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James Patrick Bulger (16 March 1990 – 12 February 1993) was a boy from Kirkby, England, who was murdered on 12 February 1993, when aged two.
He was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten-year-old boys, Robert Thompson (born 23 August 1982) and Jon Venables (born 13 August 1982). Bulger disappeared from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, near Liverpool, while accompanying his mother. His mutilated body was found on a railway line two-and-a-half miles away in Walton, two days after his murder. Thompson and Venables were charged on 20 February 1993 with Bulger’s abduction and murder.
The pair were found guilty on 24 November 1993, making them the youngest convicted murderers in modern English history. They were sentenced to custody until they reached adulthood, initially until the age of 18, and were released on a lifelong licence in June 2001. The case has prompted widespread debate on the issue of how to handle young offenders when they are sentenced or released from custody.
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.
Jon Venables was 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.
The social worker who looked after Bulger killer until release gives a first extraordinary account of his ‘kid gloves’ treatment inside…
Somewhere in Britain, possibly abroad, Robert Thompson would have doubtless watched the news last week with great interest.
Perhaps the emotions that registered across his face as he did so were easy to read. Perhaps he even betrayed a flicker of remorse when his name was mentioned in passing.
More likely, he watched in apparent emotional detachment, just as he did at the age of ten when, sucking his thumb, his legs dangling over a wooden chair that he’d pulled up close to the TV, he insisted on seeing every news bulletin during his trial for the murder of two-year-old James Bulger.
But protected by draconian rules, Thompson, 27, has a new identity now, a new life, and according to someone who knew him well, is unlikely to make the same mistake as his former friend.
A social worker who spent eight years observing his behaviour on a daily basis has come forward to reveal how Thompson’s life unfolded during his time in detention.
The portrait he paints may surprise: It is of someone who managed to divorce himself from a crime which shocked the world, who emerged from his secure unit aged 18 as a ‘popular, likeable lad’ and, above all, singularly confident – chillingly so.
‘Of course I can’t be sure, no one can, but I can’t see Robert going the same way as Venables,’ he said. ‘He is just too smart, too calculating.’
What he has to say about Thompson’s comfortable existence inside and the way the ‘prison system danced in attendance around him’ will infuriate James’s mother Denise Fergus.
And he said he saw nothing in the way of remorse.
Home: The detention centre where Thompson lived from his arrest in 1993 until 2001
If Thompson ever cried while in detention, no one ever saw him do so. And when the subject of the toddler’s murder was raised by staff or other children, it was always met with the same shrugged response: ‘It was something that happened, and I don’t want to discuss it with you.’
Aged ten, Thompson arrived at the detention centre in the North of England the day after his arrest in February 1993, and remained there until his release in 2001.
The social worker, who would later chaperone the boy on trips to shopping centres and parks, recalled his first day.
‘Not surprisingly, he was monosyllabic and sullen when we were first introduced, like all the children when they first arrive,’ he said.
‘But then it became apparent that he was what we call a typical “care kid” – even though he hadn’t been in care. These children are cocky and streetwise, know the system and know their rights and what they can get away with.
‘He’d say things like, “I want a drink. Get me one now. You’ve got to get me one”.’ From the outset he was treated as a star prisoner – and played up to it.
‘There were frequent visits from Home Office officials who were always fussing over him, checking with him and the staff that he was all right.
‘He was treated with kid gloves and underpinning it all was this fear that something might happen to him, that something might go wrong.’
The centre, which housed 14 young offenders all deemed either ‘a danger to others or themselves’, was divided into three units, of which one was for girls. All the inmates had their own rooms which were locked at night. Thompson’s was 18ft by 12ft with a bed, desk, chairs, table and bookcase and an en suite shower and toilet.
Later, a TV and games console were added, and in his teenage years he decorated the walls with prints of paintings by L.S. Lowry and Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky and photographs of his family, including one of his baby brother.
He also became adept at ‘burning’ music CDs which he would sell to staff and other children for £1 each.
