Police have apologised for a string of blunders that let schoolboy Rikki Neave’s killer escape justice for more than 27 years.
James Watson was just 13 when he lured the six-year-old into woods near his home and strangled him from behind in November 1994.
His naked body was found laid out in a star shape in Peterborough, Cambs.
Now 41, Watson was finally jailed last month for life after blinkered detectives became convinced Rikki’s mother was the killer.
Ruth Neave was cleared of her son’s murder in 1996 but was jailed for seven years after admitting child cruelty.
Police failed to consider the real killer had escaped justice until a cold case review in 2014.
Cambridgeshire police have issued the apology ahead of a two-episode documentary beginning tonight called The Murder of Rikki Neave, part of Channel 4 ’s 24 Hours in Police Custody series.
Assistant Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic said: “I want to apologise to everyone who has been impacted by the horrendous murder of Rikki, for the length of time taken from the point that Ruth was acquitted to the review of this case in 2014.
“I am sorry that we did not bring James Watson to justice sooner. We now have revised cold case procedures.
“I hope that this conviction will bring some comfort to all of Rikki’s family.”
The original investigation did not treat Watson as a suspect or even significant witness despite him telling police he had seen Rikki the day he died.
One detective tells the documentary how Watson’s father told investigating officers: “My son was with Rikki, you need to speak to him. He’s a wrong-un and he might be involved.”
Police also received a call suggesting he was the killer, the film reveals.
It emerged at Watson’s trial that detectives lost or discarded 45 key exhibits, including the coat used to strangle Rikki and the rest of the clothing he was wearing at the time of his death.
Watson was convicted after his DNA was found on tapings taken from Rikki’s clothing that had been retained.
The killer, who has a long record of convictions, fled to Portugal while on bail but was extradited back.