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Vic toddler gets justice after 10 years

AAP logoAAP 3/01/2017 Genevieve Gannon

Two-year-old Tonnja Huynh was a happy girl who loved dancing, but she was born into a tough life.

She lived in a small, dirty flat in the Melbourne suburb of Maidstone with her mother, brother and baby sister.

Neighbours said the children were not cleaned regularly or bathed properly and everything in the flat was greasy and dusty.

The carpet was black and disgusting.

Tonnja's parents had separated when she was one and she hadn't seen her father since.

Her mother, Jennifer Louey, cycled through a procession of boyfriends and would leave her young children with teen babysitters overnight - and not say when she would be back.

One of the sitters, Samantha Barry, would sometimes bring food because there never seemed to be anything to eat other than noodles and milk.

Early in 2005, Tonnja's mother met a security guard named Mussie Debresay and became infatuated.

By May, her middle child - the one who loved the Wiggles and was just starting to be toilet trained - was dead.

The account given to authorities was that Tonnja had fallen.

Tonnja and her siblings had spent the night at Debresay's one-bedroom flat with their mother.

The couple slept in the bedroom and the children stayed in the living room.

The next morning Ms Barry visited and saw Tonnja lying listlessly backwards across the coffee table in an unusual pose.

Her feet were planted on the floor and her back was flat against the table surface, "like an L".

"I asked her what was wrong. She said she was tired," Ms Barry told a 2015 committal hearing in the Melbourne Magistrates Court.

She said she was helping Tonnja walk to a chair where she would be more comfortable when Debresay stepped into their path, picked the toddler up and put her on the chair.

Later, Debresay and Ms Louey took the kids to a cafe.

Tonnja was sluggish so she was put in the pram.

A neighbour, Gail Phillips, said Tonnja looked "not well around the head".

She thought it was strange that Tonnja had been in the pram, because she was older than her sister.

While they were sitting in the cafe, Tonnja stopped breathing.

Debresay and Ms Louey tried to revive her by splashing water on her face.

When that didn't work they rushed her to the Millennium Medical Centre.

Two doctors tried to resuscitate her but she could not be revived.

The two-year-old was pronounced dead.

Debresay told a female ambulance officer Tonnja had fallen from a cupboard the night before. He also said she had been watching cartoons with her brother around 5.30am when she'd fallen off the couch.

He told a male ambulance officer she had a fall between 8 and 9pm the previous evening and hit her head.

He repeated the story that she'd fallen off the couch and hit her head on the coffee table.

In his police interview, he described a night of broken sleep and falls from a cupboard, a couch, a coffee table.

He said he didn't know how many times the little girl had fallen.

Possibly three or four.

An autopsy report concluded the fatal injuries were caused by blunt force trauma.

A quarter of Tonnja's blood had leaked into her peritoneal cavity, which separates the organs in the abdominal cavity from the abdominal wall.

She had widespread soft tissue injuries to the head, neck, arms, legs, abdomen, chest and back and injuries to her abdomen, ruptured pancreas and lacerations to the liver.

It was very unlikely the injuries were accidental, experts said.

Ms Louey supported her boyfriend's account. She said she had heard a "thump" after midnight and that Debresay had gone to check on the kids.

When he returned he said Tonnja was on the floor between the television and the coffee table, face down and not crying.

"I'm pretty sure Mussie would do the right thing," she said.

Tonnja's brother, who was four at the time, gave a different account.

He told relatives Debresay, who the kids called "Daddy MJ", had "stepped" Tonnja.

Tonnja had been a naughty girl and urinated on MJ's couch, he said, demonstrating a kicking and stomping motion.

The medical evidence of a squeezing, or compressing, was consistent with his account.

In 2013, Victorian Coroners Ian Gray found Tonnja's death was the result of the actions, or inactions, of the two adults in the house with her the night before she died.

Debresay was eventually charged with murder, manslaughter and two counts of intentionally causing serious injury in May 2015 - exactly 10 years after Tonnja's death.

He failed to appear at his first court appearance because he was too unwell and continued to deny he had a hand in the death.

During his trial, Debresay's defence barrister Dermott Dann said Tonnja's brother's evidence could not be relied upon and that there were things he said that were demonstrably wrong.

A Victorian Supreme Court jury cleared Debresay of murdering Tonnja Huynh but found he was responsible for her death and he was convicted of manslaughter.

A judge jailed him for 11 years in December, saying the 38-year-old had "brutally" betrayed the trust the young girl placed in him but set a minimum of eight years before Debresay could apply for parole.

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