Episode 41 - The Brutal Murder of James Bulger – Part 1

Friday the 12th of February 1993 started out as any other day for the Bulger family of Kirkby in Merseyside, England. Dad, Ralph had his breakfast as usual while Mum, Denise attempted to feed their son James. James was always a smiley and cheeky boy and breakfasts could be a challenge while he chattered away indiscernibly about whatever took his fancy that day. But without fail James would be having Frosties, they were his favourite cereal. While most of the Frosties ended up on the floor it was a delight to watch him attempt to prove his independence by feeding himself. Ralph finished his breakfast and Denise got James ready for the short walk around the corner to her mother’s house, James’s nana Eileen. Ralph was heading over to his brother in laws home that day to help with a project while Denise and James would be running errands with her sister-in-law and niece.  But what was supposed to be a simple day of chores and projects with family would become the day the Bulger’s lives as they knew them ended. By that evening their precious two-year-old boy would be missing without a trace in circumstances which would come to shock the nation and indeed the world.  


The Bulger family lived in Kirkby which is a small town in the Borough of Knowsley in Merseyside. It lies just 6 miles (10km) northeast of Liverpool and 180 miles (290 km) northwest of London. With a population of just over 40,000 people, it strikes that fine balance between a metropolitan centre and a tight-knit community. Due to the presence of Bronze age architecture still visible in some parts of Kirkby, it is believed to have been founded in 870 AD and settled predominantly by Irish Catholics around 900AD. Whilst Kirkby had bountiful pastures prime for farming, it predominantly housed factories and industrial buildings with the land changing hands numerous times over the years. During the second world war, nearby Liverpool sustained much damage to its infrastructure and many homes had been left in ruins so it fell to the Liverpool corporation, or what we might consider the council these days, to find alternatives for housing the displaced population. Given Kirkby’s proximity to Liverpool, it was purchased from the Earl of Sefton in 1947 and transformed into a housing estate. By 1950 large-scale development was well underway and within five years more than 10,000 homes had been built housing more than 52,000 people. But the rapid growth wasn’t all good news. Whilst houses seemed to go up overnight, the infrastructure and amenities needed to support so many people were lacking. No shops were built until 5 years into the development and it took another four years for a pub to follow. The lack of foresight meant the area wasn’t seen as desirable and most of the inhabitants were from Liverpool’s poorest areas where housing had become overpriced, and they were not left with any choice but to move somewhere more affordable. 

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Job prospects were also an important consideration for residents of Kirkby. The industrial estate which had been established during war times was the major business in the area employing more than 26,000 people. This provided an additional draw to Kirkby during a time when steady work was hard to come by.  

With the increasing population, the residents of Kirkby wanted it to be designated as its own town. Such independence would have provided government benefits and funding to continue improving the amenities for residents. But the proposal was rejected. It is thought that the supposed “undesirable” nature of the residents meant the local government didn’t want any further attention drawn to the borough. Over the coming decades, interest in the area seemed to fizzle out. Plans for a supermarket and sports stadium were stalled and delayed again and again until they faded into distant memory.  

By the time James Bulger was born in 1993, the population of Kirkby had declined to less than 40,000 residents and the closest supermarket was still more than 20 minutes away. So, when Denise had chores to run she bundled James into the car and set off for the New Strand Shopping centre in Bootle.  


Ralph and Denise both grew up in Kirkby. Denise was the second youngest of thirteen children and therefore grew up with family as the centre of her world.  

While her family didn’t have a lot of money, they had a home filled with love and laughter and plenty of chaos with so many children in the house. Both her parents were very involved in their children’s lives and worked hard to give them a stable home. Living in their four-bedroom family home, it was a simple childhood where the children always had everything they needed but none of the extras. No expensive toys or overseas holidays or fancy clothes. In those days, the children played on the street from the time the sun rose until the sunset, never worrying about the danger that could be lurking in the shadows.  

