James Watson sentenced to life for 1994 murder of Rikki Neave

·3-min read
Photograph: PA

A 41-year-old man has been sentenced to life with a minimum term of 15 years for the murder of the schoolboy Rikki Neave, who was found strangled in woods near Peterborough almost 28 years ago.

James Watson, of no fixed abode, was convicted in April 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.

Mrs Justice McGowan sentenced Watson on Friday as if he were a teenager, as is required by law, telling him he must spend at least 15 years in jail before being considered for release.

The sentencing brings to a close what had been a cold-case mystery in which Rikki’s mother, Ruth Neave, was acquitted of his murder in 1996, removing the suspicion that had haunted her after she pleaded guilty to a series of child cruelty offences against the boy, a conviction that she now aims to overturn.

Ruth Neave, who did not attend the sentencing, released a statement afterwards condemning Watson’s actions. “The monster James Watson not only murdered my precious son Rikki but set in motion a chain of events that has ruined my life and those of my children,” she said. “Like stones dropping in a pond, it has rippled out far and wide.”

She added: “Thanks to you, James Watson, Rikki will never grow up to be a nice young man or have kids or be an uncle. I miss my little Rikki; I miss all his giggles and laughter and he was my little hero and looking out for others. He was thoughtful, kind and funny.”

She said Watson’s actions led to her children being “snatched” from her arms because the “police were so adamant that I had killed Rikki and would then kill my daughters”.

“I lost my children and my liberty and then I had to start all over again still being labelled and called a murderer including by Rikki’s siblings,” she said. “My family was destroyed completely. I have not seen my daughters for over 26 years. I have missed them growing up, leaving school, their first boyfriends and now my grandchildren.”

Watson lured Rikki to woods near his home in Peterborough and strangled him to fulfil a “morbid fantasy”, the court heard. He stripped Rikki and posed his naked body in a star shape for sexual gratification, deliberately “exhibiting” him near a children’s woodland den.

Watson was a persistent truant and those who knew him at the time have since described unusual behaviours that paint a picture of a troubled boy.

Police investigated an allegation that he had indecently touched a five-year-old boy, while others who knew him claimed he had masturbated 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.

Sentencing Watson, McGowan said: “Rikki was a child too willing to trust and engage with strangers. He never had the chance to be happy and lead a normal and fulfilling life. That opportunity was denied to him by his murder.”

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