As the 25th anniversary of the murder of James Bulger approaches, his mother Denise Fergus talks to Hannah Stephenson about how she has found a way to let go of the despair
DENISE Fergus will never forget the day that changed her life — February 12, 1993.
She had stopped at the butcher’s at New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, Merseyside, to pick up two pork chops for tea, letting go of her lively toddler son, James’s, hand for a few seconds while she got her purse out to pay.
In those fateful seconds, the two-year-old was lured away by two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who took him two-and-a-half miles away to a railway line, where they tortured and battered him to death. They became the youngest ever convicted murderers in UK legal history.
Denise has chosen the 25th anniversary of James’s death to write I Let Him Go, her disturbing, moving account of exactly what happened that day, the court case, the sentencing, her campaigning for a greater sentence (the killers served eight years apiece), and her reaction to their rehabilitation and lifelong anonymity.
The book was written to keep James’s name alive, she explains.
“I didn’t want him just to be remembered as the murdered boy, I wanted him to be remembered in a positive way.
“I used to dread the time coming round to that date,” she admits of the anniversary, “but now I think I’ve learned that I can live with it. I don’t make a big deal of it, so what we do is spend some time as a family at the cemetery and share a smile for James, and then come home and do our own thing.”
She spends a lot of time working with the charity she launched, the James Bulger Memorial Trust, to support young victims of crime, hatred or bullying through funding for holidays and travel, and continues to campaign for appropriate sentences for under-age criminals.
Thompson and Venables were detained indefinitely — but of course, as juveniles, and were released under licence, with new identities, in 2001.
The day they were released, Denise had a “meltdown”, smashing up her bedroom — a way, she says, of channelling her deep anger and bitter disappointment, engulfed in guilt at being unable to deliver her promise to her son that she would keep his killers locked up.
“I felt like James had been let down,” she explains. “Those two had murdered him and were getting their lives back. James wasn’t getting his life back. I felt like they’d been rewarded more than they were punished. They should have spent time in an adult prison. I don’t think it was dealt with the way it should have been, and I think that’s the government’s fault.”
She feared that, despite the life licence conditions prohibiting Thomson and Venables from contacting James’s family or from entering Merseyside without written consent of their supervising officers, they might return.
“Because of all the fighting and campaigning I’d done over the years, and I’d been in the papers, what was to stop them to come to see where my house was? We had security cameras installed.”
Venables was returned to prison in November 2017 when he was caught with a stash of indecent pictures of children on his computer for a second time. This week, he pleaded guilty to downloading 1,170 images from the dark web over the course of several months as well as having a “sickening” paedophile manual.
He was jailed for three years and four months but Mr Justice Edis Parole Board will decide when he should be released back into the community.
Already, Denise has pledged her support via Twitter to a petition for a public inquiry into his release and
The book makes it clear she’s not impressed with how things have been dealt with: “The government will never be able to acknowledge the very real threat Thompson and Venables pose to the public,” she writes, “because to admit that would require them to face the fact that their rehabilitation has, in my mind, failed.”
Today, she says: “I must stress that writing the book doesn’t mean that the fight’s over — I don’t think it will ever be over, if there’s a fight to be fought then I’m going to do it.
“I feel like James has been forgotten about, not by the people, but by the government. They still don’t know how to handle it.”
Although in the book, she admits that she’ll “never believe that they were transformed by their time inside”, she says she’s no vigilante.
“I didn’t say, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key’, or that I want them dead, because I’m not that type of person, but I do think if they’d spent some time in a proper prison [most of their sentences were served in secure children’s homes], this case would have gone away. But they never got punished, they got rewarded, in my opinion. That’s why the story’s never gone away.”
Her life, however, has moved on to some extent. She and first husband Ralph Bulger, James’s father, split up following the toddler’s death, after she had given birth to their second child, Michael. She then met and married Stuart Fergus, with whom she had two further sons, Thomas and Leon.
Stuart explains: “It’s been difficult seeing how Denise has had to cope with it all over the years, the fear, the feelings, the anger, the anguish. It’s great to be able to see her with a smile on her face when she’s with the lads. She’s got the strength of a lion.”
