Murder in Liverpool / The fear, the shame, the guilt - Life and Style - The Independent

Murder in Liverpool / The fear, the shame, the guilt

IF the Rev Peter Tilley had raised the money, the dilapidated sandstone church of St Mary's, Walton, would have looked beautiful when James Bulger glimpsed it in the minutes before he was killed.

'It may seem a bit silly,' Mr Tilley, rector of St Mary's, said, 'but I think my ideas about restoring the church have a strange relevance. I believe the aesthetic can raise people's hopes and aspirations'. Perhaps, he half-believes, the restored splendour of the ancient church would have persuaded the two-year-old's abductors to think again before taking him to his death on the railway embankment about 500 yards away.

But when James passed through the churchyard at about five o'clock on the afternoon of Friday 12 February there was nothing to improve any mind. Mr Tilley's plans to bathe the church in floodlight, fence off its grounds with neat iron railings, and wash away the rubbish, heroin needles, old glue tubes and graffiti in its graveyard were just plans.

St Mary's is the 'mother church' of Liverpool - the oldest in the city. It has a Saxon cross and a Saxon font; it also has locked doors and window grilles. In the graveyard many tombstones have been kicked over; a few still stand but have had holes the size of footballs knocked through them.

At night teenagers from the late-Victorian street terraces nearby gather on the bald patches of earth between the gravestones. There have been several muggings and at least one rape. Heroin use and glue-sniffing are commonplace. More young people, Mr Tilley admitted, want to play games in his churchyard than in the youth club he has spent his limited resources rebuilding.

'I am an optimist by temperament and calling,' he said. 'But I have been shocked after coming back to Liverpool after 10 years in the South. The great quality of Liverpudlians was that we had hope, however bad things got. But the hope has gone now and everyone seems dragged down by a general depression.'

JAMES arrived at St Mary's at the end of a two-and-a-half-mile journey from the New Strand shopping centre, Bootle. Denise, his 25-year-old mother, took her eyes off him for a few seconds when she went into a small butcher's shop on the lower floor of the two-storey concrete precinct. When she turned round he was gone.

During his forced march - along a crowded shopping street, across two roundabouts, over a six-lane road, all at peak traffic hours - James must have been seen by scores, if not hundreds, of motorists and pedestrians. This - more than the horror of the murder and the age of the perpetrators - is why the city feels a sense of collective shame and guilt, emotions that boiled over into a near riot last week when a crowd tried to get its hands on a suspect (completely innocent, it turned out) whom the police seized in a high-profile raid.

Security video cameras picked James up as soon as he strayed from the butcher's shop door at 3.38pm. The film shows him on the upper storey of the centre as his frantic mother rushed round the floor below: it shows him leaving the precinct, which has a private force of security guards, with two boys minutes later. The boys, according to a mother who came forward on Wednesday, had earlier tried to lure away another two- year-old toddler.

A witness recalls seeing James, being carried on a boy's shoulders, on Stanley Road outside the centre. Fifteen minutes later, half a mile away at the bottom of the Breeze Hill main road, security cameras recorded him being dragged along by two boys. Another half-mile on, by the Breeze Hill reservoir, a 73-year-old woman saw 'a little kiddie screaming his head off', his face cut and bruised. She talked to the boys but, she recalled, James seemed to have confidence in them 'because he had hold of their hands'. (That night, after hearing of James's disappearance on television, she phoned the police. She was told, she said, that 'it can't be him, it's too far for him to walk'. The police waited till the following night to interview.)

As James and the boys neared the church, they talked again - to a florist and a middle-aged woman. They asked directions to the police station.

Then, at St Mary's, James left behind the busy world of north Liverpool. His journey took him through narrow roads and alleyways behind the backs of crumbling houses to the embankment of the little-used Edge Hill/ Kirkby goods line. His dead body - two feet six inches - was later found on the track. It had been hit by a train but he had died before then from 'horrific injuries' of which the police still decline to give details.

The Liverpool Daily Post, in an editorial on Wednesday, saw no purpose in recriminations. 'How much unwarranted and violent response would be provoked if members of the public challenged every situation which did not at first sight look right?' it asked. 'We argue not so much to excuse public complacency in this case but to state the reality of street life in Britain today, a time when law-abiding people prefer not to throw their weight against others.'

And there is indeed nothing special about Merseyside. The Home Office crime figures for 1991, issued last week, show that, in all categories of serious and violent crime, the rates recorded by police in the region almost perfectly corresponded with national averages.

'IF THOSE video cameras had not been filming all over the place, no one would have suspected it was kids who took him away,' said Veronica Caffrey, 50, as she pushed her 14-month-old granddaughter, Samantha, round the New Strand centre. 'You just wouldn't have thought it possible.'

