The mother of a 17-year-old girl whose body was found inside a burning suitcase more than two decades ago never stopped looking for her daughter after being told the teen had run away from her father's home, a Toronto court heard Friday.
Opal Austin struggled to contain her emotions at times as she testified at the trial of Everton Biddersingh, who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of his 17-year-old daughter Melonie.
Crown prosecutors have said Melonie, who lived with her father for three years before she died, was starved and abused by him.
The case has taken 21 years to get to trial because police weren't able to identify Melonie's frail, charred remains for years until they received a tip that eventually led to Biddersingh's arrest in 2012.
Austin told jurors that Melonie was born in Jamaica, and was the oldest of two children she had with Biddersingh when they were living together. When Melonie was about two years old, Biddersingh left for Canada, court heard.
Melonie's early years were spent with her mother, who had a total of seven children, court heard.
"She was a quiet person, she didn't give no problems," Austin said of her daughter. "She loved drawing...She loved to read."
Despite living in a one-room house with dirt floors and a leaky roof, Austin said her children never went hungry and noted that Melonie was a healthy child.
"I do odd jobs, like domestic work, wash people's clothes...them never left hungry," Austin said. "I provide."
In 1991, when Melonie was 13, an opportunity arose to have her, her younger brother and an older half-brother sent to Canada to live with Biddersingh and his new wife, court heard.
Austin believed the move would give her children a chance at a better life and she took comfort in the fact that their new stepmother had children of her own, court heard.
"I was confident. I put my trust (in her), as a mother with children," Austin said, choking back tears. "They would be going to school. They would be big man and big woman, working."
Not long after her children left, Austin said she would make collect calls from a roadside payphone to check on them but she was often told they were at school or at the gym.
A Crown prosecutor has told the jury that Melonie was never sent to school in Toronto and was instead "treated like a slave."
After a time, Biddersingh said he couldn't afford to pay for Austin's calls and urged her to write letters instead, court heard.
In one letter from Biddersingh sent in November 1993, which Austin read in court, he indicated the teen wasn't listening to him. Biddersingh also wrote that when he asked Melonie to write to her mother, "she say she just want to live her life."
"He tell Melonie to write me and Melonie say she don't have any time, she can't deal with ... the ghetto, where she came from," Austin said.
Melonie died on Sept. 1, 1994, but Austin said Biddersingh only told her about three years later -- when she ran into him and his wife in Jamaica -- that her daughter had run away from home.
"I ask him, 'where is Melonie?' Him said Melonie run down to America," Austin said, adding that Biddersingh said her daughter had made friends in the U.S.
"He say she steal away his wife's clothes and jewelry," Austin said, noting, however, that Biddersingh's wife was "a stout person" and Melonie had always been slender.
Biddersingh also told Austin he did not go looking for his daughter, court heard.
Austin told jurors she began trying to track Melonie down. She told friends about her situation, asked the Red Cross for help, and even filled out missing person's forms and contacted people she knew in the U.S.
Her efforts led to numerous false leads over the years until she was contacted by Jamaican police in 2012.
Police obtained a DNA sample from Austin which allowed them to identify Melonie's body, court heard.
Biddersingh and Melonie's stepmother, Elaine Biddersingh were arrested in March 2012 and charge with first-degree murder.
Elaine Biddersingh's trial is set to begin in April 2016.