The lead up to the arrest
At home, Jon showed an intense interest in the story of James’s disappearance. He asked his mother if they caught the boys. If I seen them lads, Id kick their heads in, he said. On Sunday, when his mother told Jon that the little boy had been found dead by the railroad, Jon expressed concern for his poor mum. Neil, Jons father, asked him about the blue paint on his coat sleeve and Jon said Robert threw it at him. When the news reported that blue paint had been found on the boys body, the Venables did not openly suspect their son, even though he had missed school the day James was murdered and wore a mustard colored jacket, the same as the boy in the video.
Perhaps even more outrageous than the brutality of the murder was the search for suspects, who were only boys themselves. How to find the killers? Police would check Fridays absentee lists from schools and held press conferences, partially in hope of finding more witnesses, but also to keep the public calm. It was as if a witch hunt developed overnight in Merseyside, but this time the suspects were boys. Reports came in casting blame on one bad child or another. Even parents called the station to report their own kids as suspects. When police arrested one suspicious 12-year-old boy, residents were so furious that they attacked his house and broke the windows after a mob of police led the boy away. His family had to be moved and the boy hadnt even been officially charged with the crime.
A mother suspects her son
An anonymous woman called the police station, reporting that her friend Susan Venables had a son named Jon, who had skipped school Friday and had blue paint on his jacket sleeve. He resembled the boy in the video. She said he had a friend named Robert Thompson, with whom he skipped school that day. With no other solid leads, investigators decided that Jon and Robert should be brought in for questioning.
At 7:30 in the morning on Thursday, February 18, four police officers appeared on Ann Thompsons doorstep with a search warrant. When Robert realized that he was a suspect, he began to cry. They rounded up his clothes and immediately noticed that there was blood on his shoes.
When they came for Jon Venables, his mother Susan answered the door and said, snidely, I knew you’d be here. I told him you’d want to see him for sagging school on Friday. Susan mentioned that Jon came home on Friday, coat full of paint. Officers promptly asked for Jons mustard-yellow coat, which had indeed been splattered with blue paint. It even appeared that there was a small handprint on the sleeve. Jon grabbed hold of his mother and sobbed. I dont want to go to prison, mum. I didnt kill the baby. He cried hysterically. Its that Robert Thompson. He always gets me into trouble. Through tears, Jon told police they should speak to Robert. As they drove him to the police station, Jon continued to ask about Robert. Had they arrested him yet, and where were they taking him?
Despite Robert and Jons distressed reactions to being arrested, the police did not immediately suspect that they were the killers. They were simply following up on a tip. There were other boys with violent records out there and, besides, the boys in the Strand video looked to be 13 or 14 years old. Jon and Robert were small, still little kids themselves. But, following procedure, investigators interviewed Jon at the Lower Lane police station and Robert at the Walton Lane police station, which was just down the slope from where James had been killed.
The boys, especially Jon, were both terrified and fascinated by the police procedure. As they took Jons fingerprints, he nervously asked how fingerprints worked. They seemed like invisible ink, magical to him. Do you leave these on whatever you touch? he asked. If you touch someones skin does it leave a fingerprint? If you drag someone really hard, do you leave your nails in his skin? He wanted to know if they were taking Robert Thompsons prints too. Police took blood, hair, and fingernail samples from both boys.
In the meantime, a shopkeeper from the Strand called the police. The boys from the video might have been in their store on the day James disappeared, so police came down and took fingerprints. Jons were matched.
Robert had taken a single rose to the crime scene days before. Other Merseyside mourners had created a makeshift memorial for James near the railway. Robert noticed that television crews were filming the mourners and later argued that if he had killed James, why would he bring a flower for the baby?
Robert Denies, Jon Cries
The interviews: Robert Thompson
Robert Thompson was interviewed on Thursday, the same day he was brought in, by Detective Sergeant Phil Roberts and Detective Constable Bob Jacobs. The interview was recorded with his mother Ann sitting by, along with legal representation. Questioning a ten-year-old boy for murder would be difficult. It was hard to know if Robert even grasped his legal rights. They asked him if he knew the difference between truth and lies. Robert said he understood, but during the course of the interview, he slipped between the two with ease. Robert was used to skirmishing around with the truth, but usually over petty things, like whether he went to school that day or where his homework was. He replied to difficult questions with a bratty, well, I was there, and you werent or thats what you think. But Roberts lying skills would soon snap like cheap clips under the weight of the charges.
