Who killed Rikki Neave? How police caught killer James Watson after wrongly pursuing mum Ruth Neave

Rikki Neave
Credit: Cambridgeshire Police
Rikki Neave's murder was a mystery that remained unsolved for nearly 30 years Credit: Cambridgeshire Police

A Weetabix breakfast held the key to bringing the killer of schoolboy Rikki Neave to justice and ended a cold case mystery stretching across 27 years, a senior prosecutor has said.

Six-year-old Rikki had breakfast at around 9.30am on the day of his murder – a fact which fundamentally altered thinking around the investigation to unmask his killer.

James Watson has been found guilty by majority verdict of the child's murder, following weeks of jury deliberations.

Rikki was found dead in woods in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, near his home in a star-shaped pose.

His fate was a mystery that would lead detectives into the realm of occult theories as they wrongly pursued the boy's mother over the crime.

But Watson's murder trial heard how evidence piled up against him over the years, as the jury was told of his troubled background - including cruelty to animals and sexual interest in children.

Rikki's final breakfast and a lie about a fence proved to be two key pieces of evidence that would ultimately unravel Watson's claim that he was innocent of the young boy's murder.

James Watson on the beach

So how did cold case investigators finally catch Rikki's killer?

The story starts almost three decades ago.

Who is James Watson?

The troubled young man came from a broken home in Peterborough and was treated by social services as a “vulnerable child” from March 1993.

That year, he was interviewed about a complaint that he had sexually assaulted a five-year-old boy.

Then aged 12, Watson denied it and no further action was taken, although years later he admitted it was “just two boys playing with each other’s penises”.

In April 1994, Watson told a family member he was physically assaulted by his father, James Watson senior, with whom he lived on the Welland Estate.

On being taken into care, he stayed with foster mother Molly Donald, and formed an attachment.

She found him with a shotgun and felt she could not cope so Watson was sent away again, this time to Woodgate’s children’s home in March, some 20 miles from Peterborough.

James Watson, appearing in the dock at the Old Bailey in London Credit: right

Watson frequently played truant from school and would change into civilian clothes, jurors heard.

From enrolling at Walton School in Peterborough to the day of the murder, Watson was marked present on the register 18 times out of a possible 38 school days.

At the age of 13, he became obsessed with the fantasy of strangling a little boy, even telling his mother he had heard a news report about it on the radio.

Clothing Rikki Neave was wearing was recovered from a bin near where his body was found. Credit: CPS/PA

A star-shaped pose

Three days later, the fantasy came true when he murdered six-year-old Rikki at around midday on 28 November 1994, the prosecution said.

He stripped him naked for his own sexual gratification, “exhibiting” the posed body to be found near a children’s den in the woods, prosecutor John Price QC said.

Afterwards, Watson became “fascinated” by his own actions and made copious copies of newspaper stories, jurors were told.

The copse in Peterborough where Rikki Neave’s body was found Credit: Alan Waters/PA

He even told teachers that he knew Rikki as the brother of a friend, one of a multitude of lies.

Watson “cursed” the fact he been seen with Rikki by an elderly lady, leaving him no option but to admit an encounter when police called on 5 December 1994.

Killing animals and a strangulation fixation

The jury heard Watson had an unhealthy interest in animals, and about his concerning sexual proclivities that began at a very young age.

His care workers noted his bizarre behaviour - including masturbating over a children’s clothes catalogue, keeping a dead pheasant in his room, and once allegedly throttling a member of staff with a stocking.

He moved to another care home, and despite knowing he was gay from an early age, formed a relationship with a girl, aged 15.

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

In 2016, the girl told police Watson once killed and posed a bird and would strangle her when they had sex in woods.

Watson clocked up a long list of convictions for petty crimes, including setting fire to a British Transport Police station in Peterborough.

In his evidence, Watson said he would steal cars for “fun” and claimed he felt aggrieved at police because of their role in taking him away from his family.

