Note that custodial dad DWAYNE BIDDERSINGH had a history of domestic violence against the mother of the murdered daughter. But given the mother's extreme poverty, the father ended up with possession of two of her children.
Mother mourns her daughter’s ghastly death
Published On Sun Apr 1 2012
Opal Austin, with daughter Racquel Ellis and son Issachar Fuller, speaks for the first time about the loss of her children Dwayne and Melonie Biddersingh, who came to Canada in 1990 with their father. Police now believe they have cracked the case.
By Royson James
KINGSTON, JAMAICA—All Opal Austin needed was a little help.
The “suitcase murder” victim’s mom says her daughter might still be alive if Canadian authorities had heeded warnings she and others gave them in the early 1990s.
Instead of pursuing the family’s suspicion that 15-year-old Dwayne Biddersingh’s fall from a 22nd-storey Parkdale apartment in 1992 wasn’t a suicide — and that his sister, Melonie, might be in danger too — authorities told Austin everything was fine, she says.
In an exclusive interview with the Star, family members said those assurances gave Opal Austin a false sense of security — which led her to cease asking Canadian officials in Jamaica to return Melonie to the island.
Two years after Dwayne’s alleged suicide, the 17-year-old girl’s body was found in a burning suitcase in an industrial complex in Vaughan. At the time, no one but the killer knew her identity — not school officials, not police.
“Suitcase murder”: Readers reach out to victim’s mother
“How on Earth that happen in a place like Canada?” asked Racquel Ellis, the victim’s sister. “You have children, they not illegally in the country, they not going to school and nobody pick up on that. Dwayne’s death should have alerted them that something was wrong.”
Melonie’s thin, broken body was barely 50 pounds. She had been confined and left to die from multiple fractures. Her finger-, foot- and hand-prints were burned off to make identification impossible.
And her family in Jamaica knew nothing. Eventually they were told, falsely, by her dad that she had run away to the United States.
While Austin and family sent feelers out to contacts in the U.S. and friend Elias Azan conducted fruitless Internet searches, Melonie was on the Toronto police cold-case files — until last November, when a tip connected the victim to her mother in Kingston, Jamaica.
Melonie’s father, Everton Biddersingh, 56, and stepmom Elaine Biddersingh, 50, are in police custody, charged with first-degree murder.
Austin told the Star she first went to the Canadian High Commission after hearing rumours that her son’s conflicts with his dad might have led to his death. She shared that information and told them: “Mi want back mi daughter.”
Weeks later, she received a letter from the embassy stating that Melonie is “Okay, she fine, going back to school; and is suicide Dwayne commit.”
She wasn’t convinced, but the assurance of people who should know eased her concerns.
“For them to say mi brother dead by suicide and everything okay, then you must have investigated the situation,” said her son Issachar Fuller.
Melonie’s disappearance suggests “some neglect down the line between the embassy and their investigation. To my knowledge, if an investigation did go on the right and proper way they would have seen a problem in the household from day one,” Issachar said.
Dirt-poor and desperate, all Opal Austin needed was a little help.
Faced with raising seven children on a street vendor’s income that couldn’t keep a Canadian kitten well fed, Austin did what any mother would: She sent two of her teenagers to live with their dad and step-mom.
The fact daddy lived in Toronto made the decision a no-brainer.
“I sent them up for something better, for a better life,” Austin told the Star. She was thinking, “Somebody must come out with something.”
Who could have imagined that Canadian authorities would soon be telling Austin, 57, that her son had jumped off a Parkdale apartment balcony at age 15; and that her daughter, Melonie, was soon to become the victim in a 1994 “suitcase murder” that police only now solved.
Austin knew Biddersingh, the father of her two children that would go to Canada, was an abuser. She says he beat her all the time, stopping only after he drew blood. But he never hit the children, so she felt secure in sending them to live with him.
Speaking for nearly two hours here Friday, Austin relived that nightmare, supported by two of her surviving five children (Racquel, 39; and Issachar, 31), her pro bono lawyer, and a family friend haunted by the fact he had encouraged her to send her children to Canada.
“Mi mother not educated, but she mek sure all of us okay,” said Racquel. “She poor but we woulda never suffer, even if she (feed us every day) with cornmeal porridge. Any mother would feel proud to do what she did. It’s their father we send them to, y’know; it’s not a stranger.”
According to family and friends:
• Toronto police are pursuing one or more witnesses to what might have happened to Dwayne and Melonie.
• The father’s initial explanation of Dwayne’s suicide suggests that several family members, including Melonie, were present when he fell to his death.
