James Watson guilty of murdering Peterborough schoolboy Rikki Neave in 1994

  • Watch a report from ITV Anglia's Stuart Leithes

A 41-year-old man has been found guilty of murder more than 25 years after a schoolboy was led into woodland and strangled with his own coat.

Six-year-old Rikki Neave was reported missing after failing to arrive at school in Peterborough on 28 November 1994.

His naked body was found posed in a star shape the next day in woodlands just a few minutes from his home on the Welland Estate.

James Watson, who would have been just 13 at the time of the killing, was charged with murder more than 27 years later following developments in DNA testing.

During the trial, jurors were told Watson had nursed a "morbid fantasy" of strangling another child and had obsessively followed media coverage of the case.

James Watson in a custody photo released after his conviction for murder Credit: Cambridgeshire Police

A jury at the Old Bailey reached its decision following a trial which began in January, and after more than two weeks of deliberations. He was found guilty by majority verdict after spending 36 hours and 31 minutes considering their decision.

The judge Mrs Justice McGowan said he would be sentenced on 9 May.

“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," she said.

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

Rikki’s sister Rochelle Neave, 30, hailed the verdict as a “victory” for the family who had campaigned for justice.

She said: “He thought he’d got away with it for that many years and thought we were just going to go away and roll under the table. We weren’t.”

She remembered her brother as a “cheeky” and “loving” boy, who would look after his siblings.

  • ITV News spoke to Rikki Neave's sister, Rochelle.

Youngest sister Sheradyn Neave, 27, who was a baby when Rikki died, added: “I think we were let down by the police at the time, we were let down by social services, we were let down by everyone who was in our lives who was meant to care.”

During the trial, jurors were told Watson 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, jurors were told.

Police vans at the scene following the discovery of Rikki Neave's body in 1994. Credit: Press Association

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

Cambridgeshire Police re-opened Rikki's murder investigation in 2015 following a review of the case amid growing pressure from his mother to get justice for her son.

Ruth Neave was initially accused of killing the schoolboy and went on trial in 1996.

She was acquitted of murder but pleaded guilty to five charges of child cruelty for which she was given a seven-year prison sentence.

Prosecutors now say that was the right decision - with sightings at the time proving she could not have killed her son.

Rikki Neave was strangled with his own jacket, the trial was told Credit: Cambridgeshire Police

In 2020, Watson, of no fixed address, was charged with murder and, following delays caused by the pandemic, his trial began in January 2022.

Jurors heard how Rikki's uniform had been dumped in a wheelie bin close to where his body was found.

But it was not until cold case detectives began looking at the evidence 20 years later that they were able to analyse DNA found on those clothes thanks to advances in techniques. A definitive match was found with Watson, the court was told.

During the trial, the prosecution revealed how witnesses had seen Rikki with his killer on the morning he disappeared and had spoken to Watson at the time.

'Like a jigsaw puzzle'

The Crown Prosecution Service said the verdict meant "justice for Rikki".

“It has been like a jigsaw puzzle with each piece of evidence not enough by itself but when put together creating a clear and compelling picture of why James Watson had to be the killer," said senior prosecutor Clare Forsdike.

“Ultimately a combination of evidence from DNA, post mortem, soil samples, eyewitness testimony, and his changing accounts proved overwhelming. Only James Watson knows why he did it. He remained silent for two decades and then put Rikki’s family through the agony of a trial."

James Watson in a picture from his social media profile. Credit: James Watson/Facebook

Former assistant chief constable Paul Fullwood, senior lead for the investigation, said it brought to an end a near-30-year "battle for the truth".

“In 1994 a six-year-old boy was robbed of his life; his parents lost a son and his sisters a brother," he said.

"Nothing can take the pain of this heartbreaking case away, but I hope today’s verdict gives Rikki’s family the closure they deserve and the answers they have longed for."