He also claimed his late father had been a police officer, although Cambridgeshire Police have since said there is no record of it.

Prosecutor Mr Price told jurors that in the years before his arrest for Rikki’s murder, Watson had become forensically aware and adept at dealing with police.

How the murder unfolded

At 12.05pm on 29 November 1994, Rikki was found dead in woods near the Welland Estate, where he lived.

The little boy was naked and his body posed in a star shape, with outstretched arms, and his legs placed wide apart.

A post-mortem examination concluded he has been strangled with the zip of his anorak hood.

Mr Price told Watson's murder trial the laces on Rikki's black shoes were still tied, his underwear and socks were rolled up in his jacket and three small white buttons were missing from his shirt.

In the right-hand pocket of the jacket were two small plastic toys and some cards.

"There was no sign of any of Rikki's clothing," Mr Price told the jury.

"But perched poignantly on a leaf, just 18 inches from the left hand was a single, small, white shirt button."

The following morning, Rikki’s missing clothing was found by a police officer in a wheelie bin in Willoughby Court.

Watson was seen with Rikki on the day he went missing and was spoken to by police as a witness at the time, but gave a lying account.

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

In the years that followed, the investigation would instead focus on Rikki's mother.

She was put on trial, with the prosecution wrongly alleging she killed Rikki at home and then wheeled him in a buggy to the woods after reporting him missing.

Ms Neave was acquitted of murdering her son in 1996, but pleaded guilty to child cruelty and was jailed for seven years.

It was not until 20 years later than his DNA was found on Rikki's clothes, the court heard.

Rikki Neave's final meal

A Weetabix breakfast proved a key piece of evidence in the cold case murder investigation, Hannah Van Dadelszen, deputy chief crown prosecutor for the East of England, said.

She has explained how a re-evaluation of evidence pointed towards Watson – and away from Rikki’s mother.

She said: “I think what really fundamentally changed our understanding of what happened in this case was the post-mortem evidence which showed that Rikki died within two hours of his last meal.

“And his last meal was Weetabix for breakfast that morning. And we think that he had that around 9.30am.

Police at the scene where Rikki’s body was found Credit: John Giles/PA

“Once we had re-evaluated that evidence, we knew that he had died in the morning, rather than later in the day or the evening, as we had originally thought.”

Soil from Rikki’s shoes was a “major thrust” of the fresh case against Watson, as it showed the victim had walked into the woods where he was found dead but did not walk out again.

“The weight that was attached to that evidence was different in the prosecution back in 1996," Ms Van Dadelszen continued.

Rikki Neave’s muddy Clarks shoes were recovered from a wheelie bin with other clothes Credit: CPS/PA

“That’s really the product of different lawyers looking at it and a fresh pair of eyes having a different point of view."

The emerging picture debunked the earlier theory underpinning Ms Neave’s prosecution that Rikki was killed at home then wheeled to the woods in a buggy at night.

The fence fib

The case against Watson was sealed after his DNA was found on the clothes Rikki was wearing at the time of his death.

Even before police made the DNA breakthrough, Watson was prepared with a lie - which would ultimately prove his undoing.

Watson concocted a fictitious story about lifting Rikki up to look through a hole in a fence to watch diggers on a building site through a hole in a fence.

But he did not factor in the determination of police - who established the fence was not even there in 1994.

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

Ms Van Dadelszen said of the DNA breakthrough: “One of the advantages that we’ve had in the almost 30 years since the initial case was prosecuted is that DNA technology has improved such that we were able to obtain evidence that wouldn’t have been available to us at the trial in 1996.

“So the evidence package that we had today was more informed and more accurate than that we were able to present at the first trial.

“The DNA evidence was absolutely critical, and really helped build our case against James Watson.

“Initially, Mr Watson had denied contact with Rikki Neave, and then he changed his story over time to explain the contact between him and Rikki.

“The DNA evidence was fundamental, ensuring that James Watson had contact with Rikki Neave, in the clothes that he was wearing at the point at which he died.”

