Imagine you’re a 26-year-old single mom living in New York City with your adorable 6-year-old son and your handsome, muscular 42-year-old boyfriend, with whom you’re head-over-heels infatuated. Sound good so far? Well, imagine your boyfriend is abusive to your son. Not so great now, right? Now, imagine your stud-muffin essentially waterboards your sweet little boy in an ice-cold shower, beats him to the brink of death with a splintered broomstick, and hangs him from a wall hook in your squalid Harlem apartment before casually going out for breakfast, leaving your son to die?
What would you do?
Well, if you were 26-year-old Geraldine Perkins, you would clean the apartment, read the Bible, fix your makeup, and put on a wig, and then you’d take your 6-year-old son, Zymere, to Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital, where he would be pronounced dead.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a hypothetical situation. The horrific case unfolded this week as 45-year-old Rysheim Smith, faced multiple charges related to little Zymere’s brutal death in 2016.
Geraldine and Rysheim’s relationship began when they met in May of 2015. She encountered him on the street while walking back to Hamilton Place, a shelter for battered women in Harlem. The tall, handsome man who asked for her number was college educated, muscular, and twice her age.
“I wish I would’ve known,” Geraldine told a reporter from DNAinfo while behind bars at Rikers Island in 2016. “I wish I would’ve known he was no good.”
Rysheim, Geraldine said, promised to look after her and Zymere. In June of 2015, she and her son moved into Rysheim’s apartment, which, it turned out, he was illegally squatting in and did not have electricity other than that which Rysheim funneled into the apartment via an extension cord plugged in elsewhere. After Zymere’s death, investigators discovered rotting food in the refrigerator, a great deal of mold, rust, and mildew in the bathroom, filth all over the apartment, and a cockroach infestation.
After only a short time living together, Geraldine said, Rysheim began to frighten her. Claiming Rysheim was abusive, Geraldine said, “I didn’t know how to leave.”
In her interview with DNAinfo, she claimed that aside from a spanking “here and there,” she never saw Rysheim hurt little Zymere before September 26, 2016. She said she knew nothing about her son’s broken ribs, which had already healed. She also said the bruises covering his lifeless body were caused by him being “a little boy” who fell down a lot while playing.
However, what she told investigators was very different. After the boy’s death, she told police she saw Rysheim beat Zymere multiple times with closed fists, open hands, broomsticks, a shower rod, and other objects. She also reported seeing her boyfriend grab Zymere by the throat.
A preliminary autopsy showed Zymere was malnourished. Geraldine, however, said the boy was always eating but, like herself and his biological father, was genetically “skinny.” The official autopsy, performed by New York City Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Susan Ely, revealed a bounty of horrifying details. Zymere had multiple bruises on his torso, at least 30 fractured ribs that had healed, bruises and finger marks on his neck, and other injuries, including a contusion on his head, which was likely caused by a blow from the shower rod.
“He had in his case multiple bruises and scrapes on the outside of his body and a laceration,” Dr. Ely told the court. “They ranged from his head, his face, his trunk, his arms and legs.”
Zymere, at the age of six, was three feet six inches tall and weighed a mere 35 pounds when he died. That is the average size of a four-year-old boy.
Both Rysheim and Geraldine were arrested and charged in connection with Zymere’s death.
(The Sun, The Daily Mail, Facebook)
So what happened?
Geraldine and Zymere were in contact with the Administration of Children’s Services from the time he was born, which was the same month Geraldine graduated from high school. Traces of marijuana were found in Geraldine’s system right after Zymere’s birth. The baby did not test positive for the substance.
The final incident came when staff at Zymere’s school made a report that led to further ACS involvement after Zymere limped into school on April 19, 2015, complaining of leg pain. Elizabeth Garcia, the school nurse, testified that Zymere had oval-shaped bruises on his inner thighs. “They were like when a child is hit with a belt,” she said in court.
Because of this report, Zymere was evaluated at the Child Advocacy Center in Manhattan, and in addition to ACS, the NYPD, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and Safe Horizons, a social work organization, were also involved. Zymere was not removed from his mother’s custody, and Geraldine was not arrested or charged.
