We are currently experiencing network problems with the desktop version of Police Oracle. We hope to have these resolved as soon as possible.

Detective’s casebook: Rikki Neave

Former ACC Paul Fullwood lead the re-investigation of the Rikki Neave case which resulted in the conviction of James Watson earlier this year. He had retired in 2020 but returned to work for the force specifically to see the trial through.

In 1994, six year old Rikki Neave was strangled using a ligature or anorak collar, and left naked, posed in a star shape, in the woodlands near his home. 

Cambridgeshire’s original investigation lead to Rikki’s mother, Ruth Neave, being charged for his murder - although she was later acquitted at trial. 

20 years after his death, former Cambridgeshire ACC Paul Fullwood lead a review of the case before re-opening the investigation in 2015. Eight years following that, a jury convicted James Watson - aged 13 at the time of the incident. Watson had, by his own admission, been with Rikki on the day that he died. 

“The original case was based on the evidence that Ruth Neave had killed him in a fit of rage at home,” Mr Fullwood told Police Oracle. 

“She was on the radar with the police and social services for child neglect and cruelty, she had made allegations she was going to kill him and she'd asked for respite with social to services.

“The hypothesis at the time was that she had hidden his body upstairs - she called the police and effectively said my son's missing at six o'clock on the 28th of November 1994.

“The police turn up, they did a search of the Welland estate in Peterborough, and officers couldn't find anybody there. Then during that night, she allegedly got his body and wheeled him to the wooded area where his body was found, stripped him naked, and laid him out.” 

Part of the rationale that fed into the case against Ruth Neave was her interest in crime novels and black magic - with the idea that Rikki had been laid out in a Vitruvian man pose. 

Although Ruth Neave was acquitted at trial in 1996, Cambridgeshire Constabulary did not re-open the investigation until ACC Fullwood came along in 2015. It was reviewed twice in that time - in spite of practice being to review unsolved homicides every two years. 

“It's fair to say that there was a there was a bias across Cambridgeshire Constabulary for years and years afterwards - that Ruth Neave probably killed Rikki but got away with it,” Mr Fullwood explained. 

“I can hand on heart say we've never found any indications of misconduct. 

“What we found is that they make the wrong decisions, and they missed opportunities - they didn't have the experience, or training or the forensic techniques. But even the forensics is just one element of it - there's other bits where they probably should have targeted James Watson more - they just missed opportunities.” 

Fomer ACC Fullwood outside of the Old Bailey following the sentencing of James Watson. 

In 1994, disclosure laws were different and the prosecution case was not obligated to give material to the defence if it did not fit with their case. It meant that certain information was left out of the first trial. 

The murder also occured soon after the James Bulger case - and a lot of political and media pressure was placed on the Constabulary to find a suspect quickly. 

Mr Fullwood says now: “[In 1994] you might be dealing with burglaries and shoplifting one day, and then the next day, you're dealing with murder. 

“Under today’s standards - I was working within a dedicated murder squad and we were very well versed in how we solve murders and how we investigate murders. 

“Back then, you'd have an SIO and they would effectively be the person who led the operation. 

“Whereas, in our re-investigation, we had three different scene investigating officers over the period, then you had me as a sort of strategic lead sitting above them. 

“They didn't have the constraints of disclosure, they weren't under the same scrutiny as today's policing standards, social media, inquiries, reviews, etc. 

“Today, I do think that people are more open minded - and the way that we investigate murder now is to discover the truth.

“There’s far more governance, we've got PIP accreditation, gold groups, and authorised professional practice.” 

When ACC Fullwood did open a cold case investigation, it faced many of the challenges all cold cases do - there was no longer a crime scene, witnesses had moved on or time had affected memories, exhibits had been given back or destroyed - and specific to this case were a family who were extremely distrustful of the police. 

“I spent a lot of my time as the senior lead building up a relationship with them trying to treat them as the parents of a family of a murdered six year old boy,” he explained. 

“The more I looked, it became painfully obvious to me that [Ruth Neave] wasn’t responsible. From an organisational perspective, that's a really uncomfortable truth to manage, as effectively we're saying that our constabulary got it wrong in 1994. and that we've made a whole load of mistakes based on A, B, C and D.” 

Forensics played a huge part in building a new case the second time around. 

Nonetheless, given the lack of a crime scene, it meant investigators had to think creatively about how to use the evidence that they had.

Clothing exhibits had all been destroyed following the original case - but tapings from the clothes had been taken at the time with the aim of matching fibres- and from this James Watsons’ DNA was able to be lifted from Rikki Neave’s clothing. 

In his statement at the time, Watson had not said anything about touching Rikki - however in the second investigation - he amended his version of events- saying that he had lifted Rikki up so that he could view the diggers on the other side of a fence. 

Investigators were nonetheless able to prove, from media video coverage at the time, that no fence stood where Watson had said it did. 

It was not the only forensic breakthrough in the case. The contents of Rikki’s stomach showed that he had eaten Weetabix between one and a half to two hours prior to his death. With this, and Ruth Neave’s account that he had eaten the cereal before leaving in the morning and had not returned home since, a time of death was estimated that was out of line with that of the original investigation. 

It was the time of death that placed helped place Watson in the frame, and made it impossible to suspect Ruth Neave. 

A soil expert additionally gave evidence that suggested soil on Rikki Neave’s shoes indicated he had walked into the woods - not been carried. 

In 2015, at the time that the case was re-opened, Watson was in prison for other offences. An ex-girlfriend had said he had strangled her during sex in woods, officers also discovered that he used to lay dead animals out in wooded areas, and that immediately after Rikki’s murder he developed a fixation with it and would buy newspapers and stick them up on the walls.

Following legal challenges and an initial reluctance from the CPS to charge - the case was brought before the Old Bailey this year for a four month trial. 

151 witnesses gave evidence, and because the defence introduced bad character regarding Ruth Neave - the prosecution were able to do the same with Watson. 

He was convicted and sentenced to a minimum term of 15 years imprisonment - the maximum sentence he could receive due to his age at the time of the offence. 

ACC Fullwood had formally retired at the time of the trial - but returned to the force as a warranted officer in order to see it through to conviction. 

“I would say to people - you need to make your own judgement, you need to clear the ground beneath your feet, do your own review and make your own mind up about what happened," he says now.

“I have five bits of learning, the first one was organisation of unconscious bias at all levels. So you just need to be mindful of that. 

“Then there were poor reviews - I will say to UK policing, go back and check your reviews, don't believe what's gone on before you need to check for yourself - back in the day they weren’t trying to the level we are trying now. 

“The third one's around poor exhibit management and procedures - don't destroy your exhibits, make sure that they are managed in the appropriate way. 

“The fourth one was around a lack of oversight and governance of the original inquiry. So nowadays, we've got PIP we've got governance and gold groups. 

“The fifth one was just thinking around different disclosure, tandards and training between 1994 to 2022. 

“[Watson] is convicted of murder - he will never come out again. He's a dangerous individual and a fantasist, a sex offender. He's a predator - and we've managed to solve one of the biggest unsolved child homicides in Cambridgeshire but also in the United Kingdom.” 

Leave a Comment
View Comments 2
In Other News
Detective's casebook: modern slavery and working with Romania
Detective's casebook: four force operation secures conviction
Detective's Casebook: John Rodney
Detective casebook: Solving the largest acid attack in memory
More News