Mother tortured, killed 3-year-old son for welfare cheque
EXCLUSIVE WARNING: Distressing detail
HENRY wept silently as he remembered the last time he saw his beloved nephew Joseph in an intensive care hospital bed, his pale, emaciated body gashed and bruised.
Of all Joseph's uncles who grieve over what their sister did to Joseph, Henry was the one who saw the three-year-old before Westmead Hospital's ICU switched off life support.
It was only seven weeks since the happy, healthy little boy had been taken by his biological mother from Henry's family into the house where she tortured and fatally injured the boy.
At Westmead Children's Hospital outside the ICU, Henry was refused entry by his sister to see his nephew.
Then just 21 years old, Henry had been called out of a university exam with the news Joseph was in Westmead. At the hospital he begged his sister until she grimly relented.
In the ICU ward, Henry first went to the bed of another child because he didn't recognise his nephew.
When a nurse finally directed him to his nephew's bed, the condition of the unconscious broken little boy seared an image in Henry's mind he'll never erase.
"He was pale and skinny, had a shaved head, gashes on his forehead," said Henry, tearing up at the memory.
"I ripped the blanket off and there were all these wires and tubes linking him up to machines.
"He wasn't the little boy that was in my house.
"My sister and [her de facto] said he'd tripped on dog leads. I knew it was bull***t as soon as I saw Joseph."
Details of Joseph's horrific torture shocked the nation as they emerged during his mother and stepfather's murder trial, where the couple were called "LN" and "AW".
The couple taped the boys' eyes shut, taped a ball in his mouth, taped his hands behind his back, beat him and held him down in a freezing, ice-filled Esky.
Henry has now made the startling revelation that his sister and her de facto, sentenced to 30 plus years in prison, took the boy in in order to get their hands on welfare payments.
"They wanted him back for the benefits," Henry told news.com.au in an exclusive interview.
"[AW] was getting carer's leave for my sister and got more money if Joseph went back.
"He changed Joseph's last name to his.
"After Joseph was born, my sister had tried to give him away to neighbours. My mum found out and we took him.
"We had him for three years when she decided she wanted him back.
"She told Mum she wanted to reconnect with her son. I had a bad feeling about it from the start.
"All his uncles had taught him something different, so he wasn't a weak kid.
"He was a loud, beyond bright little boy who really loved attention and we gave him a lot.
"He would have stood up to them, which is why they taped his eyes shut."
An emotional Henry, now 24, represented the family by attending every day of his sister's murder trial.
He said the general public and even members of his family should never know the full, gruesome extent of Joseph's persecution.
But he questioned LN's widely-publicised "excuse" for tormenting Joseph, that the boy looked "like his biological father" who had cheated on her.
Henry said the boy's real father was an honourable man who had died from cancer before Joseph was born.
He has decided to tell the story of Joseph's mother as he and his family come to terms with the aftermath of the murder trial.
"I thought I'd feel better about the fact [LN and AW] were convicted and got heavy sentences," he said.
"But I don't.
"In prison [AW] has had his jaw broken, his arm and his leg.
"The jury went out for a week and then convicted them - I was sitting in the trial waiting for this very thing.
"But when it came it wasn't enough. Joseph was still dead."
Henry's family is trying to make sense of what happened to little Joseph at his mother's hand.
He said Joseph's mother, referred to in the trial as LN, was the second eldest of 10 siblings born to a Tongan mother and Australian father.
Henry said LN hadn't liked their mother's strong emphasis on discipline, and had married young, moved away and severed all contact with the family.
"That was from when I was about four years old till when I was 18," Henry said.
"She was pregnant with Joseph to her second partner, who'd encouraged her to touch base back with Mum.
"Then he died of cancer before Joseph was born, on April 13, 2011."
Henry was in the middle of his HSC when his mother took in Joseph, who he says LN "was happy to unload".
Joseph became his uncles' little brother, and quickly assimilated into the large Tongan-Australian family.
"I just love children, all my little nieces and nephews I just clicked with them," Henry said.
"In Tongan culture the youngest brothers have to respect the eldest and so my little brother seized on the opportunity to teach Joseph things.
'[One uncle] taught Joseph a love of adventure, PlayStation games and racing cars, and [another] photography on an iPad, the creative side.
"[The youngest uncle] tried to teach him not to take any shit from anyone older or bigger and how to do wrestling moves in the lounge room.
"If you laid down on the floor in the lounge room for long enough Joseph would come in and do a massive frog splash on you.
"He was absorbing it all from his uncles.
"He went from king of the castle to not being treated as human, worse even than her dogs."
When LN demanded her son back, Henry's mother tried to argue Joseph stay put and see LN on visits.
But LN threatened legal action against what had been an informal agreement for Joseph to reside with his extended family.
In the weeks prior to taking him back, LN visited Henry's home frequently but Joseph was not very receptive to her.
"After half an hour he would be over it and wanted to be back with the boys, he would get upset.
"She was aware of that, but she said she had enough mother skills to change his mind."
When LN finally took Joseph to live with her and AW three hours away in Oberon, in the Blue Mountains, she assured the boy they were going on a little shopping trip.
LN told her mother she would stay in touch and bring Joseph back to visit.
"As soon as he left, we didn't hear a single thing, not a phone call," Henry said.
