S02E01 Killer Kids - The Murder of James Bulger

S02E01 Killer Kids - The Murder of James Bulger

Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were just 10 years old when they murdered a young toddler by the name of James Bulger. The crime was so shocking the two boys were tried as adults. In our psychological profile of this case, you’ll hear the police interviews and gain a deeper understanding of how authorities obtained the information they needed to convict the boys. You’ll also hear new details that were kept secret from the public and get breaking news on a new development involving the father of the victim.

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Thompson and Venables  


To kill a child is one of the most heinous crimes known to man. For human beings, one of the only species that murders its own without cause, it is unconscionable that we would want to cause harm to children. What is even more incomprehensible is that a killer might be a small child himself. Since the murder of Jamie Bulger hit the media, it has remained in the minds of Britons, more than 20 years after the crime. Barely a month goes by without an article about the case or the killers. 

A child killing another, though rare, was not entirely without precedence. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of two-year-old James, were not the first children in England to kill another. Child killer Mary Bell’s crimes preceded James’ murder by more than 25 years. The case roused public shock and revulsion in much the same way as the Bulger murder, as experts and families tried to comprehend how a child could torture and kill another. The murder committed by Venables and Thompson is often juxtaposed with the murders of Mary Bell, and from what we know of the two 10-year-old boys, the Bell case was different. Bell was the daughter of a prostitute who was forced to service her mother’s clients. Having become disassociated from the abuse she’d suffered, she reacted to those who tried to get close to her with pure rage. Unable to understand the trauma she herself had endured, she inflicted harm on those around her, and the day before her 11th birthday strangled four-year-old Martin Brown. She then mutilated and murdered three-year-old Brian Howe two months later. Like James Bulger’s killers, Mary Bell was granted anonymity for life, following a sentence of penal servitude at her Majesty’s pleasure. 

In the case of Thompson and Venables, both children came from broken homes and suffered ‘great social and emotional deprivation. They grew up in an atmosphere of matrimonial breakdown, where they were exposed to, saw, heard or suffered abuse, drunkenness and violence … [there was] no doubt that both boys saw video films frequently, showing violent and aberrant activities.’

Jon Venables was born on 13 August 1982 to Susan and Neil Venables. The boy was the second of three children and lived in Walton, near Liverpool, not the poorest suburb, but far from privileged. His older brother had several disabilities, including a cleft palate, communication problems and anger issues. Venable’s younger sister had learning and developmental problems. His parents separated just after the birth of his sister, but continued to share the responsibility for raising the children. Jon spent half the week with his father and half the week with his mother. It was far from an ideal arrangement, but worked for the family, for the most part. 

At his father’s home, Venables was allowed to watch adult horror films. A piece of evidence not shown at trial was a graphic picture drawn by Jon Venables after he had watched the film Halloween. He wrote a description to go with the picture that described how the man was killing his victims in the film. The picture alone is chilling, with a knife-wielding, large-breasted killer standing amid his victims, who are splayed around him with blood gushing from their many stab wounds. Though it is not unusual for small boys to enjoy playing with guns and pretending to shoot each other in the playground, the drawing was the work of a child who had been exposed to violent ideas and images. He wrote that the killer in his drawing was a man, but then feminised the figure by giving it large breasts. 

Venables had no fear of teachers or school principals or even his father. The only person he feared was his mother, who would subject him to regular beatings. The possibility that Venables was projected his mother onto the main character in Halloween was later raised by author Blake Morrison, who stated that ‘the drawing suggests how seeing Halloween deeply disturbed an already deeply disturbed little boy’. Was Venables demonising his mother in the picture? Juxtaposing the monster with the physical punishment he suffered at his mother’s hands? His mother was often worse the wear for drink, and police were called when Venables and his siblings were left home alone during her drunken binges at the local pub. Venables was known to kick other children in the shins if he did not get his way, but when other parents called his mother to complain, she would hurl abuse back at them. Dr Susan Bailey described him at his trial as a boy of average intelligence, who could distinguish right from wrong. 

Robert Thompson was born on 23 August 1982. Most children at school knew him as an unfeeling thug from an early age; later, while Venables often cried during the court trial, Thompson rarely showed interest. He was the fifth of seven boys in the home, and survived by acting the way his older siblings did –beatings filtered down from the older children to the younger ones. Early in his childhood, Thompson was often punished by his father, who would use a belt to beat the boys while he shouted obscenities at them. Once he left, Ann Thompson was unable to cope with the boisterous children and turned to drink, spending her days at the pub. She had also been severely beaten by her husband, including suffering a miscarriage during one horrific row. 