In his evidence to the jury, Watson repeated the fence lie.

Rikki Neave died in 1994 after he disappeared on his way to school Credit: Family photo

Ms Van Dadelszen explained how investigators debunked his lie.

“In fact, our investigation showed that that fence didn’t exist at the time that Rikki was killed," she said.

“His lying was brought to the fore during the course of his cross-examination and the jury were able to see that.”

Ms Van Dadelszen explained the Weetabix evidence played a key role in reversing an initial decision not to prosecute Watson after Ruth Neave exercised her victim’s right for a review.

She said: “In this instance, when we had a second lawyer look at the case, with the assistance of external counsel, they re-evaluated the weight that had been attached to particular pieces of evidence, and critically, that evidence around time of death and Rikki’s last meal emerged with greater significance than had initially been attributed to it.

“So that decision changed. And that’s the product of our internal processes and a fresh pair of eyes looking at the matter.

“Then as a consequence, went back and looked at other evidence around this, the sightings or so-called sightings of Rikki in the afternoon.

“We were able to develop our case on the basis of those sightings having been false sightings. So that was really the thrust of the review in 2019.

“It’s certainly showing that the initial decision to prosecute Ruth Neave for Rikki’s murder was wrong, and we’ve been very upfront about that.”

Rikki's mother Ruth Neave now

'People need to know the truth'

Watson’s account was peppered with lies, and for one key figure in the case, it led to a cloud of suspicion dogging her life for years.

The real killer's falsehoods went unchallenged for more than 20 years as police wrongly pursued Rikki’s own mother, Ruth Neave.

She has spoken exclusively to ITV News Anglia as Watson was convicted of Rikki’s murder, about how it felt to be suspected of killing her own son.

"I've had to fight for my life for 30 years," she said following the end of Watson's trial.

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

The effects of those years of suspicion were recounted by Ruth Neave, as she took the witness stand at her son’s killer’s trial.

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

The jury heard how police pursued a theory linked to the star-shaped pose Rikki's body was found in.

Detectives found a book containing a picture of Leonardo da Vinci's famous drawing of Vitruvian Man at Ms Neave's home.

Detectives were intrigued by the nude, spread-eagled pose in Leonardo’s art, and the similarities it bore to the star-shaped position Rikki was found in, when his naked body was discovered in the woods.

A picture of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man was found by police at Ruth Neave's home Credit: Ropi/Zuma Press/PA Images

The prosecution told the jury that it was not a crime to be interested in the occult and sorcery - explaining that detectives had made a mistake in becoming focused on Ms Neave instead of other leads - in part due to her collection of books on the topics.

Under questioning at Watson's trial, Ms Neave said she had no interest in black magic and denied boasting of being a "high priestess of the occult".

Explaining the books containing details of "rituals and sacrifices", and illustrations of Pentagram and diagrams of star shapes, Ms Neave said she had only been interested in Tarot and Quija boards and "stuff like that".

The prosecution told jurors at Watson's trial that sightings that day clearly showed Ms Neave could not have killed her son.

Ultimately, she had already been cleared of suspicion in Rikki’s murder years earlier.

But her parenting still came under heavy scrutiny as part of Watsons' defence case.

The jury was told she had abused her children, including Rikki, and she was grilled over her treatment of her son as she took to the witness stand in the 14-week trial.

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

Despite pleading guilty to the child abuse, she has continued to deny it to this day - calling the claims “rubbish.”

Rikki Neave's body was found in Peterborough.

But she expressed regret over how on the day he went missing, she had allowed Rikki to head off to school on his own.

Ms Neave had told jurors that not walking with her son that day was the "biggest mistake of her life".

Away from the trial, she told ITV News Anglia how she would always regret not keeping a closer eye on her son in the lead-up to the painful day a killer took his life.

“I gave him too much freedom," she said. "I took my eye off the ball.”