James Bulger's father on surviving 20 years of grief

By Winifred Robinson


Ralph Bulger has given few interviews in the two decades since his son was abducted and killed, but on the 20th anniversary of James' murder he has spoken to the BBC about losing his son.

The gaunt, haunted faces of Ralph Bulger and his wife Denise quickly became familiar to the British public when on 12 February 1993 their son James, who was just a few weeks short of his third birthday, was reported missing from outside a butcher's shop in the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, Merseyside.

His mother had turned away to pay for some meat and glanced around a moment later to find James gone.

CCTV images revealed that James had been enticed from the doorway of the shop by two older boys who took him to the upper floor of the mall and outside within minutes.

media caption'Blaming myself has kept me going all these years'

James's body was found two days later on a freight line. He had been stripped from the waist down, paint had been thrown in his eyes and he had been beaten to death with bricks and a heavy metal bar.

'Burdened with grief'

Ralph says the pain and terror James suffered means his own feelings of grief and loss are unabated, even 20 years on.

"It's always there," he says.

"It always comes back. I still feel the same, but I think you just learn to live with it a bit, just live with the pain."

Ralph says he has remained in torment through intense feelings of guilt and self-loathing that emerged almost from the moment he discovered his son was missing.

James might have been with Ralph on the day he died, but Ralph was helping a relative with some home improvements and he and Denise worried their lively toddler might hurt himself trying to play with the tools.

That decision is now one of the thousands of "if-onlys" that crowd Ralph's thoughts.

"If I'd have took him with me maybe none of it would have happened. It just takes the soul out of you. You just feel empty all the time. I shouldn't have really let him out of my sight."

For 10 years after James's death, Ralph drank heavily.

"It was non-stop drinking, binge drinking and I was just killing myself really... Sometimes I was drinking a bottle of whisky and I couldn't even get drunk, so I'd go onto two bottles of whisky a day, wake up, fall asleep, wake up, start again. I wouldn't eat and I'd just go back on the drink to try and kill the pain."

Ralph's marriage to Denise ended because, he explains, they were too burdened with grief to comfort each other.

media caption'Losing James just ripped us apart'

The boys who killed James, both aged 10, were arrested and charged within days. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were tried at Preston Crown Court in November 1993 and convicted of murder.

'Unique horror'

Eight years later, both were freed from secure children's homes. In 2010 Jon Venables was re-arrested and charged with the possession and re-distribution of indecent images of children. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

Ralph Bulger believes that had his son's killers been adults, they would never have been released.

It is, he says, the fact that they were children themselves which lends this case its unique horror: it has robbed him and his family of the comfort that would have flowed from a sense that justice had been delivered.

"What they did was just evil," Ralph told me, "and they shouldn't be in society."

He describes how the family still fear Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.

"They didn't just kill James," he points out, "they tortured him and they mutilated him. For them to be like that at such a young age… They're older now, imagine what they could do now. If they're not getting watched all the time what's to stop them trying to take one of our kids again?"

Ralph has written a book to try to describe the immense and lasting pain and damage that James's murder has caused.

"Sometimes you feel like you're having a heart attack," he says. "It's just a big knot in your chest and that's been there since day one."

"I don't think it's a pain you can heal. I think it's with you for life. It's been with me since it's happened... It's always there."

Remembering James Bulger was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 12 February 2013 at 9am.

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