At first, Geralyn Graham had nothing but hugs and affection for chubby cheeked foster child Rilya Wilson.
But within a few weeks, Geralyn grew increasingly exasperated with the child’s unruly behavior, the woman’s emotional ex-lover told jurors Monday.
Geralyn confined the 4-year-old foster girl to a small laundry room in their Kendall home, sometimes for days. At night, Geralyn kept Rilya tied to her bed by the wrists to keep her from climbing on furniture.
To punish the girl for wetting the bed, Geralyn once even dipped the girl into scalding bathtub water, Pamela Graham told jurors Monday.
And through it all, Pamela — the girl’s legal custodian — testified tearfully that she did nothing to help the girl, cowed by the domineering personality of a woman 18 years her senior. In the end, Pamela spent years repeating lies Geralyn spun about how Rilya vanished in 2000, she said.
“It’s not something I’m proud of, but at that point in my life, I was weak,” said Pamela Graham, who is not related to Geralyn.
“I just did not like confrontation. I knew the defendant. She just controlled every aspect of my life. It wasn’t that Rilya wasn’t worth it.”
Pamela’s testimony Monday against her former domestic partner was highly anticipated. On the stand, Pamela, 48, appeared a scared and pathetic figure, sobbing frequently in explaining how she felt “like a child” in trying to stand up to Geralyn.
Geralyn, 66, is on trial for the death of the foster child whose disappearance a decade ago roiled the state’s child welfare agency and led to a series of reforms. Rilya’s body has never been found.
Charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated child abuse, Geralyn Graham faces life in prison if convicted.
Born to a drug-addicted woman, Rilya was under the supervision of the Florida Department of Children and Families nearly her entire life. In 2000, the agency placed her in the Grahams’ home.
Because a case worker failed to properly supervise the child for more than a year, DCF did not realize Rilya was missing until April 2002. Geralyn has long insisted that a DCF employee, in January 2001, whisked Rilya away for mental health treatment, never to return.
Graham was not indicted for murder until 2005 after she allegedly confessed to a cellmate that she smothered the girl and dumped her body in a South Miami-Dade waterway. The cellmate, Robin Lunceford, may testify this week.
With no body, eyewitnesses to the slaying or confession, Miami-Dade prosecutors have spent weeks weaving a circumstantial case portraying Geralyn as a manipulative caregiver who gave multiple stories of how Rilya disappeared and appeared unconcerned that DCF supposedly took the child and never returned her.
Defense lawyers have laid blame on the DCF case worker who failed to properly supervise the child, and pointed to a lack of forensic evidence and questioned whether the child is even dead. On Monday, defense attorney Scott Sakin sought to poke holes in Pamela’s credibility, saying in cross examination she had embarked on a “road to lies.”
Pamela Graham agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, pleading guilty to child neglect and child abuse with no harm. She has yet to be sentenced.
On Monday, Pamela laid out her relationship with Geralyn from the beginning. They met in Arkansas in 1994, when Geralyn was running a restaurant.
Unable to marry legally, they held a “commitment” ceremony and soon moved to Miami so Geralyn could get treatment for breast cancer. Usually, they referred to themselves as “sisters” to hide their lesbian relationship.
By the late 1990s, the two met Rilya’s mother, Gloria Wilson, a pregnant homeless drug addict. The couple agreed to take in her baby, Rodericka.
After a visit to Rilya’s foster home, Pamela testified that she was appalled by the messy house. Geralyn eventually called DCF and a supervisor, unexpectedly, placed Rilya with the couple.
The first couple months went smooth. Pamela — an accountant — worked during the day. Geralyn stayed home with Rodericka and Rilya.
But Geralyn soon grew frustrated with the girl’s defiant behavior, exaggerating stories of Rilya’s conduct to friends, Pamela said.
Geralyn soon relegated Rilya to the laundry room, without toys or TV. Once, the girl surfaced with a nasty burn on her face. Geralyn claimed it came from the room’s water heater.
Despite urging from Pamela, Geralyn refused to call a doctor, she testified. Geralyn also refused to seek medical attention on another occasion when Rilya supposedly drank Clorox bleach.
The punishments grew outlandish.
The couple borrowed a dog cage from a friend. Geralyn said it was to keep Rilya from climbing atop the refrigerator to steal snacks.
Pamela claimed she warned Geralyn against putting the girl inside the cage, but acknowledged that she was not home during the day to see how the woman punished Rilya.
The climbing continued. So Geralyn began using plastic “flex-cuffs” to tie Rilya to her bed, sometimes every night, despite the girl’s tears.
Still, Pamela never went against Geralyn, usually checking on the restrained girl in the morning before work.
“I would just kiss her and tell her I would see her later,” Pamela said.
“Would you cut the restraints off?” prosecutor Sally Weintraub said.
“No,” she replied.
The abuse, Pamela said, culminated in December 2000. That day, Geralyn called her to say she and the girls were going out for an unspecified errand.
When Pamela returned home that night, Rilya was gone. Geralyn said the girl was OK, but that they would not see her anymore.
The couple argued for hours. Geralyn would not budge on an explanation, even when Pamela threatened to call authorities.
“The defendant threatened me with a hammer, told me to put the phone down,” Pamela said.
Geralyn told Pamela to say DCF took the child away. For months, Pamela kept quiet. When Rilya’s disappearance was noticed more than a year later, Pamela played along.
“I was scared. I knew that I was the one who had legal custody of her and I was afraid that whatever happened to her, I would be blamed for it,” Pamela said.
It was not until 2004, when approached by a Miami-Dade homicide detective, that Pamela agreed to cooperate, she said.
“I was tired of carrying the lies,” she said.