Five out of five stars
IN a television landscape littered with dubious and overblown true-crime documentaries, Channel 4’s 24 Hours in Police Custody has been a beacon of quality since it began in 2014.
Now in its 12th season, it’s remained fresh and compelling by deviating from the original “it does exactly what it says on the tin” format and venturing into more expansive storytelling.
Its latest two-part special, The Murder of Rikki Neave (Channel 4, Monday & Wednesday; available on All 4), is superb.
Filmed and directed by Danielle Johnson Cutts, it’s both a riveting cold-case procedural charting how a team of homicide detectives solved the 27-year-old murder of Rikki Neave, a six-year-old boy who was found strangled in a wood near his home and also a damning account of how the detectives in the original investigation tried to pin the crime on the boy’s dysfunctional yet entirely innocent mother.
Rikki, by all accounts a bit of a scamp, headed off to school on a November morning in 1994; he never got there. His mother Ruth called the police at 6pm — a couple of hours after Rikki should have returned to their council house in Peterborough’s Welland Estate — and reported him missing.
After an extensive search of the area, his naked body was found arranged into a snow angel pose in the nearby wood. Rikki’s clothes were later discovered dumped in a bin 150 yards away.
The pathologist concluded that the boy had been killed about 12 hours earlier. This was hugely important information that, had the police paid it proper attention at the time, could have quickly led them to the murderer, a 13-year-old boy called James Watson, who’d been seen with Rikki on the day he died and had previously been diagnosed as deeply disturbed, violent and sexually deviant.
The police actually interviewed Watson at the behest of his father, but blithely ruled him out as a suspect without checking out his story.
It took 26 years and a full-scale reinvestigation — which formed the gripping second part of the documentary — by ACC Paul Fullwood and his team of homicide specialists before Watson was arrested, charged, tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty. He was given a life sentence earlier this year.
The amount of DNA evidence forensic science could yield at the time was limited. All the police had to go on back then were witness statements — and, of course, their own prejudices about the kind of people who lived in Welland.
People like Rikki’s mother Ruth, who had three children by two different men, neither of whom was around. She was disliked by her neighbours, who practically formed a queue to tell newspaper reporters and TV interviewers what an appalling person she was.
They considered her unpleasant and unfriendly. She had a habit of shaving her hair into angular styles and dying it jet black, which, said one neighbour in archive footage, made her look “hard-faced” and like “a witch”.
She was a drug user and a bad mother who verbally and physically abused her children. This much was unarguably true. In a police interview recording, she admits to once putting washing-up liquid in Rikki’s mouth when he was being naughty, yet doesn’t seem to understand that this counts as physical abuse.
A search of Ruth’s house revealed numerous signs of child neglect. It also revealed her obsessive interest in the occult. A picture of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man on a magazine cover was enough to convince the cops they were looking at a ritualistic murder, and that Ruth was guilty as sin.
Nevermind that there was no evidence; they’d get a confession out of her. They didn’t, of course, despite 20 hours of bullying and intimidation.
Ruth was tried for murder but acquitted when her lawyer punched one hole after another in the prosecution’s so-called case.
Because she pleaded guilty to neglectful parenting, however, she was sentenced to seven years in prison. The hate campaign against her didn’t abate after her release.
It was thrilling to watch the present-day detectives comb through the old files, until one of them, in a terrific piece of police work, discovered the chink that blew the case open. Ever present, though, was the overwhelming sadness of a young life snuffed out and another life, no matter how imperfect, blighted forever.