With 25 years between Denise and her oldest sibling, there was always a baby or toddler around as the older children moved out and started families of their own. Denise loved being an aunt to all of them. Given that most of the family still lived within minutes of her parent’s place,  most days were spent congregating there with everyone helping each other out.  

Denise was the first to offer to soothe a baby or to change a diaper or offer a feed. And she loved nothing more than the feeling of those small eyes looking up into hers and the lids drooped and they fell into sleep. In fact, Denise was known to wake a child from their sleep just so they could fall asleep on her again once she had settled them down, much to their parent’s annoyance. Denise knew from as early as she could remember that she wanted to have her own children one day. And she knew exactly what type of mum she was going to be. She promised herself she would never feel like she needed to put them down to sleep or have them out of her sight for a minute just so she would never miss a moment of those love-filled eyes.  

Given her love for all things babies, Denise wasn’t too interested in school. There was nothing she really wanted in life except to be a mum and to take care of her own kids. So when she was 16 and her own mum needed to be taken care of after having surgery Denise put her hand up to help. It would mean days off school but Denise wasn’t worried. But the days turned into weeks and after a while, she realised there was no point in going back as she had missed so much of the school year already.  

Denise picked up a job at an ice cream factory but before long machines replaced the workers and at 18 years old Denise was left at a loose end once again. But that was all about to change when by chance while on a night out with friends Denise met Ralph Bulger at the local pub.  


Ralph was born and raised in Kirkby as the youngest of six children with three older brothers and two sisters. Whilst the family didn’t have a lot of money, they never wanted for anything. There was plenty of love to go around and in amongst the typical sibling scraps there was a tight familial bond between all members of the Bulger household.    

Ralph’s parents had been some of the many whose homes in Liverpool had fallen into disrepair after the war and had been classified as slums. They gratefully accepted the opportunity to move to Kirkby into a brand-new home built by the council. It was a huge upgrade from their cold, damp home in Liverpool and it represented a new start for the young family. Employment opportunities were strong with the Kirkby Industrial estate employing so many locals. But when the recession hit in the 1980s the jobs dried up and the once thriving community and well-maintained buildings began to fall into disrepair. 

By then Ralph was a teenager looking to secure his first job and start his life as an independent adult. But there were no jobs to be had and despite qualifying in electrical, upholstering, bricklaying and truck driving he was unable to find stable work. His parents had instilled in him a strong work ethic and not being able to find somewhere to apply that dedication was demoralising. But he still had his family and he stayed close by, choosing not to follow many of his mates to the big centres of London and Liverpool in their effort to find employment.     

He was 18 and having a few drinks with friends at the pub when he locked eyes with Denise from across the room. He first noticed Denise’s wide smile and beautiful bright blue eyes so sucking up the courage to talk to her he crossed the room and asked her to dance. She said yes and before the night was over Ralph was besotted with her wicked sense of humour and big personality. As they say, the rest is history and before long the couple were a permanent item.  

Ralph was kind and sweet and while he didn’t talk much he seemed to be as keen to start a family as Denise was. Within weeks they decided to move in together and they secured a small bedsit which would become their first home.  


The home they shared was a small place, just a hallway, a bathroom and a room which housed the kitchen and bedroom in one space, what we might call a studio these days. Even with the limited space, Denise set about making it a welcoming and cosy home, filling it with goods gifted by family and friends.  

Ralph worked a security job while Denise picked up odd jobs here and there while still spending time looking after her sibling’s children when they needed her. It wasn’t long before Denise got the news she had always wanted. At 20 years old, she was finally pregnant.  

Initially, the news came as a shock to her family. They knew Denise was desperate for children but Ralph and Denise weren’t married and in those days it just wasn’t proper. But once they saw the excitement of the couple they couldn’t help but celebrate with them. The pregnancy went by with no complications and Denise relished the kicks and flutters she could feel as the baby moved inside her. As her tummy swelled she spoke to her unborn child, whispering of her hopes and dreams and the love she felt for the baby she had never met. In preparation for bringing their little one home, Denise set up all the baby supplies that had been handed down by her siblings, she washed all the baby’s clothes and dusted off the pram.  

