‘He’s so evil’: Mother of Toronto toddler who died after eating poisoned breakfast cereal speaks out after sentencing hearing

The mother of a Toronto toddler who died after eating breakfast cereal laced with sodium nitrite said there are “so many questions” left unanswered following a hearing in a downtown courtroom that saw the man responsible sentenced to life in prison.

“I’m so sad and also happy for what the Judge decided for today,” Maurine Mirembe, Bernice Natanda Wamala’s mother, told CTV News Toronto Friday from outside the courthouse following the hearing.

When asked if she felt justice had been served, she replied, “Not true [justice], not really. I still have so many questions.”

Bernice died on March 7, 2021 after ingesting sodium nitrite while sleeping over at a friend’s house the night prior.

The substance had been placed in the cereal by Francis Ngugi, 47, who admitted his actions while pleading guilty to one count of second-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in September. As part of Friday’s sentence, Ngugi will not be eligible for parole for 17 years, or approximately 2040.

Bernice was never Ngugi’s intended target, according to an agreed statement of facts. Instead, he laced the cereal in a failed attempt on the life of Bernice’s friend’s mother, whom he’d become increasingly fixated on in the months prior.

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

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.

After the children ingested the substance, Ngugi aided the family in taking the girls to the hospital, all while failing to tell hospital staff what he had done.

To this day, Mirembe said she’s been left to wonder why the man didn’t confess his actions once he realized he had mistakenly poisoned the child.

“At least he could’ve told the hospital, ‘Okay, guys, I know what I did. Please try to do something to save the kids,'” she said.

“I can’t know why he didn’t try to save her life. That’s the question I have.”

Once at the hospital, life-saving measures were performed on Bernice, but after a seizure and two heart attacks, she died at 2:16 p.m.

“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 when handing down her sentence, 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 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 her friend’s house in March 2021 to find Bernice pointing to her stomach with a grey tongue. 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.

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

“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.”

That apology is one Mirembe says she will never be able to accept until she knows more.

“Why is he sorry? Sorry for what, and why? I will never know,” she said. “He’s so evil.”

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