James Watson: Ricky Neff the killer who strangled a boy, 6, to achieve ‘pathological fantasy’ who was imprisoned 27 years after the murder

A killer has been brought to justice more than 27 years after he strangled a six-year-old boy, and has been jailed for life.

James Watson was 13 years old when he lured Ricky Neve into the woods just a few minutes’ walk from his home in Welland, Peterborough, on November 28, 1994.

The 41-year-old was sentenced to at least 15 years at the Old Bailey on Friday morning after being convicted in April of the murder. The case has remained unresolved for nearly three decades.

The attorney general, John Price, said Watson would be sentenced to the age he was at the time of the murder. The prosecution and defense agreed that the starting point was one of 12.

He added that there was “the clearest possible indication” of a sexual motive in the display of Ricky’s naked body.

Watson strangled the boy from behind with a tie or anorak collar, to achieve a “pathological fantasy” he had told his mother about three days earlier.

Ricky stripped naked and placed his naked body in the shape of a star for sexual gratification, deliberately “displaying” him near the children’s den in the woods. Ricky’s body was found the day after he went missing.

The court heard various statements about victim impact, first from Rochelle Orr, one of Ricky’s younger sisters.

She said, “I was only three years old when Ricky was murdered and removed from my family. After entering the care system, I had severe psychological problems.

“I remember Ricky feeding me, washing me, and helping me with my clothes.

“He missed a lot of our lives, the happy times we had. I also wonder how he would be if he was still here, but unfortunately, I’ll never know because he was taken away from me.”

James Watson has a long criminal record that includes convictions for car theft and setting fire to a British Transport Police station


Rebecca Maria Harvey, Ricky’s older sister, broke down while speaking in court.

She said, “Even though I was the eldest, it wasn’t because he was taking care of me. Losing Ricky was like losing my other half.

“I still wake up every day thinking it was a nightmare. I didn’t have a brother to grow up with.

“Ricky is the one who wasn’t here and lost his life, but the impact on me and my family is never ending.”

“I just can’t understand what happened or why. It was so painful, I didn’t know what had happened to him or why. Not only did I lose Ricky, I lost my entire family.

“I miss him so much. Our whole lives were turned upside down and nothing has changed since then.”

Addressing Watson, but without using his name, she said, “After all these years of living your life… you finally get your pay back, and Ricky Lee Harvey finally gets justice.”

The police initially accused Ricky Neve’s mother of murder, but she was acquitted after a trial


Watson’s advocate Jennifer Dempster QC said her client’s primary dilution was his age at the time of the crime.

She also said there were “particularly sensitive matters” in Watson’s life – which were not aired in court – that left him vulnerable and he was placed in care in 1993 after his father assaulted him.

She said: The accused himself was a victim at the hands of others.

“The defendant’s education and general childhood were influenced by the disillusionment of a variety of adults in his life who should not have done so.”

“This was a guy – a little boy – who really didn’t have stability in his life,” Dempster added.

She added that there was no evidence “in any way, shape or form” that Watson sexually assaulted Ricky.

Police initially charged Ricky’s mother Ruth Neve with murder, but she was acquitted after a trial in 1996. However, she was imprisoned for child cruelty, a conviction she said she now hoped to contest.

Watson was spoken to as a witness at the time because he was seen with Ricky on the day of his disappearance.

But his false account was not countered and he was not seen as a suspect until a DNA hack years later linked him to Ricky’s discarded clothing.

Ruth Nef leaving Ricky’s funeral in 1995

(John Giles/PA)

Watson was found guilty of murder by the majority after an Old Bailey jury deliberation of 36 hours and 31 minutes.

Previously, the court heard how police learned of Watson’s sexual interest in younger boys, who questioned him about an allegation that he molested a five-year-old in 1993.

More disturbing behavior was observed in the Watson children’s home, including masturbating to pictures of young boys in underwear and keeping a dead cyclist in his room, the court heard.

The prosecution claimed that it was no coincidence that, three days before the murder, Watson was the source of a fake radio report about the strangulation of a two-year-old boy.

Immediately after Ricky’s murder under identical circumstances, Watson obsessed with press coverage of the murder, copying the school’s front page stories.

The jurors heard that the main evidence in the case against Watson included Ricky’s last meal, Weetabix, which put the time of his death around noon.

This meant that Ricky was killed shortly after he and Watson were seen heading into the woods where he used to play.

The body in Peterborough where the body of six-year-old Ricky Neff was found in November 1994

(Alan Water/PA)

Rikki’s muddy Clarks shoes also indicated that his walk in the woods was a one-way trip.

In a police interview in 2016, Watson attempted to explain the presence of his DNA on Ricky’s clothing by claiming he had picked it up to look at diggers through a hole in a fence.

Prosecutor John Price QC said this was his “really big mistake”, as police were able to prove the fence was not in place in 1994.

Jurors were told that Watson had a long criminal record, which includes convictions for car theft and setting fire to a British Transport Police station.

Watson fled to Portugal while on bail on suspicion of murder, but was extradited to Britain.

In his defence, Watson’s legal team pointed a finger of doubt at Ricky’s mother, who refused.

After the verdict in April, Ms Neff thanked the jury for making the ‘right decision’, calling her son’s killer a ‘monster’ but saying: ‘This is not the time to party because it should never have happened’.

Additional coverage by the Press Association

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