“It’s hard to remember which parts of your past you can talk about.”
The people who killed James Bulger will be given new identities when they are freed. But it’s not as easy as it might seem to get out of sight. Duncan Campbell talks about living in the dark.
“After a while, it can be hard to remember which parts of your past you can talk about,” “Peter,” said. “When you meet someone new and like them, you want to tell them about yourself, but you can’t.”
What can happen years later?
The case of two teenage New Zealand girls, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who were found guilty of killing Pauline’s mother in Christchurch in 1954, is similar to the case of Venables and Thompson. Pauline, who was 16 at the time, had tried to kill herself because she didn’t want to be apart from her friend Juliet, who was 15.
Juliet was going back to England. Pauline’s parents said she couldn’t go hang out with her friend. When they were finally freed after five and a half years, they went to Britain. If not for the 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures, which told their story, they might have lived quiet lives in the shadows with their new identities.
It turned out that Juliet Hulme had become the successful historical mystery writer Anne Perry and was living in a village near Inverness. Three years later, in a town in Kent, Pauline Parker, now known as Hilary Nathan, had her secret revealed. She used to be a teacher for kids with special needs.
Both women could support themselves and make new friends without raising any red flags. They might have never been found if it weren’t for the movie. The women were not protected from the media like Thompson and Venables were by a court order.
The Law changed
Before the Human Rights Act was enacted in October of last year, the courts couldn’t give an injunction to protect an adult in this way. The request included Mary Bell, another infamous child killer, to protect her daughter’s identity, who was made a ward of the court.
Bell was 12 years old when she was found guilty of killing two little boys in 1968. She was set free in 1980. She made a new life for herself with the help of the probation service. When she had a daughter in 1984, the Northumbria County council got an injunction from the high court that kept the child from being found out.
But someone told the News of the World about the birth and Bell’s new name. It wasn’t until many years later that she was finally outed in the press. This happened after Gitta Sereny’s book, Cries Unheard, came out in 1998.
When people heard Bell had gotten some of the advance payment, they looked for her. She was found in a seaside town in the south of England, where she had to tell her teenage daughter about her past for the first time.
Your own worst enemy
Bell may have made a mistake when she helped write a book that would bring new attention to her case. Some people with new names get tired of living in the shadows.
In 1974, bank robber Maurice O’Mahoney got out of a long sentence by turning informant. He was given a new identity, but he later called the Guardian to say that the easy life was over. “They told me to go out and look for work. Bank robbery is the only thing I know how to do. I’m in a really bad place. I could cry if I went around the corner.”
O’Mahoney changed his name to Peter Davies and got a job. He worked as a security guard at big events like David Bowie and Rick Wakeman tours. Since he was young and robbed banks, he’d grown a grey ponytail and put on weight, and many other criminals had vowed to catch him and get their revenge.
But he managed to stay out of their way. He got back into the news when he was arrested for a robbery. He was found not guilty because he said the police set him up.
An epidemic of “Snitches”
Another informant, Darren Nicholls, disappeared in the spring of 1996 after agreeing to testify against the men convicted of killing three criminals in a Range Rover on a country lane near Rettendon, Essex. Later, he didn’t like having a new identity.
“My little boy keeps asking, why can’t we have our old name back?’. How come I can’t talk to my friends? Why can’t we go to Essex again?’ He will want to get married someday. He will want to know why he doesn’t have a birth certificate one day. And when he finds out his dad’s grass, he’ll probably end up hating me too.”
People think that small towns are the best places to be buried. Too many people know each other in big cities, and people tend to be the nosiest in small towns. The best advice is still to hide in plain sight.
The current culture of “snitching” in Britain is one of the things that makes it hard to live under a new name there. Vitaly Vitaliev, a Russian journalist and author, has said that the British tabloid press is probably better at finding people than the KGB.
In this, they are helped by a culture that doesn’t seem to mind telling people things and a mistaken belief that you can make a lot of money by selling information, like where a pop star is or what a football player does at night.
Even though the media can’t identify Venables and Thompson in England and Wales, they aren’t really safe on the internet. It might be possible to stop newspapers and TV stations with easy-to-find assets, but it is almost impossible to police the internet.
But the police will tell you that thousands of people have changed their identities without any help from the government and have quietly vanished from sight for good.