TEMPLE TERRACE — The Felecia Williams homicide case is a big deal for a small police department.
The Edison Elementary third-grader was reported missing from a Temple Terrace apartment complex on May 16; a pair of fishermen discovered her naked body floating near the Courtney Campbell Causeway the next day.
Granville Ritchie, the man police have named as a suspect in her death, is behind bars on unrelated drug charges, but 11 weeks after Felecia's body was discovered, investigators have not formally charged him or anyone else in the girl's death.
The Temple Terrace Police Department doesn't investigate a lot of homicides. Besides Felecia's case, Temple Terrace police have only had 10 other murders since 2000. Three of those, including the two most high-profile, are unsolved and considered cold cases.
Felecia's family says they have confidence in Temple Terrace police.
It's frustrating waiting for the police to file charges, especially after the loss of a child, said Ariel Garcia, a lawyer who represents Felecia's family. But the family trusts that investigators are building the strongest case possible.
“We're looking for the best results,” Garcia said. “That requires being patient with the authorities.”
Temple Terrace Police Chief Ken Albano says that confidence is well-placed.
Temple Terrace's police department doesn't have the same resources as its larger law enforcement counterparts, Albano acknowledges, but he says that doesn't affect the department's ability to investigate homicides.
“We're a full-service police department,” Albano said. “We offer the same services that our larger law enforcement counterparts do.”
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The most frequent crimes within the primarily suburban, 7-square-mile City of Temple Terrace are burglary and theft. Murders are rare; the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office each investigate close to three times as many homicides every year as does Temple Terrace.
That's why, Albano said, the area's law enforcement agencies maintain a good relationship. If his department is stretched thin on a case, the solution is to ask for help.
Albano, who is also president of the Tampa Bay Area Chiefs of Police Association, said he isn't afraid to call on Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor or Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, and vice versa.
“Jurisdictional boundaries are secondary to serving the public,” he said.
Murder cases are complicated, no matter the circumstances surrounding them. But Felecia's case seems to be especially tricky for investigators as they race to determine whether to file charges against Ritchie before he is released from jail on the other charges.
Ritchie admits he was one of the last people to see Felecia alive. He told investigators he and a friend of Felecia's family, Eboni Wiley, picked up Felecia from her apartment and went back to Wiley's apartment.
There, he said, Ritchie and Wiley put on a DVD for Felecia to watch while they had sex in the bedroom. When they came back into the living room 45 minutes later, the girl was gone and the front door was unlocked, Ritchie told police.
Wiley told police another story. She said after they got back to the apartment, Ritchie asked her to go buy some marijuana. She said she left for about 35 minutes and when she got back, Ritchie was gone. When she finally reached him by phone, she told investigators, he said he had given Felecia money to buy candy from a drugstore, and the little girl had disappeared. Wiley was arrested on a charge of providing false information to police and quickly bonded out of jail.
Temple Terrace police have scrupulously avoided discussing details of their investigation but have been pleading with the public to come forward with any information they have about the case. The FBI is offering a $10,000 reward, in addition to the $3,000 offered by Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay, for anyone with a tip that leads to an arrest.
Other agencies have contributed resources to the investigation since it began. Felecia was reported missing in Temple Terrace, which is why the police department there has been taking the lead on the case. But Clearwater police retrieved her body from the water, and St. Petersburg police arrested Ritchie on unrelated drug charges May 21. Police have since added child sex charges from another unrelated case.
The Hillsborough sheriff's office lent the Temple Terrace police portable message boards to post along the Courtney Campbell Causeway in June as police asked anyone who may have been in the area the day Felecia died to call in with information.
Albano declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. HCSO is assisting the Temple Terrace police on the case, a spokeswoman said, but she also declined to comment on the investigation.
Felecia's murder is one of four unsolved homicides out of Temple Terrace, but is not considered a cold case, Albano said.
Last year, the department announced a $100,000 reward for information regarding the disappearance of wealthy social worker Sandra Prince in 2006. Her case has officially been ruled a homicide, although Prince's body hasn't been found.
As with Felecia's case so far, the department chased a number of leads that failed to produce charges. Twice they excavated the yard of a South Tampa house that Prince's boyfriend, contractor Earl Pippin III, was building at the time of her disappearance. Investigators never named him a suspect in her disappearance.
The department has two other unsolved homicides: those of Maria Luperon, who was found shot to death in her car outside the old Temple Terrace Post Office on 56th Street in 2004, and Abdul Al Hamdman who, in 2002, who was found dead in his home at Colonial Grand Apartments.
Just because the cases of Prince, Luperon and Al Hamdman haven't been solved yet doesn't mean they never will be, Albano said.
“We don't have a detective that works just on cold cases, but they're looked at and reviewed,” Albano said. “They're not just put on a shelf.”
The Temple Terrace Police Department is Hillsborough County's smallest municipal police department, behind the Plant City and Tampa departments.