A report into the family unit likened it to ‘survival of the fittest’ or Lord of the Flies.  The boys all picked on the sibling that was the next youngest to them, from the 20-year-old to the eight-year-old, and Thompson was often bullied by his brothers for sucking his thumb. They were in and out of state care after bite marks and brutal beatings were reported to welfare agencies, and most of the time, the gang of rag-tag siblings had to fend for themselves. Thompson was often seen wandering the streets in the early hours of the morning. Like Venables, his psychological assessment at trial described him as a boy of good or at least average intelligence who knew the difference between right in wrong, and he has since displayed signs of post-traumatic stress when revisiting the crime in therapy. Venables, is said to be inconsolable whenever someone mentions the murder. 

During their trial, Venables and Thompson, then aged 11, sat with their lawyers and social workers. The days were cut to run shorter than a school day and regular breaks were offered to the young offenders, who sat playing with the ties they were told to wear in court. Venables would often cry during the testimony of witnesses and experts, looking to his parents for comfort. Thompson’s parents were not there. While Venables mother tried to explain that her son followed another bad egg, his father, others would tell a different story. A teacher who testified at trial stated that Venables had once tried to choke a fellow classmate with a ruler pressed against the child’s throat. His violence struck without warning and it took the teacher all of their strength to get the 10-year-old to let go. Venables had also changed schools to escape bullying.

Thompson and Venables, though now forever linked due to the heinous murder, did not start out as friends. Thompson would pick on the cry-baby Venables and push him around. It was only when the two of them, both suffering from learning difficulties, were kept back a year and placed in the same class that they became friends. They quickly began truanting together. 

Venables was the one who chose for James to die that fateful day on 12 February 1993. The two 10-year-olds planned to play hooky from school, go to the local shopping centre and steal a young child. It was a chilling prospect on its own for two children. The boys were truanting for the fourth time together that year; on a previous occasion, Venables’ father had caught them and managed to grab his son, but Thompson escaped, taunting his friend’s father as he ran off. 

On this occasion, the two boys headed to the local Strand shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside. It was a Friday, and the centre was full of mothers, busily running errands before their children came home from school, as well as many local unemployed people, who had little else to do. With a hundred shops in the small centre, there were plenty of places to get into mischief and cause strife. 

Thompson thought it would be fun to steal a young child away from his mother, take the child to the nearest busy road and throw them out into the traffic. While waiting for the right child to come along, the two boys caused mischief in every store they visited. They spent their day stealing an odd assortment of items, including batteries, model paint and a few toys, but soon even stealing bored them. 

They chose a first victim and managed to get the little toddler’s attention, luring him away from his mother by showing him the toys they had stolen. The boys could not believe that they were going to be successful, but their elation turned to disappointment as the toddler’s mother sprinted to the entrance of the store and grabbed her little boy, shocked that he had managed to get so far from her so quickly. 

A pregnant Denise Bulger was also shopping at the centre, with her two-year-old son James, her brother’s fiancé Nicolas and her little girl. They had a few errands to run, including getting meat and groceries for the evening’s meal. James, the cute toddler, was restless. By the time they’d been to Marks and Spencers, the supermarket and the butchers, he’d had enough of shopping. For a Friday, A. R. Tyrns Butchers was quite busy, and Denise had to wait in a queue to be served. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed James played at her feet. He was wearing a thick overcoat to protect him from the outside elements. He complained that he wanted to go home to Kirkby, and Denise promised her little boy that after they bought some lamb chops for their dinner, they would go home. 

Standing on the upper level of the shopping centre, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson looked out over the lower level. They spotted their next target, James. The toddler was leaning against the entrance to the butchers. The child had taken a few steps away from his mother and was occupied with something else, unaware that two predators had fixed on him. At the same time that James had taken those few steps from his mother’s side, Denise was paying for their supper. She had taken her attention away from her son for only a moment, explaining to the cashier that they had given her the wrong order, but it was enough for the two 10-year-old boys to pounce. 

The time was 3.43pm. Denise turned and looked down, expecting her son to be at her side. He was not there. She looked around at those still waiting to be served and then toward her future sister-in-law and niece who were waiting outside. James was not with them. That panic that only a parent can know quickly set in. The expectation of seeing her son, who must only have wandered a few steps away, soon dissipated. James was nowhere to be seen. 

The customers around Denise quickly realised that her little boy had wandered off. People started looking for the toddler, as Denise made her way to the centre’s management office, to get them to make an announcement. It had only taken a minute for the two boys to take James to the upper level and out an exit door. Thirty-nine seconds later, they had left the centre altogether, whilst Denise and others searched for James. 

The toddler’s journey to his death at the hands of two children lasted for two-and-a-half miles over two hours. Several witnesses saw James with the two boys. When questioned, the boys would tell people they had found him and were taking him to the local police station. No one confronted them when they headed in the opposite direction. One witness claimed to have seen the two boys dragging James, who was now extremely distressed and calling for his mother, part of the way. Another saw the two boys drag James towards the railway bridge and heard one of them say that they hated having a little brother. A 14-year-old girl saw one of the boys run up the hill that led to the railway line and thought, at the time, that the toddler was laughing. 

