In a corner of her garden in Kirkby, England, beyond an archway covered with roses, lies the shrine that Denise Fergus keeps for her son James. Sectioned off from the bushes and flower beds, James’s Corner is where she goes to steal a moment’s peace beside the plaque, surrounded by his toys, that has been placed there in his honor. “This Christmas she also put up a luminous Father Christmas sitting on a moon with reindeer,” says Lesley Halligan, Fergus’s neighbor and best friend. “She said, ‘I can’t buy him anything for Christmas, so I do this instead.’
The pain Fergus feels hasn’t eased much in the eight years since Jamie, one month shy of his 3rd birthday, was abducted from a mall, tortured and beaten to death by two 10-year-old boys in one of England’s most shocking crimes. Then, on Jan. 8, she was stunned when a London High Court judge ruled that Jamie’s killers, both 18 and eligible to be released now, be given new identities and anonymity for life to protect them from reprisals and the ferocity of Britain’s tabloids, which continue to fan public fury about the killing. Fergus was also disturbed by reports that the two teenagers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, had access to tutors, computers and video games while in custody. “She said if there is such a thing as a living hell, she and her family are in it,” says her friend Norman Brennan, a policeman and campaigner for victims’ rights. “She said, ‘When is this nightmare going to end?’
Those who perceive Venables and Thompson as evil and beyond rehabilitation point to the haunting security camera footage of one of them leading Jamie by the hand out of the Strand mall in Bootle, a working-class suburb of Liverpool, on Feb. 12, 1993. While his mother, then Denise Bulger, paid for sausages at a butcher shop, the two boys dragged Jamie two miles to a railroad yard, bludgeoned him with bricks, poured paint in his eyes and left his body on a track to be cut in two by a train. The boys eventually received sentences of 15 years’ detention, but a British court reinstated the original trial judge’s sentence of eight years in 1997. In a finding last fall, England’s Lord Chief Justice Woolf described the two as “genuinely, extremely remorseful” and stated that further detention would serve no purpose.
After the murder Denise and her husband, Ralph Bulger, had another son, Michael, in 1993, before Ralph, then 28 and unemployed, moved out to live with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Eileen Arnold, with whom he has since had two children. Denise, who has chosen not to have psychological counseling since Jamie’s death, married electrician Stewart Fergus in 1998; they live in Kirkby, a suburb of Liverpool, with their sons Thomas, 2, and Leon, 1, and Michael, now 7. “Denise doesn’t let the boys out of her sight,” says Norman Brennan. “She made that mistake once and it cost her dearly.”
Fergus has also been distressed by reports that extensive efforts have been made to help Jamie’s killers, who spent their detention in separate guarded facilities, make a successful return to society. The Sun, a tabloid, has claimed that Thompson was taken on outings to the theater and countryside and to supermarkets to help him overcome his fear of being recognized after his release. But it was the ban on revealing their new identities or locations that most enraged Denise, who has called for legislation akin to laws in the U.S. that alert local residents to the presence of released sex offenders in their neighborhoods. “I want the absolute right to know about [their whereabouts],” she told The Mail on Sunday. (Her friend Lesley Halligan says Denise “does believe they should be given a second chance, but not yet. Not for several more years.”)
No matter what happens to Venables and Thompson, Denise is left with only memories and keepsakes of her lost little boy. In her bedroom wardrobe she has saved all his clothes; on a top shelf she stores his breakfast bowl and spoon, adorned with images of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And she has James’s Corner, her only refuge from the controversy that rages around the release of her son’s killers. “Even one day of freedom for them is a luxury compared to what they’ve left her with,” says Norman Brennan. “She’s got the true life sentence.”
Nina Biddle in Kirkby and Pete Norman in London