Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Howard Sacre
It's an image that still sickens us seventeen years later toddler James Bulger being led out of an English shopping centre by two boys with murder on their minds.
Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were
ten-years-old when they tortured and killed little James.
It was a shocking case. Yet after only eight years of so-called "rehabilitation", they were released - returned to society with shiny new identities and clean slates.
Now one of them has been arrested for another horrible crime raising the question - should they have been let out in the first place?
Full transcript below:
LIAM BARTLETT: The dark cloud of one of the worst crimes in British history still hangs over Liverpool like a shroud, only now the anger is back as well.
PETER PRINCE: Welcome to the program. It's the evening show, and tonight we are talking about Venables.
LISTENER 1 ON RADIO: The amount of money that's been spent protecting, this scumbag, who's done what he's done.
LISTENER 2 ON RADIO: I think they should have been named and told where they are.
LISTENER 1: They're like the devil's child, the both of them.
LIAM BARTLETT: The collective memory of a nation has gone back to that February day 17 years ago, the horrifying freeze frame when 2-year-old James Bulger was lured to his death - a murder made so sickening because the killers were children themselves. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were just 10 and, much to the nation's outrage, they were free again by the age of 18.
PETER PRINCE: It's an awful thing to say, and it's an awful thing to say on television - they've had a taste of blood and I believe they will never change.
LIAM BARTLETT: In practical terms, Thompson and Venables don't exist any more. After eight years of therapy and rehabilitation the authorities gave them new identities. The boys were set free with different names, different cover stories, to allow them to lead normal lives, but they're not boys any longer and, at 27, Jon Venables is charged with a new and grotesque crime - downloading and distributing photographs of child pornography. It means that the controversy of how two child murderers got off so lightly is exploding all over again.
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDENT ALBERT KIRBY: Despite all the work that was done to rehabilitate them back into society, it's obviously failed and it looks as though there have been some serious failings.
LIAM BARTLETT: Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby headed the Bulger murder investigation. Tonight he'll reveal an aspect of the case that was suppressed at the time, that shows what a truly evil act it was and will make you wonder if what's happening now was inevitable.
DET. SUPT. ALBERT KIRBY: Why didn't they identify the behavioural problems before it came to this?
LIAM BARTLETT: Are you surprised that he's offended again?
DET. SUPT. ALBERT KIRBY: If I was to be asked prior to all this which boy was going to reoffend, it would not have been Venables. I was bitterly disappointed when I found out it was him.
LIAM BARTLETT: When you go out in public any time like this, do you ever look at people and think, "It could be him, or it could be him"?
DENISE FERGUS: In the beginning I did, yeah, but not any more.
LIAM BARTLETT: Denise Fergus, James Bulger's mum, and her husband, Stuart, believe this wouldn't be happening if the child killers were punished properly, rather than getting just eight years in detention.
DENISE FERGUS: They got no punishment whatsoever. They got rewarded for murdering James - that's why I've never let it go and I won't let it go.
LIAM BARTLETT: You think the way they were treated was a reward?
DENISE FERGUS: Of course it was a reward because they never spent no time in a prison. They got put into a children's home and from there released. In the children's home, they get looked after, they get to play snooker tables, decent meals in front of them. Yeah, they were getting day trips out, taken to football matches, you know? That is not punishment.
LISTENER: I think some very, very serious questions need to be asked, Pete.
PETER PRINCE: Yeah, I agree with you.
LIAM BARTLETT: And many people, including Liverpool talk show host Peter Price, believe THAT special treatment is continuing now...
LISTENER: It's just unbelievable to me.
PETER PRINCE: Yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: ..even with Venables facing child pornography charges. LISTENER: This has been an absolute disaster.
PETER PRINCE: They've never been punished, in my humble opinion. for what they've done. They shouldn't have been mollycoddled and protected the way they were protected. Remember - a baby was tortured and slaughtered.
LIAM BARTLETT: The anger still runs deep because everyone here remembers what a calculated and brutal murder it was. Instead of going to school, Venables and Thompson came here to the Strand Shopping Centre actually looking for a child to kill. At around midday they tried to lure another toddler outside into the traffic, but that failed. Then they spotted James Bulger. As his mum stood at the butcher shop counter, they enticed little Jamie at just the right moment.
DENISE FERGUS: It was just so, so quick. As I say, I just reached out for my purse to pay money over the counter. I mean, he was there and when I turned back he'd gone - that's how quick it happened.
LIAM BARTLETT: So in the time it took for you to take the money out of your purse...
DENISE FERGUS: He'd gone.
DET. SUPT. ALBERT KIRBY: All the shopping precinct is covered by CCTV. I think some of the iconic pictures were of Thompson and Venables holding James's hand, walking away.
LIAM BARTLETT: That was Venables holding his hand? DET. SUPT. ALBERT KIRBY: Yeah. They were outside the shopping centre in probably just under two minutes. It was that that quick. They knew exactly where they were going to.
LIAM BARTLETT: They were going to commit murder. They walked James along a canal and through the back alleys of Liverpool to avoid being spotted. In two hours, they covered 4km - a huge journey for a terrified and exhausted 2-year-old. Finally to a railway line, and there they threw rocks and bricks at James, beat him with an iron bar, interfered with him in a sexual way and left him on the tracks, where he was later run over by a train.
DET. SUPT. ALBERT KIRBY: If you could see the severity of what they did to James on the railway line, it was grotesque to the extreme. They knew what they were doing to that little boy.
LIAM BARTLETT: The sexual nature of James' killing was never publicly revealed, but Superintendent Kirby believes it should have been given greater consideration in sentencing and rehabilitating Thompson and Venables.
