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The 20th anniversary of the most shocking of crimes

Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of young toddler James Bulger in England.

IT IS A CCTV image now etched into a nation’s psyche. It was a still from footage that shook the UK to its core. It was the photo that placed fear into the heart of every mother across the island – and that of its nearest neighbour. It was also the picture that led to the conviction of two child-killers.

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in England. A crime that shocked the UK – and Ireland. A crime that garnered so much media attention that families had to change their names and relocate their homes.

A crime that changed everything.

When children disappear today, the minds of most people alive 20 years ago will wander to the afternoon of 12 February 1993. James Bulger was with his mother Denise in a butcher’s shop at the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, near Liverpool, at the same time 10-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were playing truants from school, shop-lifting and looking for a young target.

The boys eventually spotted James and lured him away from the store, leading him by hand out of the shopping centre just before 4pm. Then the nightmare ensued.

Ralph and Denise Bulger on 13 February 1993, just hours before their son’s body was discovered.

Local police searched for James for the rest of Friday and Saturday, sending divers into the nearby canal and issuing pleas to the public. James’s parents attended press conferences, constantly reliving the moment their son went missing.

“If you have got my baby, just bring him back,” wept Denise Bulger.

More than 24 hours later, James’s body was discovered by a group of young boys late on Saturday at a railway line in nearby Walton.

The hunt for his killer began immediately but it soon emerged that police weren’t looking for a suspected-paedophile but rather two young boys.

It was a shocking case that just kept spiralling.

Investigating detectives issued enhanced CCTV footage of the youths they wanted to speak with in relation to the crime.

In the week leading to the arrest of Jon Venebles and Robert Thompson, pleas for witnesses and information were made to the public by investigators led by Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby. It is thought that up to 40 people saw Bulger with his killers as they walked across Liverpool on that Friday afternoon. Most thought they were seeing three brothers playing. However, some were full of unbearable anguish when the truth was revealed. A couple broke down in tears during the boys’ criminal trial at Preston in November 1993 – one had even asked the boys what was going on when Thompson and Venerables insisted James was their brother. There were many ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’.

People were stunned – again. Questions about how children would be capable of such evil were raised consistently – and that was before much of the detail about the brutal crime was heard.

Kirby with batteries and blue paint, key clues in the case. It later transpired that the killers had stolen the items before kidnapping the toddler.

The enhanced image of the suspects.

Poster displays looking for people who might have been able to help with the investigation.

Chief Inspector Geoff MacDonald showing the security video from the Strand Shopping centre the day after James’s body was discovered.

Anguish and anger

Locals began leaving tributes to the young victim at the crime scene within days. A minute’s silence was observed by Liverpool Football Club at Anfield a week later. The whole nation was overcome with emotion and sadness.

The trial later heard how James received 42 injuries before his death, including ten skull fractures. Blue paint had been thrown in his eye, bricks and stones flung at him and batteries inserted into his mouth. A 22lb iron bar was also used during the assault.

Prosecutors told a jury that the vicious attack took place at the railway embankment in Walton, Liverpool – about 4km from the shopping centre he was abducted from.

Pathologist Dr Alan Williams said he counted 22 bruises, splits and grazes on the victim’s face and head, and 20 more wounds on his body. He believes James was stripped from the waist down and that the foreskin of his penis was pulled back.

James was buried on 1 March 1993. His small white coffin was adorned with a bouquet of flowers. Teddy bears sat on a chair placed beside it at the altar of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Kirby. In front, a wreath from the family with the words: “To James, our beautiful baby son.”

Ralph Bulger, James’s father, carries his two-year-old son’s coffin into the Church of the Sacred Heart, Kirby.

A policeman breaks down in tears outside the church where the funeral service was taking place.

Wreathes laid near the boy’s grave.

Almost a year after his death, flowers and teddies were still being left on the unmarked grave in a quiet corner of Kirkdale cemetery.

Within a short space of time, the mood in Liverpool morphed from one of grief into one of palpable anger and contempt. A crowd gathered outside the South Sefton magistrates court for Thompson and Venebles first hearing. According to photographers, the majority of people in the crowd physically gasped as the van carrying the young killers passed by.

The decision to treat the children as adults and hold a criminal trial (in England, a person can appear in court once they reach the age of 10) was a significant factor in how the nation was affected by the crime. Startling mugshots of the two young boys were even released after they were convicted. At first glance they could be First Class school photographs, except for the name cards they are holding up, denoting something much more sinister.

The trial was covered by the media in forensic detail. Reflecting the universal grief and anger over the murder, front page spreads branded Venebles and Thompson as sick, evil, bastards and beasts.

Once convicted, Judge Moreland said they should be detained without limit and recommended a minimum of eight years. He said the boys were guilty of an act of “unparalleled evil and barbarity”, partially blaming “violent video films”.

The then-Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor of Gosforth increased that by two years. Still, the public’s sense of justice-being-served was not satisfied. About 20,000 readers of the Sun tabloid completed coupons saying ‘life should mean life’ and 280,000 people signed a petition with a similar sentiment.

The Home Secretary reacted to the popular voice and increased the minimum sentence to 15 years. However, the House of Lords later stepped in (in 1997) and quashed that ruling. Eventually, the European Court of Human Rights found that the pair did not receive a fair trial and that the Government had breached human rights by intervening.

Venerables and Thompson were released in June 2001. Both aged 18, they were given new identities and won the right for their anonymity to be protected. Prohibited from contacting the Bulger family and each other, they were also barred from Merseyside.

Some newspapers asked the high court to lift the injunction. Except the Guradian, which noted: “Even a free press has its limits.”

On 2 March 2010, the British Government confirmed that Venebles had reoffended and was back in prison for breaking the terms of his licence. He pleaded guilty to charges relating to child pornography. He was 27 when he returned to jail.

James would be 22 today, his 23rd birthday on 16 March fast-approaching. His parents, now divorced, continue to remember their son in their own ways. Denise has set up a trust in his name, which helps young people going through tough times by offering them a break in a holiday home. Ralph is releasing his book, My James, on 14 February. In it, he talks about wanting to teach James how to fish, his shame at blaming his wife for taking her eyes off their son on that terrible afternoon and how his toddler called him by his proper name instead of Dad “because he heard other people do so”.

“I can still hear his little voice shouting out to me as he played in his red car.” Somehow, the world still remembers James Bulger’s voice as well.

All images: PA Archive/Press Association Images

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