Rikki Neave: The brutal murder mystery that haunted a generation for nearly 30 years

  • When Rikki Neave went missing and was found dead soon after, his family, his estate and his city was thrust into international headlines. But at the heart of the mystery was the question of what happened to a six-year-old boy as he walked to school. ITV News Anglia's Matthew Hudson reflects on more than two decades reporting on the search for answers.

I have lived and worked as a journalist in Cambridgeshire and the eastern region for 35 years.

For a large majority of that time the murder of schoolboy Rikki Neave has hung in the ether, ebbing and flowing in the public's consciousness, but always there. The inescapable fact that someone had murdered a vulnerable little boy and seemingly got away with it.

I was working in Cambridge when six-year-old Rikki's body was found in woodland not far from his home on Peterborough's Welland Estate in November 1994.

The case made headlines both locally and nationally Credit: ITV Anglia

Like the killing of any child, it became a huge story. National and international media gathered in the city, with journalists seeking information from local people while the police appealed for information as they tried to find his killer.

It dominated regional bulletins and headlines for weeks.

In January 1995 Rikki's mother Ruth Neave was arrested on charges of child cruelty against the little boy and two of his siblings.

The same month I joined Mason's News Service, a press agency based in the county providing reports for national newspapers and television stations, including what is now ITV News Anglia.

I worked on stories about the ongoing murder inquiry until May 1995 when Ruth Neave was charged with her son's murder. The matter then became sub judice with any reporting severely restricted.

The media's attention next turned to Northampton Crown Court for Neave's trial in October 1996. Many believed that trial would mark the story's closing chapter but of course it did not.

Ruth Neave admitted charges of cruelty against three of her children and was sentenced to seven years in prison. But she denied murder and was unanimously cleared by the jury, leaving Rikki's wider family without answers.

Police appealed for help in solving the mystery Credit: ITV Anglia

Ruth Neave served her sentence for cruelty, was released and lived quietly for many years.And so for nearly two decades, while it was always there in the background for those of us who had covered this massive but unsolved case, it went quiet.

Then on 28 November 2014, 20 years after Rikki's murder, his fate was suddenly thrust back into the nation's consciousness when his mother invited the media to the Oliver Cromwell Hotel at March in Cambridgeshire.

What followed was probably the most tense press conference I have ever attended.

Ruth Neave made fresh appeals for help Credit: ITV Anglia

Ruth Neave appealed for anyone with information about Rikki's death to come forward and urged the police to look at the case again.

She also made claims that she had been bullied into admitting child cruelty charges and had, in reality, not harmed her children. Those charges have never been overturned.

Seven months later, in June 2015, Cambridgeshire Police announced they would indeed look at the murder case again.

That investigation led to James Watson, who was 13 at the time, being arrested on suspicion of murder. His DNA was found on items of Rikki's clothing.

He was charged with the murder but not before he fled to Portugal while on bail at a hostel in Northampton. He later gave himself up to officers.

James Watson on the beach

Now finally, following a trial that began back in mid-January, a trial elongated by multiple Covid outbreaks amongst those taking part, Rikki's case can be laid to rest.

The world now knows James Watson murdered Rikki Neave and carried on with his own life for nearly 30 years.

I have two children in their 20s who were not yet born when Rikki's life was taken from him by another child. Like so many young people in Cambridgeshire they grew up knowing his story.

Rikki's siblings and wider family never knew the joy of watching him grow up. Now though they at least have closure.

The Welland estate in Peterborough Credit: ITV Anglia

The Welland estate where Rikki lived is different now. Many of the residents who were there in 1994 have moved on, but memories of the schoolboy who was murdered live on.

Those who have stayed say they remember a "chaotic, loud" environment - one described the Neave household at the time as “wild”.

But memories of Rikki himself are fond - the picture built up from several conversations is of a charismatic boy who was always smiling.

"He was a lovely little boy, cheeky," said another resident.

Some have been following the court case, others have turned away from it.

Among those who have been reliving the events of nearly 30 years ago, there is a sense of helplessness - and sadness - that a little boy, described by all with warmth, has had to wait so long for justice.It's a sadness many of us feel.