James Bulger's mum Denise Fergus: 'I will never forgive my son's killers'
As the 25th anniversary of the murder of two-year-old James Bulger approaches, his mother Denise Fergus tells Hannah Stephenson about how she has found a way to let go of the despair – but she will never forgive his killers
DENISE Fergus will never forget the day that changed her life – February 12, 1993. She had stopped at the butcher's at New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, Merseyside, to pick up two pork chops for tea, letting go of her lively toddler son, James's, hand for a few seconds while she got her purse out to pay.
In those fateful seconds, the two-year-old was lured away by two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who took him two-and-a-half miles away to a railway line, where they tortured and battered him to death. They became the youngest convicted murderers in UK legal history.
Denise has chosen the 25th anniversary of James's death to write I Let Him Go, her disturbing, moving account of exactly what happened that day, the court case, the sentencing, her campaigning for a greater sentence (the killers served eight years apiece), and her reaction to their rehabilitation and lifelong anonymity.
The book was written to keep James's name alive, she explains.
"I didn't want him just to be remembered as the murdered boy – I wanted him to be remembered in a positive way.
"I used to dread the time coming round to that date," she admits of the anniversary, "but now I think I've learned that I can live with it. I don't make a big deal of it, so what we do is spend some time as a family at the cemetery and share a smile for James, and then come home and do our own thing."
She spends a lot of time working with the charity she launched, the James Bulger Memorial Trust, to support young victims of crime, hatred or bullying through funding for holidays and travel, and continues to campaign for appropriate sentences for under-age criminals.
Thompson and Venables were detained indefinitely – but of course, as juveniles, and were released under licence, with new identities, in 2001.
The day they were released, Denise had a "meltdown", smashing up her bedroom – a way, she says, of channelling her deep anger and bitter disappointment, engulfed in guilt at being unable to deliver her promise to her son that she would keep his killers locked up.
"I felt like James had been let down," she explains. "Those two had murdered him and were getting their lives back. James wasn't getting his life back. I felt like they'd been rewarded more than they were punished. They should have spent time in an adult prison. I don't think it was dealt with the way it should have been, and I think that's the government's fault."
She feared that, despite the life licence conditions prohibiting Thomson and Venables from contacting James' family or from entering Merseyside without written consent of their supervising officers, they might return.
"Because of all the fighting and campaigning I'd done over the years, and I'd been in the papers, what was to stop them to come to see where my house was? We had security cameras installed."
Venables was returned to prison in November 2017 (for a second time; he was also locked up again back in 2010). He has been charged with offences related to indecent images of children, again, and his trial is to be held in private at an unnamed court on an unspecified date, the Crown Prosecution Service has said.
Already, Denise has pledged her support via Twitter to a petition for a public inquiry into Venables' release and rehabilitation.
The book makes it clear she's not impressed with how things have been dealt with: "The government will never be able to acknowledge the very real threat Thompson and Venables pose to the public," she writes, "because to admit that would require them to face the fact that their rehabilitation has, in my mind, failed."
Today, she says: "I must stress that writing the book doesn't mean that the fight's over – I don't think it will ever be over. If there's a fight to be fought then I'm going to do it.
"I feel like James has been forgotten about, not by the people but by the government. They still don't know how to handle it."
Although in the book, she admits that she'll "never believe that they were transformed by their time inside", she says she's no vigilante.
"I didn't say, 'Lock them up and throw away the key', or that I want them dead, because I'm not that type of person, but I do think if they'd spent some time in a proper prison [most of their sentences were served in secure children's homes], this case would have gone away. But they never got punished, they got rewarded, in my opinion. That's why the story's never gone away."
Her life, however, has moved on to some extent. She and first husband Ralph Bulger, James's father, split up following the toddler's death, after she had given birth to their second child, Michael. She then met and married Stuart Fergus, with whom she had two further sons, Thomas and Leon.
Stuart explains: "It's been difficult seeing how Denise has had to cope with it all over the years, the fear, the feelings, the anger, the anguish. It's great to be able to see her with a smile on her face when she's with the lads. She's got the strength of a lion."
After James's death, she was offered counselling but refused it.
"I didn't want to be sitting in front of a stranger saying how I felt. I wasn't in the right frame of mind to do that and because I come from a big family, I had them to turn to."
She writes in the book: "People often ask me if I blame myself for what happened that day – for taking my eyes off him for that split second. For letting go of his hand as I looked for my purse... of course I do. There aren't the words to describe how I still feel now, every day."
But when she thinks of James now, it's in a happy way, she says. She hasn't made her home a shrine to her son, but there is a large picture of him above the fireplace.
She's had to compartmentalise her life – and makes sure she returns to happy normality when she walks through the front door.
"I am a fighter for James, but once I come back home, I become Mum again. There are no bad vibes in our house, no negative feel, and that's how I like it for the boys.
"There were days when I'd come in absolutely exhausted and wished it would all go away, but once I came through the front door and saw the faces of the lads, that's what kept me going. I just wanted to give them a happy, normal life."
And she's long since stopped asking why Thompson and Venables murdered her son.
"Only they know why they did what they did," she says, "and I realised I had to stop asking why a long time ago, because the answers aren't ever coming.
"There is no forgiveness in my heart for my son's killers."
:: I Let Him Go by Denise Fergus is published today by Blink, priced £16.99.