TORONTO — The father of a 17-year-old girl whose body was found in a burning suitcase two decades ago explained his child’s disappearance from the family home by saying she had run away, the teen’s half-brother told a Toronto court on Tuesday.
But Cleon Biddersingh said he found his father’s words surprising because at the time, his sister had been extremely frail, in pain from regular beatings, had no money and no friends.
“She’s so weak, she don’t know anyone, so where would she go,” the now 41-year-old recalled on the witness stand at Everton Biddersingh’s trial. “I didn’t believe that she run away.”
Biddersingh is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his daughter Melonie. He has pleaded not guilty.
The case of Melonie’s death remained unsolved for about 18 years as police were unable to identify the girl’s charred remains until they received a tip that led to the arrest of Biddersingh and his wife in March 2012. His wife’s first-degree murder trial is to begin next April.
The jury that will decide Biddersingh’s fate has heard that in 1991 Cleon, Melonie and a younger half-brother, all born in Jamaica, were brought to Canada to live with their father and his wife. Jurors have been told that the younger half-brother died accidentally in 1992.
Cleon has testified that the opportunity was initially a dream come true, but soon turned into a nightmare as he and Melonie were never sent to school, were turned into domestic labourers and were increasingly mistreated by their father, suffering frequent beatings and food deprivation, among other alleged abuse.
In the weeks before Melonie disappeared, Cleon said his sister was crawling around the apartment because she was in pain and too weak to stand.
Her condition deteriorated to the point where she became incontinent, he said, and he’d have to clean her up.
“You could see her bones, you could see her ribs” he said, choking back tears. “It’s not Melonie anymore, there’s a lot of bruises.”
The last time he saw his sister, Melonie was lying on her side on the floor — where she was made to sleep — holding her stomach, Cleon said.
That night, his father woke him up saying Melonie had run away, Cleon testified.
“I remember he said she run away and he gonna go drive down the road and see if he see her walking,” he said. “He leave the apartment and I just panic.”
While Biddersingh was out with his wife, Cleon said he searched a nearby stairwell where he had once found his sister before. The jury has heard that incident was the only time Melonie left the apartment herself and she made it only as far as the third step before telling Cleon that she wanted to die.
When he found no sign of her, Cleon said he checked a closet to find Melonie’s clothes were still at home and then scanned the street from the apartment window but didn’t see his sister.
When Biddersingh and his wife returned, Cleon said he was instructed to dispose of a barrel in which Melonie was sometimes confined, throw out a chain used to shackle her to furniture and clean the balcony on which she was forced to bathe and relieve herself.
Biddersingh did not call police to report his daughter as missing, Cleon said.
A few years after Melonie’s disappearance, Cleon said he managed to escape from his father’s home — by that time he was in his early 20s — and begin a new life.
He had children, married, told his wife a little about his painful past and tried to look for his sister through Internet searches over the years, court heard.
Cleon said he only found out his sister was dead when he was arrested in connection with her death in March 2012 and charged with criminal negligence causing bodily harm, aggravated assault and indignity to a dead body. His charges were eventually stayed.
The jury has heard that Melonie died on Sept. 1, 1994.