But Ralph and Denise’s home would never hold their unborn child. On the morning of her delivery, Denise felt the baby move just like every other day. Ralph drove her to the hospital where her waters were broken and contractions began. But when the monitor was put on her tummy, the midwives could find no heartbeat. In a panic, the Doctors examined Denise more closely but they still couldn’t detect any movement and they told Denise and Ralph that they believed their baby had died.  There was a slim chance that they were wrong and it was this hope that got Denise through her delivery. But sadly, on the 22nd of February 1989, Kirsty Bulger was born without a heartbeat.  

Denise was able to hold her little girl after the delivery and marvelled at her perfectly formed features and plump body. There was no explanation for why Kirsty had passed away and Ralph and Denise agreed that they didn’t want her tiny body to be autopsied. For hours they sat together in a state of shock until Ralph broke the silence with a few simple words – “Denise, will you marry me?” They hugged and cried but mostly they were grateful to have each other during this darkest time.  

Two days later, they left the hospital empty-handed and returned to a home filled with reminders of the child they would never bring home. The pain of losing their daughter was raw and unyielding, the kind of pain that lives in your bones and that no amount of future joy or happiness can eliminate.  

Denise remembers saying to herself at the time “Today is the worst day of your whole life Denise. It will never get worse than this”.  

With this heart-wrenching loss as the backdrop, Denise and Ralph attempted to get on with their lives. Ralph threw himself into work, but Denise struggled to get back to a sense of normal. She couldn’t face being around her sibling’s children where once she was the first to volunteer to help. She was consumed by thoughts of Kirsty and what it would have felt like to hold her, to nurse her and to love her. Losing a child when you have carried them for nine months means losing not only them as a person but also all the hopes and dreams you had held for their life. Who they would become, what they would look like, and what they would be interested in. Losing a child is all consuming and for Denise, there was one thought that got her through those dark times – she was determined to have another baby of her own in her arms.  

Four months after Kirsty’s death, her wish came true and Denise and Ralph found out they were pregnant for a second time. Off the back of this news, the couple decided to make their relationship official and they married in September 1989, six months before the baby was due.  

But this time the pregnancy felt different. There was no preparing the home with baby things, no washing clothes, and no excitement over the baby’s movements. Denise analysed and scrutinised everything, she was terrified of losing her baby. They had never found out what caused Kirsty’s stillbirth and so there was no way of knowing what they should or shouldn’t do differently.  

By the time delivery day came, Denise and Ralph were a bundle of nerves. But this time the birth went exactly as it was supposed to.  The doctors announced that they had a little boy. On the 16th of March 1990, James Patrick Bulger was born, and he was perfect.  


James was born with bright blue eyes, blond hair and beautifully smooth skin. He was named after Ralph’s father who had passed away from cancer not long before his grandson’s birth. His lungs were fully functioning as everyone could tell by the fact that he screamed from the second he arrived and for the first few months of his life. He struggled with colic and no matter the soothing or position he was held, he couldn’t seem to get comfortable. But Denise didn’t mind the long nights or bone-deep exhaustion. The only thing that bothered her was not being able to soothe her baby or take away his pain.  

Day after day she watched as his little body writhed in pain. When it got too much she would drag herself to one of her sibling’s homes with James in the pram hoping they could help. But even through the worst of it, Denise loved being James’s mum. When she looked down at her perfect little boy and he stared back into her eyes, she remembered that this is what it was all about. That all the pain of losing Kirsty had led her to this. When she held James on her chest as he fell asleep she knew that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be.  

For Ralph, the experience of fatherhood was just the same though he was out most days trying to find work.  Somehow he managed to sleep through many of the long nights when James and Denise were up all hours trying to get settled.  