On TV, he liked nothing better than to watch Noel’s House Party, the programme hosted by Noel Edmonds and featuring the character Mr Blobby, whom Thompson ‘adored’.
In the early days, however, Thompson was only interested in the television news, which he watched silently and alone in a corner of the unit’s main social area.
‘During his trial, he was obsessed with watching the reports of the case, seeing the van on TV driving him to court. He devoured it all, oblivious to what was going on around him,’ said the social worker.
‘At first, he would ask us when the news was on but he very quickly learned the times of all the bulletins, so in the end we would just leave him with the remote control.
‘He always sat there sucking his thumb, a habit he didn’t lose – despite our best efforts – until he was 14.’
Along with Venables, Thompson was found guilty of abducting James from a Liverpool shopping centre, then torturing and murdering him.
They left the toddler’s mutilated body on a railway line. For many, the details of the crime were simply too monstrous to bear.
Staff at the centre did not note any change in Thompson’s behaviour after his conviction, however. ‘He took it all in his stride,’ said the social worker.
‘It was as if nothing had happened. He simply fell into the routine and seemed to put it all behind him.’
Days and nights followed a similar pattern. The children were woken at 8.20am and, after getting showered and having breakfast, made their way to lessons.
Afterwards, there was recreation time. Thompson played pool with the other inmates and became a skilled badminton player.
Bedtime was 10pm, the same for all the inmates.
Close friendships were forged and Thompson counted among his new pals a boy who had murdered his mother. There was also a young rapist in his unit.
‘Robert was by no means alone in having committed a horrific crime,’ said the social worker.
‘There was plenty of pure evil inside his unit. But if you didn’t know who killed James Bulger and had to pick the killer from the offenders there, Robert would have been the last person.
‘He very quickly became influenced by the staff around him and turned into something else, someone more likeable, although he always had an unnerving tendency to look straight through you.
‘He had a good sense of humour and picked up on staff jokes that the rest of the kids wouldn’t get. He was very bright and, though it is easy to say, under different circumstances he could have gone on to great things.
‘I was close to him but I had to keep reminding myself what he had done. It was hard for all of us who worked there. My wife was appalled that I was looking after Robert Thompson and it was the same with the partners of the other staff. Looking back, I suppose we simply had to be professional and get on with it.’
Because of his notoriety, Thompson found himself on occasion having to defend his corner, though he rarely, if ever, initiated any fights himself.
‘He was never a trouble-maker, but he would square up to any kid who came at him, who wanted to make a name for himself by having a go at Robert Thompson.
‘There were punch-ups and it quickly became obvious that he was not to be messed with.
‘He was a big lad and made himself bigger through weight training. If someone came at him he would quickly and clinically punch them back. He wouldn’t scream or shout like the others. He just dealt with it in a very cool, confident way, like a mini Clint Eastwood.
‘He never beat up anyone badly or indulged in gratuitous acts of violence. He knew it wouldn’t do him any good. He knew he could get just what he wanted by staying out of trouble.
‘Once, he was involved in a confrontation with another youth, and he was really angry, but in a controlled sulky way. He stood rooted to the spot in the lounge area. It was bedtime, but he wouldn’t go to his room. I said to the other staff that we should take him back to his room and take away his TV or some other privilege, which was the procedure. But they were against it.
‘It was a good 40 minutes before he eventually went to his room. It was ridiculous. I made a representation to my superiors that he was being treated differently from the others but it was shrugged off.
‘He was extremely persuasive, and used this to extract what he wanted from senior staff. In fact, after this incident, he even secured himself a later bedtime.
‘When the others went to bed, he’d stay up for a further 20 minutes watching television. He was also close to the manager at the unit and they’d sit talking and laughing together. The manager would even send someone to get them a cup of tea while they chatted.
‘What lay behind this, I think, was that no one wanted to upset him because they were afraid of what the consequences might be. The management wanted him there. A lot of the staff thought the people running the unit used Thompson’s presence to coerce the Home Office into improving facilities.
