A 41-year-old man described as a “fantasist” and a “monster” has been found guilty of the murder of the schoolboy Rikki Neave, who was found strangled in woods near Peterborough nearly 28 years ago.
James Watson, of no fixed abode, was convicted by a jury’s majority verdict at the Old Bailey in London of the 1994 murder after a DNA breakthrough in 2016 revealed that, as a 13-year-old, he had been in physical contact with the six-year-old boy on the day of his disappearance.
Watson, who has a long list of previous convictions – including sexual assault – evaded detection for more than two decades, changing his account of his interactions with Neave as evidence piled up against him.
The conviction brings to a close a cold case mystery in which Rikki’s own mother, Ruth Neave, was acquitted of his murder in 1996, removing suspicion that had haunted her since she pleaded guilty to a litany of shocking child cruelty offences against the boy, of which the jury in her murder trial were unaware.
Speaking after the verdict, Neave described Watson as a “monster” and criticised the original investigation, saying police and social services “totally ruined mine and my daughters’ lives”.
She said: “The only thing now is to close this chapter in my life and open a new one. I wonder what Rikki would be like today. Married, children, who knows? But this monster has taken that all from me and my daughters.”
Rikki’s sister Rochelle Neave, 30, hailed the verdict as a “victory” for the family who had campaigned for justice. “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 sisters. Sheradyn Neave, the youngest of the siblings, 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.”
The jury deliberated for 36 hours and 31 minutes to convict Watson by a majority of 10 to two after an 11-week trial.
The judge, Mrs Justice McGowan, said Watson would be sentenced as if he were a teenager. That means he will receive a life sentence but the starting point for the minimum term will be 12 years. The defendant was not in court on Thursday but watched verdict on a video link.
The prosecution said he lured Rikki to woods near his home in Peterborough on 28 November 1994 and strangled him 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. Rikki was reported missing that evening by his mother and found the next day.
Watson obsessed over newspaper coverage of the killing, photocopying front-page stories at school. The next month he was interviewed as a witness by police after a person reported seeing him with Rikki on the nearby Welland estate. His lies went unchallenged as police wrongly focused on a theory that Neave killed her son and used a buggy to dump his body.
The mother of four was cleared of murder in 1996 but jailed for seven years after admitting child cruelty. The case was unsolved for more than 20 years until Watson’s DNA was identified on Rikki’s clothes, which had been recovered from a wheelie bin.
In a police interview in 2016, Watson attempted to explain the DNA presence by claiming he picked Rikki up to look at diggers through a hole in a fence. The prosecutor, John Price QC, said that was his “really big mistake” as police were able to prove the fence was not there in 1994.
After the verdict, the former assistant chief constable Paul Fullwood, who led the cold case, called Watson a “fantasist, a dangerous individual, and a compulsive liar”. He said: “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.
“Hopefully we can bring some justice for his family … and also make sure that we put a dangerous individual in prison.”
Sentencing will take place on 9 May at the same court.