Below is a video clip from The Daily Mail depicting Zymere speaking briefly with an ACS caseworker and playing with Play-Doh. Seeing this, it really hits home how tiny Zymere was and how vulnerable he was to the monstrous adults in his life.
NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said, “They determined during that time that there was not substantial injury to the child at all and they returned the child to the mother.”
Zymere himself told ACS workers about Rysheim hitting him and forcing him to take cold showers as punishment.
In total, according to officials, ACS investigated Geraldine for abuse five times and had even substantiated some allegations, but nonetheless, they left Zymere in her care.
After his kindergarten school year, Zymere never returned to school.
After Zymere’s death, five ACS workers, including two supervisors, a manager, and two child care specialists, were temporarily placed on desk duty. Two caseworkers were ultimately fired, and several others were disciplined.
Zymere was mourned at a packed funeral at the Church of the Open Door in Brooklyn on Friday, October 7, 2016. The services were paid for in part by NYPD detectives who, strongly affected by Zymere’s tragic death, raised over $9,000 to help pay for the wake and the funeral. “It was the least we could do,” said one detective to the New York Post. “The poor kid went through hell.”
At his funeral, Zymere, wearing a white suit and bow tie, lay in repose in a small, gold-trimmed, satin-lined white casket with the open top half draped with a white veil. A white teddy bear holding a red heart was propped by his head. ZyZy, as family members affectionately called him, was buried in the children’s section of Rosedale Rosehill Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey.
At Rysheim’s trial, which began in December of 2019 and spanned four weeks, Geraldine spent several consecutive days on the stand, testifying against him as part of a plea deal that allowed her to plead guilty to second degree manslaughter and receive only two to six years in prison in exchange for her testimony against her former boyfriend. Her three years of time served while waiting for the trial will be taken into account during sentencing.
According to Geraldine’s testimony, she and Zymere bounced from homeless shelter to homeless shelter. To make money to buy food, Geraldine resorted to sex work. “I’m a single parent. I’m a new parent,” she said. “I didn’t know how to raise him. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Geraldine admitted to the court that she abused her son when he was three years old while living in the shelter. “I would yell at him or I would beat him with a belt,” she said. “He’d cry.” She testified that a counselor at the shelter saw the abuse and warned her that any further instances would lead to her being reported. “That was the last time until I met Rysheim.”
She underwent mandatory parenting classes while living at the shelter, but despite these, she beat Zymere while living with her grandmother, who promptly kicked her out. “Maybe I didn’t pick up on the lessons they were giving me,” she said. “I didn’t cherish it. I didn’t hold onto those lessons they taught me. Sometimes I wouldn’t be bothered with him, because I [didn’t] have the energy or because [I was] too tired.”
She told the jury she used a belt to punish Zymere, because her “hands weren’t healthy” due to Lupus so severe it occasionally landed her in the hospital, and she didn’t want to hurt herself.
Of Rysheim, Geraldine testified that the beginning of their relationship “was wonderful.” The older man brought her flowers and gifts. “It was magical; he was like my Prince Charming. I never experienced a man bringing me flowers like he did every day. He’d pick me up and take me to the park. We’d go to restaurants together. He was good to my child in the beginning.”
“He was a father figure for my child,” she testified. She had lost contact with Zymere’s biological father shortly after the boy’s birth. “[Rysheim] played with him. He cut his hair most of the time. He bought toys for him. He read the Bible to him.”
Once the couple lived together, Rysheim almost immediately began abusing little Zymere, who was five at the time. “Rysheim would hold him in the shower by the shirt. He’d be screaming, moving around, trying to get away from the water.”
In June of 2015, according to a report released by ACS in December of 2016, tells of a report by an anonymous individual of witnessing Rysheim abusing Zymere in a public park. The witness reported seeing Rysheim “hit Zymere with excessive force ‘at least 20 times’ on his buttocks and legs for not listening while at a picnic,” while Geraldine was present and did not intervene. “The report also noted that Mr. Smith hit the child hard enough that the source sitting at the picnic table was able to hear the slaps from each hit.”
Geraldine told the court about an incident on July 4, 2015, when the trio attended a family barbecue. Zymere, she said, pulled some plants out of a relative’s garden, which cost Rysheim $100 to replace. The boy’s punishment was one they used frequently: they deprived him of food. He was also ordered to hold a push-up position for an extended length of time, but Zymere collapsed, exhausted, after a few minutes.
