Ruth Neave on her battle for justice for son Rikki Neave as James Watson found guilty of murder

  • Watch a report by ITV News Anglia's Matthew Hudson

The mother of a murdered schoolboy - living under the spectre of suspicion for nearly 30 years - has described how she had to shout and scream to finally get justice for her son.

Ruth Neave was accused of killing six-year-old Rikki soon after he went missing and was found dead in a Peterborough woodland in 1994.

Despite a jury finding her not guilty in 1996, it was another 25 years before James Watson - a neighbour of the family on the Welland Estate - appeared in court charged with murder.

On Thursday, he was found guilty by majority verdict after a trial that lasted nearly four months.

"I've had to fight for my life for 30 years," she said in an exclusive interview with ITV News Anglia following the end of Watson's trial.

"I have had to shout, scream, to tell people the truth. They need to know the truth."

At the same time as her murder acquittal, Ms Neave was given a seven-year sentence after admitting five counts of child cruelty.

While in Holloway prison - the former women-only jail that had previously hosted Moors murderer Myra Hindley - Rikki's mum said she "got on really well with everybody" and always had their support.

"You go into prison and you find out if you're a child murderer or not," she said. "Because if you convince them of the truth, they will believe you and back you up all the way.

"I did. I convinced everyone. Everyone knew I didn't kill Rikki."

Ruth Neave, mother of Rikki Neave, pictured in 1995. Credit: Press Association

But when she was released in 2000, she found it would be a lot harder to convince the public - and police - that her son's murderer was still out there.

The family's real breakthrough came in 2014 when, following encouragement from her partner Gary Rogers, Ms Neave held a press conference to insist Rikki's killer remained at large.

"Gary said to me 'if you want to go and get justice, we will do it'. I left it for a bit and then thought ... I'm going for it," she said. "I don't wish I had never done it, but it's been bloody hard."

A year later, police re-opened their investigation with a fresh team looking at the case using up-to-date methods and the latest forensic techniques.

It led to the arrest and charge of James Watson, a now-41-year-old man who would have been just 13 at the time of the killing.

'A boisterous little boy with toys in his pocket'

When Rikki died, his mother was instantly cast in the role of suspect - something police now admit was wrong.

It meant Ms Neave and her family were never able to properly mourn their son and tell the world what he was like.

Thinking back, she said he was a "beautiful, gorgeous little boy" who had often been mistaken for a girl as a baby because of his white, curly hair.

Rikki Neave was a boisterous and energetic little boy, his mum remembers. Credit: Cambridgeshire Police

"He was sweet," she added. "He was kind, boisterous, wouldn't take no for an answer. He was just a lovely boy.

"One of his early words was 'naughty'. He knew what was wrong."

During the trial, former school friends described playing with Rikki in the woods where his body was later found naked and posed in a star shape.

When his clothes were discovered dumped in a wheelie bin a short distance away, police found cards and toys in his pockets.

The toys and cards found in Rikki Neave's pockets when his clothes were found. Credit: Crown Prosecution Service / Press Association

And although Rikki's attendance at school was often patchy - with his former headteacher telling the Old Bailey she was often in contact with the Neave family - his mum said she knew he had a good brain on him.

"He was very good with his hands," she said. "He would get something, take it apart and put it back together again and it would work.

"One day, off a skip, he got a red and yellow boombox. He had all his stuff with him... and he got it to work.

"I think he would have been a mechanic or an electrician. He had the hands and the brains."

'I took my eye off the ball'

On the day he went missing, six-year-old Rikki had headed off to school on his own.

During the 14-week trial at the Old Bailey, Ms Neave told jurors not walking with him that day was the "biggest mistake of her life".

Away from the trial, she said she regretted not keeping a closer eye on him.

She said: "I wouldn't have given him so much freedom. I gave him too much freedom. I took my eye off the ball.

"I always used to make sure he was in the garden or outside in the car park. I would give him my watch and say 'when it goes to there, you come back, every hour'. And he did. He always used to come back."

But on 27 November 1994, Rikki did not come back. Ms Neave described feeling "paralysed" at the time and being too distraught to speak at his funeral nearly three months later.

Police searching the Welland Estate, Peterborough, following the murder Credit: PA

Cambridgeshire journalist John Elworthy, who has supported the family throughout their campaign for justice, said she did not get the support she needed.

"Ruth was never treated as a victim," said Mr Elworthy, editor of the Cambs Times. "She lost her six-year-old son. She had not murdered him - that was proven. But she lost her family and she never saw the kids from that day."

During the trial, jurors heard accusations that Ms Neave had abused her children - hitting Rikki during a visit to a chemist and holding him upside down on a bridge as he screamed, among other incidents.

Despite pleading guilty to child cruelty in 1996, Ms Neave now insists all those claims are "absolute rubbish", adding: "I wouldn't do that. That's awful."

Mr Elworthy said: "Today, she would be a woman in crisis, who would be smothered by social services and given the help and support she needed. Back then, she was a loose cannon living in horrible circumstances."

For Ruth Neave, those horrible circumstances have continued to haunt her for more than 30 years.

With the conclusion of James Watson's murder trial deciding he was indeed the person who killed Rikki, they may now finally be put to rest.