The couple were still young and Ralph’s friends were enjoying their youth.  When he was home he was very hands-on and devoted to James but increasingly Ralph would go out with his mates drinking. One night out would stretch into two and three before Denise would see him again. But Denise’s mind was otherwise occupied and she didn’t dwell on thoughts of Ralph. James was her sole focus and as his mother, she wanted to nurse him through his pain.  

And then one day it all seemed to stop. The colic was gone and the real James emerged. A boy who was full of smiles and giggles from the second he woke up until the moment he went to sleep.  Before long he learnt how to roll over, and then sit up on his own. When he started crawling and taking his first steps Denise and Ralph had to babyproof the flat as he was so quick grabbing everything within reach and pulling it to the floor.  

Most days followed the same routine in the Bulger household. Denise and James would wake first and get washed.  After breakfast which was a somewhat messy affair, the pair would bundle up into the pram and visit Denise’s mum’s home which was just a short stroll around the corner. On any given day one or more of her siblings would be there and they would spend the day together with James playing gleefully with his cousins. James was never out of Denise’s sight for more than a toilet break or to put the jug on for a cup of tea. The two were inseparable, like two halves of a whole. James never went to day-care or babysitters – Denise had all the support she needed from her huge family whom she saw every day.  

It is this aspect of James’s life that made his disappearance all the more heartbreaking.  

Even as he grew into his second year of life James didn’t have tantrums or meltdowns and he was never grumpy, even when he was desperately tired. He had a cheeky smile that seemed to reach from ear to ear and he never had any trouble sharing his toys. But he did have a cheeky and mischievous side. No matter who they were, everyone cooed over James – his megawatt smile would light up the room. When he started to move on his own he’d give the adults a sly grin before pulling a shelf down or touching something he knew he shouldn’t. And no one could stay angry for long, he just had that effect on people – James could get away with anything. He loved to tear around his nan’s house – there wasn’t much room at home – and once he learnt to run he never seemed to walk again, always moving at a sprint. Given he had spent his whole life around other children and adults, James was a trusting child and wasn’t worried about being surrounded by lots of noise and fuss. His favourite toy was anything that had wheels,  from the go-kart he was given for Christmas to the trike on his second birthday.  

In that second year of life, his babyhood blonde locks grew into dark curls but his bright blue eyes stayed the same bar a brown streak that developed in one iris. He started looking less like a toddler and more like a young boy and Denise’s heart overflowed with pride every time she looked at him.  

His dad loved to take James to play ball in the local park or out on his go-kart. Given Ralph’s skills with tools, he lovingly crafted James his very own big boy chair which became his favourite spot to sit and watch TV or eat his meals.  

James was never much into talking but he managed to communicate well enough by pointing or singing. He babbled his ABCs and loved his quiet time with Denise each night before bed when she would read one of his favourite stories. He adored music and dancing with his mum in the middle of the lounge, particularly when she put on her own favourite Michael Jackson tracks.   

Between his doting mum, his hands on dad and the many aunts, uncles and cousins in his daily life James was never short on love or attention. He loved to make others smile and laugh and when they did it encouraged him even more and he’d fly about the room making them laugh even harder. It seemed the only time James was quiet was when he was asleep which he did like everything else in his life, hard and fast. He would fall asleep quickly and wake just as energised ready to start a new day.  

While Ralph looked for work, Denise and James spent every day together, starting with James’s favourite Frosties for breakfast before heading over to Denise’s mum’s house. Friday the 12th of February 1993 was no different. Except it was to become the last day the bright-eyed James and his doting mum would be together.  

Friday the 12th of February: 

When Denise went out with James, she always took the pram, even if it was just around the corner for milk or to drop something at her mum’s. While he could walk perfectly well, James was at that age where he could pull her in any direction at any moment. Like most two-year-old’s, everything new was fascinating and it made life much easier when they used the pram.  