Robert admitted that he and Jon skipped school on Friday and went to the Strand shopping center, where they walked around, looking at the shops. Trying to sound like a witness, not a suspect, Robert claimed that he saw James with his mother while he and Jon were on the escalator. This struck the investigators as odd why would Robert take notice of this little boy with his mother? The shopping center was filled with mothers and children. But he insisted that he saw James with Mrs. Bulger. Robert then claimed that he and Jon left the Strand, went to the library and then home.
During a break, both investigative teams conferred. Jon had said that he was with Robert, but would not admit to going to the Strand. Upon commencing the interview, the detectives asked Robert why he thought Jon would lie about being at the Strand.
Robert thought that perhaps Jon did do something bad. He might have made the baby follow them and then lost him somewhere, but Robert didnt know because he didnt look behind his shoulder. When investigators said that he had the same jacket as one of the boys in the video, Robert replied, Many jackets get sold the same as mine. But what about Jons more distinctive jacket? Yeah, well, hes not walking along with me. Throughout the interview, Roberts responses were unflustered. He has been a tough guy all of his life and knew how to keep his cool. He admitted nothing.
Detective Roberts:We believe that you left with baby James and with Jon.
Robert Thompson: Who says?
Detective Roberts: We say, now.
Robert Thompson: No. I never left with him.
Detective Roberts: Well, tell me what happened, then.
Robert Thompson: It shows in the paper that Jon had hold of his hand.
He had slyly implicated Jon without admitting to have seen him do it. But he had also claimed to be with Jon all day. It was only moments before he would be cornered into admitting more. Robert sometimes cried when he was caught in a lie, but detectives were suspicious of his sorrow. No tears and the crying suddenly stopped when the pressure was off. He began to sob, I never touched him.
Robert had now admitted that Jon had James by the hand, and that they walked around, but let him go by the church. Upset, Robert lamented that hes going to get all the blame for murdering him.
Finally, late in the evening, Robert was told that he was being detained and could not go home. Why do I have to stay here? he asked. Jons the one that took the baby.
The next morning, Robert said that he left Jon and James by the railway after Jon threw paint at Jamess eye and had no idea what happened after that. But when the investigators asked if he stole batteries, Roberts face grew crimson (Yeah, well, Im hot.) He denied it, but was obviously deeply embarrassed by the mention of the batteries.
After more hours of Roberts denials and eventual admissions, his mother Ann tells her son that it will be easier if he just tells the truth. Robert has been sobbing.
Robert Thompson:Jon threw a brick in his face.
Ann Thompson: Why?
Robert Thompson: I dont know.
Detective Roberts: Right, try to think. Right, lets see what weve got, were getting there, arent we? Were getting to the truth now.
Robert Thompson: Yeah, well, Im going to end up getting all the blame cause Ive got blood on me.
Robert goes on to describe Jon in an out-of-control killing frenzy. He claimed Jon threw more bricks at the baby, and then hit him with a big metal thing with holes in it. Then Jon hit James with a stick. James was lying there, still, eyes open, across the tracks. Jon had the batteries and threw one of them at Jamess face. All the time Robert said he was trying to pull Jon away, screaming at him to stop.
Astounded, the detectives asked, Why did Jon do all this? Robert didnt know. I only pinched, he said. When investigators tell Robert they think he hit James too, he replied, Well, thats what you think.
Robert cried for himself, but showed genuine concern for his mother, who sat through the interviews in utter disbelief. Many of Roberts responses were directed at his mom: I tried to get him off, he just kept hittin him and hittin him and hittin him and I couldnt do nuttin about it. When she asked why he brought a rose to Jamess memorial, he said, Cause then baby James knows I tried to help him up there and Im thinking of him now. Robert also expressed some fear about being haunted by the murdered baby.
The next day, Saturday, Robert admitted to touching James, but he said it was because he was trying to move him off of the track. (This is his excuse for the blood on his shoes.) He put James down, however, when he saw how much blood there was. He was afraid his mother would be mad at him for staining his clothes with blood. Throughout the interviews, Robert worried that Jon would get off easy. At one point he cried, Well, you can go ask our teacher whos the worst out of me and Jon and shell tell you Jon. He also said that he had his own little baby brother Ben. Why would I want to kill him, Robert said, when Ive got a baby of me own? If I wanted to kill a baby, Id kill me own, wouldnt I?
