When inmate Ramona Tavia first met Gerayln Graham, the sweet older woman insisted to Tavia that she was innocent of the charges that had landed her in jail
An unknown “white man” from the state’s child welfare agency, Graham claimed, spirited away foster child Rilya Wilson. Now, Graham said, she was being blamed for the girl’s murder.
But Tavia, who took the witness stand Tuesday to conclude the state’s murder case against Graham, said the woman changed her story one night during a sobbing cell confession.
“She said she was doing it for [her live-in lover] Pam,” Tavia, 41, told jurors. “She had to protect Pam. She’s sick, she’s weak so she killed the baby for Pam.”
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Tavia, a convicted murderer, was the third jail inmate to testify against Graham in a trial that began in late November.
Graham, 66, is accused of abusing, kidnapping and killing 4-year-old Rilya sometime about December 2000. The Florida Department of Children & Families had placed Rilya in the home of Pamela and Geralyn Graham, who are not related.
But the agency did not notice Rilya had been missing for some 18 months, a failure that shocked South Florida and caused massive reform.
A grand jury indicted Graham in 2005 after she allegedly confessed to an inmate that she smothered the girl and buried the body near water. That inmate, Robin Lunceford, spent four days on the witness stand.
Another inmate, convicted murderer Maggie Carr, also testified that Graham suggested to her that she disposed of the little girl’s body near a body of water in South Miami-Dade.
The defense will begin its case on Wednesday, calling witnesses to refute testimony presented by the prosecution.
Tavia was convicted of murder in 1994. Police said Tavia urged her husband, Modesto Silva Gonzalez, to shoot and kill a man during a brawl at a North Miami-Dade flea market. Tavia was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
In November 2003, Tavia had been moved from state prison to the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center while a judge considered an appeal. At the time, Graham was serving a two-year sentence for grand theft and welfare fraud.
Tavia testified that Graham plied her with gifts while insisting she had nothing to do with the girl’s demise.
But one night, Tavia saw Graham become extremely agitated after making a phone call. That night, with the jail filling up because of an influx of inmates, Tavia had to sleep on a mattress on the floor of Graham’s cell. Tavia said she heard Graham stifle cries.
When Tavia asked Graham if she was OK, the woman repeatedly said she had killed the baby because Pam — whom she identified as her sister — “was weak.”
Tavia said she eventually agreed to cooperate years later with authorities because she is a mother of three and a grandmother.
“I feel like the lady lied to me,” Tavia said. “She kept telling [prosecutors had] been lying on her, she did none of those things.”
In cross examination, defense attorney Michael Matters suggested Tavia was telling the story only so that prosecutors might vouch for her at a possible parole hearing in upcoming years.
“They no promise me that,” Tavia said in heavily-accented English.
“Aren’t you hoping they don’t object to your being placed on parole?” Matters pressed.
“If they doing it, it’s OK," she replied. “If they don’t, what can I do about it?”