Mother of murdered Rikki Neave hopes to challenge her child cruelty conviction

The Guardian - Thu Jun 23 11:19

The mother of murdered schoolboy Rikki Neave has said she is hoping to challenge her 26-year-old conviction for child cruelty offences as a man is finally sentenced for the 1994 murder of her son.

In an exclusive interview, Ruth Neave, who was acquitted of her six-year-old son’s murder in 1996 but jailed for child cruelty offences, said she was advised to plead guilty to all offences – including murder – by her solicitor and denies all allegations.

Rikki Neave
‘Rikki was such a lovely little boy,’ says his mother, Ruth Neave. Photograph: PA

Neave has lived for nearly 30 years under the suspicion that she “got away” with her son’s murder – a suspicion that plagued her throughout this year’s trial of 41-year-old James Watson for the killing, when once again she was forced to defend herself in the witness stand.

Neave and her husband, Gary Rogers, say Watson’s conviction is not the end of this journey – which Neave says damaged her health, relationships and reputation – and they have resolved to attempt to overturn the child cruelty conviction.

During Watson’s trial it remained the prosecution case that Neave was guilty of a “broad range of serious, deliberate mistreatment” and that “the neglect exposed one so young to grave risk”. The court was told Rikki was on the “at-risk register”.

While Neave’s children continue to distance themselves from her, she and Rogers both claim it was failings by authorities that drove the police’s pursuit of her for Rikki’s murder – a case that has been called a “fanciful hypothesis” by a senior officer.

In a cafe in Great Yarmouth, where Neave and Rogers are on holiday between Watson’s conviction in April and sentencing on 24 June at the Old Bailey, Neave appears exhausted. She suffers from arthritis, diabetes, anxiety and depression, all of which she says have been exacerbated by the ordeal.

Wearing sunglasses throughout the interview, her broken elbow is held in a sling and a crutch is placed against the wall. “It’s taken a hell of a lot out of me,” she says. “I wish I could be happy, I wish I could be jolly – but I just can’t.”

Before she had children, Neave’s life was troubled. She was in care from the age of two. She recalls “boys trying to send you out to prostitute yourself” when in children’s homes. “I wasn’t having any of that,” she adds.

Her own parents, with whom she had not lived for some time, took their own lives in a suicide pact. At 17, she had her first child with Trevor Harvey, with whom she would also have Rikki. Harvey, who has since died, was abusive towards her and did not want the responsibility of a child, she says.

“Rikki was such a lovely little boy,” she says.

Ruth later met Dean Neave, who she says was a police informant subjected to repeat death threats. He has since died. In the early 90s they were rehoused on the Welland estate in Peterborough, which unbeknown to her was a notoriously violent estate with significant social problems.

On 28 November 1994, Rikki was back home with his mother. He left home in the morning and never returned. He was found dead the next day in nearby woodland, naked and deliberately posed by the killer in a star shape.

Roughly six months later, Neave was charged with murder and child cruelty. She admits her life was “chaotic” and that she “smacked the children”. But she denies the detail of the cruelty offences: sending Rikki out at night to buy drugs, starving him, torturing him.

One allegation said she had been seen hanging Rikki over a bridge by his ankles, a charge she denies and challenges over whether it was physically possible.

Why did people make these allegations? “Fifteen minutes of fame,” Neave says. “Lots made money out of it, they even turned round and sold pictures of my son to the press.”

“It was malicious,” she adds.

But why plead guilty? “I was told by my solicitor to plead guilty,” she says. “I refused to plead guilty to the murder. I pleaded guilty to the neglect because I thought it was just smacking.”

Neave says she understood she would face a community sentence for the cruelty offences, and was devastated when the judge handed down a seven-year term. When she was released in 2000 and returned to Cambridgeshire, she was confronted with suspicion on a daily basis. “I had to argue, I had to fight, I was not that person, I was never that person,” she says.

She says she has been unable to work and relationships have been difficult too. “Usually I don’t tell people, or I don’t tell them the whole story because it’s quite hard; it was my baby I wanted to talk about,” she says.

In 2008, she met Rogers. He promised her that if she wanted to demand the police reopen the case, he would support her.

And he lived up to that promise. He denies it has become an obsession but he knows the case meticulously. In 2013, he helped Neave obtain the original files from her former solicitor – 13 boxes, each containing eight to 12 ringbinders full of papers – and has read every one.

Within the case files are official police records of six reported sexual assaults on children on the Welland estate in a three-year period before Rikki was murdered.

“They are extremely sick,” Rogers says, adding that he believes that if the reports had been followed up, they may have led to Watson, who the court heard had on his record an allegation that he had touched a five-year-old.

Rogers says he found dozens of errors among the statements. In 2014 he gave a presentation to the then-new head of a major crime unit for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, Paul Fullwood, who in turn decided to reopen the case.

Using techniques unavailable at the time of the original investigation, tests on Rikki’s clothing found the DNA of Watson, who was 13 at the time of the disappearance.

That was in 2016; it still took another six years to arrest, charge and convict Watson. “It’s been pure hell,” Neave says. “We lived it and we breathed it.”

Watson was found guilty last month despite attempts by the defence to point the suspicion at Neave, which she calls “a trial within a trial”.

“He’s a monster, a sexual predator and a monster,” Neave says, adding it makes her “feel sick” knowing Watson had evaded justice for nearly 30 years while the eye of suspicion remained firmly fixed on her.

The couple are now planning to approach the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to see if the child cruelty conviction can be challenged.

Rogers says he has uncovered evidence that exposes serious failings by both the police and social services. He has previously complained to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) but it did not take it any further.

“What I want to put across is this is all about Rikki, that’s all it’s ever been about,” Neave says. “He would have been 34 now. I often sit and wonder how many kids he would have, what work he’d be doing.”

Through her sunglasses, Neave gazes out the cafe window. “I’ll never get over losing him,” she says.