Murdered toddler James Bulger's brothers speak for first time in new Channel 5 documentary
STEPPING outside with her two-year-old son, Denise Bulger was glad she’d wrapped little James up warm in a big winter coat and scarf to protect him from the cold.
However, what the young mum couldn’t protect him against, she would soon tragically discover, were evil duo Robert Thompson and Jon Venables – the two ten-year-old boys who, on that fateful day in February 1993, quietly led James away from his mum before brutally murdering him.
It was a crime that shocked the nation – James' little body found with over 42 separate injuries on a train track two and a half miles from the shopping centre where he'd been taken from outside the butchers while his mum paid for tea.
Now, as new Channel 5 two-part documentary, Lost Boy: The Killing of James Bulger, speaks to James' younger brothers for the first time, we take a closer look at the tragic case, and the long lasting impact the toddler's death has had on the family…
'There’s always an empty chair at the table’
Denise, who now goes by the surname Fergus after remarrying, is also mother to Michael, now 27, Thomas, 22, and Leon, 21, and recently revealed she had been left "lost for words" watching her three surviving sons speak about their beloved brother in the new documentary.
The trio pay heartfelt tribute to their brother, and even detail how there's always been a spare place at the family table, which they always envision James would have filled.
Michael – who is now a dad himself to a baby daughter – was born later the same year James was killed. He says: “Being James' brother, it’s not a weird thing.
"We always grew up knowing he was there, who he was, what he was like, his character. In the household, we do, we talk about James a lot.
“My mum will give us little stories, and insights into what he was like. He’s always been a character we’ve wanted to know more about – wishing he was here rather than just be in the background.
“I wasn’t allowed on school trips. I wasn’t allowed to go to the shops with my mates, the only place I was allowed was in the front garden or literally outside the gate but I’d have to be in view of the window.
“Growing up now, you understand why she was like that.”
Thomas added: “He should have been here, with us. We shouldn’t be looking at him on the news, about a kid being murdered.”
‘I shouldn’t have let go of his hand’
It’s been 28 years since James’ tragic murder, but it’s clear from the documentary the day he went missing – and the series of events that led to his tragic death – still haunt Denise, who can't help but analyse every decision that day.
Speaking about her son and his unique personality, Denise recalls fondly: “James was loved by all.
“He wouldn’t leave my side really. No matter where I sat when we were all at my mums… James was always on my knee. He loved to make people laugh. He was a little character."
Describing that fateful day and popping to the local shopping centre with James, Denise says: “The buggy was in the hallway. That was the only time I left that buggy. That was the biggest mistake of my life.
“On the way out [of the shopping centre] I decided to stop at the butchers to get that night’s tea in. We were going home from there.
“James started to run around the shop.
“I had hold of his hand and within seconds of me reaching for my purse to pay for the chops… I looked back down and that’s when I discovered he’d gone.
"I shouldn't have let go of his hand."
'Every minute of losing a child feels like an hour'
For Denise, the hours that followed were hell, as police began to desperately establish what could have happened.
Denise said: “The longer it gets – even a minute of losing your child seems like an hour. Your head’s all over the place. You just want to grab hold of them."
The investigation initially focused on James being missing – but the case took a far more sinister – and confusing turn – when they made a discovery on CCTV.
Detective Inspector Jim Fitzsimmons recalls: “I got a message from one of the detectives who said he’d seen something on cameras he really wanted me to look at as soon as possible.
“Clearly you could see James hand in hand with two other boys, being led away.
“You had to look twice because it was surprising and I remember having to think ‘what does that mean?’ It was just something I didn’t expect to see. From that moment the the focus and priorities changed. He hadn’t walked out of the strand alone….It was an abduction."
Lulled into a false sense of security
Despite the change of investigation to an abduction, many involved hoped the fact James was with young boys was a promising sign that he would be returned safely.
Police constable Mandy Waller who worked on the case, says: “Your first thought is ‘well if it’s two kids taking him away that’s good, rather than being an adult'. Two children taking him off, perhaps they’ve taken him home, taken him off to play or something. How bad can it be?"
Denise adds: “I felt relieved. I thought, I’m going to get him back again. I thought they were too young to hurt him. I had every hope of getting him back."
'I was a mum without her baby'
Just two days later however, James’s mutilated body was found two miles from the Bootle shopping centre on railway tracks in Walton, Merseyside on Valentine's Day.
The tot had sustained 42 separate injuries from at least 32 blows. He had been tortured, beaten with bricks, stones and a metal instrument, had paint thrown at him and died from head injuries.
One detective recounted: “It was difficult to consider that anyone could carry out those type of injuries to another individual… but the idea it could have been done by juveniles, or even children, was off the scale."
Recalling the moment she was told her baby's body had been found, Denise said: “I couldn’t hear a word they were saying.
“You hear voices but you can’t hear the words.
“I was a mum without her baby.”
The youngest murderers in over 100 years
Thompson and Venables were arrested shortly after, and in one eerie police interview Thompson can be heard chillingly putting on James's voice as he tells police James kept saying: "I want my mum."
They were both 11 when they faced trial at Preston Crown Court in November 1993, as the youngest murder defendants in the UK in over 100 years.
To Denise’s outrage, they were sentenced to eight years and served seven years eight months in a secure children’s home, meaning they didn’t serve any time in an adult prison.
Denise: “I just wanted them to spend many years behind bars. That’s someones child they’ve taken and they can’t get away with it.
“No one could believe that two ten-year-olds could do something like that, and be so evil. The two of them were as evil as each other. I strongly believe if they were to have got away with James’ murder they would have gone on to commit another crime, they would have gone on to take another child and and do the same to that child."
'Jon looked more disturbed'
Amanda Knowles was children's resource centre manager working at Barton Moss, the secure home where Thompson was detained.
She says: “I would see Robert on the unit but every month I would see him in that formal setting of a secure unit review. He would sit curled up in his chair sucking his thumb. It’s like he’d regressed. He knew what he’d done was very serious and he wouldn’t be going back to his mum anytime soon.
“I did come into contact with Jon. He definitely appeared to have more complex needs. When I looked at Robert and Jon I saw in Jon a boy who was more troubled than Robert. I suppose the word you would use – he looked more disturbed."
In June 2001 they were released on licence with new identities and lifelong anonymity.
Since his release in 2001, Thompson has remained free, while Venables has been in and out of prison, recalled again in 2017 for possessing more than 1,000 indecent images of children.
Venables is still in prison now after his application for parole last September was rejected, with critics arguing this proves the convicted murderer didn't serve enough time and didn't deserve second chance to live a free life.
A luxury his innocent victim James, whose little life was cut so painfully and cruelly short, will never have.
Watch Lost Boy: The Killing of James Bulger, on Wednesday March 10 and Thursday 11 at 9pm, on Channel 5.
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