The City of Temple Terrace budgets for 52 officers, but the department currently has only 47, Albano said. Of those 47 officers, five are detectives who report to a detective corporal and sergeant. That seven-person team handles all investigations for the police department, including homicides, Albano said.
Comparatively, the Tampa Police Department has 998 officers, 11 of whom are assigned to homicides. The Hillsborough sheriff's office has 1,186 sworn deputies, 12 of which are homicide detectives. The Plant City police department has 68 sworn officers, two of which are homicide detectives.
According to the standards of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the Temple Terrace Police Department is considered a department of medium size. Agencies with 30 or fewer officers are considered small, and agencies with more than 75 sworn officers are considered large.
“We have so many more resources than one might think for an agency of our size,” Albano said.
Temple Terrace's police department has two canine units, a marine unit, a 12-member SWAT team and an Armed Response Vehicle, he said. He also has a crime scene investigator, although if there is a large scene with lots of evidence to process, the department will request help from HCSO.
Each detective in Temple Terrace takes a homicide investigations course as part of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Criminal Justice Standards and Training Curriculum, Albano said.
Like all police chiefs, he said, he strives to hire the best and brightest officers to be on his team. When a murder occurs in Temple Terrace — and some years there are none — the department deploys all of its resources to solve that case.
If it turns out that's not enough, Albano said, he is prepared to ask for help.
“That's when you reach out to your partners,” he said. “And if you're lucky, like me, your partners start reaching out to you.”
For smaller law enforcement agencies, a working relationship with other departments is necessary.
In Pinellas County, the sheriff's office — which has a team of 10 homicide detectives — often helps other agencies in the area process forensic evidence.
While many of the municipal police departments there investigate their own homicides, not all of them can afford the expensive, specialized forensic equipment necessary to process evidence, said Lt. Michael Holbrook, head of PCSO's Crimes against Persons section.
Often, his team is also be called upon by other agencies, sometimes from out of state, to serve warrants or collect DNA evidence. Conversely, if Pinellas sheriff's office investigators have to enter another jurisdiction as they investigate a case, they'll go to the local police department, which is more familiar with the community and can help deputies locate a suspect or witness.
Some regions have created formal partnerships to help smaller agencies deal with large cases.
In 2012, authorities in the Orlando area created the Joint Homicide Investigation Team, which includes detectives from Orlando, Maitland, Ocoee, Kissimmee, Winter Park and other agencies who are given police powers anywhere in Orange and Osceola counties. Investigators from the smaller agencies work closely with seasoned detectives with the Orlando Police Department to solve local homicides and cold cases.
It's been successful so far, said Jeffrey Ashton, the state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties.
“The existence of this agency is really a credit to the way the chiefs get along,” he said.
While there is no such task force in Hillsborough County, Albano said the Temple Terrace Police Department collaborates with the sheriff's office and other police agencies during regular intelligence meetings.
He considers those relationships among the police department's most valuable resources.
“It's a great thing,” he said.
UNSOLVED HOMICIDES IN TEMPLE TERRACE
Felecia Williams, 9, was reported missing from Doral Oaks Apartments in Temple Terrace on May 16. Her body was found the next day floating in the water near the Clearwater side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Police named Granville Ritchie, 35, as a lead suspect in the case, and court documents show he was at the apartment with Felecia the night she disappeared. He is currently in jail on unrelated drug charges. He has not been charged with the murder.
Sandra Prince, a wealthy social worker and entrepreneur, was reported missing on Jan. 3, 2006. She was last seen by a co-worker on Dec. 3, 2005, at the Agency for Community Treatment Services, the substance-abuse rehabilitation center she founded in 1975. Last year, Temple Terrace police officially ruled the case a homicide and announced a $100,000 award for anyone with information that leads to an arrest. At the time of her disappearance, Prince's boyfriend, contractor Earl Pippin III, was building a house on Vasconia Street in South Tampa. Police excavated the yard twice, but found nothing. Pippin was the sole beneficiary of her $3.6 million estate. Police have not named any suspects or made any arrests in the case.
Maria Luperon's body was discovered March 16, 2004, in her parked car at the old Temple Terrace Post Office on 56th street. Luperon, 52, of Tampa, was shot twice in the head. Detectives said the mother of two was targeted, and her killer followed her to the post office after she left the Walmart on Fletcher Avenue. A few months before her death, she divorced her husband of 29 years, Mariano Luperon. She had filed petitions with the court to get an injunction that would prevent her husband from contacting her, and in April 2002, Mariano Luperon was arrested on a domestic violence charge. He was not named a suspect in Maria Luperon's death.
Abdul R. Al Hamdman
Abdul Al Hamdman's body was discovered in his home at Colonial Grand Apartments on July 15, 2002. Al Hamdman, who was born in Saudi Arabia, was 47 at the time of his death. Investigators want to hear from any friends of associates of the victim's family.
If you have any information on any of these cases, call the Temple Terrace Police Department at (813)989-7110.