Over the centre’s intercom system, a disjointed voice asked all customers to look for the little boy. For the next few hours, customers and employees of the Strand searched every corner, looking for what a lost, possibly sleeping little boy. With stores closing, police were now on the scene, and several store owners were asked to return and look again, in the hopes that the little boy might be locked inside. 

If they had looked at the security footage, which was not reviewed until much later, they would have seen holding one of the 10-year-olds hands, with the other boy dawdling in front of the pair, James being led from the centre hours earlier. The boys did not run, and did not look worried or concerned. They looked like they were with their younger brother. As James’ father said in his book, My James, ‘they knew what they were doing was wicked …’

No one had any idea of the horror that James was enduring while they remained at the shopping centre. Even as police, employees and family members continued the search, darkness having fallen over the suburbs, James already lay dead, more than two kilometres away, having suffered 42 separate injuries in a period of prolonged torture. The toddler had received 22 injuries to his head and a further 20 to his body. The boys had used an iron rod and 27 bricks to beat and stone him, before leaving his body on train tracks to be run over by a train and cut in two. 

The ‘baby’, as the two child killers called him in their statements, had suffered a horrendous ordeal. He had his nappy removed during the final assault and his foreskin had been violently retracted, exposing the glans of his penis. James had had batteries forced into his mouth and injuries to his rectum, suggesting that they had attempted to insert the batteries into his anus as well. The little boy’s left eye had been rubbed with blue model paint the boys had stolen earlier and he had several large gashes to his forehead and skull. He had been hit to the face and mouth and a large wound to his cheek was consistent with being kicked; James’ blood was on the shoes Thompson wore that day. When the severed body was found, it was surrounded by several bricks that had been thrown at the toddler, all of them covered in blood splatter. Finally, he was struck with a 10kg iron bar, which killed him.

On the afternoon of the murder, Venables’s mother had gone to school to pick him up, as she sometimes would, and found he had missed school that day. She went looking for him along the railway line, where she knew the boys had made a cubby house. She stopped looking for him after a few hours, knowing he would eventually turn up at home when he got hungry. She was not worried about her son, but was angry that he had missed another day of school. When he did turn up, she took him to the local constabulary to shake some sense into him for truanting from school.

The weekend after the murder, Venables was quiet and subdued as the family watched the local news, which showed grainy images of two young boys leading the missing toddler away. It wasn’t long before police knocked on the doors of the both families. 

While being interviewed, the two boys exhibited disturbing behaviour of how the torture and murder of the toddler had affected them. Venables cried hysterically, lashing out at family who were there to support him. He refused to admit what he had done with his mother in the room, knowing such an admission would provoke her wrath. It was only once she had told that she would still love him that he admitted his involvement. Thompson, during his initial interview, remained stoic and showed little emotion. 

The subsequent trial made international news as the two boys faced a backlash of public hatred. Questions were asked of the parents regarding how they could raise such ‘evil’ children. The world mourned the terrible death of the toddler with the big blue eyes while demonising the two had committed the crimes. Calling the two boys ‘evil’ was society’s way of distancing themselves from what they didn’t understand. The idea of two ‘bad seeds’ or rotten apples was easier to contemplate than the possibility that a person could commit such atrocities without being either bad or mad.

In Britain, with 10 being the age of criminal responsibility, both boys were accountable for the murder and were found to understand that what they had done was wrong. During their lengthy journey with James, as he fought them and begged to go back to his mother, there was not a moment in which the two killers thought just to abandon him. They had committed themselves not only to the kidnapping, but to the murder as well. 

On 24 November 1993, Thompson and Venables were convicted for the murder and abduction of James Bulger. They were detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure and the trial judge recommended that a period of no less than eight years be served. He stated that ‘very great care will have to be taken before either defendant is allowed out into the general community. Much psychotherapeutic, psychological and educational investigation and assistance will be required.’

Jon Venables had been released and was living under a new identity when, in July 2010, he was arrested and sent back to prison for breaching the good behaviour clause that governed his life. Police had found pornographic images of children on his home computers. At the time, police were investigating reports of an online child porn ring, and Venables, living under his new identity, was arrested.  Since then he has been incarcerated multiple times and at the time of writing he is behind bars. 

To date, co-offender Robert Thompson has slotted into his new, anonymous life without problems.

 1. T vs The United Kingdom – 24724/94 [1999] ECHR 170

2. Shirley Lynn Scott The Murder of James Bulger, Court TV

3. Stephen Wright et al Revealed: the horror image drawn by Jon Venables just weeks before he killed James Bulger. Daily Mail

4. ibid

5. ibid

6. V vs The United Kingdom – 24888/94 [1999] ECHR 171

7.  T vs The United Kingdom – 24724/94 [1999] ECHR 170

8. V vs The United Kingdom – 24888/94 [1999] ECHR 171

9. V vs The United Kingdom – 24888/94 [1999] ECHR 171

10. Ralph Bulger My James

11. Ralph Bulger My James

12. T vs The United Kingdom – 24724/94 [1999] ECHR 170

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