Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger

Death by the Railway

"I want my mum"

Jon and Robert left the Bootle Strand and walked up Stanley Road. They carried the toddler, who cried and fussed. They set him down near the post office and said loudly, "Are you all right? You were told not to run." James cried for his mother, but the boys continued on, ignoring his pleas. Jon held the boy's hand as they walked. Sometimes he ran ahead, other times he fell behind. They walked down to the canal and under a bridge to an isolated area. Jon and Robert joked about pushing James into the water.

It was at the canal that they first hurt James. One of them (each blamed the other) picked James up and dropped him on his head. If they were earnest about wanting to murder a baby, why not here and now? They had their opportunity and had made their first assault on the toddler. Yet Jon and Robert ran away, afraid. They weren't prepared to kill, so they left James alone by the canal wailing.

A woman saw James and assumed he was with some other children nearby. Jon and Robert turned around and walked back toward James. "Come on, baby." In his utter innocence, little James with a big bruise and cut on his forehead, once again followed his tormentors. They covered the child's head with the hood of his anorak so that his wound would be less visible. Holding James's hand, they walked back toward Stanley Road and crossed at a busy intersection. Some saw the child with the tear-streaked face. Some saw the cut on his forehead. It made some of them uneasy, but no one knew what to do. If James had screamed and cried for his mother or if the older boys had acted cruelly, surely someone would have rescued the child. Who could have imagined what was truly taking place? The thought of it impossible to fathom — these ten-year-old boys were marching a little boy off to be murdered.

"A persuading kick"

After returning from the canal, the boys seemed to have lost their purpose and their direction. They meandered, strolling past shops, halls, offices, and parking lots. A witness on a bus saw the two boys, swinging the toddler's hands, as he walked between them. A motorist later saw the boys pulling the baby, against his will. He was crying and did not want to go further. He saw Robert kick the baby in the ribs. "A persuading kick," the witness later described it.

Jon, Robert, and James had walked over a mile by now, along a busy road in Liverpool. It was late afternoon. Many drivers caught in the commute rush hour noticed the boys. A woman saw James running between the two boys and assumed they were playing. At another intersection, James began to cry for his mother again. He ran off and almost ran into traffic, but Robert caught him and pulled him back. Motorists watched the boys as they crossed the street and could see that James was crying, dragging his heels. Some thought James was crying because he was not allowed to run free. But others wondered where the parents were.

Jon carried James by the legs, while Robert held him by the chest. They awkwardly carried the boy to a grassy plateau by a reservoir where they sat on a step and rested, placing James between them. A woman walking her dog passed them by and noticed that little James was laughing. But moments later, another person saw Jon punch James, grabbing him and violently shaking him. For some inexplicable reason, this witness pulled her curtains, shutting out the scene. It was growing dark. (These witnesses would later be called by the papers the "Liverpool 38" and shamed them for turning the other way. Some of the James sightings seem to be justifiable. James laughing, James swinging his hands between two boys, looking like family. But some of the sightings, when the boys were hurting James, or dragging him as he screamed for his mother, are mysteries as to why no one called the authorities.)

"I wish now I had done something."

At the grassy knoll by the reservoir, an elderly woman noticed the baby, who was obviously hurt. She approached them and asked what the problem was. James was in tears, his face bruised and red.

"We just found him at the bottom of the hill," Jon and Robert claimed as if they didn't know him.

She told the boys to take him to the Walton Lane Police Station just down the road and gave them directions there. The little boy's injuries worried her. She pointed them in the direction of the police, but watched incredulously as they walked off in the opposite direction. She shouted after them, but they didn't turn back. As she stood there, unsure what to do, another woman who had seen the boys earlier said that James had been laughing. She believed the baby was okay; they were probably inexperienced brothers watching over their younger sibling.

Later that night, the woman saw the news of the missing toddler on television. She immediately called the police and told them about her encounter. "I wish now I had done something," she said.

The boys walked down the knoll, eventually ending up at County Road. It had been nearly a two-mile hike by now. They stopped inside some of the shops. A woman walking a dog eyed the boys with the toddler and asked what was going on. They told her that they found the lost boy at the Strand and were on their way to the police station. Another concerned woman, who had a little girl with her, overheard the conversation and joined in. "Well," she said, "you've walked a long way from the Strand to Walton Lane Police Station."

Jon said, "That's where the man directed us." When she asked where they lived, Robert was about to answer, but Jon cut him off. "The police station is on our way home."

Robert let go of James' hand, as if willing to relinquish him. The women watched Robert as he looked away. He seemed nervous. But then Jon took control. "Get hold of his hand," he said. Robert once again took James by the hand.

