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Brenda Karamuzi: Tonku and the septic tank murder that shocked the nation

Brenda Karamuzi's decomposing body was discovered by chance by fumigators in a septic tank in Tonku's compound. A post mortem report said Karamuzi’s body had six stab wounds on the right side of the neck and cheekbone on the face. There were lacerations on right side of the face, on the nasal bridge, on the right nostril, on the forehead and above the right eye

ARCHIVE | Nsubuga Mubiru was used to handling all his cases to their logical conclusion. Languid and dark skinned, by 2011 Mubiru had over 40 years experience of crisscrossing court rooms while doing what he does best: practicing law. He handled several murder cases, initially as a prosecutor in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and later as a defence lawyer in private practice.

His previous cases included the trial of former Tooro Prime Minister John Katuramu, and that of former Mayuge district chairman Baker Tigawalana. But that trend soon ended, albeit controversially. He stepped down from a murder trial that had gripped the country, citing attempt on his life.

Though Police never found any cartridges from his home driveway, the alleged scene of crime, Mubiru insisted there had been an attack on him. The crux of his claim was that had been shoot at while he was arriving at his home on the evening of June 20, 2011, and he connected the attempt to the trial he
was handling at the time.

Some people wanted him out of the way, or so he claimed, and for safety, he recused himself from this divisive case.

In some circles, however, this was laughed off. Cynics were convinced that Mubiru and his team could have stage-managed the attack to make their client appear innocent.

Though trial judge Frank Albert Rugadya Atwoki on June 28, 2011, disparaged Mubiru’s alleged attackers as “uncouth people who want to use the power of the gun to defeat justice,” he added: “But the job will be done to its logical conclusion.”

The person Mubiru had abandoned was the lanky Thomas Nkulungira, 39 and at the time. Together with his shamba boy Fred Ssempijja, 21, Nkulungira, who went by the moniker Tonku, was facing murder charges.

As things stand now, Tonku is no longer an accused; he is at the Supreme Court battling the death sentence handed down by High Court judge Rugadya for murdering his lover, a 27-year-old Brenda Karamuzi.

Karumuzi was born to Henry and Joy Karamuzi of Kakyeera Rakai District and the Mass Communication graduate from Uganda Christian University had previously worked with NTV.

Tonku lost an appeal against the conviction and sentence in 2015 and is praying the highest court in the land gives him respite.

Ssempijja mathematically is out of prison. Having been found capable not of murder as prosecution
had claimed, but of being an accessory after the fact, Rugadya handed him a lenient sentence of five years because “he has a young family but was foolish to have money make him commit the offence.”

Body in the septic tank

By the time Mubiru ‘stole the limelight,’ the country was still recovering from the manner, cruelty and barbarism used to end Karamuzi’s life. After she was killed, her body was stuffed in a septic tank in the compound of Tonku’s house in Kijjwa Zone, Bukasa, Muyenga, a leafy Kampala suburb, in January 2010.

If dumping Karamuzi’s body in a cesspool was inhumane, then the manner in which she was murdered was beastly, to say the least.

The postmortem was telling. Karamuzi’s body had six stab wounds on the right side of the neck and cheekbone on the face. There were lacerations on right side of the face, on the nasal bridge, on the right nostril, on the forehead and above the right eye, the postmortem read.

“Her head was battered to such an extent that the skull was not only fractured, but all brain matter splattered out leaving fragments of bones. That was exceedingly brutal force which was used to inflict the injuries,” Rugadya noted in his judgment, adding that the pathologist observed that there were no ‘defence’ injuries on the body, meaning that Karamuzi never put up any resistance.

One particular aspect that prosecution led by Senior Principal State Attorney Joan Kagezi (she was assassinated in 2015) convinced Rugadya about was that Karamuzi was murdered in Tonku’s house, not anywhere else.

Prossy Namukasa, who led Police investigations at Tonku’s house, helped out in her court deposition.