DET. SUPT. ALBERT KIRBY: There was always a very serious concern in my mind over the sexual element over James's murder. I feel that, that may have not been treated with the severity as it should have been. I think that the bigger impact was to ensure that they were released within the time frame that had been set by the courts and that has detracted from the real treatment that they should have gone through.
LIAM BARTLETT: Even now, after all this time, 17 years, there's no doubt in your mind that it wasn't just a prank gone wrong, it was evil?
DET. SUPT. ALBERT KIRBY: Yes, there's no doubt in my mind - it was complete evil intent.
LAURENCE LEE: I think they got a hot potato and just didn't know what to do after a while, and they had to get rid of him and tragically, um, the rest is history. They took him up to the railway.
LIAM BARTLETT: Given the level of anger, Laurence Lee is a brave man - one of the few in Britain who, to this day, dares defend the boys. He was Jon Venables' lawyer. Are you telling me you don't think it was premeditated? They didn't intend to kill James Bulger?
LAURENCE LEE: I think that they wanted to take this little boy for a laugh, as it were, and having taken him, they couldn't give him back, and they just didn't know what to do. And the logic of 10-year-olds, unfortunately - evil 10-year-olds, as it turns out - dictated that they dealt with it in a way totally different than should have been.
LIAM BARTLETT: You sound as though you still have some sympathy for Venables?
LAURENCE LEE: I don't have any sympathy whatsoever as a result of what they did. I am putting forward purely and simply legal argument, talking like a lawyer.
LIAM BARTLETT: The 10-year-olds faced furious crowds at the Liverpool court and behind the scenes, their lawyer worried they'd never get a fair trial.
LAURENCE LEE: I looked out the window and I saw this baying mob and I could see the bricks being thrown. It was just unbelievable.
LIAM BARTLETT: The rallying cry was "Lock them up and throw away the key!" But the judge ruled that rehabilitation while in detention was the sensible sentence. Both were found equally culpable, though police and lawyers agreed Thompson was the ringleader and Venables the nicer of the two.
LAURENCE LEE: Throughout the trial he was respectful, polite, remorseful and he had a bad time in court. He really did suffer - unlike Thompson, who didn't seem to show any remorse. He is one of the few kids of that age who, for example, bought me a birthday present. You know, I mean, that's only a little thing but, you know, it shows that he cared.
LIAM BARTLETT: Because they were babies themselves, these callous killers received special privileges. There are stories of seaside visits and trips to football matches to prepare them for their release. Safeguarding and rehabilitating them cost British taxpayers millions of pounds and it's likely Venables will need another new identity after he faces these new charges.
PETER PRINCE: People are shaking their heads in disbelief because he's had the best of the best to help him. If he hasn't learnt from all the mollycoddling and help he's had and the professionals that have been looking after him, then we have created a monster.
LIAM BARTLETT: James's mum, on the other hand, has received no help, apart from an outpouring of public sympathy.
DENISE FERGUS: This case has always been one-sided. It's always been "What about Venables? What about Thompson?" What about me and what about my family? What about my kids?
LIAM BARTLETT: To add insult to injury, it was reported that after his release Venables made return visits to Liverpool to walk the streets of the town he so horrified. Denise has been told he was a heavy drinker, prone to violence, and was seen boozing and chatting up young girls in local pubs.
DENISE FERGUS: Oh God, it just doesn't even bear to think about.
LIAM BARTLETT: Isn't it one of the parole conditions, that he's not allowed to come to Liverpool?
DENISE FERGUS: Well, that was the agreement, but as I say the allegations are that he has been coming to Liverpool. And he is certainly not allowed to come near me or my family. How do I know he hasn't been to my sister's house with her daughter or, you know, my brother's house with his daughter? I just don't know.
LIAM BARTLETT: Venables' re-arrest has British authorities questioning the entire handling of the Bulger case.
DET. SUPT. ALBERT KIRBY: I think the sentence was far too low. I think it was too low, not only from punishment purposes, but also to ensure that they could make that integration back into society.
PETER PRINCE: They should be incarcerated without any shadow of a doubt. They never have been.
LIAM BARTLETT: What just throw Thompson back in jail too?
PETER PRINCE: If it is proved that Venables has in fact, um, been found guilty of these hideous crimes, it's just touching on something that could be even more sinister and I think they should go back and revisit the case and maybe see if there's any evidence to prove that both of them were involved in something far more sinister.
LIAM BARTLETT: James's mum says she tries not to think about his murder, for her family's sake. After the tragedy, Denise's marriage failed and she remarried, to Stuart Fergus. They have three young boys. But their lives will be forever haunted by two names - Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, one now awaiting trial and back behind bars, the other free to roam the world with a new identity. Do you know where Thompson is?
DENISE FERGUS: Speculation is that he's in Australia, but I'm not sure if that's 100% true.
LIAM BARTLETT: Australia! But no-one's told you for sure?
DENISE FERGUS: No.
LIAM BARTLETT: You've done very well to bounce back, haven't you?
DENISE FERGUS: I always bounce back. I mean, I am like a spring.
LIAM BARTLETT: She's amazing Stuart, isn't she?
STUART FERGUS: Yeah. Mean, I look at her sometimes because, like, she's so petite, but the fighting spirit she's got in her even amazes me. I wouldn't be able to cope with what she's gone through, certainly not.
DENISE FERGUS: I always say to Stuart, "I might be small, but I'm still all there."
LIAM BARTLETT: You pack a punch?
STUART FERGUS: Yeah.