For Rilya Wilson’s birthday on Sept. 29, 2005, members of the Joseph Caleb Center’s 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 girl’s 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.
“That’s 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 state’s 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.
Rilya’s 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. Rilya’s 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 prosecution’s thrust will likely focus on Graham’s inconsistent accounts of Rilya’s 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 Rilya’s whereabouts. Graham claimed a “Spanish” friend had taken the little girl on a road trip.
When DCF finally became aware that the child wasn’t 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.
To find the mystery worker, detectives printed out ID-badge photos of DCF employees to show Graham. Many searches for the girl also fizzled.
As detectives got varying versions of Rilya’s whereabouts from people who had talked to Graham, the case morphed from a missing persons case to a homicide investigation.
Jurors are also likely to hear from two key witnesses, one of them Pamela Graham, no relation.
Pamela Graham told police that Geralyn hit Rilya with switches, confined her to the laundry room and tied her hands to the railing of the child’s bed with plastic “flex cuffs.” A friend of the pair also told investigators that Graham borrowed a dog cage in which she locked Rilya when she misbehaved.
As for the social worker tale, Pamela Graham said Geralyn “concocted the story and advised her whenever anyone inquired about Rilya to just say that DCF took her,” the case’s lead detective said in a deposition.
But Pamela Graham told officials she never knew what happened to Rilya, who would be 16 today. She agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of child neglect and serve as a state witness against Geralyn. She has not yet been sentenced.
The other chief witness would be jailhouse informant Robin Lunceford, who claimed Geralyn Graham confessed to her that she smothered the child and dumped the body in a South Miami-Dade canal.
Testimony by jailhouse informants is often of questionable value, but Lunceford’s credibility may be particularly shaky — she also gave information to Miami-Dade prosecutors about fellow inmates in two other high-profile murder cases, but was dropped as a state witness in both cases after she stopped cooperating.
For several years, both Frederica Wilson and Rilya’s younger sister — the congresswoman befriended her after the girl was adopted by a local family — believed Rilya was still alive, somewhere. For Rilya’s sister, Rodericka, it was a childhood act of faith.
For the lawmaker, it was a mixture of both faith and hope: Perhaps Graham, who moved from her modest home into a larger one around the time Rilya vanished, sold the cute little girl for a large sum of money?
But as Graham languished in jail year after year, initially on credit card fraud charges and then on the murder rap, Wilson lost hope. Had the child actually been sold, Graham surely would have said so by now, Wilson reasoned, if only to clear herself of murder charges.
Still, Wilson says, she kept her awful conclusions to herself. “I didn’t have the heart to tell [Rodericka]; no, I didn’t think Rilya was alive.”
To this day, Wilson keeps pictures of the lost little girl in her office. Visitors ask if the child is hers. “I never had anything affect me the way the disappearance of Rilya affected my life,” the lawmaker said. “It just torments me.”
The child’s disappearance affected many that way, and some say, led to significant changes in the way Florida protects children.
Social workers across the nation still study the case as a cautionary tale for what not to do in child protection.
“Rilya Wilson was a turning point in child welfare,” former DCF Secretary George Sheldon, now an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told The Herald two years ago.
In the wake of Rilya’s disappearance, child welfare administrators developed a real-time system for tracking and reporting on missing children, created a specialized missing-kids unit at DCF headquarters in Tallahassee, beefed up requirements for case workers (including mandatory foster home visits every 30 days), and implemented fingerprinting and photographs for all children entering foster care. While in the Legislature, Frederica Wilson passed a law requiring youngsters in foster care to be in daycare to increase their community visibility, and lawmakers made it a crime to falsify child welfare records.
The statewide advocacy group Florida’s Children First — which included a large group of lawyers and children’s advocates — also formed in the scandal’s aftermath, and Coral Springs attorney Andrea Moore became the group’s second director.
“Child advocates from all over the state felt we needed to do something. We could not have any more Bradleys or Kaylas or Rilyas. It had to stop,” said Moore, referring to Bradley McGee, who was fatally plunged head-first into a toilet for soiling himself after being returned by the state to abusive parents, and Kayla McKean, whose father beat her to death following multiple reports from teachers that her dad was horribly abusing her.
In the succeeding years, the state has been racked by new tragedies: Gabriel Myers, who hanged himself in 2007 at a Broward foster home, and Nubia Barahona, whose adopted parents are charged with torturing and killing her following multiple reports to the state that her life was in danger — both of which also sparked statewide hearings and hand-wringing reports.
“Advocates get tired,” said Moore, who retired from the group after five years. “It’s such an uphill battle.”