LONDON — It was just another shopping trip on just another day: a woman and her young son heading into a butcher shop. She turned away for just a moment.
She never again saw her child alive.
But the 2-year-old boy has become hauntingly familiar to millions of Britons who have watched security camera film of James Bulger toddling away from his mother and into the hands of two teen-age boys. Two days later, his body was found.
The footage--silently chronicling every parent's nightmare--has also shocked a nation with the possibility that the murderers may be little more than children themselves.
Police searching for his killers said Wednesday that they are checking a report that an hour before James' abduction, two boys were seen trying to lure other children away from their parents in the same Liverpool mall.
James' battered body was found Sunday on a rail line in Liverpool, two days after he wandered away from his mother in the mall butcher shop.
Police said that the boy was dead before he was hit by a train and that there was no evidence of sexual abuse.
A coroner's inquest opened Tuesday, and the cause of death was still not known Wednesday.
The abduction and murder of children as young as 2 is rare in Britain, where overall crime rates, though rapidly increasing in recent years, remain far lower than in the United States.
An average of 57 children under 5 have been murdered every year in the country of 53 million in the past decade, but only 10 in that period were killed by strangers, government statistics show.
FBI statistics show 675 children age 4 and under were murdered in 1991 in the United States, which has a population about five times as large as Britain.
About 80 people jeered and shouted "murderer" as police led a 12-year-old out of a house Tuesday night with a blanket over his head. The boy was released Wednesday, as were two adults detained Tuesday night.
A crowd later demonstrated outside the police station where 20 youths, age 10 to 16, were questioned.
Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby told reporters that police were pursuing "a very serious line of inquiry" after talking to a woman who said two boys tried to lure her children from a department store about an hour before James disappeared.
The security camera pictures showed James wandering away from his mother, Denise. She told police he was out of her sight for less than a minute.
Pictures taken just four minutes later showed James walking away, holding the left hand of an older boy. Police said other pictures indicate James left with two boys aged 10 to 14.
Another video camera outside a construction site half a mile from the mall produced pictures of the older boys either dragging James or swinging him by the arms. Witnesses said the boy was crying by that point.
Three girls seen walking alongside James in the construction site videotape also have contacted police, Kirby said.
Constable Mandy Waller, who was assigned to assist the devastated family, told reporters that "they are trying to keep themselves together."
"I don't know how they are going to cope with it at all," she said.