MIAMI — A woman who once cared for missing foster child Rilya Wilson was sentenced Tuesday to 55 years in prison for kidnapping and child-abuse convictions, closing a case that spanned more than a decade and triggered changes in Florida’s child-welfare system.
Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez imposed the sentence on Geralyn Graham, 67, who was convicted last month following an eight-week trial. With a lone holdout, jurors were unable to agree on her guilt or innocence on a first-degree murder charge, and prosecutors are unlikely to retry Graham on that count.
Tinkler Mendez said the evidence showed that 4-year-old Rilya was subjected to “senseless, cruel and inhumane acts” at the hands of Graham.
“One can only be inherently evil to inflict that type of pain and torment on an innocent child,” the judge said.
Assistant State Attorney Sally Weintraub said Rilya went from an initial loving foster home to an “abyss” with Graham that kept the child in terror during the final months of her short life.
“We trust that with this sentencing there will be some measure of satisfaction to those people who loved Rilya and cared about her,” Weintraub said.
The judge sentenced Graham to 30 years for kidnapping plus 25 years for aggravated child abuse. Two other abuse sentences — 25 years and five years, respectively — will be served concurrently for a total of 55 years behind bars. Prosecutors had sought the maximum of life plus 65 years.
Rilya vanished in December 2000 from the Miami-area home shared by Graham and her lover, Pamela Graham. Her disappearance wasn’t noticed for 15 months, largely because a Department of Children and Families caseworker neglected to check on the girl in person as required.
The case led to the resignation of then-DCF director Kathleen Kearney and the passage of several reform laws, including a new missing-child-tracking system and the contracting out of foster child casework to private organizations. Lawmakers also made it illegal to falsify records of visits between caseworkers and foster children.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat who sponsored some of those reforms in the state Legislature, said Graham’s sentence was just. She is not related to Rilya Wilson.
“She’s not getting life, but she will be in prison for the rest of her life,” Wilson said of Graham after the sentencing.
Rilya, whose name is an acronym for “remember I love you always,” was the daughter of a crack-addicted woman. Rilya and two sisters were all put up for adoption, with the younger sibling also being cared for by the Grahams when Rilya disappeared.
By the time investigators got the case, any physical evidence that might have existed was long gone. Rilya’s body has never been found, leading Graham’s defense lawyers to suggest during the trial that the girl might have been sold and could still be alive. Prosecutors also had no eyewitnesses to any crime.
Graham insisted she was innocent and in brief remarks Tuesday she said eventually “the truth will come out.”
“It hurt me to the depths of my soul for anyone to think I would do that to any child. I only tried to help her,” Graham said. “I loved her too much to have ever done anything to her. Things have been greatly exaggerated.”
Defense attorney Michael Matters said there will be appeals of the convictions and sentence. He praised the judge, nevertheless, for restraint in the sentence.
“My client was not convicted of murder, though the state would like the court to sentence my client and punish her as if she were,” Matters said.
During the trial there was evidence of abuse, including a dog cage witnesses said Graham obtained to punish Rilya and testimony about the girl’s lengthy confinement in a small laundry room. Pamela Graham testified that Geralyn Graham regularly tied Rilya to her bed using plastic restraints so she would not get up during the night.
The murder case hinged on testimony by three jailhouse snitches. The state’s star witness, career criminal Robin Lunceford, said Graham told her behind bars that she smothered Rilya with a pillow and buried the body near water. Lunceford said Graham believed Rilya was evil and had to be put out of her misery.
A last straw was Rilya’s insistence on wearing a Cleopatra mask instead of an angel costume for Halloween, according to Lunceford.
Graham consistently denied harming the girl, telling investigators and even national television shows that Rilya had been taken away by a DCF worker for mental tests and never returned. No evidence ever surfaced to back up that claim. Graham also told other stories to friends about Rilya’s whereabouts, including purported trips to Disney World, New York and New Jersey.
Lunceford made a deal with prosecutors cutting her life sentence to 10 years in exchange for her testimony. She is currently scheduled for release in March 2014.
Pamela Graham was charged with child neglect but also will likely get no jail time in exchange for her testimony. Pamela Graham insisted she does not know what happened to Rilya, but she didn’t admit to investigators until 2004 that there were numerous lies surrounding the girl’s disappearance.