Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Florida v. Geralyn Graham: Did She Kill 4-Year-Old Foster Child Rilya Wilson?

Rilya Wilson. Undated photo/police handout.

The trial of Geralyn Graham, 67, for three counts of aggravated child abuse, one count of kidnapping, and one count of murder in the case of four-year-old Rilya Wilson, a Florida foster child who disappeared in 2000 and whose body has never been found, began on November 26, 2011 and lasted eight weeks before going to the jury.

Read the case background.

One of the most compelling prosecution witnesses was Pamela Graham who is not related to Geralyn but shared a home with her and was the legal foster mother of Rilya. The two Grahams were also lovers. According to Pamela Graham, she knew Geralyn was abusing Rilya. Pamela testified that she saw Geralyn tie Rilya to a bed with her wrists in plastic restraints and saw her put Rilya in a bathtub filled with water so hot it caused Rilya to burst into tears. Pamela said Geralyn said the restraints were to prevent the child from getting up at night to eat sweets and that putting Rilya in the extremely hot tub was punishment for bed-wetting.

Asked why she failed to report such abuses, Pamela Graham answered, “She was always controlling and dominant. I was just afraid of her.” Pamela Graham often wept during her testimony.

On cross-examination, Geralyn Graham’s lawyer Scott Sakin, tried to cast doubt on Pamela’s credibility. Pamela admitted having falsely stated the two were sisters on a job application and writing on state forms that she possessed educational credentials she in fact lacked.

Pamela Graham demonstrates the way in which Rilya's hands were bound. Photo: Getty Images.

Pamela Graham testified that Geralyn Graham was very angered that Rilya wanted to wear a Cleopatra costume instead of the angel costume Geralyn insisted she wear. Rilya was not allowed to go trick-or-treating but Geralyn glued the angel mask on her face, leaving scrape marks on her skin when the mask was ripped off.

According to Pamela Graham, she returned home in December 2000 to find Rilya gone. “[Geralyn] said [Rilya] wasn’t coming back and I wasn’t going to see her anymore,” Pamela Graham testified. “She just kept telling me Rilya was OK and not to worry.” The couple quarreled angrily. Pamela began calling police and Geralyn threatened her with a hammer. However, Pamela also admitted that there were other reasons she failed to report her strong suspicion that “something bad had happened” to Rilya.

“I was scared and I knew that I was the one that had legal custody of her,” Pamela Graham said. “I was just afraid that whatever happened to her, I would be blamed for. It was selfish, I know, thinking about myself instead of her.”

She did indicate it was an emotional relief when she began cooperating with authorities in May 2004. “I was tired of carrying the lies I had previously told,” Pamela Graham testified.

Detra Winfield cries while testifying about the steel dog cage she loaned to Geralyn Graham. Photo: Getty Images

Detra Winfield had been friends with Geralyn Graham. Winfield testified gave Geralyn Graham a dog cage because Geralyn said she needed it to control Rilya for the child’s own safety because she threw violent temper tantrums.

Winfield also testified that the Grahams had a yard sale in which they sold Rilya’s toys. Winfield stated that she had bought a dresser formerly used by Rilya.

Witness Ludwig Smith had dated one of Geralyn Graham’s daughters. He testified that he once saw Rilya locked in a cramped laundry room. Smith said that as he walked toward the garage, “I hard a little voice say ‘hi.’ I looked down and saw Rilya there, she was sitting behind the door on the floor.” He testified that Geralyn Graham had told him she was being punished for misbehavior. He also testified that he had asked about the dog cage and that Geralyn Graham replied that she “put Rilya in there as a method of controlling her movements.” He also said he saw scratches and bruises on Rilya. “Mrs. G. would explain that Rilya would do that to herself,” Smith testified.

One of the state’s star witnesses was longtime prison inmate Robin Lunceford, sentenced to life imprisonment as a repeat offender for her participation in several violent armed robberies but who had her sentence reduced to 10 years for cooperating with authorities in this case. Lunceford claimed Graham confessed the killing. Lunceford testified, “At first I thought she was crazy and then I wanted to beat the crap out of her.”

The prosecutor asked the convict why she reacted so emotionally to Graham’s alleged confession. Lunceford replied, “Well, I don’t like baby killers and I don’t like child molesters. I don’t like any children crimes.”