This, Geraldine said, enraged Rysheim, who hit the boy with a stick, punched him, and kicked him. Angry about the cost to replace the plants, Rysheim tormented little Zymere for hours; he even forced the boy to stand in a corner all night while Geraldine supervised him.
In October of 2015, Rysheim became angry with Zymere after the boy got in trouble at school for asking to see another boy’s penis. Seeing this as a sign of homosexuality, which disgusted him, Rysheim punched Zymere in the jaw, knocking out one of the little boy’s teeth.
Geraldine testified that Zymere begged her, “‘Mommy, I want to go home.’ I’d just ignore it because I was in love with Rysheim and I felt in some way he must be right.”
Likely due to injuries he received at home, Zymere missed 36 days of class between September and November of 2015, even though the apartment where he lived with his mother and her boyfriend was only a block away from the school. The horrifying abuse thinly disguised as discipline meted out by Rysheim and Geraldine included forcing Zymere to skip meals, take cold showers, hold a plank position, and stand all night without sleeping.
Because of the neverending abuse, Geraldine testified, Zymere frequently wet and soiled himself, which further angered Rysheim, whose abuse then intensified.
Assistant District Attorney Kerry O’Connell told jurors early in the trial about how uncomfortable and unpleasant Zymere’s life was while living in that squalid apartment, where feces was embedded in the carpet, which was crawling with maggots.
During testimony from NYPD Lieutenant Crinela Lanas, the jurors were shown the video below, which was captured by the NYPD after Rysheim’s arrest and portrays a filthy apartment.
The details that emerged about Zymere’s last hours were beyond horrifying.
Geraldine testified that by the evening of September 25, 2016, Zymere had spent 24 hours without food or water as punishment for some perceived misbehavior, which she couldn’t even remember on the stand. That evening, she and Rysheim stuffed their smug faces with Chinese take-out in front of the malnourished, starving child.
I’m trying to keep my anger under control, but for obvious reasons, that’s getting harder and harder as I continue writing this post.
Zymere went to sleep that night on the living room floor, hungry and alone. Hours later, she said, “I heard him walking and going into the garbage bag, eating out of it. I thought it was a mouse.” She chastised her son, grabbed the garbage bag away from him, and went back to bed.
She awoke the next morning to the sound of Rysheim yelling at Zymere for defecating in the living room and trying to hide it. “‘Why the fuck did you take a shit? Why did you take a fucking shit in here? There’s a bathroom; you could have used the bathroom,’” Geraldine recounted Rysheim yelling at her son.
She ran into the room to find the enormous man standing over her cowering son, cursing and poking the boy in the stomach with the jagged end of a broken broomstick. “He started to strike him with the broomstick, beating him from his chest to his legs with the broomstick,” she told the court.
Zymere simply lay there, Geraldine testified, shaking and silent, his underwear and shirt smeared with feces.
O’Connell asked Geraldine if she thought such a beating was warranted, to which Geraldine answered, “I felt he was wrong for doing that in the living room.” She theorized he had defecated in the living room because the apartment had no electricity and he was afraid to walk to the bathroom in the dark by himself. How utterly heartbreaking.
At one point during the beating, Rysheim held Zymere in the air “like a rag doll” while he beat the helpless little boy with the broomstick, ranting that he could smell feces.
She then watched Rysheim carry her screaming son into the bathroom, where the huge man forced the emaciated little boy into the grungy bathtub and waterboarded him before yanking down the shower rod and beating Zymere about the head with it. “He was going limp, like unresponsive,” Geraldine said. “I figured he was just faking.”
According to Geraldine, Zymere had used similar tactics in the past, pretending to be unconscious so Rysheim would stop beating him, so they thought nothing of it when Rysheim hit Zymere in the back and the boy didn’t respond.
Rysheim then hung her unconscious son, still wearing his filthy and now wet and blood-soaked clothing, on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. When she later took him down, she testified, Rysheim threw his limp body into an unused bedroom, where Zymere fell between a wall and the bed. He looked, Geraldine said, “like he was dead.”
That’s because he was.