After James’s death, she was offered counselling but refused it.
“I didn’t want to be sitting in front of a stranger saying how I felt. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do that and because I come from a big family, I had them to turn to.”
She writes in the book: “People often ask me if I blame myself for what happened that day — for taking my eyes off him for that split second. For letting go of his hand as I looked for my purse... of course I do. There aren’t the words to describe how I still feel now, every day.”
But when she thinks of James now, it’s in a happy way, she says. She hasn’t made her home a shrine to her son, but there is a large picture of him above the fireplace. She’s had to compartmentalise her life — and makes sure she returns to happy normality when she walks through the front door.
“I am a fighter for James, but once I come back home, I become Mum again. There are no bad vibes in our house, no negative feel, and that’s how I like it for the boys.
“There were days when I’d come in absolutely exhausted and wished it would all go away, but once I came through the front door and saw the faces of the lads, that’s what kept me going. I just wanted to give them a happy, normal life.”
And she’s long since stopped asking why Thompson and Venables murdered her son. “Only they know why they did what they did,” she says, “and I realised I had to stop asking why a long time ago, because the answers aren’t ever coming. There is no forgiveness in my heart for my son’s killers.”
I Let Him Go, by Denise Fergus, was published by Blink, on January 25.
...And justice for all?
Almost 25 years on from James Bulger’s murder, recriminations still fly. The boy’s mother, Denise Fergus, tells her side of the story, writes David Kernek
THE use of adjectives by print and broadcast journalists is so sloppy these days that it’s not uncommon to read or hear about “brutal murders”, these being strikingly more insensitive acts than gentler, tender homicides.
But — Islamic terrorist murders apart — one killing in recent history that warrants such a description was that of two-year-old James Bulger, who in February 1993 was abducted from a shopping centre in Bootle, Lancashire, tortured in an orgy of ineffable sadism and left for dead on a railway line a few miles from Liverpool.
His assailants were two boys — Robert Thompson and Jon Venables — both only eight years older than their victim. Told by the judge at their trial later that year that they had committed a crime of “unparalleled evil and barbarity”, they became England’s youngest convicted murderers.
It was an open and shut case. CCTV footage showed the boys taking James Bulger from the shopping centre, and forensic evidence left the police, and eventually a jury, in no doubt about their guilt.
No motive was discovered; the assumption has to be that it was what the Germans know as lustmord… murder for pleasure. The trial focused not on the pair’s culpability, but on the question of whether the boys knew what they were doing, and whether trying them in an adult court was unfair. It spawned a chain of legal disputes and political debates about crime and punishment.
The trial judge imposed a minimum sentence of eight years, increased to ten by the lord chief justice. A Sun newspaper petition signed by almost 280,000 people demanding higher terms was given to the then home secretary, who lifted the custodial tariff to a minimum of 15 years.
Accused of being a politician playing to the gallery, his decision was overturned by law lords, who said a home secretary did not have the power to decide on minimum sentences for young offenders.
Some years later, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the trial had not been fair, since it was held in an adult court. The trial judge, however, had accepted the prosecution’s argument, which was that the boys were capable of “mischievous discretion”; they were able to act with criminal intent because they were mature enough to understand that they were doing something that was seriously wrong.
Tony Blair, then the opposition’s home affairs spokesman, talked about “crimes so horrific they provoke anger and disbelief in equal proportions... These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name”.
Then British prime minister John Major said society needed “to condemn a little more, and understand a little less”.
Had the killers been inspired by so-called video nasties? The trial judge thought they might have been, while the police had found no evidence suggesting they might have been. They did know, though, that the father of one of the boys had watched a seriously nasty video — Child’s Play 3 — in the months before the murder.
The boys were released on lifelong licence in 2001, a parole board having decided they were not a threat to public safety. Aged 18, they were given new identities — fabricated passports, made-up national insurance numbers, fake education certificates, fictional medical records — and moved to secret locations.
We ought to have heard no more of them, but we have. Rarely does a season pass without news of one kind or another of Thompson and Venables. They had passed their O-level exams while behind bars. They had lost their Lancashire accents.