When Police raided Tonku’s house on January 30, 2011, Namukasa said that they found Karamuzi’s blood and brain matter splattered on the corridor wall leading from the visitor’s room, on the eastern wall of the sitting room, and on the kitchen door.

It wasn’t about just Namukasa seeing blood on the walls. The Police forensic teams took swabs from these places and once they were tested, Geoffrey Onen, the DNA expert, conclusively determined that the blood and brain matter belonged to Karamuzi.

There were many facets and question marks to this macabre case: When did Karamuzi arrive at Tonku’s house? And which date did Brenda die? What sort of relationship existed between Tonku and Brenda? Was it a love affair or platonic friendship?

After getting phone printouts from Karamuzi’s Sony Erickson phone, which had been stolen by Ssempijja before selling it to one Alex Ssali at Shs45,000; Justice Rugadya concluded that she was
murdered either on January 22 of 2010 or the morning of the following day.

The reason here was simple: those were the dates when she last received calls on her number.

Socialites

Those in the know of Kampala’s night life had described Tonku and Karamuzi as socialites who found no qualms in spending days and nights in bars drinking and partying even when one was broke and other unemployed.

Tonku had spent five months without paying his worker Ssempijja and, to make matters worse, he defaulted on paying his rent for six months to the extent that one time a cheque he had handed to his
landlord Abdul Hamid Juma bounced.

But that never stopped him from living a “large life.”

Such a lifestyle was evident in Tonku’s sworn testimony in which he and his legal team now led by Jonny Barenzi had smartly tried to put up an alibi that he wasn’t near his house on the evening of January 22 or morning of January 23, the time it’s estimated Karamuzi’s body was dumped into cesspool.

On January 22, 2010, at 11pm, Tonku said he was at the vigil of his friend Elias Kagimu Kalungi, who had scammed to kidney failure in the United States. From there, he proceeded to a nearby pub Divas.

They were moving as a group of eight, he claimed; David Kigozi, Denis Kiggundu, Peter Kasedde, Rita Musoke, Suubi Kiwanuka. Later, Uthman Mayanja joined them at about midnight, he said. He left Divas at about 1.30am, and went to a bar across the road. He could not recall its name. He was with Andrew Bugembe, Mayanja, Kigozi and Kiggundu.

At about 2am, Tonku testified that in company of his buddies they went to Club Silk—royale section in Mayanja’s car. At Silk Royale, they met people such as Kasedde, Kigozi, Bitature. All the time while at Club Silk, Tonku said that Mayanja was seated next to him.

He could not recall the exact time when he got home but he insisted that it was in the morning of January 23 and apparently the security lights were still on as Mayanja dropped him home. When he got home, Tonku opened the door and went straight to his bedroom and slept, as he was very tired.

He asked Ssempijja if Karamuzi was around and he was told that she was not around. To corroborate and perhaps strengthen his alibi, Tonku lined up his a litany of friends such as Kasedde, Mayanja, one Phyllis Katana etcetera; who he was merry making with, to testify.

This, however, backfired as their versions of the events couldn’t tally with Tonku’s narrative and the judge quickly spotted out these inconsistencies or rather lies as he termed them.

Kasedde was the first to expose Tonku. He admitted that in the evening of January 22, 2010, he was at the said vigil with Tonku and other friends. When the group migrated to Divas bar, he went home so he
never went to Club Silk as Tonku had claimed.

The reason he advanced for not going to the club was “that it was out of sync for his friends to go to Club Silk when they were supposed to be grieving the death of their friend.”

Mayanja’s evidence was also problematic. Tonku informed the court that they were in Royale section of Club Silk but Mayanja, who was apparently seated next to him, categorically stated that they went to
Club Silk and were in the “downstairs section.”

“That was not Royale section. If defence witness number five [Mayanja ] was telling the truth, then accused one [Tonku] told a lie when he told court that they went to Club Silk and sat in Royale section,” Rugadya ruled.