That day Denise had her typical list of chores to tick off before the weekend while Ralph was planning on helping Denise’s brother Paul, put together some new furniture at his place. They considered James going with his dad but decided his inquisitive mind would get him into trouble with all the tools and equipment they would be using.  

Denise dressed James in a grey tracksuit with a stripe down the side, white socks and trainers with black laces – an outfit she would later have to recall in detail many times. Given it was freezing outside she added his blue jacket with a hood and clipped him into the pram. They set off for the short walk to her mum’s where Paul would pick up Ralph and drop off his fiancée Nicole and niece Vanessa who would likely spend the day with Denise. Vanessa was not much older than James and the two got along swimmingly.  

As the morning rolled into lunchtime Nicola and Denise decided to take the two children and head off to The Strand Shopping centre in Bootle which offered more options than their local small stores. Denise bundled James up again and stood in the doorway as she contemplated taking the pram. Denise always took the pram. Inexplicably on this day, at this moment, she decided she was only popping into the shops for a short time and James could walk, just this once.  

At 1.45 pm the group arrived at the shops. Given it was a Friday the mall was teeming with people making preparations for the weekend. James jumped from the car excited that for once he was allowed to walk on his own – holding his mum’s hand mind you, but this was really big boy territory.  

As they walked through the mall, every now and then he would slip his hand out of Denise’s and run ahead and she would have to run after him to scoop him up. When it happened one too many times Denise said to him “Stop running away! You’re getting naughty now and I’m not happy”. That seemed to calm him down and he didn’t run off after that.  

Denise habitually took a list when she went shopping. On this day, given how far they had to drive to the shops she didn’t want to forget anything. After collecting a few things the two kids seemed to have reached their limit. Without the pram their little legs were tired. Nicola and Denise decided to make one final stop at the butchery to pick up pork chops for Paul and Ralph to have for tea. Whilst the butcher wrapped them up in paper she let go of James’s hand to grab her purse out of her bag. The butcher handed the package over and Denise paid. As she put her purse back in her bag she looked down at James. But James wasn’t there.  

Her heart stopped and she immediately shouted, “where is James?”. She looked over to where Nicola and Vanessa were standing hoping James was playing with his cousin. But with a start, she realised he wasn’t in the butcher shop at all. It was only a small store and there was just one other customer and Nicola.  

Denise ran out of the store and called his name, but there was no answer. It was 3.30 pm on a Friday and the shops were heaving. Denise couldn’t decide which way to go to search for her previous boy, but eventually, she had to choose one. She chose left.  

Frantically Nicola and Denise searched the stores around the butchery. In vain she called out his name, but her cries were swallowed by the other shoppers.  

Denise reassured herself that James was a smart boy, he had probably tried to find someone to help him as he was such a trusting boy. Or maybe he had somehow walked back to the car on his own when he realised he had lost his mum. Or maybe he was playing a game and hiding inside one of the stores.  

She raced down to the service desk and breathlessly demanded that they make an announcement over the speaker system. She wanted them to shut the shops and search for her boy. Denise was in a state, and she was offered a seat in the security office but there was no way she was going to stop searching for James until he was back by her side. She made her way back to the butchery stopping everyone and asking if they had seen her son. 

She described his outfit, his hair, his eyes, all the features of her innocent 2-year-old, just a month shy of his third birthday.  

Well-meaning shop owners told Denise he had been found in another store only for her to arrive and find they were mistaken. Security officers tried to calm her down, but Denise was hysterical in the desperate hunt for James.  

He was only two years old; he couldn’t have gotten far. The seconds stretched into minutes and then almost an hour had passed with no sign of James. The police were alerted and arrived promptly to the mall though their attitude was fairly relaxed at that point. Everyone assumed it was just another case of a mischievous toddler running off from his mother and that he would soon be discovered safe and well. Denise was transported to the local police station where the search would be coordinated from, while officers combed the mall yet again.  

