Once upon a time, a poverty-stricken Jamaican mother of seven held on to a sliver of hope that her future might be brighter.
Two of Opal Austin’s children had escaped the dirt floor, one-room hovel that had housed them since birth in a Kingston ghetto. Dwayne, 12, her crackerjack of a son intent on pop music stardom; and Melonie, 13, her quiet daughter dreaming to be a nurse — had landed in Toronto, the Promised Land.
Almost 25 years later, aspiration has turned to ashes — literally. All that remains of Opal’s dreams for Dwayne and Melonie are two urns filled with their ashes.
This is the story of how Toronto teenagers were tortured, abused, and died right under our noses in a Parkdale apartment — in abject anonymity. More than one of us saw the signs and didn’t report it. There’s blood on our hands as it could happen again.
“Do we have the checks in place? I don’t think so. Who’s making sure a child goes to school?” asks Det. Sgt. Steve Ryan, a veteran of 150 homicide investigations over 13 years, but particularly haunted by the suitcase murder victim, Melonie Biddersingh.
“Melonie? I think about her every day,” Ryan tells the Star. “Just the nature of the case; it breaks my heart. We can’t let this happen again.”
The story in all its brutish, macabre detail closed another chapter on Thursday inside a University Ave. courtroom. A jury found Everton Biddersingh guilty of first-degree murder of his daughter Melonie in 1994. He faces a mandatory life sentence, with no chance of parole for 25 years.
“Tell them to throw away the key,” advised Melonie’s sister, Racquel Ellis, on hearing that Biddersingh was headed to the pen.
Biddersingh, 60, fathered at least seven children with four women. His wife, Elaine, is co-accused and her murder trial is scheduled for April.
The details in this story come from Everton’s trial and preliminary hearing. Details from Elaine’s preliminary hearing are under a publication ban.
Melonie, Dwayne and their half-brother Cleon (Beverly Scott is his mom), arrived in Canada together, Jan. 25, 1991. Only Cleon survived to tell the tale.
Since birthing her first of seven children at age 16, Opal had housed them all in a shack — first with leaky roof, dirt floor, flapping tarp walls for fleeting privacy; then concrete where the dirt was; and now, finally, indoor plumbing. In her own words to the jury:
“I provide the little I have; they satisfy with it. They not hungry. I love to boil porridge, soup, fry dumpling . . . they never out of something to eat. I did domestic work, do a little selling (box drinks, candy, biscuits, cigarettes) so they never hungry. Sometimes, I go to school and say, ‘Teacher, I don’t have any lunch money today,’ and they would take care of it. They know me. I’m on the PTA . . . ”
Opal’s testimony — simple, pure and powerful — only ached more hearts in the courtroom. Jurors, reporters and court officers had already been reduced to tears when assistant Crown attorney Anna Tenhouse read out the atrocities endured in the abominable apartment.
Discombobulated and put off by all the hairsplitting legal wrangling that defines the justice system, Opal returned to Jamaica on Christmas night certain of one thing: she’d tried her best. She did what refugee families are doing today. She’d tossed her children a lifeline; their father and stepmother failed to haul them ashore.
And whatever help came from the rest of us — police, Children’s Aid Societies, schools, neighbours, churches, Jamaican community, governments — was not nearly enough to compensate.
When Melonie was recovered from the burning suitcase in Vaughan she was grotesquely thin — the size of an 8-year-old. She wasn’t reported missing. Nobody knows how she died: starvation or by some dastardly deed from her caregivers.
Melonie was often kicked, punched about her body, dragged by her hair and stomped upon.
At trial, her older brother Cleon testified that as punishment — failing to meet the exacting demands of her stepmom to care for her infant sister — Melonie was deprived of food, locked in a closet for hours, placed in a barrel on the balcony and interrogated, and forced to sleep on a piece of cardboard in the living room, not on the sofa bed.
Considered dirty and devil-possessed by a fanatical stepmom, Melonie was told to shower on the balcony of the apartment in the summer, Cleon testified.
As she weakened, crawled about and lost control of her bowels, the once lovely girl was forced to use pails on the balcony to relieve herself. Cleon, a year older, had to wash her down. To extract information, her father placed her head in the toilet and flushed.
