Post editor Mark Thomas talks about covering the James Bulger murder case as a reporter and why he still has sleepless nights
Post Editor Mark Thomas – who 20 years ago as a reporter covered James Bulger’s murder – reflects on the story which still gives him sleepless nights
WHEN I did my routine police calls on the afternoon of Friday, February 12, 1993, I had no idea I was about to become a witness to one of the darkest chapters in modern criminal history.
Not, of course, a witness in the sense that I stood and watched as Robert Thompson and Jon Venables battered the life out of helpless toddler James Bulger on that bleak Walton railway track.
Heaven knows, that is a scene my fevered imagination has conjured up to disturb my slumbers enough times in the 20 years since. But no, of course I wasn’t a witness to the crime.
But I found myself as close to the heart of the horror story that unfolded as anyone outside the immediate circles of relatives, police officers and lawyers whose lives were to become enmeshed so inextricably in this tragedy.
The initial facts seemed unremarkable enough – a two-year-old boy had strayed from his mother’s side in Bootle’s Strand shopping centre, sparking a security alert and a police search.
I was working as a reporter for Britain’s national wire service, The Press Association (PA), with Merseyside at the heart of my patch. My job was to report on stories of potential national interest which would then be distributed to newspapers, radio and TV around the UK and abroad.
This story, in that context, did not appear to be of great significance. Children went missing all the time and almost always turned up safe and well.
By the following morning, with no sign of James, and a police press conference called at Marsh Lane police station, things were looking serious.
When I attended that press conference and watched for the first time the CCTV images of Thompson and Venables leading little James away it was clear we were dealing with something far more sinister.
Even then there was no sense the kidnappers were as young as they turned out to be. And there was the belief the boys could not be acting alone and there had to be some adult Svengali figure pulling the strings.
Those images suddenly transformed James’s disappearance into a story that attracted huge national attention.
I saw Denise and Ralph Bulger for the first time at that news conference. I would come to know them well in the months ahead.
That day Denise could barely contain her agony as she said: “If anyone has got my baby, just bring him back.” She broke down and fled the room.
Fast forward 24 hours to the afternoon of Valentines Day and I found myself standing in a group of journalists off County Road, Walton, waiting for news from police officers investigating reports of a body found on a railway track.
Then came the confirmation that we all expected. James was dead.
The internet was in its infancy but even then bad news travelled fast. The James Bulger murder was now international news.
In the days that followed I was part of a growing media pack covering the story.
On the Wednesday night I got a call to tell me police had made an arrest in Snowdrop Street, Kirkdale. I filed a brief story before leaving home to head to the scene.
Five minutes later they interrupted a BBC 1 programme to read out the news flash I had just filed. That’s when you know you are working on a big story.
I arrived at Snowdrop Street to find the aftermath of a small riot. A teenager had been taken into custody after a relative raised suspicions but it was one of a number of false trails.
If the CCTV footage had attracted global interest it was only to intensify when it was revealed that two 10 year-old boys had been arrested and charged with the murder.
Until the end of the trial in November 1993 they were known to the public only as Boy A and Boy B. We knew them as Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.
I was one of five reporters allowed access to Bootle Youth Court for their first court appearance on Monday February 22. For security reasons the boys had been escorted to the court several hours before the case began.
I had no idea what I was expecting them to look like but I was quite unprepared for how unremarkable they actually looked.
Thompson was accompanied by a social worker, Venables by his father.
They looked tiny and very, very young. I found it hard to believe they were even 10.
They did not show fear or anxiety but neither did they appear defiant or nonchalant. If anything, they looked bewildered.
They both confirmed their names to the court clerk with the word “Yes.”