Traumatised man who discovered James Bulger’s body dies in police custody

Man who found James Bulger’s body as a child dies in police custody (Picture: Liverpool Echo / Getty)

A troubled man who became traumatised after discovering the body of James Bulger as a child has died in police custody.

James Riley, 44, was approached by Merseyside Police on Scotland Road at around 9.45pm on March 14. He was taken into custody at St Anne Street Police Station.

He remained in a cell overnight, but at around 5pm the following day police staff were made aware he was on the floor and required medical attention. Paramedics were called and the man was taken to hospital, where he was confirmed dead.

Riley was a career criminal, whose personality was said to have ‘changed totally’ after he discovered the mutilated body of James Bulger on a train track in Merseyside in 1993, when he was 14 years old.

James Bulger, 2, was murdered by Jon Venebles and Howard Thompson when the pair were 10 years old (Picture: PA Images)

Bulger, then two, was murdered by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged ten, in a brutal killing that shocked the nation.

Friends and family say the trauma of the discovery left Riley struggling to cope with drug addiction and eventually led him to a life of crime, racking up more than 40 convictions.

His most recent spate behind bars came in May 2017, when he was jailed for two years and four months after admitting to a spate of commercial burglaries. 

Sarah Holt, defending him in that case, said: ‘He has been a drug addict for a considerable period of time- all his adult life and in fact most of his adolescence.

‘His problems can be traced back to when he was 14, when he experienced a very traumatic event.

‘It was an event I suggest that meant he is suffering from PTSD, though not diagnosed. He never sought counselling, he tells me.

‘That led him at 14 to try crack cocaine and his problems really spiralled from thereon in.’

James Riley was traumatised by the discovery of the body, which led him to drug addiction and a life of crime (Picture: Liverpool echo)

In 2021, he was found dumped on the street wearing just his underwear and holding a knife after a gang sought money for a debt he owed. Aberdeen Sheriff Court heard what he encountered in 1993 left a lasting impact on his life.

In 2003, Riley’s grandmother said neither him nor his brother Terence had ever spoken about the horrific things they saw as teenagers.

‘They bottled it up. We tried to get the boys to talk about it, but they used to become hysterical, screaming they didn’t want to think about it,’ she said.

‘After that day James went off the rails and Terence’s personality changed totally. We hardly see him these days, but we know it was finding James’ body that changed him.

‘Every night I pray for little James, but I also pray for my grandsons.’ 

Following news of Riley’s death, his friend Darren Gee, tweeted: ‘He was never the same after finding young James on the rail track. RIP Osty.’

The Independent Office for Police Custody (IOPC) is now investigating Riley’s death.

IOPC Regional Director Catherine Bates said: ‘This was a tragic incident in which a man has sadly died and our thoughts are with his family and loved ones. 

‘Merseyside Police referred this matter to us, and as he was in the custody of police at the time he became unwell, it is important there is a thorough and independent investigation.

‘We will examine all relevant matters including the interaction officers had with the man on the street, and what happened after he arrived at the custody suite. We have made contact with his family to explain our role and will update them as our enquiries progress.’

Merseyside Police said previously officers are fully cooperating with the IOPC. A spokesperson for the force said: ‘We are aware that the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is investigating the death of a 44-year-old man in police custody in Liverpool on Wednesday, March 15.

‘The force’s Professional Standards Department mandatorily referred the matter to the IOPC following the sad news that the man had passed away and we are fully cooperating with their investigation team. His next of kin have been informed and Merseyside Police would like to offer its condolences to the family for their loss.’

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