TAMPA — Her mother called her smart, advanced for her age, determined. She could befriend anyone and hold a conversation like she’d known them her whole life.
She was the second-youngest of six girls. Her aunt called her “Sugar Plum” because she had a little round brown face when she came home from the hospital. It was a name that stuck.
She was 9 when she died. The man accused in her death is set to stand trial Monday.
Felecia Nicole Williams weighed 8 pounds, 1 ounce when she was born at University Community Hospital about two weeks before Christmas 2004. Her parents were Felecia Nicole Demerson and Jerome Williams.
She grew up in a working class area of narrow streets and tiny houses with tidy yards, near where southeast Seminole Heights meets Jackson Heights and east Tampa.
She cruised the neighborhood on her bicycle. Wherever she went, she would call her mother.
Mommy, she’d ask, Is it okay if I go here?
She used to swipe bread from her mother’s kitchen and run down the street to feed the ducks at Robert L. Cole Sr. Community Lake. She sometimes wandered into a hair salon on E Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where the owner let her sweep the floor and take out trash and gave her some money in return.
One Christmas, she got three bikes. Her father gave her one and she won the other two in charity bids. She kept two and gave the third to her best friend, who lived across the street. She used the money to buy her mom a Christmas gift of some bath wash and lotion. She gave her a hand-made Christmas card.
For her sixth birthday, her mom organized a Hello Kitty-themed party at Curtis Hixon Waterfront park in downtown Tampa. Sugar Plum invited 10 friends. She wore a pink, long-sleeved Hello Kitty shirt. She watched the skaters on the winter ice rink.
When her mother was recovering from foot surgery, she and her sister, Jeromecia, who was two years older, spent part of their summer in the house with her, making her meals and tending to her needs.
She attended Edison Elementary School. She sang in the youth choir at Zion Temple Holiness Church.
That Friday, May 16, 2014, she phoned her mother, who was out at a hair salon.
Mommy, can I go with Eboni?
Eboni Wiley was a friend from the neighborhood. She was in her early 20′s. She worked at a nursing home not far from where Felecia and her family lived. She sometimes took the children to church on Fridays, Demerson said. She was trusted.
Demerson agreed to let her daughter go. But Wiley didn’t take her to church, according to police.
Late that night, Demerson got another call, from one of her older daughters, who said Wiley told her that Sugar Plum had disappeared. Wiley told Demerson she had taken the girl to a friend’s house. Demerson asked where the friend lived.
Demerson drove to the police station there. She told an officer her daughter was missing. She felt like he didn’t take her seriously and marked the report “runaway.”
“My daughter, she was 9 years old,” Demerson said. “She didn’t have no reason to run away from a person that she trusted in an unfamiliar area that she doesn’t know. ... I said, 16-year-olds, 14-year-olds, they’re runaways. Not my daughter.”
Demerson didn’t go home until the early morning hours. Her family drew up fliers with Sugar Plum’s picture. They contacted local media outlets.
The next morning, a detective came to the house. He asked questions.
What color would your daughter paint her fingernails? Glittery purple.
How did was her hair styled when you last saw her? In twists drawn back into a ponytail.
He asked for a DNA sample and took her daughter’s toothbrush.
Early that evening, the detective returned. With him was the chief of police.
She knew before either of them said a word.
“I broke,” she said. “I just broke.”
The chief talked, but Demerson could hear no more. In the deluge of grief, her mind stuck on one word.
They’d found her there, amid the rocks and mangroves off the Courtney Campbell Causeway. She had been sexually abused and strangled.
What the hell was she doing in Clearwater? Demerson thought.
A few days later, she was called back to the police department for a news conference. She got there 30 minutes early and the police showed her a mug shot of a man. She was asked if she recognized him. She didn’t.
The man was Granville Ritchie. He’d been jailed on drug charges. The police said he was with family friend Wiley on the day Sugar Plum disappeared. They called him a suspect.
It would be three months before he was formally accused. The charges read like blows. Murder. Sexual battery. Aggravated child abuse.
That was five years ago. Ritchie’s trial begins this week.
Demerson hopes the proceedings might address lingering questions, including whether anyone else may have been involved.
“Even though it’s been five years, it’s still fresh,” she said. “More like five days, you know?"
"Because of the way she left, you can’t get over it.”
She knows a trial won’t take away the pain. But she believes seeing justice done may ease it.
She has tried in other ways. She’s met with counselors. She’s taken medications.
She joined Circle of Mothers, an organization offering support and comfort to mothers who have lost children to violence. It was started by Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, the teen whose shooting death at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement.
Demerson has spoken at schools, sharing her story and telling kids to speak up if someone is bothering them or if they feel like they’re in a situation that isn’t right.
She goes to the Rest Haven Memorial Park in Tampa to help her remember what others have forgotten. She visits often, to see the granite stone and and the bench across from it, adorned with pictures and bearing her daughter’s name.
Felecia Nicole Williams