Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger

The Videotape

Children become, while little, our delights,
When they grow bigger, they begin to fright's.
Their sinful Nature prompts them to rebel,
And to delight in Paths that lead to Hell.

— John Bunyan, "Book for Boys and Girls" (1686)

"All little boys are nice until they get older."
— Robert Thompson, age 11

We see them everywhere. Those security cameras that hang in corners, bolted to the ceiling, silently monitoring us as we shop. Do they make us feel safer? Or do we ignore them, assuming nothing bad happens in the safe haven of our suburban shopping centers? Like millions of cameras installed in almost every modern shopping plaza, they are set up to identify shoplifters and thieves. But on February 12, 1993 in the calm of a Friday early afternoon, the security cameras at the Bootle Strand Shopping Center near Liverpool, England, captured the most tragic of thefts — on this day, something priceless was stolen.

In this video clip, we see a young boy holding a toddler by the hand. A few paces ahead, another boy leads. They look like family, navigating a baby brother past shoppers and distractions. Passersby hardly notice them, unaware that one of the most heartbreaking murders in British history was unfolding right before their eyes. Too young to fight, too young to know better, the toddler trusted the boys who took him by the hand and led him away. All the while his frantic mother Denise searched for her lost son, her only child.

This is two-year-old James Bulger in the hands of his killers, frozen in time. He will be taken on a long, aimless walk, cruelly tortured along the way. James will be senselessly beaten to death by his ten-year-old captors, who will callously abandon him on the railroad tracks. Along their meandering walk the three children encountered adults. A simple inquiry could have ended the tragedy: "Is the boy okay? Let me help you find his mom. Let me take care of that hurt . . . " These words and an extended hand from a concerned grown-up might have saved James's life. And spared his mother unbearable grief.

James Bulger's abduction (POLICE)
James Bulger's abduction

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had been stealing things all day at the shopping center — candy, a troll doll, some batteries, a can of blue paint, and other incidentals. Why did they decide to steal a baby? Was it a plot or a sudden, overwhelming compulsion? Once they had him, they didn't know what to do with him. They could have easily discarded James, leaving him alone on the sidewalk, by a shop, where someone would discover the crying baby. But Jon and Robert, like children who would rather destroy their own possessions than give them to another, murdered the little boy. James's parents would never see their baby alive again.

Both Jon and Robert were considered delinquents. Yet nothing in their pasts indicated that they could be so viciously cruel. Which one suggested kidnapping? How did they decide to murder little James? Many assumed it was Robert. He was the tough one, a purebred troublemaker. Robert acted the part and looked the part with his closely shaved head and pudgy, bully-like build. Jon, on the other hand, was thinner and fragile in appearance. Compared to Robert, he seemed sensitive and naive. After they were arrested, Jon cried hysterically and sank deep into remorse, whereas Robert floated on the surface, keeping his cool. It seemed that Robert was the perpetrator, and Jon the bystander. But as investigators examined the boys' behaviors and confessions, they would begin to suspect something much more complex. With Robert and Jon, first impressions were deceiving.

Of course, Robert blamed Jon, and Jon blamed Robert. For children, lies seem like an easy escape, especially when there was another child present to blame. And even if they admitted the truth, how could ten-year-old boys put into words the depth of their hostilities and desire to mutilate and murder a two-year-old? Child psychologists unraveled the boy's narratives, looking for clues as to why. Investigators tried to get to the truth, but had to ease up when tears turned to hysterics. The mothers were of no help. One of the boys eventually admitted to killing James. Would that let the other boy off the hook?

In what Michele Elliott, founder of Kidscape, called "the most unfortunate coming together of three children this century," the tragic tale of James Bulger's senseless death still fascinates us. We may never know why, but we can at least piece together some of their terrible journey through the testimony of witnesses and by putting together Robert's and Jon's versions of James Bulger's murder.

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