When death brought relief, an autopsy revealed 21 fractures, at different stages of healing, hinting at a timeline of over six months.
There was one final, inexplicable indignity: She had a piece of pepper inserted inside her vagina.
Nobody saw nothing. And those who did, were blind witnesses.
There was no prying superintendent. Neighbours didn’t report her screams; neither did they recognize her whimpering as her father cowed her into submission — lest she get another cuff or kick for daring to cry so loud that someone might overhear.
Visitors were at a minimum. Another of Everton’s children, Suan, born to Yvonne Hamilton, the woman who sponsored him to Canada, was nearly Melonie’s age and nagged her father to let her visit the apartment. She couldn’t comprehend why contact with Melonie was suddenly cut off. Her dad skilfully put her off. She was just 15. She gave up trying.
When Pedro (Clifton Allison), Biddersingh’s friend — the one outsider to visit occasionally — came over Everton hid Melonie in the closet to conceal her injuries. Pedro didn’t seem to notice anything unusual in the house of horrors.
And in the apartment itself, the immediate family members were either willing accomplices or terrified abettors; scared conformists or incapable of confronting the evil unleashed on the Jamaican kids.
As Cleon testified — dissolving into sobs of regret and self-blame in the witness box last November — he was no match for his father’s evil designs. “We were in fear. We did anything he said. We were scared for our lives.”
He himself had been dehumanized, subjected to a DNA test to prove he was his father’s child, turned into a drug runner for Everton’s crack dealing, beaten, abused and essentially a slave.
Everton made it clear he’d send his goons to “shoot up” Cleon’s mom and his two siblings in Kingston, if he snitched or ran away. “They know how to squeeze a rat,” father told the son.
“Me and Melonie, we were scared . . . We had no future. We were like zombies, just living, scared for our lives,” Cleon, now 41, told the court.
He didn’t know where to go, who to turn to, a safe number to call, without endangering his other family. So he tried to endure the nightmare.
“I know she understands . . . she is here right now, looking down on me,” Cleon testified, slowly losing it in the courtroom. “It was not me doing it, I was forced to,” he sobbed. “I feel guilty I could not help my sister . . . I couldn’t do anything. People judge me, ask why I couldn’t help my sister. I couldn’t help her . . . ”
Elaine? Judgment Day for her comes shortly after her April trial for first-degree murder. Could she live in the tiny apartment and be so engrossed in reading her Bible that she did not hear every stiff kick and horrified scream?
Maybe a smarter, more connected Opal Austin would not have accepted the lie that Melonie had run away with friends to New York. But considering her circumstances, a world away, Opal’s effort was Herculean.
Had the Jamaican Foreign Ministry, which told Opal in 1993 that Melonie “seems to be quite happy,” been a bit more diligent and skeptical, they might not have pacified Opal’s concerns for Melonie’s safety.
It takes a village, sometimes. And this family needed one badly for a long, long time.
Councillor Michael Thompson got city council to approve an effort to establish a registry that would require immigrant children to report stages of settlement such as school enrolment.
Two years later, everyone is waiting for the federal government to leap the jurisdictional hurdles. While bureaucrats shuffle paper, other Melonies are at risk.
“There is an emptiness with the verdict,” Thompson told the Star Thursday. “This could happen again tomorrow.”
Since the trial started Columnist Royson James has hosted Opal Austin and Racquel Ellis, the mother and sister of Melonie Biddersingh. Austin was the first witness at the trial in the cold case slaying her daughter in 1994. James first reported the story from Jamaica when police first identified Melonie in 2012. He's maintained contact with the family and assisted the women in navigating the city during the trial. They left for Kingston on Christmas Day, having been away from family since Oct. 29.
Steps to end secret abuse of immigrant children
Require all immigrant children register at a school or with the Education Ministry, within 30 days of arrival. “It’s a no-brainer. It has to be done,” says Det. Steve Ryan.
On arrival at Pearson, and ports of entry, and at visa issuing offices, give all newcomer children a card and info on where to call, if threatened or abused.
Launch a visible, wide-ranging education campaign — not easily filtered by abusers — that empowers minors and vulnerable individuals to seek help.