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Rikki Neave murder: Man found guilty of murdering 6-year-old schoolboy in 1994



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A man has been found guilty of murdering six-year-old Rikki Neave more than 27 years ago after one of the most complex investigations ever undertaken by Cambridgeshire Constabulary.

James Watson, 41, was just 13 years old when he strangled Rikki in woodland on the Welland Estate in Peterborough on November 28, 1994.

Rikki Neave, 6, and his killer, James Watson, now 41
Rikki Neave, 6, and his killer, James Watson, now 41

After killing him, Watson stripped Rikki and left his naked body posed with legs and arms outstretched, before discarding the boy’s clothing in a wheelie bin nearby.

Following the verdict, Rochelle and Shelley Neave, his younger sisters, said: “We are glad nobody else’s family has to suffer at the hands of his killer and the streets will also be safer for our communities.

“It will never take the pain away from what Rikki suffered but justice has been rightly served. We love you so much Rikki. Sleep tight little man, you will always be in our hearts and never forgotten.”

Police tape by woodland on the Welland Estate in Peterborough where Rikki Neave was strangled on November 28, 1994
Police tape by woodland on the Welland Estate in Peterborough where Rikki Neave was strangled on November 28, 1994

A discovery surrounding Rikki’s breakfast of Weetabix was key to solving the case, as it showed he had died in the morning, rather than later in the day or the evening, as originally thought.

A post mortem examination found Rikki had died as a result of a compression of the neck – strangulation. Police believe he had been strangled from behind, using the zip from his coat.

The Old Bailey heard that Rikki had left his home in Redmile Walk at about 9.30am that day and at about 10.30am witnesses saw Watson “playing” with him in nearby Rotherby Grove. One witness described the pair walking off in the direction of the woodland, side by side at about 11am.

It was at about 6pm that Rikki’s mother, Ruth Neave, reported him missing. Officers visited his home and local people joined in extensive searches in the area.

Ruth Neave was cleared of murdering her son Rikki at an earlier trial. Picture: Ben Kendall/PA
Ruth Neave was cleared of murdering her son Rikki at an earlier trial. Picture: Ben Kendall/PA

His body was discovered the following day at 12.05pm in a wooded area off Eye Road, close to Willoughby Court, which was a five-minute walk from his home.

Investigations ultimately showed he had died about two hours after his breakfast.

Officers found Rikki’s clothing – grey trousers, a white shirt, black shoes and a blue coat – in a wheelie bin in Willoughby Court on November 30.

The condition of the clothes, based on the weather, suggested they had been there since the day of Rikki's murder and expert evidence proved from the mud on his shoes he had walked into the woods but not out again.

A witness reported seeing a teenager matching Watson’s description in the area close to the bin at about 1pm on the day of Rikki’s murder.

Rikki Neave, who was murdered in Peterborough at the age of 6
Rikki Neave, who was murdered in Peterborough at the age of 6

But six months later, on May 24, 1995, Ruth Neave was charged with Rikki’s murder and offences of child “cruelty”.

She later admitted the charges of child cruelty and was sentenced to seven years in prison but was unanimously found not guilty of his murder following a trial in October 1996.

In November 2014, she appealed to police to reopen the unsolved case. A cold case review led to the investigation officially reopening in June 2015, with a completely new team of officers examining the case.

They used forensic techniques not available in 1994 to discover Watson's DNA on tape used to take samples from Rikki's clothing.

The coat of Rikki Neave, who was murdered in Peterborough at the age of 6
The coat of Rikki Neave, who was murdered in Peterborough at the age of 6

Watson had been spoken to at the time of the initial investigation as a witness, and claimed he saw Rikki briefly, but for no more than a few seconds and described no physical contact between them.

Watson claimed he had been at Walton School in Mountsteven Avenue, Gunthorpe, on the morning of November 28, before leaving for the Welland estate.

But records showed he did not attend school at all that day and sightings of him did not match the timeframe involved in walking from one area of Peterborough to the other, had he attended school for part of the day.

The shoes of Rikki Neave, who was murdered in Peterborough at the age of 6
The shoes of Rikki Neave, who was murdered in Peterborough at the age of 6

In the days after Rikki’s death, teachers at Watson’s school recalled him showing an intense interest in the murder, even making six photocopies of the front page of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph displaying Rikki’s picture.