The younger woman with the child looked down at James, who was hurt, and appeared upset. "Are you all right, son?" she asked. James didn't answer. Jon insisted they would find the station; they would take care of it. But the woman felt something wasn't right. It was getting dark and the boys weren't honest. She asked that the other woman with the dog to watch her little girl, who was tired, while she escorted James to the station. But the woman with the dog refused — her pet did not like children. As the boys took off, the younger woman called out, "Are you sure you know the way?" Jon pointed in the direction. "I'll go that way, missus."

They walked into a store. Robert asked the clerk where they could buy some candy for their kid brother. The shopkeeper noticed James's bruises and scrapes. Then they stopped at a pet shop, where Robert noticed a fish at the bottom of the tank. "It's dead," he said to the shopkeeper. The clerk thought it was a little strange how Jon gripped James's hand, refusing to let him go.

Outside, a fire broke out down the street. They watched for a bit, then crossed heavy traffic to Church Road West. They encountered two older boys who knew Robert and had a pair of trick handcuffs. They planned to use them on Robert and Jon, until they noticed the hurt toddler. "Who is he?" they asked. Robert said it was Jon's brother, and they were taking him home. The older boy was worried by the toddler's red-streaked face and injuries. "If you don't take him home, I'll batter you," he later claimed to have said.

Jon and Robert continued on. They came to the entrance of the railway and stopped. It was not too late to abandon the crying baby. The police station was not far off. Some people passed by and one of the boys said loudly, "I'm fed up having my little brother. I have him from school all the time. I'm going to tell my mum I'm not going to mind him no more." They walked back out toward Walton Lane, and stood close to the heavy traffic. The walked into an alley and as they emerged, someone later remembered seeing James laughing. Jon and Robert were amusing James, playing a game. It was now approximately 5:30 p.m. and night had fallen. The police station was to their right; Robert's home was to their left. But the boys decided to go back to the railway, avoiding the police station.

With the decision to go to the rail tracks, Jon and Robert's uncertain and meandering intent now turned deadly. On the way, Jon ripped off the hood of James's anorak and threw it into the trees. It was this very hood that they had used to conceal his facial wounds. Apparently they decided it was no longer necessary.

The end of the line

At what point along their treacherous journey did Robert and Jon decide to kill James? If murder were intended all along, perhaps they would have been more secretive with their captive. Instead, they paraded him around in busy intersections and shops, as if he were their brother. But now it was night and James was hurt. They had kicked and punched him along the way. If they brought him to the police station, the cops would see James's freshly inflicted injuries and punish Jon and Robert, perhaps lock them up on the spot. Was it the fear of being caught that the two ten-year-old boys decided to kill James? Or did their desire to inflict further pain on the toddler overwhelm them?

The journey had been long, over two and a half miles. They had spent hours together. They had protected James, holding him back from traffic. They picked him up after ditching him by the canal. Only Jon and Robert know why they took James up the dirt embankment and to the railway. They found a hole in the fence, passed James through, and crossed the grass, kicking up dust as they walked through slabs of white shale to the rail tracks. The police station was just down the hill.

The attack and murder of James Bulger occurred between 5:45 and 6:30 p.m. It began with one of the boys flinging paint on James's face into his left eye. He screamed. As Blake Morrison points out in his book As If, Jon and Robert probably used the paint to "dehumanize James, to wipe him of his normal features. Splashed in sky color, he looked like something else — a troll doll or alien — and was less conscience-troubling to kill." The boys threw stones at James, kicked him, and beat him with bricks. They pulled off his shoes and pants, perhaps sexually assaulting him. They hit him with an iron bar. When they thought James was dead, they laid his body on the railroad track, covering his bleeding head with bricks. They left before the train came.

A mother's rage

After the assault, Jon and Robert walked back to town. They went to visit a friend who wasn't home, but hung out in front of his house anyway. Bored, they ambled over to the video store, one of Robert's favorite places. Sometimes he ran errands for one of the women behind the counter, including picking up overdue rentals. She offered them a reward if they could collect on a particular past-due rental. Back at the video store, the boys were about to receive their reward when Susan Venables, Jon's mother, swung through the door, furious. She had been searching for Jon everywhere, including the railroad tracks.

Susan pulled both Jon and Robert out of the video store, screaming and beating them both. Robert ran away. She hauled Jon to the police station and asked the officer on duty to lecture Jon. At home, Jon was in tears. Susan told him that a little boy had been kidnapped from the shopping center — and whoever the maniac was, he could have taken Jon.

In the meantime, Robert had run home in tears and told his mother how "Jon Venables' mum ragged me out of the video shop." Robert's mother, Ann Thompson, was furious and immediately reported the beating to the police. (As David James Smith, author of Beyond All Reason said, "both boys were immediately back in their more familiar role as victims rather than victimizers.") At the station, the officer noticed a small scratch under Robert's left eye. They assumed it was from Susan Venables.

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