Im not a pervert
Detectives saved the most difficult questions for last. James had some trauma to his genitals, and police believed that one (or both) of the boys had inserted AA batteries into his rectum. These questions upset Robert more than any other accusations. When they asked who removed Jamess pants and underwear, he began to cry. Im not a pervert, you know, he said, suddenly agitated. Well, how would you like me calling you a pervert? Normally collected, Robert lost it. He said Im a pervert, they said Ive played with his willy, he told his mom, and refused to answer any more questions. But the detectives persisted. What would Jon say you did to James? they asked. Robert was greatly upset by now. He said Jon would say he took off Jamess pants and played with his privates.
Toward the end of the interviews, Robert said that Jon tried to cover up Jamess head with stones, but he admitted to putting one brick on, to stop all of the bleeding.
The interviews: Jon Venables
While Robert, for a good portion of the process, kept control of his composure and sparred with his interviewers, Jon was hysterical from the start. He was extremely scared and intimidated by the investigators. They had to halt the questions when Jon became so distressed that he couldnt speak, which was often. He didnt lie as much as he avoided the truth. After he calmed down and was encouraged to be honest, Jon would admit to some things (unlike Robert, who denied everything.)
His mother Susan was there and her presence upset Jon. It was only after the detectives pulled her and Jons father Neil aside and asked them to reassure Jon that they would love him no matter what happened, that Jon was able to admit to his participation.
On the first morning of the interviews, Jon wanted to put down Robert. Robert was the bad one, the troublemaker, and he avoided Robert at school. Robert mostly played with girls because everyone else thought he was bad. Hes much of a girl, he said. Jon talked about how Robert collected troll dolls, the naked ones: It shows you their bum and that. Jon said Robert sucked his thumb. Yet Jon sounded enamored with Robert and his willingness to do bad things. He talked about how Robert sags and how they go stealing together, and said it was exciting being with Robert. He did things with Robert that he didnt do with other good friends. He wouldnt do bad things on his own Im too scared.
On Friday, the day of the crime, Jon said it was Roberts idea to miss school. Jon spun a long yarn about the details of the day: they went to a park, the old railways, and to a cemetery, where Robert wanted to steal the flowers, but Jon said no. Jon said that Robert stole paint and threw it at Jon. As elaborate as Jons story was, he made no mention of the Bootle Strand. When he later heard that Robert admitted they had gone to the Strand, Jon cried that Robert was lying.
Detective Dale:You see, Robert says that he was with you, and that you were indeed in Bootle New Strand together.
Jon Venables: We wasnt.
Detective Dale: Robert says you were.
Jon Venables: Yeah, we was, but we never saw any kids there. We never robbed any kids.
Detective Dale: So you were in the Bootle New Strand.
Susan Venables: (shouting in anger) Was you in Bootle Strand?
Jon Venables: (in tears) Yeah, but we never got a kid, Mum. We never…we never got a kid.
Detective Dale: Mrs. Venables, would you? I must ask you not to get angry with him.
Jon Venables: (in hysterics) But we never got a kid, Mum. We never. We saw those two lads together, we did. We never got a kid, Mum. Mum, we never got a kid. You think we did. We never, Mum, we never.
At this point Jon was deeply distraught and wouldnt sit down. Susan said, If I wouldve known all this now, Jon, I wouldve had you down the police station right away, instead of them banging on my front door and making a show of me in the street…
I did kill him
The next morning, investigators confronted Jon with more of Roberts version of events. Robert claimed that Jon took the baby. Jon jumped out of his seat. I havent touched a boy, he screamed over and over. I never killed him. Mum, Mum, we took him and left him at the canal. Mum, thats all, he cried to Susan. They asked how did they get the baby at Strand? He was just walking around on his own, he claimed. Jon saw that he was contradicting himself, telling obvious lies. The more cornered (and the closer he got to the truth) he was, the more distressed he grew.
The detectives believed that Jon wanted to tell the truth, but he was scared by what his mother would think. After both Susan and Neil Venables reassured Jon theyd love him no matter what and urged him to tell the truth. Jon climbed into his mothers lap and sobbed.
