When I was two years old, I was out shopping with my mum in our local Woolworth’s (I still miss Woollies). This must have been in late 1992 as I know she was heavily pregnant with my eldest brother at this point. She briefly let go of my hand to pay at the counter and when she turned around I was gone. She frantically searched the aisles accompanied by the shop staff, all the while entertaining every parent’s worse fears and concerned she might go into labour at any moment. I was found shortly thereafter helping myself to the pick’n’mix, which is entirely in keeping with my character. This incident, twenty-eight years ago, is still indelibly scorched into my mum’s memory and I still feel compelled to apologize every time it is brought up. Had this happened a mere few months later, I can only imagine that her fear would have been even more profound.
In Bootle, Liverpool, only ninety miles from our home in Worcester at the time, another young mother was in a shopping center with her toddler son on Friday 12th February 1993. Like my mum, she let go of her child’s hand for a matter of minutes in order to get out her purse and again like my mum, she was horrified to find him gone. In this case, however, there was to be no happy ending. No child merrily scooping out handfuls of sweets, no family anecdote to be recounted at Christmas and to grandchildren. Little James Bulger, born to Denise and Ralph on 16th March 1990, two years of age, had been taken. He would be found murdered two days later on a railway line 2.5 miles away from where he had gone missing and the identity of his killers was to plunge the nation into shock.
The infamous image of James being led way by his two diminutive captors is seared into the British consciousness, yet even at that point it was assumed that the two boys pictured were in their teens. Yet when Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were arrested after being recognized on television by their neighbor, they were only ten years of age. I will not go into the details of what little James suffered here. It serves no purpose in terms of this article and it is simply too horrific. Graphic accounts abound online, but suffice it to say James was tortured before his death and had so many injuries that pathologists were unable to identify that which had killed him.
Sadly, children killing other children is not as uncommon as we may like to believe. In the past two decades, 400 children committed murder in the past two decades in the UK alone. In 1968, Mary Bell murdered four year old Martin Brown the day before her 11th birthday and two months later she went onto kill three year old Brian Howe. Mary’s background was troubled to say the very least, she grew up impoverished and her mother was a prostitute who physically and sexually abused her as well as drugging her with sleeping tablets. She was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and was released at the age of twenty-three. She was granted lifelong anonymity and by all accounts went onto lead a perfectly normal life, becoming a mother and grandmother. In October 1994 is five year old Silje Marie Redergard was murdered by two five and six year old boys in the Norwegian village of Rosten. She was kicked, beaten and stoned before being stripped and left to die of hypothermia in the snow. Norway’s response to the murders could not have been more different to how the UK responded to the killing of James Bulger. In the immediate aftermath, meetings were held at the local school attended by police and psychologists. The boys were enrolled in another school within a fortnight. The age of criminal responsibility in Norway is fifteen; the boys were not publicly tried or paraded in front of the media and to this day the inhabitants of Rosten have kept the boys’ names a secret, despite all knowing their identities. Social workers kept tabs on the boys until they turned eighteen and like Mary Bell they appear to have gone on to lead productive lives.
Much like Mary Bell, the killers of James came from dysfunctional backgrounds. Jon Venables was born in Everton on the 13th August 1982 to Neil and Susan Venables. He has an older brother, Mark, born in May 1979 and a younger sister Michelle born in November 1983. Mark had a cleft palate and was diagnosed with moderate learning disabilities, something that would later cause Jon serious problems. Neil and Susan separated in 1986 and would go on to divorce, which had a profound impact on Jon. Prior to the split Jon had seemed happy in school but afterwards he began to display signs of emotional disturbance, throwing tantrums in the classroom. Susan and Neil both suffered from depression and Susan struggled to cope caring for the children by herself. In January of 1987 the police were called as she left Jon, Mark and Michelle alone for three hours whilst she was in the pub. Michelle and Jon started at Broad Square County Primary Junior School in the September of 1989. During his first year, Jon displayed antisocial tendencies and complained of being bullied, leading to him being referred to an educational psychologist in June 1990. He was described as being uninterested and unable to concentrate or cope with pressure. In order to ease some of the pressure on the family, a social worker arranged for Mark to spend one weekend a month with a respite foster family. However, concerns about Jon persisted. In 1991, his teacher Kathryn Bolger became increasingly worried about Jon’s bizarre behavior. This included sitting and rocking back and forth, moaning and making strange noises and incessantly fiddling with objects on Ms. Bolger’s desk. He would bang his head on furniture and run out of school at random. He was marked as a low achiever. Jon also struggled at home. He was abusive to his mother and local children bullied him and Michelle. Susan believed that some of Jon’s behavior was due to peer pressure, and that he was jealous of Mark and Michelle, who also had significant learning disabilities. At school he continued to display disturbing behavior. He would revolve around the walls of the classroom, pulling down displays. He would lie down between the desks, cut himself with scissors, throw things at the other child and on one occasion hung himself upside down from the coat pegs, as well as choking another boy with a ruler. This led to another referral to a psychologist, who recommended a special diet.
In September 1991 he changed schools to Walton St Mary’s, where he was held back a year and where he met Robert ‘Bobby’ Thompson. Both boys got into fights in the playground, and Bobby was viewed as a quiet but sly underachiever. Susan and Neil resumed their relationship in September, which initially seemed to have a positive impact on Jon, but this was not to last long. Jon and Bobby were kept apart in class; Jon was lazy and disruptive and Bobby was a telltale incapable of admitting wrongdoing. Despite their poor behavior, neither showed signs of violent or aggressive tendencies. There was some debate amongst school staff as to who the ringleader was. Head teacher Irene Slack felt it was Jon, others said Bobby. Mrs Slack was especially perturbed by Jon’s fighting, inappropriate behavior and lack of emotion and by Bobby’s presentation as a cunning, devious liar. Both boys had a reputation for bullying and were chronic truants. Out of 140 school days in the autumn turn, Jon was absent for 40 and Bobby 39.
Bobby’s origins were equally troubled. He was the fifth of five boys, born 23rd August 1982 to Ann and Bobby Sr. Thompson. Bobby Sr was violent towards his wife, and Bobby Jr’s eldest brother David was placed on the Child Protection Register in 1977 following an allegation of physical abuse which was later ruled unsubstantiated. In 1978 Ann overdosed on Valium, bringing social services back into the Thompson’s lives. The worker assigned to the family arranged for the boys to attend nursery to relive some of the pressure, but the boys were still regularly shouted at and abused. On 16th October 1988 Bobby Sr left with another woman, the family home burned down shortly thereafter and Ann took to the bottle. The elder boys began to get into trouble with the police, and were frequently left to care for their younger brothers. Three went into voluntary Foster care, and Ann had another, brief, relationship leading to the birth of baby Ben in 1992.
Coming up in part two: The arrest, trial and incarceration of Jon and Bobby. Their lives after detention, and an attempt to understand why they murdered James.