The hundreds of bouquets and presents left on a grassy bank, 100 yards from the murder scene, express repulsion and amazement that those responsible could have been so young. The messages read: 'Although we don't know you, we shed tears of despair'; 'How could they be so wicked?'; and a simple 'Why?'.

About 70 children aged under five are killed each year. The culprits are nearly always their parents. Since 1982, an average of just one under-five a year had died at the hands of a stranger. Tony Black, former chief psychiatrist at Broadmoor, said last week that even the murderers, rapists and child abusers in the secure hospital for the criminally insane were 'very soft towards young children'. Their victims were nearly always older than 10.

If strangers killing toddlers are a rarity children who kill are rarer still. Nearly every juvenile who is convicted of murder or manslaughter is aged between 14 and 17. There have been just six cases ofpre-pubescent, under 14 years old, killers in the last decade.

Mike Berry, principal clinical psychologist at the Ashworth Hospital, Liverpool, who has treated two children who killed, said: 'With so few cases, it's impossible to generalise. But I intuitively think that children who kill are different from adults who kill. They can panic or kill out of fear or jealousy. Sometimes they injure a victim and then kill to stop the child telling others about the damage they have done.

'One child I saw beat a younger girl around her head. He just kept going, he did not realise he was killing her.'

Though newspaper reports of children who kill - such as Mary Bell, the 10-year-old who murdered two young boys in 1968 - often highlight incomprehensible evil, American research suggests that the reasons are predictable and banal. 'Children who murder are not exotic individuals,' concluded a study of 71 juveniles convicted of homicide in the state of Illinois. The children came from violent and abusive backgrounds; their relatives were far more likely than average to be involved in violent crime; they drank alcohol, they joined gangs, they suffered severe educational difficulties.

British criminologists and psychologists have insisted during the past week that it is nonsense to take James Bulger's death as a symptom of something rotten in the state of the nation.

'This is a very idiosyncratic case,' said Jock Young, Professor of Criminology at Middlesex University. 'You can't say it epitomises the evil within Britain because it is a one-off . . . a rarity. To build it up is like pretending that Dennis Nilsen's murders told you something about the country. They did not. You can't say anything sensible until there is proof that there are lots of serial killers or lots of children who kill out there. Until then, it does not make sense to draw general conclusions.'

BUT outside the universities everyone is doing just that - connecting the killing of a toddler too young to know that he should not trust strangers with wider fears about crime and social decay. James had nothing worth stealing; there was, the police say, no sexual assault. This seems the ultimate motiveless crime.

In Liverpool last week stores sold out of reins for young children. Mothers, therefore, tied toddlers to them with cords and cables. People on the street, callers to local radio and letter writers to local newspapers said repeatedly that a society where a young mother could not take her eyes off her child for a second had lost its values and purpose. 'Evil is seeping into more and more people's lives,' said one.

Evil was a word much used on Merseyside last week. At the memorial service for James in Kirkby on Friday the Rev Bernard Schunemann said: 'The terrible death of James reminds us of the very real possibility of evil, evil in ourselves, evil in each one of us and evil, certainly, in young people.'

Others have more mundane concerns. 'There's some round here,' said Lilian Taylor, 71, who lives in sheltered housing on Stanley Road, by the route that James's abductors followed, 'who run at you on their bikes. I get very frightened. We have a caretaker but we still get broken into. We're not really safe.'

Is there anything that can be done? The police said from the start that the boys filmed taking James away were probably playing truant. Batteries found near the toddler's body and traced back to the Strand centre suggested that they had been shoplifting.

The link between truancy and crime is well-known. One local science teacher, John Hayes, talks enthusiastically of a pilot project he helped to set up in four city schools to improve discipline and cut truancy. The schools have a 'Continental day', starting at 8am and finishing at 2pm. Cutting out the lunch hour, Mr Hayes says, cuts the fights that start in the playground; it allows teachers to supervise afternoon homework sessions and to devote more time to helping difficult pupils.

But Mr Hayes, a native Liverpudlian who has taught in the rundown Croxteth area for 20 years, admits that schools cannot get to grips with the deeper problems.

'This has always been a tough area to work in,' he said, 'but at least 20 years ago parents and children respected teachers and listened to what they had to say. Now the respect has gone.

'You get violence and abuse in lessons. We can get children excluded from school for a few days but in reality we depend on the parents co-operating if we want to enforce discipline. If they don't there's not much we can do.

'When you call the parents in because their child has attacked a teacher or been caught stealing, they say 'Is that all' or 'What do you expect, everyone thieves round where we live'. What can you do? When my sixth-formers say they want to go into teaching I tell them that although we need bright people it's probably best from their point of view to forget about it and try something else.

'It's not just respect for teachers that has declined. It's respect for all adult authority that has gone. I don't know why. If people knew the answer to that question perhaps we could do something about it.'

Leading article, page 24

(Photographs omitted)

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