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Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 03:15 GMT 04:15 UK
Every parent's nightmare
CCTV footage of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson leading James Bulger away
The haunting image of James being led away
By BBC News Online's Mike Mckay

It started in the most hum-drum and ordinary circumstances. A Friday - 12 February, 1993 - in The Strand shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside. A young mother trailing through the centre, a toddler at her side or occasionally lagging a little behind her.

The mother enters a shop. A moment or two later the restless toddler wanders out alone. Usually, a distracted parent is quickly in pursuit - and so, on that Friday afternoon, was Denise Bulger, who came hastily out of the shop, expecting to find two-year-old James nearby.

James Bulger
James was only two when he was killed
But this was not the usual moment of anxiety speedily dispelled. A panicky search around the neighbouring shops came to nothing. James was missing.

In the few moments the little boy had been at large in the enclosed shopping centre, two older boys had come upon him - Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged 10.

For reasons which have never been explained to this day, the two friends took James and led him from The Strand and away, eventually, to his death.

CCTV footage

Late the next day, Saturday, his body was found by the railway line at Walton, a couple of miles from the shopping centre. He had been beaten, struck with a battery and bricks and left for dead. The hunt began for the killer.

Initially, the predictable fear was that the little boy had been abducted by a murderous paedophile.

But then the Merseyside police examined the CCTV footage taken from the shopping centre's security cameras.

To their horror, the pictures, although fuzzy, revealed that it was not a predatory adult who had taken James - but two young boys who appeared to have happened upon him accidentally.

Walton, Merseyside
The toddler's body was found on a railway track
It was every parent's nightmare and more. Could these two youngsters have been James's killers - or had they surrendered him to a paedophile and then decided to stay quiet through fear of the consequences?

The inquiry was led by Det Supt Albert Kirby, one of the Merseyside force's most experienced officers. At length, he called a news conference. Two boys had been arrested at their homes within a few hundred yards of the murder scene.

The week of the search had been haunted by those fuzzy video images. They left an indelible impression which provoked a rash of furious questions - about the true innocence of children and how the adult world measured up to its responsibilities.

Witnesses' anguish

Such questions came agonisingly to the surface at the boys' criminal trial at Preston in November 1993.

A series of witnesses spoke of seeing two boys escorting a toddler along the route from Bootle to Walton. Their anguish was nearly unbearable.

One or two broke down in tears as they tortured themselves with the thought that they might have intervened, particularly one who became suspicious about the way Venables and Thompson were treating the little boy who they insisted was their "brother".

In the drama which unfolded before an adult criminal court, few challenged the decision to place the two defendants before such a court rather than a juvenile hearing.

It meant that, although during the trial they were known only as Boy A and Boy B, they were exposed to the full weight of criminal trial - a packed press bench, public benches crowded with the Bulger family and their friends and neighbours.

Angry crowds

The mood on Merseyside had been witnessed long before the trial was set for Preston.

At their first appearance on remand in Bootle magistrates' court, the huge crowd outside roared its anger and contempt as the van carrying the two boys was driven away. Several attempted to attack the vehicle.

Anger outside the court as Venables and Thompson are driven away
Anger outside the court as Venables and Thompson are driven away
Few criminal trials have proceeded amid such blazing emotions and recrimination. At the end the judge, Mr Justice Morland, ruled that the two boys could be identified by name - thus linking them forever to one of the most horrific murders of modern times.

The judge also set a tariff of eight years detention for the two boys before they could be considered for release on licence.

Lord Taylor later recommended 10 years, but the then Home Secretary Michael Howard set the minimum as 15 years.

This was after representations from the boys' lawyers and opposing petition raised by the Bulger family. By the late 1990s, the boys' lawyers were taking their case to the European Commission of Human Rights.

In March last year it set the seal on a shift of position by the British Government, later re-inforced by the Court of Human Rights - a minimum punishment period should not be set by the home secretary.

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16 Dec 99 | UK
Q&A: The Bulger case
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