Thompson was an undiagnosed psychopath, while Venables had shown remorse. The home office had spent £13,000 on an injunction stopping a foreign magazine revealing their new identities.
Venables has been back in prison twice, for various breaches of the licence conditions and having pleaded guilty to child pornography charges. Thompson, the Sun has reported, has not re-offended, has an interest in art, and is in a settled gay relationship with a man who knows his real identity.
The story that has not until now, the 25th anniversary of the murder, been told is that of James’s mother, Denise. Her ghost-written memoir of the day she lost her son, the hunt for his killers, the trial, and its aftermath is an absorbing account of those grim days. It also underlines the role of happenstance — mere chance — in life… and death.
James was a lively toddler, given to running ahead, so he was never taken anywhere without being strapped into his pushchair. Preparing for a shopping trip with her brother’s fiancée, she was about to collapse the pushchair before putting it in their car when she changed her mind.
“No need to bother with that,” she thought. “We will only be nipping in and out. You can just hold his hand.” Their last shop stop was at a butcher’s, where she wanted to buy lamb chops. “He was with me and holding my hand as we went inside,” she writes.
“The only time I let go of his hand was to pay for the chops, and he was standing right beside me. I took my bag from my shoulder, got my purse out, opened it to count the right money and, when I looked down, James was gone.”
James wasn’t in the shop. She went to the door, and turned left into the corridor to look for him. CCTV footage showed that this turned out to be a dire call. She asks: “Do you know what my biggest regret is? If I had taken the right turn and gone around the corner, I would have seen James being led away, just four minutes after he left my side, trustingly holding hands with the boys who were about to murder him.”
No pushchair, counting cash for the meat, and the left — not right — turn at the door. “People ask me if I blame myself for what happened that day… of course I do. There aren’t words to describe how I still feel now every day.” There was no let up for Denise and her husband after the trial, which she chose to attend only on the last day to hear the verdicts and see Thompson and Venables taken down; hearing the evidence would have been unendurable.
Arguments about the sentences raged in the courts, the press, and pubs across the country.
There were legal disputes about the psychiatric reports submitted to parole boards, followed by calls for the age of criminal responsibility in England to be lifted; it was and remains 10 years, as it is in Northern Ireland, while the minimum age for criminal prosecutions is 12 in Scotland. The then children’s commissioner said Bulger’s killers should not have been prosecuted; “programmes” to help turn their lives around would have been preferable. A human rights lawyer from North Carolina deplored their detention a “monstrous injustice”.
Strenuous efforts were made by government lawyers to protect the different identities given to Thompson and Venables and, after their release, where they were living. Are they living, Denise could not help but ask, near me?
Answers did not come — not even for her — since the court order giving her son’s killers lifetime anonymity was cast iron. It seemed to her that the law was siding with the murderers because of their delicate age, a perception that intensified when she was told of newspaper reports about the luxuries — their own bedrooms and bathrooms, televisions, and designer clothes — the boys were getting in their secure units. “No one confirmed that this was the case… but the stories had to be coming from a source with inside access to the truth. Given the way their sentencing was being handled, it was definitely possible that they were being rewarded for murdering my son.”
Has she, as they might ask on Planet Psychobabble, moved on? Yes… and no. Her marriage collapsed, she has remarried, has a new surname, and three adult children.
Looking back to the buggy, to the moment in that butcher’s shop when she let him go, and when she turned left at the door, she says she has stopped living in an ‘if only’ world. That way lies madness.
But she continues to believe that Thompson and Venables, whatever their names and wherever they are — the latter was re-arrested as recently as last November — are dangerous, unreformed liars who conned psychiatrists and parole boards and who have been protected by judicial and political establishments unable to admit that in this case, at least, their confidence in the possibility of rehabilitation had been based on nothing more solid than wishful thinking.
“I have always said,” she says in this poignant and dignified account, “that I don’t want them hanged, killed, or harmed in any way. I wanted them to have a proper punishment, instead they were being handed
Mars bars in court… There is no forgiveness in my heart for my son’s killers.”
A portion of the book’s sales proceeds will be given to the James Bulger Memorial Trust, which campaigns for the rights of young crime victims