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2006-06-28

Oh, this brought back bad memories

Rumours have been flying about the death of Sofia Rodriguez-Urrutia-Shu:
Police in Perth have been forced to deny that a man accused of murdering an eight-year-old schoolgirl is one of the killers of British boy James Bulger.
I was living in the UK from mid-'94 to the end of '95, and I remember the effect that the Bulger murder had there. Like the rest of the Western world, the tradition of leading-reins to keep small children close had been on the way out. No more. The way that little James Bulger was lured out of a shop by the older boys while his mother was buying the family groceries was on everybody's mind, and sales of leading-reins had boomed - every parent wanted to make sure they were physically attached to their small children at all times.

I was looked at askance when we returned to Australia and I was still using the reins. But I was grateful for the control over an active toddler while still carrying an infant, and I was still hyperaware of the Bulger case, particularly of the tragic details of eyewitnesses who saw the two older boys tormenting Jamie and thought "something looks wrong" but "didn't want to interfere". None of them called the police.

Not long after returning I saw a group of young teens with a child in a stroller. They picked the stroller up and wheeled it along the top of a traffic barrier, and were putting their faces into the stroller very closely and, as seemed to me, aggressively. My "Bulger!" alarm went off, and I called the police. Initially they weren't too concerned by my description, until I said "I know it might be nothing, but I can't help thinking of all those people in the UK who saw Jamie Bulger with those two boys and didn't call the police. I don't ever want to have regrets like that." Their whole attitude changed.

I was hugely relieved an hour later when they came around and told me that they'd checked out the boys and the kid in the stroller was really the younger brother of two of the teens and they were just mucking around with him. But I was nonetheless glad that I rang.

It was just such a horrible story, lurking naturally in the mythic consciousness, that for this to arise in the wake of Sofia's equally dreadful death was almost to be expected as an urban folklore rumour. Because tapping into people's fears and yearnings for justice is what urban legends do.

Below are some excerpts from the circulating e-mail:
About 3 yrs ago when I was working at the prison we found out that one of the boys (at the time aged about 12) that abducted James Bulger from a shopping centre in the U.K., then brutally raped and murdered him, had reached the age of 18 and had been sent out to Australia with a new identity for his family, etc.
[. . .]
Soon after he got here he assaulted a 12 yrd old girl in a park in Canning Vale and consequently came to Hakea prison but for only about 6 weeks as they couldn't get enough evidence on him and the incident was brushed under the mat.
[. . .]
His parents used to visit him and their photos were on the computers at work and I clearly recall seeing his mum at the Livingston shops one day. I even had his address and because I've got friends and family in the area, I felt I had a right to tell them, stuff the prisons!!
And here we get to the moral meat of the myth:
That innocent little girl and her poor family will never ever be the same again - all because the p*ss weak Justice System and Govt allowed him to live in our country! There is a register for paedophiles so that the community are allowed to know where they're living and yet this piece of sh*t can live on our back door step with a new identity. People winge about illegal immigrants, what about this?
This is a very typical format for the "moral outrage" type of urban myth. There be monsters, and those we've designated our guardians aren't protecting us properly! Note that the person who allegedly worked at the gaol is not named, and there are few checkable details. This is typical of these email chain letter warnings.

The above email has almost certainly merely had material added to the top and tail of an email that's been circulating since last year alleging that the killers had been relocated to Australia (an unsubstantiated claim). The website Break the Chain says:
In October, 2005, Jamie's mother and killers were once again in the headlines as Denise Fergus publicly objected to reports that both of her son's killers may have broken the terms of their release. In June, 2005, a national (UK) newspaper reported that Jon Venables had been treated in a Merseyside hospital for injuries stemming from assault. A term of his probation is that he is not permitted to enter the county of Merseyside without official permission or an escort. A September article in the same paper reported that Robert Thompson, now 24, had been prescribed methadone, presumably to treat a heroine addiction. Use of an illegal (or Class A drug) is illegal and, thus, a violation of his probation. Fergus is publicly calling for an investigation of what she feels is a blatant mishandling of the killers' probation.
Obviously, if the claims of hospital/methadone treatment in the UK in 2005 are true, claims of relocation to Australia are most unlikely. Also, Thompson and Venables are subject to supervision orders in the UK, where they have to report weekly to a police station. There is no way that either man could have been living in Western Australia since 2001, as it is illegal to leave Britain when under a supervision order.

It seems that the coincidence of the suspect's family having gone to the UK in 1992/3 and returned to Australia in 2001 has been enough to get someone who'd seen the earlier email to make 2+2=5. Yet remember all the coverage of the Bulger murder? If one of those boys had been living in Australia before going to the UK and committing the murder, it would have been big news here, with all the neighbours in Perth doorstopped about what sort of kid he was. That never happened. This suspected murderer of Sofia is neither Thompson nor Venables.

Whenever a death as horrific as Sofia's occurs we all want to know why. Everybody wants someone to blame, and a 21-year old man charged with the crime about whom we otherwise know nothing is hardly satisfying. There must be a bigger reason, someone to blame, and governments soft on crime is an easy mythical target.

It's rarely as simple as someone just dropping a ball that should have been kept in the air. The reason these horrific crimes linger in our imagination is that they are so rare, and rare events are hard to predict. Imprisoning the murderer (assuming that the man arrested is in fact the murderer) is the best we can do, and despite the outrage last week over "pampering" convicted killer Ivan Milat with a TV and toasted sandwich maker, being deprived of freedom of movement is harsh punishment indeed. And at least an adult offender will be given a longer sentence than the child-murderers of James Bulger, which hopefully means he'll never have the opportunity to murder again.

We always want to know who to blame. There are no easy targets to blame here.

Hat-tip: lauredhel
This post has been edited to add incoming information since first published.

2 comments:

Helen said...

Fantastic post!

If anyone's seen the film The Vanishing (the original Dutch version, not the US remake). the killer says he's like lightning. Rare, unpredictable and (apparently) random.

To some extent that's true. Short of not letting our kids go anywhere or do anything, there's nothing we can do against something so unpredictable and rare. I mean, public toilets - sometimes you just gotta go.

tigtog said...

It's hard to rely on the statistical unlikelihood, though, isn't it? No matter how low the odds of something happening to our child, our protectiveness kicks in and we stop them from doing all sorts of things where the actual numbers simply don't support the perceived risk.

I know my kids don't have nearly the freedom that I did, although my protectiveness is nearly all about increased traffic and less attentive/considerate drivers than when I was a kid.