LONDON - Less than nine years after they abducted and murdered a toddler in a crime that was among the more notorious in modern British history, 18-year- olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were ordered freed yesterday by Britain's Parole Board.
The whereabouts of the teen-agers remained unknown, protected by a court order shielding their identities, and it was unclear whether they had already been released from juvenile detention.
The teens, who were 10 when they murdered 2-year-old James Bulger, will be under official supervision for the rest of their lives.`Thompson and Venables are not free," Home Secretary David Blunkett said, noting that by being placed on "life license" they are "liable to be recalled to custody at any time if there is any evidence that they present a risk to the public."
In an unusual written statement to Parliament announcing the Parole Board's decision, Blunkett said the teen-agers are prohibited from "directly or indirectly` contacting each other or Bulger's family. They are also prohibited without prior written permission from entering the County of Merseyside, the Liverpool metropolitan area where the murder was committed.
The teens will be given new identities and government documents such as birth certificates and passports. Public funds will be used for their protection as well as further education and training.
They are shielded by a High Court order in England and Wales preventing the news media from publishing anything that could lead to their being identified, a sign of the passions the case has aroused over the years.`The murder of young James Bulger was a terrible event for his family and the whole nation," Blunkett said. "But no public interest would be served by pursuing the perpetrators now that the Parole Board has decided that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that they should be confined."
In February 1993, Venables and Thompson, persistent truants from broken homes, lured Bulger from a shopping mall outside Liverpool, beat him, tortured him, killed him and left his body on a railroad line, where it was severed by a train.
The murderers were ordered to serve eight years in detention. Efforts to extend the sentence, including a 15-year term imposed by Home Secretary Michael Howard, were quashed.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the boys had not received a fair trial because of their ages.
Last year, the top judge in England and Wales, Lord Justice Woolf, ruled that Venables and Thompson were eligible for release.
"I feel angry, frustrated and completely let down by the system," said Bulger's father, Ralph, according to Britain's Press Association.
Bulger's mother, Denise Fergus, said the authorities were "sucked in by two devious murderers."
Through a spokeswoman, Fergus said Venables and Thompson "may think they have got off lightly and can hide. But I know different. I know no matter where they go, someone out there is waiting."
Attorneys for the murderers said the teens expressed remorse for the crime.
`The decision has been made after due legal process," said Venables' attorney, John Dickinson.