James Patrick Bulger (16 March 1990 – 12 February 1993) was a 2-year-old boy from Kirkby, Merseyside, England, who was abducted, tortured and killed by two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Bulger was led away from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle as his mother had taken her eyes off him momentarily. His mutilated body was found on a railway line 2.5 miles (4 km) away in Walton, Liverpool, two days after his abduction. Thompson and Venables were charged on 20 February 1993 with Bulger's abduction and murder.
They were found guilty on 24 November 1993, making them the youngest convicted murderers in modern British history. They were sentenced to detention during Her Majesty's pleasure until a Parole Board decision in June 2001 recommended their release on a lifelong licence aged 18. In 2010, Venables was sent to prison for breaching the terms of his licence, and was released on parole again in 2013. In November 2017, Venables was again sent to prison for possessing child abuse images on his computer.
The Bulger case has prompted widespread debate on the issue of how to handle young offenders when they are sentenced or released from custody.
Closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle taken on Friday, 12 February 1993, showed Thompson and Venables casually observing children, apparently selecting a target. The boys were playing truant from school, which they did regularly. Throughout the day, Thompson and Venables were seen stealing various items including sweets, a troll doll, some batteries and a can of blue paint, some of which were later found at the murder scene. One of the boys later revealed that they were planning to find a child to abduct, lead him to the busy road alongside the shopping centre, and push him into the path of oncoming traffic.
That same afternoon, Bulger, from nearby Kirkby, went with his mother, Denise, to the New Strand Shopping Centre. Whilst inside the A. R. Tym's butcher's shop on the lower floor of the centre at around 15:40, Denise, who had been temporarily distracted, realised that her son had disappeared. Thompson and Venables approached James Bulger and took him by the hand, and led him out of the shopping centre. The moment was caught on CCTV at 15:42. Bulger was taken to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, around a quarter of a mile from the New Strand Shopping Centre, where he was dropped on his head and suffered injuries to his face. The boys joked about pushing Bulger into the canal. An eyewitness during the trial said that when he saw Bulger at the canal, he was "crying his eyes out". During a 2.5-mile (4 km) walk across Liverpool, the boys were seen by 38 people, but most bystanders did nothing to intervene. Two people challenged Thompson and Venables, but they claimed Bulger was their younger brother or that he was lost and they were taking him to the local police station. At one point, the boys took Bulger into a pet shop, from which they were ejected.
Eventually, the boys arrived in the village of Walton, and with Walton Lane police station across the road facing them, they hesitated and led Bulger up a steep bank to a railway line near the disused Walton & Anfield railway station, close to Anfield Cemetery, where they began torturing him.
One of the boys threw blue Humbrol modelling paint, which they had shoplifted earlier, into Bulger's left eye. They kicked him, stamped on him and threw bricks and stones at him. Batteries were placed in Bulger's mouth and, according to police, some batteries may have been inserted into his anus, although none were found there. Finally, the boys dropped a 10-kilogram (22 lb) iron bar, described in court as a railway fishplate, on Bulger. He sustained 10 skull fractures as a result of the bar striking his head. Alan Williams, the case's pathologist, stated that Bulger suffered so many injuries—42 in total—that none could be isolated as the fatal blow. Thompson and Venables laid Bulger across the railway tracks and weighted his head down with rubble, in the hope that a train would hit him and make his death appear to be an accident. After they left the scene, his body was cut in half by a train. Bulger's severed body was discovered two days later on 14 February. A forensic pathologist testified that he had died before he was struck by the train.
Police suspected that there was a sexual element to the crime, since Bulger's shoes, socks, trousers and underpants had been removed. The pathologist's report, which was read out in court, found that Bulger's foreskin had been forcibly retracted. When Thompson and Venables were questioned about this aspect of the attack by detectives and a child psychiatrist, Eileen Vizard, the pair were reluctant to give details and also denied inserting some of the batteries into Bulger's anus. At his eventual parole, Venables's psychiatrist, Susan Bailey, reported that "visiting and revisiting the issue with Jon as a child, and now as an adolescent, he gives no account of any sexual element to the offence."
The police quickly found low-resolution video images of Bulger's abduction from the New Strand Shopping Centre by two unidentified boys. The railway embankment upon which his body had been discovered was adorned with hundreds of bunches of flowers. The family of one boy, who was detained for questioning but subsequently released, had to flee the city due to threats by vigilantes. The breakthrough came when a woman, on seeing slightly enhanced images of the two boys on national television, recognised Venables, who she knew had played truant with Thompson that day. She contacted police and the boys were arrested.
The fact that the suspects were so young came as a shock to investigating officers, headed by Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, of Merseyside Police. Early press reports and police statements had referred to Bulger being seen with "two youths" (suggesting that the killers were teenagers), the ages of the boys being difficult to ascertain from the images captured by CCTV. Forensic tests confirmed that both boys had the same blue paint on their clothing as found on Bulger's body. Both had blood on their shoes; the blood on Thompson's shoe was matched to Bulger's through DNA tests. A pattern of bruising on Bulger's right cheek matched the features of the upper part of a shoe worn by Thompson; a paint mark in the toecap of one of Venables's shoes indicated he must have used "some force" when he kicked Bulger. Thompson is said to have asked police whether the two-year-old had been taken to hospital to "get him alive again".
The boys were each charged with the murder of James Bulger on 20 February 1993, and appeared at South Sefton Youth Court on 22 February 1993, where they were remanded in custody to await trial. In the aftermath of their arrest, and throughout the media accounts of their trial, the boys were referred to as 'Child A' (Thompson) and 'Child B' (Venables). Awaiting trial, they were held in the secure units where they would eventually be sentenced to be detained.
Up to five hundred protesters gathered at South Sefton