The dark vortex that emerged from this murder to destroy so many lives

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The Independent Online
FOR SEVERAL years the dark vortex that lies at the heart of the Bulger murder case has lain dormant. But it never takes much to fire it up again. And within minutes of the news from Strasbourg yesterday that the European Commission had decided that there was something deeply wrong with the way we dealt with the entire affair, the frenzy began.

Was it justice to expose two 10-year-olds, both educationally subnormal, sucking their thumbs and falling asleep, to the full panoply of a three- week jury trial, during which they said not a word and understood practically nothing of what was happening? Was it right for a populist politician, the then home secretary Michael Howard, reacting to an almost hysterical public demand for vengeance, to over-rule the judge and increase their sentence from eight years to 15 years? Was Britain justified in stating that children of 10 are old enough to be criminally responsible in the first place?

In coming days this frenzy will increase and Britain will, as it always has done when James Bulger's face appears in the newspapers, divide into two implacable and angry camps.

The first, and by far the largest, will be outraged by the news. James's murder, to them, was uniquely evil, and therefore Thompson and Venables, no matter how young they were, were also evil. In the words of one newspaper, "those little monsters must grow old and rot in jail" for the rest of their lives. This camp, and it includes many on the soft left, want no more Mary Bells living free on social security and making money out of their memoirs.

The other camp, and it is very small, consists of those who feel that Britain's reaction to the murder was barbarous and fuelled by a lynch- mob mentality. It is led by a determined legal team who have fought for six years to prove that the trial was a cruel farce, that the murder was not premeditated, and the killers, two practically illiterate children from difficult backgrounds, committed an act so unfathomable that they could not explain it even to psychiatrists.

It is clear that this savage and strange affair will never produce perfect answers. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong in their attitudes. Denise Fergus, James's mother, has every right to her blind hatred of the killers. And the mothers of Thompson and Venables have the right to fight for their sons' right to the possibility of release and redemption.

Whatever the outcome in the European Court of Human Rights, the Bulger murder is no longer a matter for contemplation and compassion. It has entered that strange and macabre pantheon of criminal freakery that includes dark icons such as Myra Hindley, Mary Bell, Rosemary West and Reggie Kray.

Whatever the endgame may be, nobody can doubt the scale and depth of the tragedy. Dozens of people had their life disrupted for ever.

Mrs Fergus and her former husband, Ralph, were shattered by the loss of their child and the venomous rumour mill that accused them of profiting financially from the publicity and a huge fund that was launched in James's name.

They were a loving young couple but their marriage broke down in the mayhem. Although she is now recovered and working hard for victim support groups, Mrs Fergus is still consumed with hatred. In the manner of the Moors Murder victims' mothers, she seems to wait for any hint of their release before launching into a powerful attack on the killers and their supporters.

And what of Venables and Thompson, living in private suites in separate remand centres? They are now 16, bothgrossly overweight through boredom eating, and almost unrecognisable from the cherubic snapshots that once filled the newspapers. They are allowed unlimited visits from their parents, and are watched constantly by experts skilled in the understanding of violent and unpredictable behaviour. The psychiatrists have prodded and probed at them for years, but according to sources inside their legal teams, neither boy has ever admitted killing James.

Neither has shown any signs of aberrant behaviour. They are neither violent nor disruptive. They watch censored videos and go to daily school classes. Both have now reached almost normal reading ability and Thompson is said to have a reasonably high IQ.

But each one continues to blame the other. It is now clear they may have mentally erased, perhaps for ever, large parts of that day. In a couple of years' time they are scheduled to move into adult prisons, perhaps under new names. But it will not take long for the prison grapevine to identify them, and for their own safety they will probably be held in special wings along with baby killers and sex offenders.

Since the trial they have never laid eyes on each other. But their mothers, Ann Thompson and Susan Venables, now using other names, visit them several times a week. Today they apparently talk very little of the murder. Neither boy has ever spoken to his mother about it in any detail.

Detectives who worked on the case still consider that Thompson was the prime mover in the events of that day. And one of the first lawyers to see him, in the hours after his arrest, is convinced that he will never admit he killed James - especially to his mother. "Maybe it has been buried so deep that even he cannot remember it all," he said. "He both adores his mother and is afraid of her. I believe that he will never admit his role while she is still alive. With this kind of horror bottled up inside him I fear for his sanity when he becomes an adult. He was a strange and lost little figure, who could be quite cool and tough. But he is no psychopath and he never showed violence or even bad temper either before or since the murder."

Thompson's coolness unnerved the police at the time. He remained stonily silent and did not cry. Seasoned detectives grew to hate him and there are still those today who regard him with the same loathing they reserve for adult sex criminals.

There is no doubt that of the two families, his was the most abusive and violent. His father, a womaniser and a drunk, never once came to see him and has not seen him to this day.

Venables was the opposite. He collapsed after his arrest and wept for days in his mother's arms. And during his trial he often simply buried his face in his hands, or played with his necktie. His mother, Susan, is sure that he is convinced that he was led by Thompson and that he played no part in the final attack on James. She feels that he never understood a single word of what was happening throughout the three-week trial.

Apart from seeing each other in court, both mothers have never met. Both paid a high price for their son's crime. Attacked and vilified in the streets within hours of the arrests, they were suddenly uprooted from their native city and their friends, never to return, even for a visit.

Both women, according to their lawyers, have shown courage and resilience. Ann Thompson, who had a bad drink problem, recovered and is now totally sober. Her other children remain with her and she has vowed she will follow her son to whatever prison he is moved to. She fully accepts that her son may be a killer, but she waits and hopes that he may some day come home to her.

In the early days she wrote him a long letter, almost as if she was writing to an adult. In it, she stated: "No matter what you did or didn't do, I'm your mother and I will stay with you no matter what happens." Robert, apparently, destroyed the letter and made no mention of it.

Susan Venables, too, has proved a tower of strength for her son. At the time of the killing her husband, Neil, was living apart from the family and passed the time watching rented videos. One of these, Child's Play 3, was mentioned in court, and headlines screamed that it was this horror story that inspired the killing. But Jon never visited his father's flat and never saw the film. It was just another of the demonic elements of the affair, stories that grew from nothing into an established fact.

The Venables family lawyers of the time recalled that such headlines almost drove her to mental collapse. "She had a husband who could not cope, who collapsed on the first day," he said. "Her home was surrounded by a screaming mob, she was attacked and spat at in the street. But she found strength from somewhere. She is now a magnificent mother, and she supports her son in every way. But she, like Ann Thompson, is no wiser to the events of that day. He will simply not talk about it."

The two have free access to television sets and they see news bulletins every day. But by all accounts they have no interest in their legal affairs. If the Bulger murder is mentioned on the screen they leave the room.

"Somehow they have both adopted the same technique for dealing with it all," said the lawyer. "Day by day, and year by year, they have simply cut the whole thing from their minds. In the early days each one blamed the other and could give their recollections of what happened. Now it seems not to exist, and as the years go by it could even be possible that they have genuinely erased it from their minds."