The boy who was doomed from birth: How tragic Rikki Neave, 6, grew up with a ‘wholly unfit’ abusive mother who was put on trial for his murder but cleared – as man, 40, is convicted of the crime nearly 30 years after it took place
- Rikki Neave’s body was found arranged in a star shape in woodland near his home in Peterborough in 1994
- His mother Ruth Neave was originally charged with his murder and her abuse of her son was revealed at trial
- She was found not guilty of murder but admitted to child cruelty and was sentenced to seven years in prison
Six-year-old Rikki Neave was found strangled, naked and arranged in a ‘star pose’ near his home in Peterborough in 1994
When abusive mother Ruth Neave was found not guilty of her son’s murder in 1996, the question of who did kill little Rikki would remain unanswered for more than 25 years.
The six-year-old, who had been strangled, was found naked and arranged in a ‘star pose’ in woods near his home in Peterborough, the day after he was reported missing by his mother on November 28, 1994.
Today, 40-year-old James Watson, who was 13 when Rikki disappeared, was today convicted at the Old Bailey of the child’s murder – seven years after new evidence was found in a ‘cold case review’.
Watson, who had pleaded not guilty to murder, was arrested after sophisticated technology that was not available in the original investigation found a ‘definitive match’ between his DNA profile and samples taken from Rikki’s clothing.
The prosecution had alleged that Mr Watson murdered Rikki before midday on November 28, but defence witnesses claimed to have seen the child in the evening on the same day – a fact used by Watson’s lawyer to cast doubt on the suspicion hanging over him.
In her closing speech, Watson’s lawyer Jenni Dempster QC had insisted there had been a ‘wealth of evidence’ that Neave had murdered her son; whilst prosecutor John Price QC told jurors that sightings of her on the day Rikki went missing showed she could not have done it.
Jurors ultimately agreed with Price that it was Watson who had murdered Rikki. He will be sentenced at a later date.
But a constant theme in his trial was Ruth Neave’s appalling mistreatment of her son, along with the shocking circumstances of abuse and neglect that he grew up in.
Although she was found not guilty of murder, Neave – who was described in Watson’s trial as a ‘wholly unfit mother’ who used Rikki as a drug runner and ‘punch bag’ – had admitted and to child cruelty was sentenced to seven years in prison.
On one occasion, Rikki was allegedly left screaming after being locked out of the house in his pyjamas; in another it was claimed Neave had held her son upside down on a bridge as he screamed.
She had also grabbed the child around his throat, pushed him against a wall and lifted him up ‘to the point his feet were about a foot above the ground’.
When abusive mother Ruth Neave (pictured left with her son in the late 1980s and right at his funeral) was found not guilty of her son’s murder in 1996, the question of who did kill little Rikki would remain unanswered for more than 25 years
A policeman leaving flowers at Welland County Primary School in Peterborough, the school attended by six-year-old Rikki Neave
Today, 40-year-old James Watson (pictured right when he was a child), who was 13 when Rikki disappeared, was convicted at the Old Bailey of the child’s murder – seven years after new evidence was found in a ‘cold case review’
Ruth Neave: The mother’s trial that shocked a nation
Northampton Crown Court heard heard how Rikki’s mother called police on 28 November 1994 when the child failed to come home from Welland Primary School and still hadn’t returned home by 6pm that night.
The court heard how the youngster was found strangled and stripped naked in woodland near his home at around midday the next day by PC Thomas Graham.
Rikki’s clothes, including his grey school trousers, white shirt and jacket, were found in a bin just 150 yards from his body.
Initially charged with Rikki’s murder, plus five counts of child cruelty between 1986 and 1994, and a further drugs charge, Neave denied them all at first.
Ruth Neave was the first person to be charged with the murder of her son Rikki. Above: The moment she was first arrested
She later changed her plea to admit all the charges bar that of murder.
Prosecutors told the jury that Rikki was killed in a sacrifice by his mother, who had an interest in the occult and black magic.
James Hunt QC told the court the child’s body was found in a pose mirrored in books found in her home.
It was also alleged that Neave had a fascination with murderers and their minds, and told neighbours on the Welland estate that she was a high priestess of the occult who dabbled in black magic.
