Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger


Baby James

James Bulger, victim
James Bulger, victim

Denise Bulger took James everywhere. She lost her first child during pregnancy and she did not want anything to happen to her precious son. At 25, she planned to have more kids, but for now, James was her only child and she kept him close. Her little boy, who would be three next month, had large blue eyes, a beaming smile, and sandy brown hair.

On Friday, Feb 12, Denise accompanied her brother's girlfriend Nicola to the Bootle Strand Shopping Center and, of course, she brought James. At 2:30 they entered the modern, two-story shopping center. Inside, ceramic tile lined the walkways, and natural lighting filled the space. Nicola had to exchange some underwear at TJ Hughes, and Denise waited nearby, watching the children. For a moment James disappeared from sight. He was getting antsy, and made a fuss if he had to ride in the stroller. James wandered, but soon cried out, frightened to suddenly find himself alone.

Denise picked him up and they left TJ Hughes. She bought the children a snack, hoping to quiet James down. But the two-year-old was full of energy. At a children's clothing store he tossed around baby's clothes and at another store grabbed some candy and juice before Denise could stop him. They would be leaving soon, after one last stop at the butcher's shop. Denise went in, leaving James by the door. Since there wasn't a line, so she figured James, who was squirming and fussing in her arms, would be okay for a moment on his own.

The butcher mixed up the order, occupying Denise a little longer than she expected. Nicola, her companion, had just seen James playing with a cigarette butt by the door. When the young mother left the shop to scoop up her child, he was gone. She ran back inside, flustered. "I was only in the shop a few seconds. I turned round and he'd gone," she cried.

The truants

Jon Venables (left) & Robert Thompson (school photos)
Jon Venables (left) & Robert
Thompson (school photos)

That same morning, Jon Venables left his Merseyside home for school. He carried a note from his mother, requesting that he be allowed to take the class gerbils home, where he could care for them over the upcoming holiday break. But down the road, Jon ditched his school bag in his favorite hiding place. He saw Robert Thompson, who was hanging out with his little brother. Both were "sagging," cutting class. Not that they had anything else to do. Both Jon and Robert hated school, where they felt like outcasts. Both had been kept behind a grade, a common denominator of shame. They became expert truants.

That Friday, they walked to the Bootle Strand. As they strolled through the mall, browsing the stores, sales people watched them closely. Their school uniforms signified their truancy, their potential for trouble.

Jon and Robert came to the shopping center to steal. It didn't seem to matter what. They lurked around the counters, pocketing whatever was in reach when the salesperson was busy. They stole batteries, enamel paint, pens and pencils, a troll doll (Robert collected trolls), some fruit and candy, makeup, and other trinkets. They swiped a wind-up toy soldier, played with it on the escalator, and tossed it down the moving steps. They discarded much of what they took. Stealing was the fun part.

Everywhere, Jon and Robert were told to leave. They kicked a can of enamel paint until it started to leak. They teased an elderly woman, poking her in the back, then running off. They climbed all over the chairs at a McDonald's until they were chased out. Shop clerks asked them, why aren't you in school? They lied and said it was a holiday.

"Let's get a kid"

Whose idea was it to lure a child? In custody, Robert claimed Jon said, "Let's get a kid, I haven't hit one for ages." But Jon blamed Robert. "Let's get this kid lost," he quoted Robert as saying, "let's get him lost outside so when he goes into the road he'll get knocked over." Perhaps both are telling the truth, perhaps they became giddy as they talked about taking a child. Was the idea first brought up as a joke, a dare? Boys talk tough, exaggerating their feats, goading one another to bigger challenges. Was Jon desperate to impress his tough friend? Was Robert trying to maintain his hooligan act? Neither would chicken out or back down once the challenge "let's get a kid" was made. By stealing a baby, it seems, they were proving to each other that they were not babies themselves.

In the department store TJ Hughes, a woman noticed her three-year-old daughter and two-year-old son were playing with a couple of older boys. The boys, Jon and Robert, were kneeling down, opening purses and snapping them shut, attracting the kids' attention. She called them back, but they strayed off again. After she paid for her item, she found her daughter and asked her where her baby brother was. "Gone outside with the boys," she said. The mother raced outside and yelled her child's name. She saw Jon and Robert, motioning to her son to come along. He had already followed them this far. But when Jon saw her, they froze. "Go back to your mum," they said, and the two boys quickly disappeared.

Later, Jon and Robert went to a concession stand near the butcher's shop, hoping to pocket some candy, but the stand was closed. As they stood there for a moment, wondering what to do next, Jon spotted a little boy in a blue anorak by the butcher's door. He was eating Smarties.

"Come on, baby," said Jon. James followed and Jon took him by the hand.

As they walked through the Strand, a few women noticed the threesome. Sometimes James ran ahead. The older boys were calling to him: "Come on, baby." Together, they left the shopping center. The video camera captured them as they left at 3:42 p.m.

"The little boy's gone missing"

Denise was panicked. She was directed to the security office, where she described her son. He was wearing a blue anorak and grey sweatsuit. His tee-shirt had the word "Noddy" printed on it, and his blue wool scarf had a white cat face. Security wasn't alarmed — it was routine to announce the names and descriptions of lost children over the loudspeakers. But no one responded. Denise and Nicola searched the shops and again called the security officers — still no James. At 4:15 p.m. they called the Marsh Lane Police Station to report a missing child.