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Women Linked to Missing Florida Girl Charged With Fraud

Crime: One of the two, claiming to be Rilya Wilson's kin, has prison record and 46 aliases.

October 03, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Two women caring for a young Florida girl when she vanished from state custody were arrested Wednesday and charged with welfare fraud, having allegedly exploited their caretaker status to steal more than $27,000.

One of the women had claimed to be the grandmother of Rilya Wilson, who turned 6 on Sunday. But the woman--identified as "Jane Doe" in the arrest warrant because authorities are not certain who she is--has 46 known aliases in six states, a criminal record dating to 1975 and also served two years in a Tennessee state prison on a felony conviction for food stamp fraud, Florida officials said.

Doyle Jourdan, regional director for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said authorities hope that the arrests of the women and of Jane Doe's son and daughter will yield information about what happened to the missing girl.

"We think that the people that we have arrested today are the people who most likely know the whereabouts of Rilya Wilson," Jourdan said at a news conference. "They're the last known people to have seen her that we are aware of."

The disappearance of the Miami-area child, the daughter of an admitted crack addict, ignited a scandal concerning the work of the state Department of Children & Families, and led to the resignation of that agency's director. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who is up for reelection next month, has taken heat from Democrats for what they say are broken promises to improve care for children in state custody.

Rilya's caretakers, who have identified themselves as half sisters Geralyn and Pamela Graham, said they hadn't seen the girl since a woman claiming to be from the Department of Children & Families came to get her in January 2001. But everything the arrested women said is now suspect, said State Atty. Katherine Fernandez Rundle of Miami-Dade County.

Jane Doe, who calls herself Geralyn Graham and is thought to be in her mid-50s, "became a grandmother for the money only," Rundle said. It is not known whether the Grahams are related, she added.

"We do know that Jane Doe is the central figure in a series of frauds which depended on having the custody--that was the key, that was the instrumentality of her crime--the custody of Rilya Wilson," the prosecutor said.

According to Rundle, while Rilya was living with them, the caretakers concocted a scheme to use fake identities and forged documents to fraudulently obtain state child-care vouchers, Medicaid assistance, food stamps and temporary cash welfare payments for needy families. Their combined illicit take, according to documents provided at the news conference, exceeded $27,000, some of which was received after Rilya vanished.

The women were not charged in her disappearance.

Pamela Graham already was the legally appointed caretaker of Rilya's younger sister Rodericka. State child-care workers placed Rilya with her in April 2000, believing that it was in the siblings' best interest to be under the same roof. Jane Doe then allegedly forged a court order to show that she was the girls' paternal grandmother, which entitled her to welfare benefits she otherwise had no right to, Jourdan said.

Rodericka was removed from the home last spring, after Rilya was discovered missing.

In their widening search for leads, investigators allege that Jane Doe's children, Leo and Jacqueline Epson, also committed crimes including grand theft and public assistance fraud, Rundle said. The two were "learning the dirty family business of lying, cheating and committing fraud," the prosecutor said.

Also Wednesday, a reward for information leading to Rilya's return was increased from $75,000 to $100,000. Officials said they are proceeding on the premise that the girl is alive, but they acknowledged that they have no proof.

"As we start to peel this whole case apart, it's like an onion," Rundle said. "You keep finding new things."

"This is going to move us closer [to finding Rilya]. We believe that," Jourdan said of the arrests.

Jane Doe, who has a Mississippi birth certificate in the name of Geraldine Thomas, is considered a flight risk and was jailed on $600,000 bond. She is charged with public assistance fraud, document forgery, driver's license fraud, title fraud and making a false affidavit.

Pamela Graham, who authorities said has used at least one alias, was charged with grand theft, welfare fraud and aiding and abetting public assistance fraud. Bail was set at $140,000.

Bush called the arrests proof of his intention "to leave no stone unturned" in the notorious missing persons case.

Rilya was supposed to get monthly visits from a DCF official, but her case worker allegedly filed reports on the child without actually checking on her. It wasn't until April 25 that the department realized it didn't know the girl's whereabouts and notified police.

Jourdan said that, without the intense official scrutiny and media furor surrounding Rilya's disappearance, the benefits fraud probably would have gone undetected.

Likewise, background checks on people claiming benefits for state-placed children were inadequate.

"There is a glitch, if you like," Rundle said, "that exists in the system, and we hope DCF will fix that."

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