Almost two years after her death, an ABC investigation into the manslaughter of Filipina trans woman Mhelody Bruno has revealed troubling new details of the case.
Warning: distressing content
Mhelody Bruno arrived in Australia to holiday six weeks before her tragic death in September 2019.
A week before her flight back home, former Air Force Corporal Rian Toyer killed her in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.
Three weeks after they met on Grindr, Toyer told the court, he inadvertently strangled Mhelody during sex.
He claimed it was consensual because while she had not agreed to the act of erotic asphyxiation, she also did not communicate for him to stop.
Toyer pleaded guilty to her manslaughter, and the court accepted the tragic death was “rough sex gone wrong”.
As a result of the guilty plea, the case never went to trial.
Toyer was originally given 500 hours of community service. But the Director of Public Prosecutions intervened, because that sentence was not legally permissible for manslaughter.
The judge later admitted to the bungle, and sentenced Toyer to a maximum of 22 months in jail.
Disturbing new information around Mhelody Bruno’s death
Now an investigation by the ABC’s Background Briefing program has revealed disturbing new details around Mhelody’s death.
In the hours before her death, a string of explicit, abusive and out-of-character messages were sent from her phone, the ABC reported.
One message swore at her ex, another told her friends in the Philippines to show their genitals, and a third said Mhelody was “dirty” and had HIV.
A friend’s sibling also received a horrifying video call from Mhelody’s phone.
On the call, an unidentified man allegedly said he would “rape Mhelody and give her AIDS”.
The person who received the call “still tears up” when she recalls it, they told the ABC.
Just eight hours after the last video call, Mhelody would lose consciousness. She would die in hospital the next day.
While police were told about the calls, the court never heard about them.
The ABC also reports parademics found her found fully dressed, despite Toyer telling the court he called an ambulance as soon as he realised she was unresponsive during sex.
It’s also claimed paramedics said there was no evidence Toyer had administered CPR to Mhelody, after telling operators he did.
The ABC also details other injuries on her body observed by doctors, nurses, and during her autopsy.
Much of the new information was never heard in court, and the ABC has published it in a podcast available to stream here.
Police defend investigation into death, but retired judge says question mark
Superintendent Bob Noble was the officer in charge of Wagga Wagga Police Station at the time.
He stressed to the ABC that police ran a thorough investigation into the case.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions NSW said the prosecution must establish evidence that would lead to a higher sentence “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
“Suspicion about an issue is not sufficient,” they said.
Rian Toyer declined to speak to the ABC.
Earlier this year, Judge Gordon Lerve ruled Mhelody’s death was “on the lower end of the scale of seriousness for matters of manslaughter.”
The ABC reports it is unknown if the new details would have made a difference in Toyer’s sentencing.
Former Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy also reviewed the information for the broadcaster.
He described omissions in the case as “significant” and there was a “question mark” over whether justice had been done.
“There is certainly an argument to say that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred here,” Whealy said.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about all the detail. We’re commenting on bits and pieces as it were. But they are all pretty important bits and pieces.
“And putting them all together I think at the very least you could say they reveal this was a much more serious manslaughter than the Judge envisaged it to be.”
Trans advocates say ‘justice not achieved’ for Mhelody Bruno
Mhelody Bruno’s death sparked an outpouring of grief in the community at the time.
Mourners gathered at candlelight vigils in Wagga Wagga, Sydney and Brisbane.
After Toyer’s sentencing, a group of LGBTIQ advocates demanded an official legal review of the case.
In an open letter at the time they claimed “justice has not been achieved” for Mhelody.
The judge gave “inadequate acknowledgement of the harm done to [her] family and inadequate recognition of the victim impact statements” provided, they said.
They claimed the judge’s sentencing remarks and decision “treated violence against transgender women with impunity” and sets a “dangerous” precedent.
At the time, Mhelody’s family could not listen to the sentencing outcome live due to technical errors in the broadcast.
Mhelody’s mother has now told the ABC of her family’s grief after the 25-year-old’s death.
“The sentence was so low, as though no-one was killed,” mother Avelina Bruno said.
“If [Mhelody] didn’t go [to Australia] nothing would have happened. Her death would not have happened.”
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