I did kill him, said Jon. What about his mum, will you tell her Im sorry?
This was what investigators needed. Jon had admitted it, plain and simple. But they were curious about the I in the confession. They were sure Robert participated the question was, to what extent.
The interviews continued later on in the day. Jon said that Robert stole paint at a toy store in the Strand. They saw a child and Robert said, Lets get this kid lost. The two boys brought him through the TJ Hughes department store until his mother found them. They saw James in front of the butcher shop. Jon confessed that he walked toward the baby and took him by the hand, but it was Roberts idea to kill him. As they walked around, Jon said they thought about looking for his mother, but Robert suggested that they throw him in the water at the canal. Robert tried to get the toddler to lean toward the water, hoping he would lose his balance and fall, but James wouldnt go to the waters edge. Jon then said that Robert picked up James and threw him down. Scared, they ran away, but came back, Jon couldnt say why. They just wanted to walk around with the baby. Jon admitted that he took the hood off Jamess anorak and threw it up into a tree as they walked toward the railway. But this is as far as he would go for now. The closer they got to the murder, the more upset Jon became. He did not want to talk about the worst bit.
The worst bit
When Jon was willing to talk, he blamed the violence on Robert. We took him to the railway and started throwing bricks at him. When asked who threw the bricks, Jon said, Robert, who also threw the metal pole. Jon admitted to throwing two bricks, only teeny, little stones, and only on the arms, not his head.
According to Jon, Robert threw the blue paint in Jamess face. James began to cry, and Robert asked, Is your head hurting, well get a plaster on, and he lifted a brick and threw it at Jamess head. James screamed and fell back, but got up again. Jon said at one point he tried to pull Robert back. James just kept getting back up and Robert was saying, stay down. Robert was shouting and calling James bad names. After Robert hit him with iron bar, James fell onto his stomach on the tracks and both boys ran. Jon claimed he then said to Robert, Dont you think weve done enough now?
Jon said that he was never mad at James: No, I didnt really want to hurt him, I didnt want to hurt him or nothing cause I didnt want to hurt him with strong things, only like light things… I deliberately missed… He also said that it was Robert who pulled off Jamess pants and underwear. Jon did help by pulling his shoes off, but he couldnt say why. He said Robert picked up the underwear and covered Jamess face. Although Jon claimed to feel no anger toward the baby, he showed physical signs of agitation during the interview when talking about his murder, including clenching his fist.
Jon said he kicked James, but only light, and punched him light in the chest and face. He guessed that Robert had kicked James in the groin about ten times and kicked him in the face. Id never done it before, said Jon.
But when the subject of batteries came up, Jon became hysterical once again and started to cry. I didnt know anything about what Robert did with the batteries. Jon was afraid that youll blame it on me that I had them. Asked if Robert did anything else to Jamess genitals, Jon grew very upset, began to punch his father, Neil, who sat beside him.
Charged with murder
By Saturday, both Robert and Jon were exhausted and distraught. The investigators knew they had enough to prosecute the boys and concluded the interviews. While both boys had been difficult, they both had been informative in different ways. Robert denied and called other witnesses liars, but when he did talk, he seemed to be closer to the truth. He was definitely the more manipulative of the two, and cried only when it suited him. Jon, on the other hand, consistently blamed Robert for everything, but finally did admit to more than Robert had. His lies were more elaborate, but he was also quicker to admit to his lies. It was mostly Jons incredible distress that hindered the process of getting to the truth.
The Walton police decided to take the boys on a drive to verify the route they walked with James. Jon went first in an unmarked car. He asked the police, can fingerprints come out on skin? When they took Robert out, he was worried about encountering Jon. Indeed, both boys were anxious about seeing each other after the crime. Were they mad at each other, or afraid the other would be angry about the lies the other had told?
On Saturday at 6:15 p.m., Jon was charged with the abduction and murder of James. (Authorities also charged both boys with an attempted abduction of the other child at TJ Hughes.) Jon sat and drew on some paper while waiting for the charge to be read, crying only when his mother cried. When Robert was charged that same night, he simply responded, It was Jon that done that.
Both boys were detained until their trial, set for November of 1993. They would undergo psychiatric evaluations and additional interviews. In the meantime, the British court system had to prepare accommodations for the two young defendants.