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The family of an Asian man whose body was discovered in the Thames hours after he was attacked by racist thugs said it has been contacted by a new witness who claims to have evidence suggesting he was murdered.

Ricky Reel, a 20-year-old from Kingston-upon-Thames, disappeared in 1997 during a night out with friends. His group was attacked by two white youths shouting racist abuse and Mr Reel went missing in the immediate aftermath of the scuffle. His body was found a week later in the Thames.

The police believe his death was most likely an accident but his family has always insisted he was murdered. An inquest recorded an open verdict and there were two police investigations, neither of which established exactly how he died.

The family has long been critical of how the police handled Mr Reel’s case, arguing that detectives did not take its concerns seriously because it was Asian – a charge the Met has always denied. Now Mr Reel’s mother, Sukhdev Reel, has disclosed that she was recently contacted by a woman who claimed to have information on a young man and convicted murderer who may have been involved in Mr Reel’s death.

In an interview with BBC London due to be broadcast tonight, Ms Reel said: “She gave a name as to who he is and where he is. He is currently in prison for a murder. He murdered a man and is spending life in prison.” The family passed the woman’s information on to the police but it was discounted after they were told that the witness might not be credible and had refused to talk to officers.

“They have come back and said the person who gave the information is too frightened to speak to the police and that maybe this person has learning disabilities and may not be credible,” Ms Reel said.

For the Reel family, the woman’s testimony is the first fresh lead in a tragedy. “This is the first time after a long time that a witness has come forward and named what the witness thinks is a possible suspect,” said Suresh Grover, from the Southall Monitoring Group, which has supported the family.

Mr Grover, Ms Reel and Tish, Mr Reel’s younger sister, recently met with officers at Scotland Yard to press upon them the importance of following up the lead. “The police have tried to interview the witness,” Mr Grover said. “For various reasons that witness has not come forward and given a proper statement to the police, so based on the emails that she sent to the family which have been handed to the police they’ve done their investigation. So we have a situation where they [the police] cannot say they are malicious or unfounded but they don’t think they should be relied on; now that’s a situation which no family should be under.”

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