After Rysheim left the house to get them breakfast, Geraldine cleaned up the apartment, including the living room and the bedroom where Zymere’s body lay, and read her Bible. She said at one point, she tried to revive Zymere with a bath and then with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions, but neither worked. Instinctively, she testified, she knew the boy was dead. What was she thinking at that point, the prosecution wondered?
“That my baby is dead, and I’m gonna be in jail, and I’m in a lot of trouble.”
Her lack of empathy for her own child sends chills down my spine.
Hours later, when Rysheim returned, he told Geraldine to take Zymere out the back door of the apartment building and to lie if anyone asked where she came from. He wanted her to tell anyone who asked that Zymere had come down with food poisoning at a homeless shelter and to tell no one about his Harlem apartment. Before she took Zymere and left, she told the court, she took about ten minutes to put on a wig and some makeup. “I’m very self-conscious about how I look outside.”
She carried Zymere, his limp arm dangling, out of the building, where a passerby helped her hail a taxi, which took her and Zymere to Manhattan’s Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital.
Jurors watched the video embedded below, showing the bewigged Geraldine carrying Zymere’s lifeless body into the hospital, where she reportedly told staff that her son fell out of his bed. The swarm of medical professionals who follow the boy into the examination room is a powerful visual.
During the trial, ER nurse Michael Nelson testified about the moment when Geraldine carried Zymere’s body into the hospital, screaming. “He was extremely cold. I felt the coldness of him through his clothes. This child was dead for a while. There was no bringing this child back.”
A report from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services showed that Zymere may have been dead for up to 17 hours before his mother brought him to the hospital.
A doctor, according to the New York Times, compared Zymere’s injuries to those of someone hit by a car.
This past Wednesday, January 20, 2020, Rysheim Smith was found guilty of second degree murder, individual counts of first- and second-degree manslaughter, and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Reporters present in the courtroom saw him shaking his head in disbelief as his lawyer, Arnold Levine from the Legal Aid Society, patted his back in consolation. Rysheim is scheduled to be sentenced on March 27, 2020; he faces anywhere from 15 years to life in prison.
Because of her plea deal, Geraldine was convicted of manslaughter and agreed to a prison sentence of two to six years.
In a statement released on February 14, 2017, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R., Vance, Jr., after announcing Rysheim Smith’s indictment, pleaded for others to take action. “I urge anyone who believes they know of a victim of child abuse to call our Child Abuse Hotline at (212) 335-4308, or visit the Manhattan Family Justice Center at 80 Centre Stree. Help is available for those in need, regardless of immigration status.”
D.A. Vance released another statement after the conclusion of the trial, in which he said, “The death of Zymere Perkins was an unthinkable tragedy that sent shockwaves through the city and inspired a reckoning with how our social services system works to protect New York’s most vulnerable.”
Since Zymere’s death, Children’s Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión has resigned from her position over lingering concerns about her agency’s handling of vulnerable children. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed David A. Hansell as commissioner, saying the city had missed clear warning signs in Zymere’s case.
ACS has taken steps to improve preventive services for parents like Geraldine and to make investigations move more quickly. New lines of communication have been established between case workers, and school officials are now using attendance records to distinguish signs of possible abuse. School nurses in New York City are now trained to photograph injuries. At Child Advocacy Centers like the one where Zymere was interviewed mere months before his death, the handling of cases like his has become better disciplined.
“We have learned a lot from the tragic fatality of Zymere Perkins,” said ACS Commissioner David A. Hansell. “And we’ve striven to use it to strengthen all the components of our system.”
If you see something, say something. This phrase has echoed throughout the American lexicon since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. It doesn’t just apply to acts of terrorism or individuals suspected of such. Please, if you think you’ve witnessed child abuse or know a child who is being abused, tell someone. A child’s life could depend on it.
I’d like to end by remembering Zymere as the innocent, curious little boy he was. Little ZyZy loved Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. According to the program handed out at his funeral, “He was known to be articulate, playful and loving. Zymere had a smile that would captivate anyone’s heart.”
I will keep you posted with any developments about Zymere’s story, including Rysheim’s sentencing. Click here for my further coverage on this case.
Sources: People, New York Times, New York Daily News, , NBC New York, New York Post, Daily Mail, The Sun, World Times News, Politico, DNAinfo