There was still more contradictions on what time Tonku arrived home on January 23. In testimony Tonku informed court how Mayanja dropped him at his home at about 5am. He stated that there was light by then, trying to emphasize that it was morning by the time he got home.

Upon being intensely cross examined by Kagezi, Mayanja told court that it was still dark when he dropped Tonku at his home and that he still had to use his car lights because of the darkness. That was another lie by Tonku, the judge concluded.

“Those lies put a lot of question marks whether accused one [Tonku] was indeed in Club Silk or at the time as he claimed,” the judge further queried.

Karamuzi goes missing

Tonku’s conduct after he came to know that Karamuzi was missing came under scrutiny of Justice Rugadya who had the niche of paying attention to every detail. At midnight of January 22, 2010, Tonku version’s narrative was that while he was engaging in heavy drinking with his friends, he took off time to call Brenda but her phones were off.

From that at time, Tonku ceased to be in contact with a person who according to him, came to him when her life was in distress as she was financially unwell and was desperately looking for a job, Justice Rugadya noted.

The judge was also startled by Tonku’s confession that he did not disclose to his friends that Karamuzi was missing.

Jonathan Bakwega who was among the friends who had come to court ostensibly to defend Tonku said that despite knowing the accused for a very long time he never informed him that Karamuzi was missing.

“Yet they were together practically every day,” the judge started, “The question that remains unanswered is why not tell your closest friends of the disappearance of your friend . Defence witness three [Kasedde] only knew about all this at the police station when accused one [Tonku] was arrested.”

Equally puzzling, Rugadya noted, was that Karamuzi was a social and outgoing person, and this information voluntarily came from Tonku and the deceased’s friend, Carol Nibarungi, who testified the second prosecution witness.

Though Tonku used to go out regularly, Rugadya noted that not even once did he go out with Karamuzi yet he was living with her from January 18, 2010, until her death. Tonku tried to explain away this anomaly. He alleged was too busy with Kagimu’s burial arrangements to go out with Karamuzi but the judge didn’t buy into this.

“In the same breath, Tonku told court that the group of friends would before and after their meetings go for drinks and merry making, hoping from one bar to another till the wee hours. Defence witness five [Mayanja] called it unwinding,” Rugadya said.

“It therefore had nothing to do with the business of the burial of Kagimu that Tonku failed or refused or neglected to take his equally outgoing socialite with him on his outings.”

That was quite telling, the judge, who is now stationed at the Masindi High Court, further noted. “Was it because she [Karamuzi] was no more after January 22 and Tonku had to keep up appearances and avoid mentioning her at all? That was the inference the prosecution sought to put on Tonku’s conduct.”

For the umpteenth time, Tonku’s conduct after Brenda disappeared came under scrutiny. Nibarungi and Amelia Karamuzi, sister of Karamuzi,  said that when they called Tonku on January 27 inquiring if by he knew where Brenda was, the best advice he could and did offer was that they should look into hospitals and the morgue, as if to prepare them for the worst.

“That was also quite telling that for a friend as close as Tonku said Brenda was to him, the best he could do was to ask her relatives to look for her among the dead. He told court that he did this because he once had a friend who went missing and his body finally turned up in the morgue.

“With that experience one would have been even more vigilant looking for a missing friend. The other reason why he did not do much by way of looking for Brenda was because he was very busy looking after his dead friends interests,” he said.

“For a person who had earlier experienced loss of a friend in circumstances similar to what he was faced with, the only natural reaction would be to inform his friends and the vigour which they put to get a dead colleague back from the US would also have been put to try and uncover the whereabouts of Tonku called his girlfriend.

“But then possibly the reason he did not seek such help from his friends was because he did not need it.”

All said and done, it was evidence of Sempijja and his girlfriend Joan Nakirya that ultimately hammered the final nail in Tonku’s flailing arms.

