On November 5, 2012, jury selection began in the trial of Geralyn Graham, 66, for the murder of foster child Rilya Wilson who disappeared a decade ago in Florida and whose body has never been found.
Geralyn has been charged with first-degree murder. She has also been charged with kidnapping and aggravated child abuse. She has pled not guilty to all charges. If convicted of first-degree murder, she could be sentenced to life in prison.
Even as she awaits trial for alleged crimes against Rilya, Geralyn is serving a three-year prison sentence for convictions on unrelated fraud charges.
The case against Geralyn is heavily circumstantial and relies to a large extent on confessions she is alleged to have made to jailhouse informants. “It is always problematic for the government when it has to build a case on jailhouse snitches,” observes Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis who has closely followed this case. “In the end, the government may lose, particularly if Graham can present a reasonable alternative explanation for Rilya’s disappearance.”
The sad life of Rilya Wilson began when she was born on September 29, 1996 to a homeless cocaine addict. Her mother named her “Rilya” because the letters form the acronym for “remember I love you always.”
The state took custody of Rilya when she was only two months old and terminated the parental rights of her mother.
In 2001, the four-year-old child was placed with foster caregiver Pamela Graham who shared a home with Geralyn Graham (they are not related.) The charge of kidnapping against Geralyn is based on the allegation that she removed Rilya from Pamela’s physical custody. The aggravated child abuse charge alleges that Geralyn punished Rilya by locking her in a cage and in a small laundry room as well as by tying her to a bed. Neighbors have also reported that Rilya frequently had bruises and scratches.
A new Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) caseworker was assigned to Rilya in 2002 and discovered that Rilya was no longer at the home of the two Grahams. Both Geralyn and Pamela said a Department of Children and Families worker had taken Rilya for a medical examination in January 2001 but never brought her back. They could give no reasonable explanation for why they did not ask the DCF to return her from the supposed medical examination.
The DCF has no record of any such worker being sent to the home or of Rilya being scheduled for any medical examination.
Investigators learned that the DCF caseworker previously assigned to Rilya, Deborah Muskelly, had failed to make required monthly visits to the child for fifteen months. During that time, Muskelly filed reports and told judges Rilya was well. The DCF has said that Muskelly misled the agency into believing that she was checking up on Rilya which is why the DCF failed to realize that the child’s was missing for such a long time.
Muskelly pled guilty to official misconduct for turning in false time sheets. She was placed on five years’ probation.
Rilya’s disappearance triggered a scandal that led then-DCF Director Kathleen Kearney to resign and even became an issue in Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s 2002 re-election campaign.
The scandal also launched several important reforms. One was the installation of a new missing child tracking system connected to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Another was a law the state passed specifically making it a crime to falsify records of visits between child welfare workers and children under DCF supervision. Still another reform was the new DCF requirement that caseworkers not only visit a child assigned to them every month but must carry GPS units that stamp a date and location to ensure that each child is accounted for. Former DCF Secretary Lucy Hadi has commented, “Significant changes have been set in place including the requirement for monthly visitation of 100 percent of all children placed in foster care and other procedures that protect child welfare.” Current DCF Secretary David Wilkins asserts that Rilya’s tragedy “truly changed case management.”
In July 2011, the DCF went even further, making it mandatory for caseworkers to not only take a picture at their visits but also demand updates about the child’s life at school and in the home and to learn about any medical issues the child may have.
Without Rilya’s body, a recorded or written confession or witnesses to a killing and having very little physical evidence, the case against Geralyn depends heavily on star prosecution witness Robin Lunceford, a career criminal serving a life sentence before telling authorities about what she described as Geralyn’s confession. Lunceford’s cooperation with the authorities led to her sentence being reduced to ten years. She is scheduled for release in March 2014. The defense is likely to suggest Lunceford fabricated for her own gain the story of Geralyn’s confession.
That story is both dismaying and heartbreaking. Lunceford claims that Geralyn was in an adjacent jail cell when she burst into tears. According to Lunceford, Geralyn then said she “couldn’t take it anymore” but had to unburden herself of the crime. Lunceford says Geralyn admitted smothering Rilya with a pillow and then burying her dead body close to the Geralyn home. In Lunceford’s telling, the jaw-droppingly bizarre reason for Geralyn’s homicidal fury was that little Rilya wanted to wear a Cleopatra costume on Halloween instead of going out dressed as an angel as Geralyn preferred.
A second jailhouse informant will testify that Geralyn confessed in a separate conversation to killing Rilya.
Geralyn’s defense attorney Brian Tannebaum asserts, “If the evidence is a jailhouse snitch, I don’t think that says much for the state’s case.” He elaborates that the state has “made it clear from the beginning that their goal is to keep Geralyn Graham in jail for the rest of her life.”
An article for CBS Miami reports, “Last September, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler-Mendez denied defense motions seeking to toss out a purported confession by Graham because she did not have a lawyer present when she reportedly made the statements. Judge Tinkler-Mendez also ruled that she will allow statements Graham made to a police detective.”
Prosecutors are also likely to focus on Geralyn’s character to support the contention that she murdered Rilya. Geralyn has an extensive history of convictions for fraud and other crimes. As a Sun Sentinel article reports, “When she was arrested, police found that she has used 47 aliases and was carrying 10 different driver’s licenses.”
Incredibly, that history was missed by the DCF background check.
Miami-Dade Detective Gregory Scott, who retired in 2004 but was an investigator in the Rilya Wilson case, commented of Geralyn, “Her whole life was a scam. We still don’t know who she was even after she was fingerprinted.”
Pamela Graham has been charged with child neglect. She made a plea deal with the prosecution and is expected to testify against Geralyn. Pamela claims she has no idea what became of Rilya.
Law professor Jarvis believes that the prosecution must be able to rule out alternative theories for Rilya’s disappearance to get a conviction. “Other than foul play, is there any reasonable explanation for the missing person’s disappearance?” he asks. “Assuming the answer is ‘no.’ is there any reasonable doubt that someone other than the accused is the perpetrator?”
The CBS Miami article previously quoted also states, “Jury selection is expected to last about two months.”
Geralyn adamantly insists that she is innocent of any wrong doing toward Rilya. Indeed, Geralyn has written several letters to local judges saying that she is not responsible for the child’s disappearance. In one such letter, she wrote, “I’ve never hurt a soul in my life.”
The jury that is currently being impaneled must determine the truth or falsity of that assertion.