March 08, 1993 12:00 PM

AS A BITTER WEND SWEPT ACROSS THE BARREN Stretch of railroad track in Liverpool, England, a stream of grieving families moved silently past a makeshift shrine. Ever since the mutilated body of 2-year-old James Bulger was found here on Valentine’s Day, they have come to say goodbye. Some come with flowers. Many leave messages. “Dear Lord,” read one, “watch over this little angel…”

Nearby, at Bootle magistrates’ court, there was a different kind of vigil. An angry mob of more than 300 waited outside while two suspects were charged in James’s abduction and savage murder. Snatched in the blink of an eye from his mother at a shopping mall, the boy was found three miles away, apparently beaten to death, then left on the railroad tracks. Such was the depth of the crowd’s fury that they attacked the blue, windowless police vans that carried the suspects away, pelting them with eggs and bricks. “Scum! Bastards!” the crowd shouted. “They killed Jamie! They killed Jamie!”

James Bulger’s murder would be shocking under any circumstances, but the horror is compounded by the fact that his alleged killers are two 10-year-old boys. Even in depressed Liverpool, that seemed beyond understanding. “There is a feeling of hopelessness [here],” said family pastor Father Liam O’Callaghan of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. “But strangely, although there are a lot of break-ins, there are no crimes against the person.” Now, it seemed, Liverpool’s children were no longer safe—even from one another.

The tragedy began Friday, Feb. 12, when Denise Bulger, 25, who lives with her unemployed husband, Ralph, 26, in a bleak public housing project on the outskirts of Liverpool, took her son, James, to the nearby Strand mall. She was in a butcher’s shop when she suddenly realized James had wandered off. Frantically she rushed out to look for him. but he had disappeared. Police searched the shopping center and came up empty. But several hours later, examination of a videotape taken by mall security cameras showed a haunting image of James being led away by two young boys just minutes after he’d gone into the shop with his mother.

That night, more than 100 police officers conducted a house-to-house investigation and divers searched the Leeds-Liverpool canal. At a press conference Saturday morning, the boy’s parents pleaded for the safe return of their only child. “I just turned round and he had gone,” a distraught Denise Bulger said. “If you have got my baby, just bring him back.”

Then, on Sunday afternoon, 48 hours after he had vanished, the child’s body was discovered beside the tracks by four boys out playing. James had been beaten to death, reportedly with a metal bar and bricks, then run over by a freight train that had cut his body in half. There was no evidence of sexual abuse. “It was terrible,” said a shaken James Riley, 14, who was among the four who found the body. “One of us said, ‘It’s a baby,’ and as we got nearer we could see it was a little boy.”

Investigators now focused all of their energies on looking for suspects who matched the appearance of the boys on the tape. One looked to be 5 feet tall with short, dark hair; the other, said police, was shorter, “had a prominent forehead, full cheeks and was almost cherublike.”

Police pieced together a tragic chronology leading up to James’s death. One mother at the mall, for example, told investigators that the two boys had tried to lure away her 2-year-old son an hour before they left with James. Police also discovered another video taken by a security camera at a building company half a mile from the mall. This one showed James—20 minutes after his disappearance—being either dragged or swung forward by the two boys, his forehead already bruised. (Four people seen in the background later gave police crucial information.) A heart-wrenching missed opportunity to save the child involved a 73-year-old grandmother who was one of the last people to see James alive. Walking her dog near the Breeze Hill reservoir, she saw him crying and screaming and asked the two boys with him what was wrong. “He had a terrific bump on his head and on the side of his face,” she said. She believed the boys when they said James had fallen and that they were taking him to the police station, because, she explained, “the little fellow seemed to have confidence in the other two because he had hold of their hands.”

Early Thursday morning, police quietly arrested two 10-year-olds and charged them with murder. Because they are minors, their names cannot be made public. But according to press reports, one of the boys is from Liverpool’s Walton district, one of six children, only three of whom live with their mother. The other is also from a broken home, living with his mother and two siblings in nearby Norris Green. Neighbors were shocked by the accusations. “He goes to our school,” said 10-year-old Paul Jones of one of the suspects. “He does some bad things, but he wouldn’t do anything like that.”

The boys will remain in the custody of local authorities until March, when a trial date will most likely be set. If prosecutors can convince a jury that the boys killed James—and understood the seriousness of the crime they were committing—they could face up to 20 years behind bars. James’s family, however, faces a lifetime of coping with grief. “I feel as if I’m watching something happen to someone else,” said James’s grandmother, Helen Bulger. “You see these cases and you feel very sorry for the people involved. But you don’t know. There is no possible way you could know the depth of feeling.”



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