He was arrested in 2016 and in his interview changed his account of the meeting with Rikki, claiming he had lifted him up so he could see over a fence to watch a digger at work.

Ruth Neave, who moved to the outskirts of Cambridge to start a new life, issued a video in November 2019 reminding everyone that her son’s killer had not been brought to justice.

Watson was charged with Rikki's murder on February 17, 2020, but denied it.

Police at the scene where the body of Rikki Neave was found on November 29, 1994. Picture: PA
Police at the scene where the body of Rikki Neave was found on November 29, 1994. Picture: PA

He was found guilty by a majority verdict at the Old Bailey in London today (April 21). He will be sentenced on May 9.

Former Assistant Chief Constable Paul Fullwood, senior lead for the investigation, said: “Today we have finally secured justice for Rikki and his family, following an almost 30-year battle to find the truth.

“When we reviewed and reopened this case in 2015, we were committed to finding the person responsible for Rikki’s untimely death and ensuring they were brought to justice. Following an intensive and detailed investigation, with several challenges and legal obstacles, we now know what happened to Rikki that day.

Court sketch of James Watson (right), appearing in the dock at the Old Bailey (Elizabeth Cook/PA) (54906589)
Court sketch of James Watson (right), appearing in the dock at the Old Bailey (Elizabeth Cook/PA) (54906589)

“The investigation team spent hours trawling through statements, visiting witnesses, and picking through every evidential opportunity to prepare for this case. We were supported by incredible experts, witnesses and specialists who have helped us discover who was responsible.

“Through close working with the Crown Prosecution Service we were able to put Watson, who was a child at the time, before the courts and today the jury have decided he is guilty of Rikki’s murder. For years he thought he had gotten away with this most horrendous crime but today’s result shows you cannot hide forever.

Former Assistant Chief Constable Paul Fullwood, senior lead for the investigation into the murder of Rikki Neave
Former Assistant Chief Constable Paul Fullwood, senior lead for the investigation into the murder of Rikki Neave

“In 1994 a six-year-old boy was robbed of his life; his parents lost a son and his sisters a brother. Nothing can take the pain of this heart-breaking case away, but I hope today’s verdict gives Rikki’s family the closure they deserve and the answers they have longed for.

“My thoughts are very much with them at this time.”

Police said the investigation was the most complex and comprehensive conducted since its major crime unit was launched in 2012 and second in this respect only to the Soham murders in the force’s history.

The Operation Mansell timeline

Ruth Neave, mother of Rikki, appearing via video link at the Old Bailey when she gave evidence. Sketch: Elizabeth Cook/PA
Ruth Neave, mother of Rikki, appearing via video link at the Old Bailey when she gave evidence. Sketch: Elizabeth Cook/PA

Two reviews were carried out into Rikki’s murder in 2013 and 2014 but the case remained closed.

In October 2014 the major crime unit met Rikki’s mother and agreed to review the case for a third time.

  • 11-6-15 – The murder investigation reopens with a press conference and public appeal for information.
  • 16-11-15 – Detectives’ appeal for information on the BBC’s Crimewatch programme.
  • 19-4-16 – James Watson arrested on suspicion of murdering Rikki Neave.
  • 20-4-16 – James Watson bailed until June 16.
  • 6-9-16 – A man arrested on suspicion of the murder of six-year-old Rikki Neave has been re-bailed.The man, 35 and from Peterborough, was arrested on April 19 and bailed until September 20. He has been re-bailed until December 20.
  • 2-8-16 – James Watson arrested in Portugal.
  • 5-8-16 – A 35-year-old man from Peterborough arrested in connection with the historic murder of six-year-old Rikki Neave appeared in court in Portugal yesterday (Thursday, August 3) and is not fighting extradition proceedings.The force now has 10 days to return him to the UK.
  • 21-6-18 – No charges will be made, at this time, in relation to the murder of six-year-old Rikki Neave.The decision follows a review by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). A case file was sent to the CPS in April 2016 and referred to the Treasury Counsel who specialise in serious and complex cases. Following their review of the case there will be no charges in relation to Rikki’s death.
  • 20-20-20 – James Watson is charged with murdering Rikki Neave.

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