First, as expected Sempijja, who claimed that Tonku had promised to clear his accumulated wage arrears of Shs200,000 plus Shs1 million if he “kept quiet”, denied having caused or taken part in the death of Karamuzi.

He said in the wee hours of January 22 or early morning of January 23, he was asked by his boss to carry the body of Karamuzi from the house into the septic tank, and he did so.

“I did not find Ssempijja an unreliable witness. He was accused of a very serious crime. He admitted only those aspects as he knew them to be true. He did not allege or even allude to the fact that his
boss caused the death of Brenda. I found him to be a far more credible witness than Tonku, who told court a pack of lies,” Rugadya said.

The judge added that Ssempijja’s evidence broke Tonku’s alibi and accordingly placed him at the scene of crime.

In respect to Nakirya, the judge described her as a simple village belle from Masaka who testified matters which were adverse to Ssempijja, her boyfriend. It is even possible, Rugadya speculated, that Nakirya was not aware of the consequences of her evidence.

The gist of Nakirya’s evidence that left Tonku with nowhere to hide was that on rainy night of January 22, he called Ssempiija to go and buy him cigarettes. That Ssempijja took longer than usual to return
to the couple’s room or boy’s quarter and on return, despite being questioned, he never explained exactly why he took so long.

On the morning of January 23, 2010, Nakirya said she saw Ssempiija washing blood-stained clothes and cushions given to him by Tonku.

There was somewhat a simplistic argument advanced by Barenzi: Karamuzi was Tonku’s girlfriend and so there was no way he would cause her death. This enabled the judge to comment on the relationship between Barenzi’s client and Karamuzi.

During cross-examination, Tonku said that Karamuzi was his ex-girlfriend but later he would try to clarify that he used “ex” because she had passed away.

“When the girlfriend came to stay with him albeit briefly, she was relegated to the visitor’s room, and there was no other woman in the house,” Rugadya scrutinized Tonku’s testimony.

Tonku’s longtime friends, of about five years, Mayanja and Katana did not know Karamuzi and more interestingly, Kasedde, who of all Tonku’s friends, was to the effect that was not aware that Karamuzi was his lover.

“Either they were not that close friends or Karamuzi was not what Tonku claimed her to be in court. No wonder they were able to freely come to give testimony only so as to save their friend, after all they
did not know the dead girl,” the judge said.

Nibarungi and Amelia’s evidence was curial in this aspect. Each told court that so far as they were aware, the relationship between Karamuzi and Tonku was “plutonic”. That would explain the judge said why Karamuzi “freely and one must say with innocent naivety went to stay with an unmarried man.”

So who knew Karamuzi as Tonku’s girlfriend? Namukasa, the police officer, testified that during her investigations she noted that Karamuzi appeared to have a low opinion of Tonku as a lover.

In his testimony, Tonku said on a return from one of his drinking escapades, Ssempijja told him that Karamuzi had gone out to Seebo Grill–a recreational center in the same locality as Tonku’s house. He simply went to bed, and did not know when she returned.

This story was corroborated by Ssempijja, who said that Karamuzi was dropped by a white double cabin vehicle. Tonku refused to open for her and she could have spent the night outside in the cold, only for Ssempijja who had the keys to the back door to open for her.

“The above shows the reverse that Karamuzi was a girlfriend of Tonku. No wonder then that when she died, the conduct of Tonku was one of nonchalance,” the judge said. “The fact was that here was a pretty girl, a single lady who, according to him was taking refuge in his house who decided to go out for a good time in spite of him and all his play boyish lifestyle.

“Court cannot speculate on how this type of lifestyle worked on or affected these people. What is not speculative is that one of them ended up dead and her was body dumped in the septic tank of the
other.”

In this tragic story, what’s normally forgetting, is how Karamuzi’s decomposing body was by chance discovered in the septic. Aziz Kakooza, Tonku’s co-tenant, had hired fumigators on January 30, 2010. While they were trying to fumigate the septic tank, they discovered the body. Cue pandemonium.

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