Meanwhile, Ralph returned to Denise’s mother’s home that afternoon none the wiser to the disappearance of his son. This was the age before mobile phones and many households in the area couldn’t afford a landline, Denise and Ralph included.  When he didn’t immediately see Denise or James he assumed they had already returned home without him. That was until his mother-in-law told him there was a message on the machine that James had gone missing and Ralph needed to get to the Marsh Lane Police station as soon as possible.  

Ralph was in a state of disbelief – “what do you mean? How can he be missing for God’s sake?.” In a state of shock, he ran to his brother’s house pleading for a ride to the station.  

By the time Ralph arrived the search for James had kicked into high gear. The mall had since closed for the day and yet there had been no sign of the cheeky, blue-eyed boy. No one wanted to say it out loud but the circumstances of his disappearance and the length of time he had been gone were looking more and more suspicious. The Police were keeping all their options open including considering that someone had taken James right from underneath his mother’s nose.  

As Ralph was arriving to the station Denise was being questioned by detectives in another room. She was asked to recall the events of the day for what felt like the hundredth time. She was also asked probing questions about her relationship with James, how much time they spent together, how often did she let him out of her sight and strangely had he ever been on a bus on his own. While procedure surely dictates parents need to be the first to answer questions it felt to Denise like every minute spent in that room was a minute wasted in the search for her child. She was at a loss to describe how deeply she loved her boy and to convince them she would never hurt him.  

After four hours of questioning Denise was finally allowed to see Ralph. They immediately embraced in a hug filled with pain and helplessness. By now James had been missing for almost six hours. The couple was determined to find their little boy. 

When they walked out of the station together there were police patrol cars everywhere. Loudspeakers were being used to broadcast James’s disappearance to the neighbourhood in the hopes someone had seen a little boy wandering alone. A police helicopter scoured the streets from above and more than 100 officers were searching for James on foot. As the night closed in and the temperature dropped, family and friends as well as members of the community volunteered to aid in the search. There was no doubt in their minds that the little boy would be found soon. James’s story was broadcast on the local news and soon the national media picked up his story.  

They had no way of knowing the horrors that would unfold in the days to come.  

The first lead came in that night at 10 pm when a woman who had seen the story on the news reported that she had observed a young child crying by the banks of the Leeds Liverpool canal which ran alongside the mall. A dive team was scrambled but they couldn’t start searing the waterway until the sun rose the next day due to low visibility in the dark.  

Later that night officers asked Ralph and Denise to return to the station. They hoped against hope that the officers had some good news to share. Instead, they were asked to sit down while they were shown a series of CCTV images taken from the mall that day and point out anything or anyone that seemed familiar.  

In a single frame taken from a camera that looked down upon the entrance of the butchery young James could be seen walking out of the shop on his own. Both Denise and Ralph identified him instantly. The next frame taken just seconds later showed Denise running from the store after realising her son was gone. It certainly put paid to the idea that Denise had had anything to do with his disappearance, but it didn’t bring them any closer to finding James.  

After looking through the images and finding nothing further the investigators encouraged the couple to go home and get some rest while the rest of the hundreds of hours of CCTV footage from the mall was combed through.  

They returned to Denise’s mother’s home as advised. Eileen was the only person they knew with a landline phone and that was the only way they could receive updates in the search. But neither of them could rest, they were too wound up with worry and fear for their son and at around 1 am they returned to Bootle to participate in the search for James.   

As the sun rose and the divers began searching the canal, Ralph and Denise headed to the police station to find out the latest in their son’s disappearance.  

What they were about to be told would blow the case wide open. Officers had been working through the night pulling the CCTV footage apart frame by frame. They had found more images of James. But he was not alone.  

Their worst fears were confirmed. James had not just gone missing. He had been taken…  

Episode Credits: 

Host – Rhiannon Doe 

Voiceover – Kwesi  

Website layout & design – Fran Howard 

Research & writing – Sophie Wild