A "pure evil" killer who strangled a six-year-old schoolboy and evaded justice for decades has been jailed for 15 years.
James Watson was 13 when he lured Rikki Neave into woods near his home in Peterborough on 28 November 1994.
He attacked the boy from behind using either a ligature or his own anorak zip, in order to fulfil a "morbid fantasy" he had told his mother about three days before.
He then stripped Rikki and posed his naked body in a star shape for sexual gratification, deliberately “exhibiting” him near a children’s woodland den. Rikki’s body was found the day after he went missing.
At the Old Bailey on Friday, Watson was jailed for life with a minimum term of 15 years by Mrs Justice McGowan.
The judge had previously said that Watson - now 41 - would be sentenced as a 13-year-old, because that was the age he was when he committed the crime.
“Rikki was a child too willing to trust and engage with strangers," she said. “He never had the chance to be happy and lead a normal and fulfilling life. That opportunity was denied to him by his murder.”
She said his childhood “had been a sad one”, that he was neglected, was “the victim of violent and cruel behaviour”, and only went to school at lunchtimes so he could eat a proper meal.
Mother-of-four Ruth Neave was cleared of her son’s murder in 1996 but was jailed for seven years after admitting child cruelty – a conviction she is reported to be considering challenging, many years after her release.
She described Watson as “pure evil, with no conscience”, while police said he was “a fantasist, a compulsive liar” who had shown no remorse.
Ms Neave did not attend court for the sentencing hearing, but in a witness statement, read on her behalf, she said: “Like stones dropping in a pond, it (the murder) has rippled out far and wide.
“Rikki’s murder left a massive hole in our lives and in our hearts. I miss him so much that it feels like I have had my heart ripped out.”
Watson was spoken to as a witness at the time because he was seen with Rikki on the day of his disappearance. But his lying account went unchallenged and he was not considered a suspect until a DNA breakthrough years later linking him to Rikki’s discarded clothes.
Prosecutors felt there was still insufficient evidence, but reversed their decision after Ms Neave and Rikki’s sisters called for a victims’ right to review.
In April, Watson, was found guilty of murder by a majority after an Old Bailey jury deliberated for 36 hours and 31 minutes.
Before the judge passed sentence, the court heard victim impact statements, firstly from Rochelle Orr, one of Rikki’s younger sisters.
She said: “I was only three when Rikki was murdered and I was removed from my family. After I entered the care system I suffered severe mental health issues.
“I remember Rikki feeding me, washing me and help me with my clothes.
“He has missed so much or our lives, happy times that we have had. I also wonder what he would be like if he was still here but, sadly, I will never know because he was taken from me.”
Rebecca Maria Harvey, Rikki’s eldest sister, broke down as she addressed the court.
She said: “Although I was the eldest, it wasn’t like that as he would look after me.
“Losing Rikki was like losing the other half of me. I still wake up every day thinking it was a nightmare. I never had a brother to grow up with.
“Rikki is the one who is not here and lost his life, but the effect this had on me and my family is just never-ending.”
During the trial, the court had heard how Watson’s sexual interest in younger boys was known to police, who interviewed him over an allegation that he molested a five-year-old in 1993.
More disturbing behaviour was noted at Watson’s children’s home, including him masturbating over pictures of young boys in underwear and keeping a dead pheasant in his room, the court heard.
The prosecution claimed it was no coincidence that, three days before the murder, Watson was the source of a bogus radio report about a two-year-old boy being strangled.
Immediately after Rikki’s murder in identical circumstances, Watson obsessed over newspaper coverage of the killing, copying front page stories at school.
And an ex-girlfriend said he had later strangled her during sex in woods and killed a bird and spread its wings, in a sinister reconstruction of Rikki’s murder.
Jurors heard that key evidence in the case against Watson included Rikki’s last meal, of Weetabix, which fixed his time of death at about noon.
It meant Rikki was killed shortly after being seen with Watson heading to the woods where he used to play. Rikki’s muddy Clarks shoes also indicated his walk into the woods was a one-way trip.
In a police interview in 2016, Watson attempted to explain his DNA’s presence on Rikki’s clothes by claiming he picked him up to look at diggers through a hole in a fence.
Prosecutor John Price QC said that was his “really big mistake”, as police were able to prove the fence was not there in 1994.
Jurors were told Watson had a long criminal record, which includes convictions for stealing cars and setting fire to a British Transport Police station.
Watson fled to Portugal while on bail on suspicion of murder, but was extradited back to Britain.
In his defence, Watson’s legal team pointed the finger of suspicion at Ms Neave, which she rejected.
The defence said Watson could not have murdered Rikki, as he was seen alive in the afternoon of November 28.
However, the prosecution shrugged off the “ghost sightings”, which wrongly claimed Rikki was wearing a red jumper or riding a BMX bike.
Former assistant chief constable Paul Fullwood, who led the cold case, said Watson is “a fantasist, a dangerous individual, and a compulsive liar”.
“All the way through this, it’s been a monumental series of challenges. But as far as we’re concerned, we’ve got the right person responsible for the dreadful, dreadful murder of that little boy Rikki Neave,” he said.
Hannah Van Dadelszen, deputy chief crown prosecutor for the east of England, acknowledged prosecuting Ms Neave was “wrong” and said she was “pleased” that justice had now been delivered.
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