A three-month investigation into the death of a 9-year-old Tampa girl culminated Friday with a murder charge against the man authorities had previously identified as the main suspect in her killing.
Granville Ritchie faces first-degree murder, capital sexual battery and aggravated child abuse charges in the death of Felecia Williams, whose nude body was found May 17 in the waters north of the Courtney Campbell Causeway. The charges came after a meticulous Temple Terrace police investigation in collaboration with a dozen other law enforcement agencies, Chief Kenneth Albano said.
"It appears to me that it was more than likely a crime of opportunity," Albano said, noting that the investigation was ongoing.
Gasps and applause came from a small gathering of Felecia's family members and acquaintances who attended the chief's announcement Friday morning at Temple Terrace City Hall. But their cheers turned to sobs and anguished cries when, for the first time, Albano described how investigators believe the little girl died.
She was sexually assaulted, beaten about the head, and ultimately strangled in an apartment that Ritchie frequented, Albano said. Investigators believe that after he killed her, Ritchie, 35, concealed Felecia's body in a suitcase and moved it to his car before driving to an area near the causeway, where it was dumped.
Felecia Demerson, the girl's mother, learned the details in a private meeting with the chief before Friday's announcement. They later walked hand-in-hand, joining representatives from a dozen law enforcement agencies to address the media.
Demerson stood before the TV cameras, her gaze downcast, her eyes brimming with tears, as the chief gave a rough chronology of what investigators believe happened to her daughter.
On the afternoon of May 16, Ritchie and Eboni Wiley, a friend of Felecia's family, picked up the girl from her east Tampa home and drove her to Apartment 721 at 8910 Tanglewood Lane, Albano said. Just before 5 p.m., Wiley left the apartment, leaving Felecia alone with Ritchie.
She returned at 6 p.m. Ritchie met her at the door shirtless, sweating and "highly upset," Albano said. He told Wiley that Felecia had "run off."
A police search of the apartment later turned up a broken suitcase wheel on a rear patio and a broken zipper pull on the carpet. Forensic technicians also noted a set of wheel marks in the apartment, leading across the carpet from the patio.
The wheel and zipper pull were later determined to have come from a black Protégé suitcase, Albano said. A second search warrant found a suitcase of that same brand inside the trunk of a Lexus that Ritchie drove.
But the wheels and zipper pulls on that suitcase were intact. Witnesses told detectives that Ritchie at one time owned two suitcases of the same make and color, Albano said.
Ritchie told detectives that he later drove to visit a friend in Thonotosassa, a claim the chief said was contradicted by his cellphone data. An analysis of his cellphone data showed that sometime after 11 p.m. on May 16, he drove west from the apartment to the area near where Felecia's body was later found, Albano said. He stayed there for a long time.
A forensic examination of the Lexus turned up pieces of vegetation lodged near a headlight, which investigators said was consistent with plants growing in the area near where Felecia was found. Dirt in the area of the driver's floorboard also shared characteristics of soil near the shore of the causeway.
Ritchie's account of his whereabouts the day of Felecia's disappearance didn't add up, Albano said. He and Wiley concocted a story, telling police that they had sex in another room of the apartment and later came out to find Felecia missing, police said.
Wiley later abandoned their shared tale and told detectives a different story that resulted in her being charged with lying to investigators. She pleaded not guilty earlier this week and remains free on bail.
Ritchie has been jailed since May on unrelated charges of having unlawful sexual contact with a minor and drug possession.
Asked why it took three months before authorities could charge him with murder, Albano said detectives wanted to build a solid case.
"To present a case that's worthy of providing to the state attorney, it takes time to be thorough, to be accurate," he said. "The last thing you want to do is rush to decisions in situations like this."
Many question were left unanswered, including whether detectives think Wiley had anything to do with the murder or if anyone else might faces charges. Albano said authorities want to withhold certain details to protect the investigative integrity of the case.
The chief thanked the various agencies that had a hand in the investigation. They included the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He also singled out the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, who assigned a detective to aid in the case, along with the State Attorney's Office.
"This is still very much an ongoing investigation. We have successfully completed phase one of this case," he said, "But there is still a lot of work left to be done."
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.