Further questioning elicited Lunceford’s assertion that Graham said she believed the child was possessed by demons and that killing her would put her out of her misery. Lunceford also claimed Graham referred to the supposedly demon possessed child by the dehumanizing pronoun “it.” Lunceford testified, “She said it was suffering and that she couldn’t allow it to grow up and suffer like that.” Lunceford claimed Graham confessed smother Rilya with a pillow.

Geralyn Graham listens to closing arguments at her trial. Photo: Getty Images.

Lunceford also testified to Graham telling her that the body had been disposed of in land that was near water. “I said, ‘So what did you do, just throw the body in the backyard and bury it?’” Lunceford recalled on the stand. “And she said ‘no,’ that she ‘gave it a proper burial,’ that she took it to a ravine – first she said ravine, then she said private lake and then she said a canal – but it was in an area that was familiar to her that Pam used to go fishing.” The Pam referred to is Pamela Graham.

On cross-examination, Sakin pointed out that Lunceford has reason to lie since her deal with the prosecution means she may soon be free.

Maggie Carr, who is serving life for a 1991 murder, testified that she received training as a law clerk while imprisoned and Graham asked her for legal advice. “She told me that were trying to get her for murder,” Carr testified. Carr claimed Graham repeatedly told her that she could not be convicted of murder without a body and that “the critters” had destroyed Rilya’s body.

During cross-examination, Carr admitted she had fled the U.S. to avoid prosecution, then returned to Florida but hid. Attorney Sakin also suggested that Carr hoped to benefit from her testimony and secure parole.

A third inmate, Ramona Tavia who is serving live for a robbery and murder, testified she was with Graham in a jail annex and briefly shared a cell with her in November 2003. Tavia testified that Graham wept as corrections officers led her into the cell after a phone call. Tavia elaborated that Graham said she “killed the baby” to “protect Pam” whom Graham called “sick and weak.” Tavia said she is eligible to apply for parole in 2016 and that prosecutors made no promises in exchange for her testimony. She testified as “as a mother” she felt compelled to share this information with authorities.

Defense attorney Scott Sakin suggested in his opening statement that Rilya could still be alive. CBS Miami reported that ”Sakin suggested Rilya could’ve been relocated to a new home and lost in a system that has a history of case worker incompetence.”

A photo of Rilya WIlson behind the steel dog cage, which was prominently displayed in the courtroom for jurors. Photo: Getty Images.

The defense called inmate Cindy McCloud, in prison for drug crimes, to the stand. McCloud said she knows both Lunceford and Carr. McCloud testified that Lunceford said her testimony was “all lies. All of it. It’s all lies.” McCloud also testified that Carr asked Lunceford to bring her in on a plea deal. McCloud said Carr told her she believed she would receive favorable reviews from the State Attorney’s Office for her testimony.

Corrections Sgt. Rene Vila was called by the defense. Vila confirmed that jail records showed that Tavia and Graham had not shared a cell in November when Tavia claimed Graham had confessed to her.

When prosecutors cross-examined Vila, she conceded that the records might not be completely accurate. “If it was a temporary matter, no cell change would have taken place in the system,” Vila testified.

In closing argument, prosecutor Joshua Weintraub reminded the jury that Geralyn Graham told several “fanciful” stories through the years about what became of Rilya and that her story of a Department of Children and Families worker picking the child up for tests was not verified. Weintraub said Graham had a pattern of “lies, deceit, and cover-up.” Weintraub asserted, “It happened because of this woman’s hatred of Rilya.”

Defense attorney Michael Matters told the jury to add up all the “lacks” in the prosecution case. Matters said, “Lack of physical evidence. Lack of a body. Lack of any physical discovery of remains. Lack of a motive for killing her. You should use your common sense.”

On January 24, 2013, the jury sent a note to Judge Marisa Tinkler-Mendez stating they were deadlocked on the murder charge. The judge instructed them to continue working on the case. The jury indicated they had reached verdicts on the three child abuse charges and the kidnapping charge but the verdicts will not be read until a decision is reached on all five charges.

According to reports coming from the court, the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charge because of a single juror. They returned to the courtroom Friday, January 25, to continue deliberating. Their verdicts on the other charges could not be announced until all of the deliberations were finished.

By Friday afternoon, it had been announced: Geralyn Graham was convicted of kidnapping and child abuse, but the jury could not reach a verdict on the murder count, resulting in a mistrial on that charge.

 

Sources on following page. 

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