Jurors heard that she had pleaded with social workers to take her son into care, saying he was in danger if he stayed at home, and one social worker reported witnessing her threatening to ‘hang her son from the ceiling’.
Another social worker said Neave threatened to kill her son the day before he was reported missing, and a witness reported seeing her walk ‘hurriedly’ towards the spot where his body was found on the day he went missing.
Lawyers for the defence said a sex attacker who had not been found could have been responsible for Rikki’s death.
They told the court that another child was attacked and tied to a tree five months before Rikki died, and said that a 10-year-old girl said she had seen the boy alive after he had been reported missing.
Neave was cleared of murdering her son, but jailed for seven years for cruelty to Rikki, her daughter Rebecca, and one other child.
At the time of his death, Rikki was living with his mother and two younger sisters on the 1970s Welland Estate in Peterborough. His older sister, Rebecca, who was aged eight at the time of his death, was living in foster care.
Rikki’s father, Trevor Harvey, had ended his relationship with Neave when his son was three.
The family were well known to local social services, the court in Watson’s trial heard, and Rikki in particular was on the at-risk register.
After Rikki was found dead, it emerged that his body was clean – as if it had been freshly bathed – and the position of his arms, hands and legs symmetrically set out. Even his thumbs were in same position.
His clothes, which included his school trousers, a jacket and a white shirt, had been found in a dustbin yards from the wooded area where he was discovered.
In the hope that his killer would be found, his mother had made a series of emotional television appeals that were later claimed in her trial to be an act.
Neave came under suspicion after it emerged that she was writing a book about a serial killer. Murder squad detectives had discovered how a killer in the book boasted: ‘I am a danger to myself – I am a threat to everyone.’
The mother-of-four had described her book as ‘a first person account of the perfect murder – about a fellow who strangles and mutilates a girl’.
On January 19, 1995, Neave was arrested and questioned over her son’s murder. Four days later, she was charged with offences against the child and was accused of assaulting, mistreating and neglecting her son.
In May of 1995, she was charged with his murder.
At her trial, it emerged that officers had found a picture of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man inside a book that was in her home.
The picture depicted a figure in the cruciform position – the exact shape that Rikki had been found in.
Prosecutor James Hunt said police also found a book called Magik, by well-known occultist Aleister Crowley, which Neave was ‘very familiar with’.
The book spoke of sacrifice and the need to ‘choose a victim such as a male child of perfect innocence and high intelligence’, Neave’s trial heard.
The prosecution alleged that Neave had strangled her son by grabbing him by his anorak, lifting him up and twisting its cloth. It was said to be a method she had previously used to punish him.
Jurors also heard how, ten days before his death, Rikki’s mother had told Cambridgeshire social services that she would kill her son if he was not taken into care.
But after 16 days of proceedings, Neave was found not guilty of Rikki’s murder and instead began a seven-year sentence for inflicting horrific and repeated cruelty on her son.
The case had hinged on the evidence of policeman PC Robert McNeil, who, on the night Rikki disappeared, did not find the child’s body when he searched the woods in which he was later found.
Whilst the prosecution had claimed the officer missed it in the dark, jurors acquitted Neave after being told she would not have had time to move his body after that time because police were with her.
The instances of abuse recounted in her trial included one occasion where she squirted washing up liquid into Rikki’s mouth. In another, she had kept him away from school because she had ‘knocked him black and blue’.
If Rikki annoyed his mother, she would ‘hit him so hard that she would knock him to the floor,’ original prosecutor Christopher Metcalfe had said in her trial.
Rikki’s sisters were often locked naked in their bedrooms by Neave, who was said to have spent up to half of the money she received in benefits on drugs.
A month before he died, Rikki answered the door to a foster carer, who saw that he had the word ‘idiot’ scrawled across his forehead.
Two unnamed social workers involved in Rikki’s case were suspended after it emerged that care workers had had clear evidence before his death that Neave had abused him and his siblings.
Later, a 1997 report raised ‘deep concerns’ about Cambridgeshire County Council’s ability to protect vulnerable children.
After Neave was released from prison in 2000 following her child cruelty conviction, she moved from Peterborough and campaigned to have the inquiry into Rikki’s murder re-opened.
Detectives did not pursue another suspect until a cold case review in 2015 found the new evidence linking Watson to the murder.