‘The place doubled in size in the time he was in there. They threw millions at it.’
By the time he reached 14, Thompson was going on regular outings to a nearby shopping centre. ‘Along with a female social worker, I was assigned to him as a chaperone.’
Although he had been locked up for four years, Thompson didn’t find his first foray on to the streets in any way alarming.
‘It was just like taking any normal child of 14 out shopping. He was interested in sports shops and the latest trainers and would use the money he’d saved up to buy a pair.
‘All the children received about £60 a month in clothing allowances and spending money. On birthdays, they’d get £25. And at Christmas they’d give us present lists and we’d go and buy what was on them, if it was within reason.
‘During days out, he never stepped out of line. Sometimes he might tilt his head to one side, or look down slightly, if anyone looked at him for too long. But he didn’t seem bothered. And no one ever recognised him.
‘On one occasion, he was going out with another of the chaperones to get a tattoo. When I found out, I told him it wasn’t a good idea as he would be marked for life. This seemed to strike a chord with him and he quickly changed his mind.’
He added: ‘Robert was easy enough to get along with but was never a touchy-feely kind of guy. I would say we had a good professional relationship. But it was never a case of brotherly hugs or anything like that. It just wasn’t in his make up.’
There were also trips to nearby woodland where the child killer would roam largely unfettered, though under the watchful eye of his chaperones.
It was at the age of 16 that the most significant event during his eight years’ detention occurred: He acquired a girlfriend, a pretty redhead the same age who was a habitual thief.
‘They hit it off instantly and did nothing to disguise their attraction for each other,’ said the social worker.
‘Everyone knew they were a couple and newcomers to the unit who took a fancy to her were told to back off “Robert’s girl”. She knew exactly who Robert was, what he had done, but it didn’t put her off.’
Staff were unaware if the relationship became sexual, but they would kiss and cuddle during ‘recreation’ time before being separated.
‘That was off limits. He also tried to get her in a side room but, again, the staff wouldn’t allow this. Staff would joke, “Could you imagine if he got her pregnant?”
‘The girl was in for theft but had a long history of crime and a very troubled childhood. She was there for about a year before being released.’
If bruised by their parting, Thompson, typically, didn’t let it show. In any case, there was one woman who never let him down – his mother.
‘He was a real mummy’s boy and she visited him every three days. He would get excited at these visits and would keep asking when she was coming. They were clearly very close.’
In June 2001, the parole board ruled that Thompson and Venables were no longer a threat to public safety and could be released because their minimum tariff had expired.
The decision was approved by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and the pair were given new identities and moved to secret locations. As part of the conditions of their release, they were required to end contact with each other.
The social worker suspects Thompson viewed his return to the outside world with some trepidation, although he didn’t show it.
‘He was having a pretty good time inside and everything was done for him,’ he said.
‘Normally when the offenders are released, we know the date and have a chance to say goodbye properly. For security reasons, that didn’t happen with Thompson. One day, he simply wasn’t there any more,’ said the social worker, who quit the detention centre some years ago.
But that wasn’t the last he heard of him.
‘We were told that he found work in a pub but his mother compromised him by going in and talking loudly in a Scouse accent. There was a fear that the locals would grow suspicious, so he had to leave.’
And on one occasion the social worker met Thompson by chance at a major sporting event being held in the North-West.
To his amazement, he was working as a steward, shepherding crowds into a stadium.
‘I saw him on the steps outside and he saw me and we shouted across at each other. Then he came over and we had a brief chat. I remember looking at the crowds passing him and thinking, “If only you knew!” I’ve also seen him out drinking in pubs.
‘I don’t think he has reoffended since his release, that would be very hard to imagine. He is well aware that he has to keep out of and away from any aggravation or he will back inside.
‘He will hate what has happened with Venables, because it will bring it all flooding back, and once more put his name in the spotlight.’