A￼s my little boy danced his heart out to Michael Jackson’s classic hit Thriller, trying so hard to replicate the dance routine, I couldn’t help but smile.
James was two years old and absolutely fizzed with life. He was full of energy from the moment he woke up to the second he fell asleep. But he was also incredibly kind. If any of his cousins wanted a toy he was playing with, James would hand it straight over and find something else to play with.His father Ralph and I were so proud.
Our first baby, a beautiful little girl, was stillborn. Losing her was a pain so deep I almost drowned in grief. Discovering I was expecting James four months later was a chink of light through the darkness. I’d thought nothing could be worse than giving birth to my dead daughter and leaving hospital without her. But two years later, I experienced a new kind of hell.
On Friday February 12, 1993, a month shy of James’ third birthday, I’d gone to the local shopping mall with James, my sister-in-law, and my niece. Our last port of call was the butcher’s. It was the first time I’d taken James out without him being safely strapped in his buggy. He’d been so good all day, but by this point he was getting restless. As the butcher wrapped up the chops we’d ordered, I let go of James’ hand, smiled and said: ‘Just stand right there by me, don’t move, okay?’ I took my purse out of my bag, and went to get my money. But as I snapped open the clasp I looked down and James wasn’t there – or anywhere else in the butcher’s. The shopping centre was packed and I couldn’t see James anywhere in the crowd. Icy dread gripped my heart as I bolted towards the security desk screaming that my baby was lost. A missing child alert was put over the loudspeaker and I started my own frantic search, screaming James’ name, looking for that gorgeous mop of blond hair or a flash of his jacket.
Hysterical, I was almost falling over other shoppers in my desperation.The police arrived but even after the shops closed, we couldn’t find any trace of my James. Where was he? I was taken to a police station and asked all kinds of questions about James and our relationship. It was so upsetting. Outside, a huge search was being conducted with helicopters and traffic patrols, as well as over 100 officers and our loved ones out on foot scouring the streets for James. As every hour passed, everything felt bleaker. Police were sifting through hours of footage from the shopping centre’s 16 security cameras and in the early hours of Saturday morning they had a breakthrough. CCTV had captured James with two young lads. At one stage, the footage showed my little boy holding hands with them. Relief flooded through me. James hadn’t been abducted by a paedophile – he was trustingly clutching the hands of two young boys. I felt sure I would get James back. After all, how could two young kids possibly want to harm my child when they were just children themselves?
Two days after James went missing, I was searching the streets in a police car when the officer got a call on her police radio. ‘Come back to the station immediately… and turn your radio off.’ I was honestly expecting them to come in carrying James, we’d be reunited and everything would be fine. But at the station, Detective Chief Inspector Geoff MacDonald knelt down beside me and put his hand on mine. The room went silent and I heard the words: ‘I’m sorry. We’ve found him and it’s not good news.’ I was later told that my gut-wrenching howls were heard throughout the station and reduced officers to tears. A group of boys had discovered James’ body on a railway track three miles from the shopping centre. He’d suffered a prolonged and violent attack, leaving him with a large number of terrible injuries. From that point on, I was completely numb. A veil came down and I retreated from everything and everyone. While I shut myself off from the world, Ralph drank away his sorrows in the pub and a distance opened up between us.
The boys in the CCTV – Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – were tracked down by the police and charged with my baby’s abduction and murder. They were both just 10 years old, but there was evidence that pointed to a possible sexual motivation. I don’t know how I got through the agony of James’ funeral. I just wanted to be curled up in that tiny white box with my son. And in the weeks that followed the abyss just felt bigger and deeper than ever. But at the end of March I was given a lifeline when
I discovered I was pregnant again. The idea of holding a baby in my arms gave me a purpose. The only other thing keeping me going was seeing justice for James.
Though they were only 10 years old, the police had no doubt the boys were guilty. Venables had my darling James’ blood on his shoes and other forensic evidence tied in with the objects used to murder him. They were the youngest people on record to stand trial for murder in the UK. However, not all the evidence was used in court because the depth of their depravity and what they did was deemed too upsetting.
On November 24, 1993, when I was 33 weeks pregnant, I went to court for the verdicts. My stomach lurched when I set eyes on the two podgy, unremarkable children who had stolen and killed my James. They chuckled without a care in the world. Their demeanours only changed when they were found guilty of James’ abduction and murder, and the attempted abduction of another child earlier the same day. Venables and Thompson were sentenced to eight years in a secure children’s care home. I was horrified. Was that all my precious son’s life was worth? The public was outraged too. Ralph and I started a petition demanding Thompson and Venables be detained for life. In a matter of weeks we got 300,000 signatures. I vowed I’d never give up fighting. James’ life mattered and he deserved justice.
Weeks later I gave birth to my second son, Michael James Bulger, and I fell in love immediately. Michael was the spitting image of his big brother, which was both comforting and devastating. At that point, my relationship with Ralph was beyond saving. I felt he blamed me for what happened to James. We split up and I adjusted to life as a single mum. However, in June 2001, my world came crashing down again when James’ killers were released on life licence, despite all my efforts. They were given new identities and granted lifelong anonymity, so anyone who formed relationships with them might not know the evil they were capable of. Since then, Venables has been sent back to prison repeatedly for sickening offences. Most recently, in February, he was sentenced to 40 months in prison for having more than 1000 indecent images of children. What more proof do they want that these monsters aren’t rehabilitated? I am calling for a public enquiry.
It’s been 25 years since I lost James and lots has happened. I remarried and had two more children, Thomas, 19, and Leon 18. Despite the horror that James’ name will always be associated with, I wanted something good to come from his life. We set up the James Bulger Memorial Trust to support young victims of crime, hatred or bullying. Given his kind and caring nature, it’s a fitting tribute to James.
I Let Him Go, by Denise Fergus, is published by Echo, RRP $29.99
Read more in this week's issue of that's life!