The Toronto mother of a toddler who died after her cereal was intentionally poisoned with a deadly chemical said in a victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing of the child’s killer that she’s still wracked with pain and questions about what happened.
The statement by Maurine Mirembe came as both Crown and defence lawyers presented a joint submission to sentence Francis Ngugi to life with 17 years before he can apply for parole, after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of three-year-old Bernice Natanda Wamala and to attempted murder of Bernice’s friend.
“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, that was read into the record 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. The children were taken to hospital but Bernice died.
“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.
According to an agreed statement of facts, the children were not the intended target. Ngugi’s repeated romantic advances to Bernice’s friend’s mother, Zahra Issa, had been rebuffed, and he was becoming more obsessed with her.
The statement of facts says he hid a recording device in her room, took pictures of her official documents, and reported Issa’s husband in Tanzania to Canadian immigration authorities.
Then the documents say he stole a lethal amount of a meat curing chemical, sodium nitrite, from the Scarborough food processing plant where he worked, and mixed it in with cereal in the pantry of Issa’s home, where the children were staying overnight.
On March 7, Issa fed the cereal to the two children. In her victim impact statement, Mirembe says she still can’t understand why Ngugi, who attended the hospital that day, didn’t tell the doctors what chemical they had ingested to help save her life.
“Was he out of his mind? How can he make someone’s life like this? Why would you do this to someone who didn’t love you back? Why didn’t he say at the hospital, I did something wrong, please save the kids?” Mirembe wrote.
“Let my daughter be a sacrifice to end evil acts. I demand unconditional justice for Bernice. Rest in peace, until we meet again, my angel, my everything,” she said.
Ngugi’s actions against the family of a woman who rejected him amount to an enormous breach of trust, said Crown attorney Kathleen Farrell.
“Mr. Ngugi, as punishment for saying no to marriage, intended to kill [Issa] and in doing so instead killed a child who was extremely close to her and almost killed her own child,” said Farrell in court.
“This was not a spur of the moment decision to treat Ms. Issa in that way. He was trying to wedge his way into that family,” she said.
Defense attorney Danielle Robitaille told the court that as awful as Ngugi’s actions were, he has no criminal record and has family support.
“Mr. Ngugi has high prospects for rehabilitation and he should be able to apply for parole while there is still life left to live. Rehabilitation should be at the heart of this analysis,” she said.
Ngugi was born in 1976 in Kenya where he ran his own logistics company for about 10 years, she said. He has supportive family and has a sister who is a Canadian citizen in Toronto, she said.
Ngugi came to Toronto as a refugee from Kenya where he faced persecution for being bisexual, she said, including being attacked on the street and beaten. He had come to Canada in the hopes he could be himself without fear of violence.
After his sentence, Ngugi is likely to be deported to Kenya, lawyers said.
“As a result of his actions Mr. Ngugi’s dream of living a life where his full identity could be expressed without fear of violence will never be realized,” Robitaille said.
The judge hearing the case said she would decide on sentencing on Friday morning.
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