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Five years later, trial set in slaying of Tampa girl known as 'Sugar Plum’

Granville Ritchie, 40, is accused in the May 2014 killing of 9-year-old Felecia Williams. His trial is set for Sept. 9.

TAMPA — Five years ago, a little girl left her east Tampa home with a family friend and never returned. Her body was found the next day amid the rocks and mangroves on the west side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

The murder of 9-year-old Felecia Williams is the kind of crime parents and police fear most. When it happened, it galvanized nearly every law enforcement agency in the Tampa Bay area, with the small Temple Terrace police department shepherding a massive investigation. It culminated in a murder charge against Granville Ritchie.

5/17/14 Felecia Williams of Temple Terrace was 9 in 2014 when she disappeared while in the custody of a family friend. Her body was later found in the water off the Courtney Campbell Causeway. [HO | City of Temple Terrace]

Ritchie is scheduled to face trial Sept. 9. If convicted, his case will be the first under State Attorney Andrew Warren in which prosecutors will seek the death penalty. It will also be the first Hillsborough case in which a jury must vote unanimously if it is to recommend capital punishment.

Those who knew her called Felecia Williams Sugar Plum. She lived in east Tampa with her mother, Felecia Demerson, and three siblings. She had her mother’s first name and her father’s last name. She was in the third grade at Edison Elementary School. She liked Hello Kitty. She liked to feed the ducks and birds at a pond in a park near her home.

Eboni Wiley lived nearby. She was 23. Demerson came to trust Wiley enough that she let her look after her daughter. Together, Wiley and Felecia would attend church, visit the store, go to the park and out to eat. They rode bicycles and took walks.

RELATED STORY: Murder trial takes shape in death of 9-year-old Tampa girl

On the afternoon of May 16, Felecia asked her mother if she could go to dinner with Wiley. She consented and Wiley picked the girl up. But when Wiley returned late that night, Felecia wasn’t with her. She had vanished, Wiley said.

Police were called. When interviewed, Wiley offered three different accounts of what happened, according to a report from the state Department of Children and Families. She first claimed that she had taken Felecia to a friend’s home, that Wiley had taken a shower there, and that she came out to find Felecia had disappeared.

RELATED STORY: Mother of girl found dead in Tampa Bay still looking for answers

She next claimed that she and Felecia had gone with Ritchie to the home of Ritchie’s mother. Wiley said she put a cartoon on TV for the girl while Wiley and Ritchie went into a bedroom to have sex, according to the state report. When they were done, Felecia was gone.

Granville Ritchie, at his arraignment in 2014, has been awaiting trial for five years in the slaying of a 9-year-old girl. His is the first case where State Attorney Andrew Warren is seeking the death penalty. [Times | 2014]

In her third account, Wiley said she left Felecia alone with Ritchie after he told her to go buy some marijuana and cigarettes, according to the report. When she returned about 35 to 40 minutes later, Ritchie claimed he had sent the girl to a store to buy candy and she had not returned.

Fishermen found Felecia’s body the next day in the waters off the causeway.

Wiley was arrested on a charge of providing false information to law enforcement. Police said that because of her early statements, they didn’t treat Felecia’s disappearance with the urgency it required. She is listed as a witness in the case against Ritchie. She is still awaiting her own trial.

Ritchie was arrested on unrelated drug charges two days after Felecia disappeared. Authorities later charged him with an unrelated sex crime. He was kept in jail as Temple Terrace police made him the focus of a massive investigation. They drew assistance from police agencies in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, along with the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“I can’t stress it enough," Temple Terrace Police Chief Kenneth Albano said in a news conference after Ritchie’s arrest. "A 9-year-old girl was murdered. No one in our community — no one — should tolerate that.”

Three months later, the chief announced that Ritchie was being charged with Williams’ murder. He revealed that the little girl had been sexually assaulted and strangled. He described it as a crime of opportunity and detailed a collection of circumstantial evidence that investigators had assembled.

RELATED STORY: Granville Ritchie charged in murder of 9-year-old Felecia Williams

It included data from Ritchie’s cell phone, which put him near the area where Williams’ body was found hours after she disappeared.

In 2016, local death penalty cases were put on hold after the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida’s capital punishment system to be unconstitutional. The subsequent legal changes delayed Ritchie’s case for about two years.

In that time, Hillsborough County elected a new state attorney. Andrew Warren withdrew from seeking capital punishment in several of the capital cases he inherited upon taking office. But Ritchie’s is one where his office has continued to seek a death sentence.

The office has cited two aggravating factors: The victim was less than 12 years old and that the murder was related to the crimes of sexual battery and aggravated child abuse.

If Ritchie is found guilty, prosecutors will have to convince a 12-member jury that those aggravating factors should stand up against any mitigating circumstances Ritchie’s defense may present. These can include childhood trauma and mental health problems.

The court has summoned 150 prospective jurors. They will be asked about their knowledge of the case, their feelings about a possible death sentence and whether they can commit to attending a three-week trial.