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Toronto man pleads guilty to 2nd-degree murder in death of girl poisoned by cereal

Bernice Nantanda Wamala, 3, died on March 7, 2021, after eating breakfast cereal at home. The cereal had been poisoned. (GoFundMe - image credit)
Bernice Nantanda Wamala, 3, died on March 7, 2021, after eating breakfast cereal at home. The cereal had been poisoned. (GoFundMe - image credit)

A Toronto man has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of a three-year-old girl who police say was poisoned.

Francis Ngugi, 47, made the plea in a Ontario Superior Court of Justice courtroom in Toronto on Tuesday.

The girl, Bernice Nantanda Wamala, died on March 7, 2021, after eating breakfast cereal at the home of a friend. The cereal had been poisoned.

Police alleged Ngugi obtained a "controlled substance" from his work, and that substance, sodium nitrite, was placed into children's breakfast cereal.

According to an agreed statement of facts filed in court, Ngugi had intended for Zahra Issa, a woman with whom he had become obsessed, to eat the cereal and become sick.

Instead, during a sleepover at Issa's home, Bernice and Issa's daughter ate the cereal and subsequently required hospitalization. One of the children died in hospital, while the other child recovered after a hospital stay, police said.

The police and the Ontario Coroner's Office began an investigation and an autopsy identified the controlled substance.

Ngugi had developed a romantic relationship with Issa starting in September 2020.

Ngugi, refugee claimant from Kenya, had met Issa at an adult learning school in early 2019. Issa, however, was married to a man in Tanzania with whom she had an older daughter. She was living in Toronto with her younger daughter, Samarah Sameer.

"Mr. Ngugi regularly expressed to Ms. Issa that he loved her. He repeatedly asked her to engage with him and to spend time together. Mr. Ngugi quickly became obsessive and jealous in his love for Ms. Issa, who often rebuffed his advances. Mr. Ngugi repeatedly became sullen and hostile when Ms. Issa did not return his affections," the statement of facts reads.

In February 2021, Ngugi, a janitorial custodian who had been promoted to the role of sanitation lead, stole a quantity of sodium nitrite that had spilled at his workplace, Griffith Foods, a food processing plant in Scarborough, in February 2021. He had been asked to clean it up. Ngugi knew the substance was toxic to humans.

His supervisor had told him of the dangers, saying: "'Francis, if you ingest less than a teaspoon of this, it will kill you within an hour.'"

Sodium nitrite placed in breakfast cereal

In late winter of 2021, Ngugi placed the sodium nitrite in Golden Morn cereal stored in a Similac Baby Formula container in Issa's home in Scarborough.

"In placing the sodium nitrite in the cereal, Mr. Ngugi intended for Ms. Issa to eat the cereal and become sick. Mr. Ngugi knew that sodium nitrite was a toxic substance, likely to cause Ms. Issa's death. He also knew that Ms. Issa's child lived in the apartment. He knew that both were at risk of consuming the cereal and proceeded despite this knowledge," the statement of facts reads.

On March 6, Issa's neighbour Maurine Mirembe asked her to babysit her three-year-old daughter, Bernice Wamala.

Issa fed the cereal to both children, Bernice and Samarah.

"After eating the cereal on the morning of March 7, 2021, Bernice immediately became violently ill and was rushed to hospital. Life-saving measures were attempted but were unsuccessful," the statement of facts reads.

"After several seizures and two heart attacks, Bernice died at 2:16 PM that day. The cause of death was later determined to be methemoglobinemia due to acute toxicity of nitrates/nitrites. The mechanism of death by methemoglobinemia is deprivation of oxygen to the body's cells."

Samarah began displaying similar symptoms, was rushed to the hospital and treated, and recovered after four days.

Ngugi denied knowledge of deadly substance to police

The statement of facts says Ngugi denied to police any knowledge of the controlled substance.

Ngugi continued to pursue Issa but she rebuffed his advances. In May 2021, she ended their relationship for good.

Ngugi was arrested on June 19, 2021 and has been in custody since.

A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 2.