For Rilya Wilsons birthday on Sept. 29, 2005, members of the Joseph Caleb Centers Head Start program shared a sheet cake with white frosting and pink flowers in an auditorium filled with pink balloons. They blew out nine candles one for every year that had passed since the pigtailed girls birth.
A year later, the date passed with no celebration. The hostess of the unusual parties, then-Florida state Sen. Frederica S. Wilson, had reached the same conclusion as Miami prosecutors: Rilya, the chubby-cheeked foster child who vanished in late 2000 or early 2001, was almost certainly dead.
Thats when I stopped having birthday parties, Wilson, now a U.S. congresswoman, said. I guess I had been hoping so hard.
Beginning Monday, a Miami-Dade jury will be asked to write the final chapter in a saga that shocked South Florida and raised haunting questions: How did a small child, in the care of a court-appointed guardian, simply disappear? And how could the states long-troubled child welfare system not notice?
In a trial that Wilson vows to attend, at least in part, jurors will be asked to decide whether caretaker Geralyn Graham abused and murdered the child over a decade ago.
Uproar and firings
Rilyas disappearance her body has never been found sparked massive upheaval and reform at the Department of Children & Families, leading to a series of unbridled public hearings, a scathing report, legislative changes and a Miami visit by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
Several DCF employees were fired, the top Miami administrator resigned and Secretary Kathleen Kearney left the agency months later. Rilyas disappearance prompted cries for agency transparency more than any tragedy before it cries that echo today.
It led to a criminal probe that will culminate Monday with opening statements in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
Graham, 66, is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and multiple counts of child abuse with great bodily harm. She faces life in prison if convicted. Graham, confined in the Miami-Dade jail since October 2002, has long maintained her innocence.
The trial, in front of Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez, is expected to last longer than a month.
Without a body, forensic evidence, eyewitnesses or confessions, the state faces unusual challenges. The prosecutions thrust will likely focus on Grahams inconsistent accounts of Rilyas whereabouts and a jailhouse informant who claims the woman confessed to smothering the child.
Rilya was born to a crack-addicted mother, and by 2000, was living with Graham and her domestic partner, Pamela Graham, under DCF supervision.
Her name was an acronym: Remember I Love You Always.
The agency did not realize the girl had disappeared until April 2002, more than one year after she was last seen. The reason: Her case worker, whose job was to check on the girl regularly, had not bothered to do so and instead falsified numerous reports.
During a Christmas 2000 get-together at the Graham home, friends wondered about Rilyas whereabouts. Graham claimed a Spanish friend had taken the little girl on a road trip.
When DCF finally became aware that the child wasnt in the home, Graham claimed that an unidentified worker with the agency a tall, heavy-set, light-skinned woman with an accent came to pick up Rilya. A second woman came later to retrieve toys and clothes, Graham said.