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Secrecy in Hillsborough child murder case could point to a conspirator

TAMPA — Granville Ritchie, the man accused of murdering a 9-year-old girl and dumping her body in Tampa Bay, was arraigned Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder, sexual battery and aggravated child abuse.

Ritchie, 35, who appeared in court briefly, pleaded not guilty to the charges. His arraignment set in motion a case that has been months in the making.

On May 17, a couple fishing from the Courtney Campbell Causeway spotted a child's body in the water. It was Felecia Williams, a 9-year-old girl who went missing from a Temple Terrace apartment a day earlier. Months of investigation followed, as Temple Terrace investigators worked to sort out the conflicting testimony offered by Eboni Wiley, one of the last people to see Felecia alive, and Ritchie, the main suspect.

Police arrested both of them days after Felecia was found. Wiley was charged with providing false information to police, and Ritchie was held in custody on an unrelated drug charge. Three months later, Ritchie was charged in Felecia's death.

The evidence that led investigators to that conclusion is still shrouded in secrecy.

Though Ritchie has been formally charged and indicted by a grand jury, Hillsborough State Attorney's Office officials took the unusual step of persuading a judge to seal the search warrants in the case. These documents, which investigators used to gain access to Ritchie's cellphone records and other aspects of his life, could explain how he became a suspect.

Once an investigation is complete, prosecutors are supposed to release search warrants, said Stetson media law professor Catherine Cameron, but they can withhold them from the public under certain records law exemptions.

"What's most likely is that there's another suspect or a conspirator they're investigating," Cameron said, "and so they want to protect that information from being released."

Temple Terrace police have chosen to guard some facts of the case, while broadcasting others. At a news conference last month, they told a crowd of reporters and Felecia's family members that Ritchie had sexually assaulted and beaten Felecia, then strangled her in an apartment he was known to frequent. But they left unanswered whether anyone else might face charges.

Prosecutors in Hillsborough have also declined to comment on the role that another inmate played in the case.

Jailed in Pinellas on drug charges, Ritchie struck up a conversation with inmate Larry Kobielnik during recreation time, according to Kobielnik's attorney, Brian Pingor.

Kobielnik was a former Tarpon Springs police and Transportation Security Administration officer who was convicted last month of raping a woman at his Dunedin home after picking her up in Clearwater, telling her he was an officer and handcuffing her. He killed himself a day before he was scheduled to appear in court for sentencing. But before he died, he provided information to the Temple Terrace police about Ritchie.

Pingor said he did not know what specific information Kobielnik provided police, only that it related to a cellphone. He couldn't say whether Kobielnik's death would affect the case against Ritchie.

"I do know that he said he was giving some information," Pingor said. He said it was his understanding that Temple Terrace officers met with Kobielnik at least once.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

Secrecy in Hillsborough child murder case could point to a conspirator 09/03/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 3, 2014 10:54pm]
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