In October 1996, Ruth Neave collapsed in tears in the dock of Northampton crown court when a jury acquitted her of the murder of her six-year-old son, Rikki Neave.
Afterwards, many found the verdict hard to accept when it emerged she had pleaded guilty to a series of child cruelty offences against the schoolboy and two of his siblings.
But on Thursday, 27 years after Rikki went missing, Neave faced another emotional day in court – this time at the Old Bailey in London, as jurors found 41-year-old James Watson guilty of her son’s murder in November 1994 by a majority verdict. Watson was aged 13 at the time of the murder.
The verdict concludes a mystery spanning four decades that at its heart is the sorry tale of a schoolboy whose short life came to a grim end.
Rikki was born in 1989, and at the time of his murder was living with his mother and two of his three sisters on the Welland estate in Peterborough. His father and stepfather have both died since his murder.
Before his death, Rikki and his family were well known to local social services and Rikki was on the “at risk register”.
Prosecutors told jurors in 2022 that the offences to which Neave pleaded guilty amounted to a “broad range of serious, deliberate mistreatment”, adding that “the neglect exposed one so young to grave risk”. Rikki was used as a “courier” to buy drugs for his mother, they said, who was a heavy user of amphetamine sulphate, also known as speed. He would be sent out after midnight with a note to a drug dealer asking for “sherbet” – her euphemism for amphetamines.
Her conviction for cruelty offences led to a major overhaul of Cambridgeshire social services, which was exposed a riven by disputes and overworked.
But Neave has since denied the severity of the allegations. She told jurors in February 2022 that she only pleaded guilty because she was “bullied into it” and thought she was pleading guilty to smacking her children.
On Monday 28 November 1994, Rikki left his home alone at about 9.30am. He did not attend school.
At 6pm, Neave telephoned 999 to report her son missing. At midday on the following day, his body was found by PC Malcolm Graham in a wooded area, five minutes walk from his home.
The body was naked. Lying on the ground, flat on his back, Rikki had been deliberately posed by the killer in a star shape, with outstretched arms and legs placed wide apart.
On Wednesday 30 November, the missing clothing was found. Further examination revealed Rikki had been strangled by the neckline of his own zipped-up jacket, pulled back hard against his throat from behind.
On 24 May 1995, roughly six months after Rikki disappeared, his mother was charged with his murder as well as the cruelty offences.
Neave’s guilty pleas to five specimen charges of cruelty, as well as one of burglary and another of supplying amphetamines, were kept from the jury during her trial for murder.
The prosecution had alleged she murdered her son as a human sacrifice to win back her husband, Dean, who did not get on with the boy.
They also alleged she had told neighbours she was an occult priestess and she had strangled him, washed the body and laid him out in a manner similar to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man; the famous image was found in a book in her house.
Jumping forward to 2022, Neave denies ever claiming to be an occult priestess, although she concedes she owned a number of books on the subject of dark magic and the occult.
Jurors in 1996 cleared her of the murder. In 2022, prosecutors conceded the not-guilty verdict against Neave was correct, adding: “The decision to charge her with his murder was wrong.”
The detective in charge of the reinvestigation, Paul Fullwood, added that the case against her was a “fanciful hypothesis”.
Rikki’s death became a “cold case” – formally suspended and unsolved – until pressure from Neave and her husband, Gary Rogers, resulted in it being reopened in 2015.
Fullwood, now retired, and his team discovered a series of tapings – effectively sellotape applied to Rikki’s clothing – taken as evidence in 1994. They were sent for examination using techniques unavailable at the time of the original investigation.
The tests found the DNA of someone called James Lewis Watson, who was 13 at the time of Rikki’s disappearance.
Prosecutors described the discovery as a “turning point”. Watson was not a stranger to the inquiries. The police interviewed him as a witness on 5 December 1994 after he was seen with Rikki by two separate witnesses on the day of the disappearance.
The finding of his DNA led in February 2016 to the designation of Watson as a suspect for the killing and to the start of a reappraisal of all evidence in the case.
In his first account of that meeting with Rikki, Watson made no mention of any physical contact between himself and the younger boy.
But nearly 24 years later in April 2016, Watson, interviewed under caution as a murder suspect, changed his account – specifically that he lifted Rikki up to look over a fence at a nearby digger.
Detectives say the fence did not exist.
They were becoming more convinced that they may finally have identified Rikki’s killer.
Born on 1 April 1981, Watson was living in care at the time of Rikki’s disappearance at a children’s home called Woodgates, about 20 miles east of Peterborough.
Watson was a persistent truant and those who then knew him have since described unusual behaviours that paint a picture of a troubled boy.
Allegations included that he indecently touched a boy of five, was suspected of masturbating over images of young children, and repeatedly put his hands round the neck of a teenage girl during sex.
He also appeared to have a grotesque interest in the subject of child murder.
In the aftermath of Rikki’s death, teachers revealed he made several photocopies of the front page of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, which showed a photograph of Rikki, and claimed they were for display in the children’s home.
Watson’s own mother told officers in 1994 about a disturbing conversation she had with her son about the murder of a child – three days before Rikki disappeared.
As Watson grew older, he amassed a long list of criminal offences, including sexually assaulting a man in 2018.
His other convictions included arson, carrying a firearm in a public place, damaging property, using threatening words or behaviour, handling stolen property, possession of cannabis, taking a motor vehicle without consent, and 17 theft and 11 burglary convictions.
After his formal arrest on suspicion of Rikki’s murder, he fled the country in the back of a camper van owned by an acquaintance he had met in a probation hostel. He ended up in Portugal, from where he was extradited to the UK in 2016.
It was not until February 2020 that he was finally charged with Rikki’s murder, and due to legal challenges and the Covid pandemic he did not stand trial until January this year.
Giving evidence, Watson was quietly spoken, mild-mannered and almost contrite with regards to his earlier offending.
But he frequently tied himself in knots in the witness box, contradicting his own evidence, providing an account of events only to then say he could not remember.
Finally, on Thursday, the 27-year mystery of Rikki’s death was solved with the conviction of Watson at the Old Bailey.
Watching on as the verdict was read was Rikki’s mother, guilty of exacting cruelty on her son during his short life but now with the cloud of suspicion over his murder lifted for good.