracks, and Chucky, who is eventually dismembered, has blue paint splattered on his face from an earlier scene. Although there is no proof that Jon saw the entire film, there are some coincidences. The little child-doll as bad guy, who the heroes destroy in the end. Perhaps it took this cinematic image to invert James into the bad boy, the one who has to die. Jon fantasized about being a hero, the good guy. But he was too scared to take on anyone other than a baby.

Although Jon had an active imagination, he apparently repressed a great deal of hostility. He denied that there were any problems at home, despite his hysterical behavior in class. While he claimed that his family was very loving and supportive, his physical actions speak another truth. During his confession, Jon acted out some hostility toward his father, particularly when the issue of sexual assault on James came up. He walked over to his father and began punching him, crying "me dad thinks I know and I don't." After the first day of trial, he shouted angrily at his absent father. There is little information on the Venables family. Neil didn't appear to be abusive. Susan, however, appears to have wielded an extreme amount of control over Jon. More than anything, he absolutely feared her condemnation and rejection.

I, not we

By most accounts, Jon took the lead in attempting to coax children away from their mothers. It was Jon who tapped on the window of a store, trying to attract a toddler's attention. And Jon took James by the hand. When the boys encountered adults on the walk through Liverpool, Jon seems to have been the dominant one. The most compelling evidence against Jon is his own confession: "I did kill him." Not "we," not Robert. Headmitted to participating in the attack on James, but says he deliberately missed, or only threw light stones. Jon had a festering temper that might have propelled the mischief into a murderous assault.

For those familiar with the case, the theory seems to be that it was probably Robert's idea to take James, and to bring him to the canal. But who instigated the first blow? Did Robert, who had come from a violent background, find it easy to drop James on his head? Or did Jon, wanting to show off for his tough friend, callously injure the toddler? Yet both boys seemed to be protective of younger kids — Robert had his siblings, and Jon played with younger children. Perhaps this is why they came back to retrieve James after running away from him at the canal. But somehow their compulsion for violence overwhelmed their instinct for compassion. As they meandered through the neighborhood they encountered adults who could have intervened but didn't. Adults who suspected something was wrong, but didn't act, or couldn't. If only there had been intervention in Robert and Jon's life, before they got hold of James.

James was like a doll, a toy

In life, James Bulger was as cute as a doll, an adorable little tike. In death, he was initially mistaken to be a doll. The driver of the train saw what he thought was a doll on the tracks. At first he didn't think much of it — many kids laid out dolls on the tracks as a morbid prank. Later, when the boys playing around the railway discovered the broken body of James, they first thought he was an abandoned toy. "Then you see doll's legs, and they all ran, and I said no, no it's not," said one of the boys to a reporter.

Dolls are both precious and disposable. As much as a doll is a cherished gift, it is also something children feel compelled to take apart before giving it up. Flea markets are filled with discarded dolls, usually naked, often dismembered. A missing head, missing arms, crayon scribbles over their faces.

Did Jon and Robert see James as not much more than a doll, something for them to play with and discard? According to Jon, he became Robert's friend when Robert gave him troll dolls, which "shows you their bum and that." At the Strand Shopping Center, Robert wanted to shoplift a troll doll for his collection. They went in looking for dolls, and left with James.

Jon might also have had dolls on his mind. Like Robert's trolls, Jon's doll was also comically malevolent, a "Chucky" doll. Jon and Robert's most uncanny symbolic gesture, as pointed out by Blake Morrison, was the alleged placing of batteries in James's rectum, as if James were a walking-talking doll. Was this an oddly childish attempt to "get him alive again," as Robert claimed he tried to do?

It was through dolls that Robert was able to reenact the murder. He denied participating, but when he used the psychiatrist's dolls to stage what happened, he became agitated, almost traumatized, as if the dolls were closer to the truth in Robert's mind than the murder of a little boy. Many adult murderers dehumanize their victims in order to kill them. (Edmund Kemper talked about turning his victims into "living human dolls.") Of course, Jon and Robert were aware that James was a living human being. But James was small and doll-like in size, too young to tell them his name. He only cried for his mother, incessantly. Both Robert and Jon longed for their absent mothers. In killing James, perhaps they were acting out a violent wish to sever themselves from their own dependencies. Yet this is all conjecture. Just like the "who" and "how," the "whys" of the James Bulger murder remain silent.

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