"We missed him, but I was busy mid-term at uni. Dad was ill.
"Mum made a number of calls and begged [LN] to promise to bring him back for my 21st, but she called up and said Joseph was sick.
"Whenever Mum or anyone rang her, Joseph couldn't come to the phone for some reason."
It was June, 2014 and after Joseph left, the Henry's father's health collapsed.
Diagnosed with dementia, he would wander from the house "looking for Joseph".
The family was busy with his decline and the weeks rolled by until Sunday, August 3 when police and paramedics were called to a house in Oberon.
A mother, LN, could not revive her three-year-old son who, she said, had suffered head injuries from tipping over dog leads in a park.
Joseph was flown to Westmead overnight and Henry was informed the next day, when he was walking into a university exam at Parramatta.
He ignored his elder brother's first two calls, and took the third.
"[My elder brother] didn't know anything and wanted me to go over while he went to pick up everyone," Henry said.
Henry jumped in an Uber and arrived at the hospital around 10.30am on Monday, August 4, 2014.
He was not unaccustomed to death or disaster. Five years earlier during a domestic dispute, a brother had taken his own life and the family "had become numb after that".
LN and AW greeted him at Westmead, but the nurses refused him entry to see Joseph.
It took Henry an hour to work out it was LN and AW who "were instructing the nurses to bar him".
Henry thought he might find Joseph with a broken arm, but the nurses' attitude made him think "something was fishy".
After seeing Joseph, a shattered Henry called his brother.
Four hours later, the family arrived. Henry and his brother kept their mother from going into the room.
Before the family left, a nurse told them Joseph might not survive the night.
The story of a baby from Oberon in hospital in a critical condition had made the nightly news.
On Wednesday night, the hospital switched off Joseph's life support and he died.
Henry said he and his family "had to tread really carefully" not to upset LN, who could cut off contact before Joseph's funeral.
Meanwhile, detectives came around to interview Henry and his family, and placed listening devices on LN and AW's phones and in their car.
The couple moved to police accommodation as their Oberon house remained a crime scene.
LN failed to invite her family to Joseph's funeral, but Henry turned up with his mother and brothers.
"I'll never forget the look on [LN's] face. She was like stunned," Henry said.
Joseph's body was laid out heavily made up in an open casket, which Henry says is considered "very rude" [offensive] to Tongan culture.
The funeral celebrant's spiel was a further insult, describing Joseph's supposed favourite things.
"It was all wrong. His favourite movie wasn't Madagascar, it was Rambo.
"He didn't like riding bikes, he couldn't even ride a bike he was three.
"It was all a load of s**. That's what really upset all of us.
"When [LN] realised she got it all wrong she began to hyperventilate.
"Joseph's elder brother who had given him CPR at the house screamed out, 'Oh, not this again.'
"An ambulance was called but after we left apparently [LN] said, 'It's okay now we can leave'."
Before Joseph's cremation, forensic police had examined his body and taken a sample of his brain.
The undercover surveillance of LN and AW seemed surreal to Henry, the "stuff of TV".
Police filmed 180 hours of interviews and walk throughs of the Oberon house with LN and AW.
In September 2014, police charged LN with murder and AW with manslaughter.
AW's charge was upgraded to murder and the couple went on trial in February this year.
By that time, Henry had "hit rock bottom".
The corporate real estate manager and rugby union player had become overwhelmed, was having panic attacks and gave up work to attend the trial.
Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen, SC, insisted Henry's family all be in court for when the jury returned to deliver its verdict: guilty of murder.
Henry had been relaying the trial's progress under Ms Cunneen's steady hand to relatives, but he had kept much of the detail that was "heaps worse" from them.
Joseph's older brother, who is an adult, had told the jury about the time he heard the little boy screaming after being locked inside an ice-filled Esky.
He also gave evidence about how he witnessed Joseph desperately trying to rip duct tape off his eyes, but LN and AW kept sticking it back on.
Henry's only explanation as to why LN did it, was that she and AW wanted Joseph to be a compliant - and the spirited three-year-old would not have obeyed them.
"He was on his way to being very tough," Henry said.
"He was smart and we were grooming him to be a rugby player."
A post mortem determined Joseph's cause of death as cardiac arrest and that his body had multiple blunt force trauma injuries, scabs on his face and serious injuries to his spine.
The family again went to court for the sentencing: LN received 40 years with a minium of 33, and AW got 30 years.
NSW Supreme Court Justice Peter Johnson deemed the punishment as "de facto life sentences", and condemned their "grotesque and cruel" treatment of the boy.
"LN and AW regularly abused this young boy in their home, when it would have been simple enough to ring the extended family."
Justice Johnson told the extended family not to blame themselves for the toddler's death.
"They blame themselves for not intervening ... for not doing more to stop Joseph from going to live with them.
"They should not in any way blame themselves for what happened."
Nevertheless, Henry and his family suffer unjustified guilt.
"She could have given Joseph back to us, even if he were blind, we would have taken him and this wouldn't have happened," he said.
Henry has been treated for depression and anxiety and suffers from a condition called sleeping paralysis.
He doesn't know if he is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder from seeing his nephew in the ICU.
He still plays rugby and has found a new job, but avoids triggers like songs and TV shows that remind him of what happened to Joseph.
"We still all blame ourselves," he said.