Toronto man pleads guilty to murder, admits poisoning toddler with sodium nitrite

Click to play video: 'Scarborough man who put sodium nitrite in a cereal eaten by toddler pleads guilty to murder'
Scarborough man who put sodium nitrite in a cereal eaten by toddler pleads guilty to murder
WATCH ABOVE: As Catherine McDonald reports, Francis Ngugi admitted the chemical which he stole from his work was meant for the child’s neighbour, who was babysitting her.

It’s been two-and-a-half years since a Scarborough toddler mysteriously died and another toddler became seriously ill after eating cereal.

Francis Ngugi, a friend of the mother of one of the children whose advances she had rejected, admitted in court that he purposefully poisoned the children and took full responsibility for what he called a “shameful and selfish act.”

After Ngugi pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the Superior Court of Justice on Tuesday morning, the 47-year-old began to read a letter he had penned for the mother of Bernice Wamala, the mother of the deceased.

As Ngugi began to apologize, the cries of Bernice’s mother drowned out his words, and she slumped over onto the floor.

The distraught woman was consoled by crown prosecutors and victim-witness support workers. Ngugi’s letter was filed before he could finish reading it.

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According to an agreed statement of facts read out in court, Ngugi, a refugee claimant from Kenya who came to Canada in 2018, began working as a janitorial custodian at Griffith Foods, a processing plant in Scarborough.

As part of its food processing work, Griffith Foods cures meat products and uses 99 per cent pure food-grade sodium nitrite chemicals to do so. Sodium nitrite is toxic to humans. While it comes in several forms, the formula used by Griffith Foods is a colourless, odourless crystalline powder.

In early 2019, Ngugi met Zahra Issa at an adult learning school. They became close friends in the summer of 2020 and began a romantic relationship in September 2020.

Issa came to Canada in 2018 and had a baby shortly thereafter, Samarah Sameer. At the time, Issa was still married to her husband, but he remained in Tanzania with the couple’s older daughter.

Ngugi loved Issa and her daughter and often attended their apartment in Scarborough, often bringing them food and offering to assist Issa in buying things for Samarah. He repeatedly asked Issa to engage with him and 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 facts read.

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Convinced that Issa was being dishonest about her history and her marriage, Ngugi purchased a covert audio recorder online and installed it in Issa’s bedroom to spy on her, recording numerous private conversations without her knowledge or consent. He also viewed and saved screenshots on his phone from Issa’s husband’s social media accounts.

Throughout 2020 and early 2021, Ngugi continued to express his love for Issa and desire for them to be a family. She continued to rebuff his advances, which further angered Ngugi and fuelled his obsession.

In late February 2021, employees working in the food batching department at Griffith Foods where Ngugi had recently been promoted to sanitation lead, noticed two broken 25 kg bags of sodium nitrite, damaged in transit. Ngugi was assigned the task of cleaning up the chemical spill and disposing of the damaged bags of sodium nitrite.

Ngugi’s supervisor cautioned him about the dangers of the chemical and advised him to avoid ingesting it or having it absorbed into the skin. He told Ngugi, “Francis, if you ingest less than a teaspoon of this, it will kill you within an hour.”

According to the facts, Ngugi stole a quantity of sodium nitrite from his workplace and in doing so, he knew that the substance was toxic for human consumption.

Ngugi knew that Issa had a crowded pantry with a number of breakfast items including “Golden Morn” cereal which was stored in a Similac Baby Formula container. The container had a handwritten label on the top “Golden Morn.”

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Court heard that in late winter 2021, Ngugi intended for Issa to eat the cereal and become sick. “In the days leading up to the poisoning, Mr. Ngugi again renewed his marriage proposal to Ms. Issa and was rejected,” read the facts.

On the evening of March 6, 2021, while Ngugi was at Issa’s home, a neighbour Maurine Mirembe came by and asked Issa to babysit her three-year-old daughter Bernice Wamala. Issa agreed and Bernice stayed with them overnight. Ngugi knew that two young children were in the home, but nevertheless did not remove the sodium nitrite from the container which held the Golden Morn cereal.

According to the facts, at approximately 5 a.m. on March 7, 2021, Ngugi left the home for work and Issa fed both children the Golden Morn cereal for breakfast. In doing so, both children consumed the poisoned cereal containing sodium nitrite.

After eating the cereal, Bernice became violently ill and was rushed to hospital. Life-saving measures were attempted but were unsuccessful and she died, after several seizures and two heart attacks. The cause of death was later determined to be methemoglobinemia, a deprivation of oxygen to the body’s cells.

Shortly after Bernice became sick, Issa’s daughter Samarah began displaying similar symptoms. She was also rushed to hospital and treated. Samarah recovered after four days in hospital.

After the children became ill, Ngugi rushed home to Issa’s apartment and attended the hospital with Issa and Samarah. He did not tell anyone that he had placed sodium nitrite into the food within the home.

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Police attended the hospital on March 7 at the outset of the investigation into what caused the sudden illness of two otherwise healthy toddlers. Ngugi spoke to police and advised them he had brought Samarah to hospital and said he was dating Samarah’s mother. He denied any knowledge of how the children may have become ill. In a later interview with police upon his initial arrest on June 19, 2021, Ngugi denied knowing anything about the chemical sodium nitrite or that it was used at Griffith Foods.

Even after Bernice Wamala’s death, and until his arrest in June 2021, Ngugi continued to profess his love for Issa. Issa was distraught over Bernice’s death and continued to rebuff him.

Prior to his arrest, court also heard that Ngugi contacted the Tanzanian embassy and reported Issa’s husband as an immigrant living under a false identity. “He did so to cause legal trouble for Ms Issa’s husband, and to prevent him from joining Issa in Canada.” Ngugi also contacted Samarah’s father via WhatsApp, introduced himself and told him, he was in love with his wife. The husband told Ngugi he already knew about the affair and told Ngugi to leave him and his family alone.

In or about May 2021, Issa ended her relationship with Ngugi for good.

Ngugi was arrested and charged the following month. On June 30, 2021, the charges were upgraded to murder and attempted murder of Bernice Wamala and Samarah Sameer. He has been in custody since his initial arrest.

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In the letter that Ngugi wrote for the mother of Bernice Walmala, he called the toddler “an angel. I realize that I not only took a life, but I took away all the birthday parties, I took away the memories of her first day in school, the graduation, friendships, seeing her get married and have children. I have robbed you off (sic) all this joy.”

A sentencing hearing will be held in November.

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