One decade after a pig-tailed little girl named Rilya Wilson was last seen alive, her early and tragic life unfolded in detail Monday in a Miami-Dade courtroom.
Rilya, born to a crack-addicted homeless woman. Rilya, who loved dolls, books and birthday pizza parties at Chuck E. Cheese. Rilya, whisked away by the state’s child-welfare agency, from her first foster mother to her last: a woman named Geralyn Graham.
And it was Graham, a prosecutor told jurors Monday, who “snuffed the life” out of Rilya about 2001, then concocted a web of lies to cover up the murder.
The girl was 5 years old.
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Graham hated Rilya so much that she kept the girl restrained with “flex cuffs” and in a dog cage, prosecutor Joshua Weintraub told jurors during his opening statement.
“She thought, after eight months, that the child had demons and was evil,” Weintraub told jurors. “She referred to her as ‘it’ because she didn’t want to wear an angel outfit at Halloween. She wanted to wear a Cleopatra mask.”
Monday marked the much-anticipated first day of trial for Graham, 66, who is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated child abuse. She faces life in prison if convicted.
Rilya’s disappearance — her body has never been found — sparked massive upheaval and reform at the Florida Department of Children & Families in 2002, leading to a series of unbridled public hearings, a scathing report, legislative changes and a Miami visit by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
Rilya’s mother turned over custody of the child to a friend, Pamela Kendrick, who testified Monday that she took good care of the girl.
“She was a happy child. A mannerable child. Really happy, and she was a very kind child,” Kendrick told the jury.
But prosecutors said Graham, who was taking care of Rilya’s baby sister, found a way to get custody of Rilya: by complaining to DCF supervisor Willie Harris that Kendrick’s home was in shoddy condition.
On the stand Monday, Harris admitted he spent only five or 10 minutes talking to Kendrick in the front of her Liberty City home. When she refused to let him in, he had Rilya removed from the woman.
“I couldn’t prove she wasn’t at risk,” Harris said of Rilya.
So in April 2000, Rilya was placed with Graham and her domestic partner, Pamela Graham, under DCF supervision.
The agency did not realize the girl had disappeared until April 2002, more than one year after she had last been seen. The reason: Her case worker, whose job was to check on the girl regularly, had not done so, and instead falsified her reports.
According to prosecutors, Graham forced her lover, Pamela, to lie about Rilya’s whereabouts. Pamela, who is expected to testify, was a “mouse of a woman,” dominated by her older lover until she finally agreed to cooperate with police in 2004.
But Pamela — who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to child-abuse — claimed she did not know what happened to the little girl. “She didn’t flip, she didn’t roll until they gave her a deal,” defense attorney Scott Sakin said. “Guess how much time she got? Not one day.”
As for Graham, when DCF finally realized the girl was missing, she told investigators that a DCF employee whisked Rilya away for mental-health treatment, and two other DCF workers even showed up later to pick up her belongings.
Graham later admitted to jailhouse inmate that she smothered the child with a pillowcase. The inmate, Robin Lunceford, came forward because she was outraged about the death of an “innocent child,” Weintraub said.
“Robin never wanted anything. She never wanted a deal ever. She wanted to get info to detectives,” Weintraub said.
But without Rilya’s body, prosecutors cannot even prove the girl is dead, Sakin told jurors. “She could be at the Dadeland Mall shopping . . . or in school in the Bahamas,” Sakin said.
Sakin shifted the blame to the state’s child-welfare agency, saying, “Rilya was abandoned by DCF shortly after she was born,” and he heaped scorn on Lunceford, who had her life prison sentence reduced to 10 years, he said.
“She’s a professional snitch. She’s a rat,” Sakin said.
Miami-Dade prosecutors also plan to introduce testimony of two other inmates to whom Graham allegedly made incriminating statements.