Fantasist facing life after being found guilty of the murder of Rikki Neave

James Watson was 13 when he lured six-year-old Rikki to woods near his home in Peterborough in 1994.

21 April 2022

A fantasist is facing life imprisonment after a jury found him guilty of murdering schoolboy Rikki Neave more than 27 years ago.

James Watson was 13 when he lured six-year-old Rikki to woods near his home in Peterborough on November 28 1994.

He strangled the boy from behind with a ligature or anorak collar, to fulfil a “morbid fantasy” he had told his mother about three days before.

He stripped Rikki and posed his naked body in a star shape for sexual gratification, deliberately “exhibiting” him near a children’s woodland den, the Old Bailey heard.

Watson, now 41, was found guilty of murder on Thursday by a jury who deliberated for 36 hours and 31 minutes to reach a majority verdict after an 11-week trial.

After the verdict Rikki’s mother Ruth Neave thanked the jury for making “the right decision”, called her son’s killer a “monster” but said “this is not the time to celebrate as it should never have happened”.

In a statement, released to Cambs Times, she also criticised Cambridgeshire Police and Cambridgeshire Social Services for the way they had handled the case.

She said: “The only thing now is to close this chapter in my life and open a new one.

James Watson court case
Rikki Neave (Handout/PA)

“I wonder what Rikki would be like today, married, children? Who knows? But this monster has taken that all from me and my daughters.”

Rikki’s body was found the day after he went missing.

Watson had obsessed over newspaper coverage of the killing, copying front page stories at school.

The next month he was interviewed as a witness by police after an elderly resident reported seeing him with Rikki on the nearby Welland Estate.

His lying account was unchallenged, as police wrongly focused on a theory that Ms Neave killed her son and used a buggy to dump his body.

James Watson court case
James Watson (Cambridgeshire Police/PA)

Ms Neave, a mother-of-four, was cleared of Rikki’s murder in 1996 but jailed for seven years after admitting child cruelty.

The case was unsolved for more than 20 years until Watson’s DNA was identified on Rikki’s clothes, which had been recovered from a wheelie bin.

Prosecutors felt there was still insufficient evidence, but reversed their decision after Ms Neave and Rikki’s sisters called for a victims’ right to review.

Key evidence included Rikki’s last meal, of Weetabix, which fixed his time of death at about noon.

It meant Rikki was killed shortly after being seen with Watson heading to the woods where he used to play.

James Watson court case
Police at the scene where Rikki’s body was found (John Giles/PA)

Rikki’s muddy Clarks shoes also indicated his walk into the woods was a one-way trip.

The prosecution claimed it was no coincidence that, three days before the murder, Watson was the source of a bogus radio report about a two-year-old boy being strangled.

Watson’s sexual interest in younger boys was known to police, who interviewed him over an allegation that he molested a five-year-old in 1993.

More disturbing behaviour was noted at Watson’s children’s home, including him masturbating over pictures of young boys in underwear and keeping a dead pheasant in his room, the court heard.

Jurors were not told about a record of Watson allegedly throttling a staff member with a stocking.

James Watson court case
A policeman leaves flowers at Rikki’s school, Welland County Primary School, in 1994 (PA)

An ex-girlfriend said he had strangled her during sex in woods and killed a bird and spread its wings, in a sinister reconstruction of Rikki’s murder.

In a police interview in 2016, Watson attempted to explain his DNA’s presence on Rikki’s clothes by claiming he picked him up to look at diggers through a hole in a fence.

Prosecutor John Price QC said that was his “really big mistake”, as police were able to prove the fence was not there in 1994.

Jurors were told Watson has a long criminal record, which includes convictions for stealing cars and setting fire to a British Transport Police station.

Watson fled to Portugal while on bail on suspicion of murder, but was extradited back to Britain.

James Watson court case
Socks Rikki was wearing when he was killed were recovered from a bin (Crown Prosecution Service/PA)

In his defence, Watson’s legal team pointed the finger of suspicion at Ms Neave, which she denied.

The defence said Watson could not have murdered Rikki, as he was seen alive in the afternoon of November 28.

However, the prosecution shrugged off the “ghost sightings”, which wrongly claimed Rikki was wearing a red jumper or riding a BMX bike.

Sentencing will take place on May 9.

The judge, Mrs Justice McGowan, said: “He will fall to be sentenced for something he did at the age of 13.

James Watson court case
Front page of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph dated November 30 1994 (CPS/PA)

“The sentence for murder is one of life imprisonment. I have to set the minimum term he must serve before he can be considered for release.

“It will be determined largely by the age he was at the time of the offence he committed.”

After the verdict, Rikki’s aunts Sandra Chestney and Alison Harvey, said that “this is a day we feared would never come, 27 years is a long time to grieve without closure”.

In their statement, they said: “Sadly, Rikki’s dad Trevor passed away not knowing what happened to his ‘best boy in the world’, now they can finally both be at peace together.”

Rikki’s sister Rebecca added: “Although this day is a painful reminder of the loss we have all suffered, justice has finally been served.”

Ruth Neave
Ruth Neave leaves Rikki’s funeral in 1995 (John Giles/PA)

Following the verdict, former assistant chief constable Paul Fullwood, who led the cold case, said Watson is “a fantasist, a dangerous individual, and a compulsive liar”.

Mr Fullwood said: “All the way through this, it’s been a monumental series of challenges. But as far as we’re concerned, we’ve got the right person responsible for the dreadful, dreadful murder of that little boy Rikki Neave.

“Hopefully, we can bring some justice for his family… and also make sure that we put a dangerous individual in prison.”

Hannah Van Dadelszen, deputy chief crown prosecutor for the east of England, acknowledged prosecuting Ms Neave was “wrong”.

She said: “I am pleased that we have been able to deliver justice for all those who knew and loved Rikki, and I hope that for all those people that does bring a sense of closure to the case.”

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