Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death of James Bulger

Robert Thompson

Robert Thompson was the tough one, the one everyone assumed to be the ringleader in the case. But Robert's personality was constructed not so much out of aggression as for the purposes of defense. He lived in a rough, even brutal environment. To survive the multiple assaults of his five older brothers and alcoholic mother, Robert developed a flinty edge. He didn't look for trouble as much as he tried to slip out and away from it. When cornered, he would lie, cry, or take his beating with defiance.

Robert's father beat his wife mercilessly, and then abandoned the family for good. Robert Thompson Senior's own upbringing paralleled his sons: left without adult supervision, the older brothers bullied the younger brothers into submission.

His mother also came from an abusive family. At the age of 18, Ann married Robert Thompson Sr., also 18, to escape the severe beatings from her father. But with the new family came a new round of beatings. Like her father, Ann's new husband was an aggressive alcoholic. He beat Ann in front of the boys and Ann, out of frustration and fear, pummeled her sons with sticks and belts. She attempted suicide with pill overdoses, but eventually turned to drinking as her means of escape. The six brothers were left to their own devices, left to watch out for one another. But instead of protecting each other, they needed protection from each other. Predictably, the oldest beat the youngest, and the vulnerable turned to the younger, the more vulnerable.

At the age of four, the eldest Thompson boy was placed in child protective services after he had been abused. It was downhill from there. Another sibling became a master thief, taking little Robert with him on his adventures. One brother was an arsonist and suspected of sexually abusing young children (Robert may have been a victim himself.) Another brother threatened his teachers with violence. When the eldest had to baby-sit the youngest, they would lock them in the pigeon shed. One of the brothers left to stay in a voluntary care center. Others attempted suicide. The police and social workers knew the Thompson boys well. Whenever a crime was committed, the Thompsons were checked. Not surprisingly, all of the Thompsons were truants and learned to despise authority.

Robert was the fifth child out of the six brothers. He did try to be a good son. Robert would help his mother in the kitchen, trying to please her, and provide some support. He babysat his mother's seventh child, baby Ben, who had a different father. Robert was not aggressive as much as sly. A poor student, he skipped school, but when he did attend he was not considered a troublemaker. Teachers thought he was shy and quiet, yet manipulative of others. Robert was both hindered by his reputation as a Thompson, but also seemed to hide behind it. Teachers didn't expect much from him and other kids avoided him. Jon would become one of his few friends.

Sometimes he talked tough, trying to act the role of a "Thompson," but he was not considered violent or aggressive. He was mostly a truant, known to roam the streets of Walton at 1 a.m. His mother Ann sometimes hid his shoes to keep him home. If it were his shoes that kept him from leaving the house, it would be his shoes that would ultimately take him out of his home for good. Robert's bloodied shoes were key forensic evidence linking him to the beating of James. Even his shoelaces were indelibly imprinted on James's cheek.

Unfortunately, Robert's abuse at the hands of his older brothers began to repeat in his treatment of his younger brother Ryan. He intimidated his younger brother, but they shared a strange bond. At night, they would lie in bed together, sucking one another's thumb. (During the course of Robert's trial Ryan began exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior. He wet his bed regularly, set fires in his room, and gained weight. He seemed jealous of the attention his brother Robert received and his mother Ann was fearful that he would do something equally horrible to get the same treatment. Extraordinary violence was proving to be an effective ticket out of the hellish Thompson household.)

Robert's relationship with Ryan may provide some rough blueprints to the crime against James Bulger. Robert bullied Ryan into skipping school and accompanying him on his adventures. He once abandoned the distraught Ryan at the canal, the same place where Jon and Robert temporarily left James. Robert said himself, "If I wanted to kill a baby, I'd kill my own, wouldn't I?" As if he had been considering it.

Journalist David James Smith proposed that it was likely that Robert initiated the plan to steal a child, perhaps as a way to act out his anger toward Baby Ben, who was 18 months at the time. James might have been a "stand-in sibling" for Robert. Not only was Robert replicating the treatment he received at the hands of his older brothers, he might also have been jealous of the younger Ryan and Ben. As a ten year-old boy, Robert could only exert power and control over those younger than him. But this does not mean that Robert initiated the violence against James. Once they had the child, Jon seemed to exert control over keeping him. It was Jon that beckoned the children away from their parents. At one point in their journey, when confronted by an adult, Robert, who was holding James by the hand, let go of the boy, and looked away, as if he wanted to leave. But Jon said to Robert, take back his hand. Robert obeyed.

Robert took the brunt of the bad press during the trial. One journalist reported that the Thompson kid was "staring him down," as if he were a mini-Charles Manson. Robert had developed a tough guy act as a survival strategy, but this was used against him during the trial. He appeared unremorseful and hardened. But this does not mean he was solely responsible for the violence against James Bulger. In fact, Jon Venables showed a more disturbing predisposition for violent outbursts.

Smith believes Jon responsible for the worst of the violence, but Rob no bystander: "I imagine a great deal of nervous and exciting tension between them. Laughter, fear, aggression, anger, viciousness. The attack, once it had begun, was unstoppable. Compulsive violence played out to its inevitable conclusion." Robert might have been responsible for the alleged sexual assault against James. He may have been a victim of his own brother and seems to have been acting out with his younger brother Ryan. During the interrogation, he became flustered by the allegations, and worried that Jon was going to tell the police that Robert played with James's privates. He fretted, crying that people would think he was a "pervert." While Jon also became upset by the allegations of sexual abuse, he did not implicate himself the way that Robert did. Of course, there is no way to know what happened, or who did what. In Robert's words, "I was there, and you weren't."

For all of Robert's toughness, he still exhibited childish tendencies for which he was teased. He played with troll dolls and sucked his thumb. Jon put him down for playing with girls and being girlish himself. Molded into hardness beyond his years and forced to repress his own childishness, it is possible that Robert took out his aggressions on an innocent baby, something Robert himself was never allowed to be.