The 40-year-old, who had a string of previous convictions and had once served six years in jail for fire-bombing a police station, was arrested and bailed for the crime but then ‘walked out’ of the UK and was pictured in Portugal.
Selfies posted on Facebook showed him lying on a sun-drenched beach and drinking beer. He had boasted about having left the UK in a mobile home, despite having no passport.
He then ended up homeless and begged to be flown home in emails to his probation officer.
Watson was eventually arrested in Lisbon and flown back to the UK.
In the face of the DNA evidence linking him to Rikki’s murder, the criminal claimed he had picked the child up during a brief encounter in the street on the day of his disappearance.
He then claimed that he did not know ‘what the true events are’ and said it was ‘possible’ he had not touched Rikki.
One witness, Evelyn Pollard, who also lived on the Welland Estate, claimed to have seen Watson with Rikki in a car park visible from her home.
Watson’s half-brother, Andrew Bailey, told the Old Bailey he had taken his sibling to the Neave family home ‘a couple of times’.
The prosecution alleged Watson murdered Rikki in the woods where he was found before midday on November 28. It was claimed he then returned to his home at Woodgates Children’s Home in Peterborough that afternoon.
However, Watson’s defence team said witnesses all claimed to have seen Rikki on the evening of that day.
At the time of his death, Rikki was living with his mother and two younger sisters on the 1970s Welland Estate in Peterborough. His older sister, Rebecca, who was aged eight at the time of his death, was living in foster care. Above: A photograph of Rikki’s bedroom that was shown in court during Watson’s trial
The filthy kitchen of a house Rikki lived in with his mother, Ruth, on Redmile Walk in Peterborough
After Rikki was found dead, it emerged that his body was clean – as if it had been freshly bathed – and the position of his arms, hands and legs symmetrically set out. Even his thumbs were in same position. Above: The spot where his body was found
Neave is seen struggling with police as they try to put her into a prison van a year after her arrest for her son’s murder
One, Stuart Duffy, insisted he saw and spoke with Rikki in the evening.
However, prosecutor Mr Price said those witnesses were ‘mistaken’.
He also dismissed the evidence of the police officer who claimed to have searched but failed to find Rikki’s body in the woods on the evening of November 28.
Watson was said to have shown a ‘hostile sexual’ interest in a boy of Rikki’s age the year before he died.
‘He had an abiding sexual interest in small children which he had already acted on in the previous year, an interest reinforced with a morbid fantasy about the death of a child known to have been on his mind as recently as three days earlier,’ Mr Price had told the court.
The lawyer had told jurors that they had to consider whether the evidence against Watson could be explained as a ‘series of unfortunate coincidences to incriminate an innocent man’.
However, defence lawyer Ms Dempster had insisted that, despite her acquittal of the murder charge in 1996, there was a ‘wealth of evidence’ against Neave.
She told jurors: ‘Were you to conclude that she might have done it, then James Watson must be found not guilty.’
Ms Dempster said there were ‘good quality sightings’ of Rikki after midday on November 28 and that if any of them were correct, Watson had to be found not guilty.
Watson, who had pleaded not guilty to murder, was arrested after sophisticated technology that was not available in the original investigation found a ‘definitive match’ between his DNA profile and samples taken from Rikki’s clothing. Above: Watson as a child and right, in court
Neave was alleged to have treated all her children in a ‘savage’ manner. She is pictured above in 2016 with her husband Gary Rogers
Describing Neave’s poor treatment of her children, Ms Dempster said the mother had sustained herself on a diet of amphetamines.
‘When she had her drugs she could be pleasant, she could even be charming,’ said Ms Dempster.
But when she did not have them she was ‘savage’ to her children and kept her daughter Rebecca locked up in a bedroom which stank of urine.
Ms Dempster asked the jury to consider whether she could be responsible for Rikki’s murder.
Ms Dempster added: ‘Given the extreme violence she systematically subjected her children to it is a highly realistic possibility.
‘If you think that possibility arises…that alone would be enough to acquit James Watson.’
In his closing remarks, Mr Price had told jurors: ‘We suggest the evidence has been placed before you to enable you to finally resolve who it was who did it.
‘We ask you to declare by your verdict that it was James Watson who murdered Rikki Neave.’
Today, jurors finally delivered their verdict.
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