• Austin did not abandon her children, but sent teenage kids to live with a dad and his wife who were thought to be in a good situation to help the family.
• Their “smart, balanced, happy” Dwayne did not commit suicide, and they want Toronto police to reopen the 1992 case, exhume the boy’s body and pursue a possible link between the deaths.
• Austin’s family friend, Elias Azan, a former policeman in Jamaica, urged Toronto police to “dig deeper” into the cause of Dwayne’s death, as suicide seemed implausible.
• The Canadian High Commission in Kingston reassured Austin when she alerted them to her fears for Melonie’s safety. The embassy sent her a letter following a social inquiry report which states that Melonie was fine and about to enter school. But soon after, she disappeared, and Canadian authorities didn’t even know she was missing.
• When Melonie’s father said she’d run off to the U.S., Austin sent pictures to relatives and friends in America to help find the missing daughter. Internet searches by family friends came up empty.
• The family want to give the siblings a proper burial in Jamaica, but considering their lack of resources, only charity from the public could pick up the tab of the transport, estimated at up to $10,000.
• Austin wants to attend Everton Biddersingh’s trial so she can hear for herself what really happened to her children, as most details have come from media reports.
“It’s here they born; we can give them a proper funeral and I can go visit them in the cemetery.”
It’s 22 years since Austin’s dream died with her kids in a foreign land of opportunity. But it’s not until you travel to her hovel of a home — the place where her seven children slept in quarters not big enough to outfit most modern bathrooms — that the enormity of her plight smacks you in the face.
Nearby is where she spends her days at a makeshift stall, selling sweets, crackers, boxed juice and bagged popsicles outside the main gate of the Jamaican Red Cross. To call her a higgler is to insult the infamous Jamaican buy-and-sell vendors. A child’s piggy bank might be enough to bankroll Austin’s entire inventory. She easily ferries her goods to the spot each day and prays for a few sales.
Turning off the main road in downtown Kingston, columns of corrugated zinc create a rabbit warren of lanes. Ten or more turns and you arrive at her home, its wooden walls painted a beautiful maroon red and resting on concrete floors.
“This used to be all dirt,” daughter Racquel proudly declares. She sees progress where you see despair.
Family members rifle through mounds of old pictures to find one clear image of Melonie, the shy one, the girl who couldn’t hurt anyone. It baffles the mind trying to understand why, as Toronto police say, her caregivers would have starved her and left her in a confined place, with multiple fractures, to die like a dog.
And then burn off her fingerprints, hand- and footprints. And, finally, set her remains ablaze in a suitcase.
Melonie’s photograph, released by police to Canadian media, is a blurry image of a 12-year-old holding her baby niece, Kerina, Racquel’s child. Kerina is among those who on Friday were searching for a clear picture of her Aunt Melonie (she would have been 34 now). They found one that’s marginally better. Dwayne’s photo is a lovely, smiling one, hugging his younger brother Issachar, now 31.
If things had worked out as planned for Melonie and Dwayne, maybe by now they could have chipped in and helped the family move out. Instead, Opal and the remaining kids are improving themselves. Some 18 family members and acquaintances joined forces and bought a little real estate — under one acre of less-than-desirable land — before subdividing it without surveyor’s tools or planner’s design.
“Yes, the seven a mi pickney dem sleep right here,” Austin says, pointing to two tiny beds; and it is unimaginable.
When Toronto police travelled here in February to take Austin’s DNA samples, which would link her definitively to the victim of the “suitcase murder,” it capped two decades of dashed hopes and what is now unspeakable grief.
“I cry and I cry and I cry and my eye hurt,” Austin tells the Star. “I wonder if it’s a nightmare because everything happened so quick.
“I sent them to Canada to better off themselves and help the family. Now, I need (reading) glasses and I have nobody to help me.”
The nightmare started barely two years after the kids left for Canada with their father and an older sibling, Cleon, the father’s child. He has four other children.
Austin may have spoken to the kids a couple of times. Most often, the father took the collect calls and left little time for interaction, often complaining about long-distance costs.
When he called Austin to report Dwayne’s death, it was with a convoluted story that left Austin reeling. Friends in Toronto knew little or nothing about the apparent suicide. And despite Azan’s intervention and request that the body be sent to Jamaica for burial, police had determined it was a suicide and the father said it was too costly to return the body. Austin received not even a funeral program.
Family members must now read foreign newspaper reports to find out what happened to the loved ones who were supposed to return to help their siblings and end a generation of poverty.
The only way Melonie and Dwayne can return now is with help. Two decades later, all Opal Austin needs is a little help.