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‘She was an innocent child:’ Man gets life sentence in fatal poisoning of toddler’s breakfast cereal

Toronto resident Francis Ngugi has been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 17 years after pleading guilty to the fatal poisoning of a Scarborough toddler’s breakfast cereal in 2021.

Ngugi, 47, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of three-year-old Bernice Natanda Wamala at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto in September. He also entered a guilty plea to one charge of attempted murder.

Bernice died on March 7, 2021 after ingesting sodium nitrite while sleeping over at a friend’s house the night prior. According to an agreed statement of facts, the children weren’t Ngugi’s intended target. Instead, the man poisoned the cereal in a failed attempt on the life of Zahra Issa, the friend’s mother, whom he’d become increasingly fixated on in the months prior.

The decision was handed down by Justice Maureen Forestell at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto on Thursday.

“It is important to remember Bernice. She was a joyful child […] she was an innocent child and she died in a terrible and terrifying manner,” Forestell told the court, noting that the period of parole eligibility decided upon “is not a value of Bernice’s life.”

“There is no sentence I could impose that would ever compensate for the loss of this child,” she said.

In reading her decision, Forestell underlined that just because Ngugi will be eligible for parole come 2040, does not mean the offender will be released at the time. He would only be released if decided upon by the parole board.

As part of his sentence, Ngugi is prohibited from owning weapons for life, may not make direct or indirect contact with Zahra Issa or any of her immediate family members, and may not communicate with Maurine Mirembe, Bernice’s mother, without her explicit consent. He may not communicate with anyone in Mirembe’s family.

In deliberating the period of parole eligibility, Forestell took into consideration a number of mitigating factors, including Ngugi’s status as a first offender and a willingness to submit to rehabilitative measures.

“Since his incarceration on the charge, Ngugi has engaged in rehabilitation programming in the detention centre,” Forestell noted.

The justice also considered that Ngugi, originally from Kenya, likely faces deportation in light of the conviction. Identifying as bi-sexual, Ngugi could face persecution if he were sent back to his home country, she noted.

On Thursday, the court heard victim impact statements, including that of Mirembe, Bernice’s mother.

“My daughter Bernice was someone who danced. She was so loving and talented. She used to practice piano and play at our church,” Mirembe said in the statement, read out by Crown attorney Kathleen Farrell.

Mirembe described the horror of coming to pick up her daughter from a sleepover at a friend’s house on March 7, 2021 to find Bernice pointing to her stomach and her tongue grey. Bernice’s friend was also ill. 

“I will never forget this day,” she said. “Prior to this day, we were so happy, singing and dancing to many songs while recording it on my phone.

“This is causing me a lot of pain in my life. I am affected emotionally and financially. I would have finished my school years back. I cannot concentrate in class and work. I am traumatized. I have lost trust for everyone,” she said.

As Mirembe’s statement was read, Ngugi looked to the floor in silence.

The agreed statement of facts notes that Ngugi and Issa engaged in a romantic relationship in 2020 but that she consistently rebuffed his subsequent advances, citing her husband and older daughter who planned to eventually join her in Canada.

Ngugi then became obsessive and jealous in his fixation on Issa, according to the documents – to the point he devised a plan to poison the woman.

Sometime between late February and early March 2021, Ngugi snuck into Issa’s Toronto home and placed a lethal amount of sodium nitrite in the box of cereal, the agreement statement of facts reveals.

The chemical was stolen from the Scarborough food processing plant Griffiths Foods, where Ngugi worked as a janitor. The documents explain that Ngugi’s supervisor had previously warned him that “less than a teaspoon” would kill someone within an hour.

On March 7, 2021, at about 5 a.m., Issa fed the cereal to the children. After eating, Bernice immediately became violently ill.

She was rushed to the hospital where life-saving measures were attempted, but after a seizure and two heart attacks, died at 2:16 p.m.

“There are no words I can say to undo what I have done,” Ngugi said in a statement when pleading guilty in September.

“I took the life of an angel, Bernice, and for that I am truly sorry.” 

With files from CTV News Toronto’s Jon Woodward.

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