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Police offer testimony on child’s death at hearing

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Sydnor, left, and Lennon
SoVaNow.com / October 03, 2019
The mother and boyfriend charged in the beating death of five-year-old Christian Sydnor of Cluster Springs were in court Tuesday for a joint hearing to advance charges of second degree murder against both suspects.

Three officers with the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office offered testimony during Tuesday’s preliminary hearing on what they found as they investigated Tonja Lashay Sydnor, the boy’s mother, and Kory Lennon, her boyfriend, in the aftermath of the child’s death on May 27, 2018. Both Sydnor and Lennon have been charged with felony child endangerment in addition to murder.

At the conclusion of the officers’ testimony, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Robert Morrison sent the case to a grand jury for possible indictments, followed by trials in Circuit Court.

“I think on the basis of what I’ve heard there’s sufficient evidence to show probable cause,” said Judge Morrison in certifying the murder and child endangerment counts.

Christian Sydnor, a rising kindergarten student at South Boston Elementary, died on Labor Day Monday after being taken to the emergency room at Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital. The medical examiner’s report lists the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head, torso and extremities “in a setting of forced exercise.”

Late that Monday afternoon on the day of the child’s death, Tonja Sydnor and Lennon met law enforcement and rescue personnel at a Riverdale car wash. They had rushed five-year-old Christian, in an unresponsive state, from their Cluster Springs home before meeting up with the rescue squad at the car wash.

In initial conversations with police, both suspects said Christian had suffered injuries from crashing his bicycle. “The only thing she knew is that the child fell off his bicycle and that’s how he received the marks on his legs,” said Deputy Joe Franco, who spoke to both defendants and testified as to what Tonja Sydnor told him at the car wash.

In subsequent police interviews at the Halifax jail, where both defendants were being held on suspicion of committing child abuse, the mother and boyfriend offered evolving and at times conflicting accounts on what happened leading up to the child’s death, police testimony revealed.

Sheriff’s Investigator Mike Womack, who took statements from both Sydnor and Lennon on back-to-back days before the two defendants were charged with murder, said Kory Lennon and Tonja Syndor separately admitted to whipping the child as a form of punishment, though not to the point of causing his death. Both also said they would aim for the backside, not the head, when delivering the beatings.

At the hospital where Christian was pronounced dead, Sheriff’s Investigator Sam Edmonds said he found bruises and lacerations “all over [the child’s] body,” on his head, face, torso, back and legs. Edmonds described a wound at the base of the boy’s head that cut deep into the flesh. Photos of the remains and the autopsy report were entered as evidence in the case.

At one point during one of his interviews with Lennon, Womack testified, the boyfriend expressed that “he realized he had probably gone too far when he had to call Tonja” because the child was “sleeping with his eyes open.”

The statements by both defendants, which Womack described in detail in court, converged on some points. Both Lennon and Tonja Sydnor said Lennon had permission to discipline the child, and both agreed that Tonja Sydnor had been in and out of the house on the day of his death, cleaning her truck and heading out to the neighborhood dumpster. Sydnor was away from the home when Lennon called about Christian’s unresponsive state.

That happened late in the day Monday.

According to Womack, Lennon said he had given the child a “good whupping” on both Sunday and Monday. That admission came after Lennon previously told the HCSO investigator that “his form of discipline was pushups and squats,” Womack testified, describing the latter exercise as wall squats.

When Lennon divulged in his follow-up interview that he would whip Christian, too, he “admitted using a belt before, several times,” Womack testified.

In a police search of the home early on the morning after Christian’s death, Sheriff’s Office investigators recovered a brown belt they believe was used to fatally beat the child. They also found a broken crib in Christian’s bedroom and blood-splattered walls, Edmonds testified.

In another statement during one of his jailhouse interviews, Lennon said Tonja Sydnor had whipped the child, too.

“Did Kory describe how Christian moved around as Mommy did the whipping that day?” Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Q. Martin asked Womack on the stand.

The investigator answered that Christian “jumped around” during that round of punishment by his mother.

“At first he [Lennon] kinda said Mommy did the whupping and he did discipline with a form of exercise,” said Womack, testifying to Lennon’s statement.

Asked to use a scale of 1 to 10, Lennon described the beatings dealt out by the child’s mother as “a seven and a half.”

For his part, Lennon “said he could have hit the child in the face [on Monday] but he didn’t remember. He was trying to hit him in the butt,” Womack told the court. After one whipping, Lennon said he “put the child in bed because the child was tired and the child was sweating.”

Tonja Sydnor was “there for some of it” — the beatings — as she went back and forth to the dumpster that afternoon, added Womack, recounting Lennon’s version of events.

In his interviews with Sydnor, also conducted the day after Christian’s death and for a second time on the following day, Investigator Womack said the child’s mother acknowledged having whipped Christian as a means of punishment, but “she never seriously beat the child.”

Asked why Kory Lennon would have whipped the child on the day of his death, Womack said “she thought Christian had misbehaved” when the five-year-old urinated in his pants.

She left the household around 4 p.m. to clean her vehicle, and claimed to have seen Christian alive about half an hour before going out to the dumpster, Womack testified, drawing from Sydnor’s statement to police.

Sydnor claimed at another point during her two interviews that the child had no injuries when she left the house, and that when “Kory did not appear satisfied with the discipline of the child,” he “wanted more,” Womack recalled.

In a follow-up interview, Sydnor changed elements of her story, Womack continued, especially by saying that she hadn’t whipped Christian at all.

It was “quite a lengthy interview,” testified Womack, who had already spoken to Lennon to obtain his version of events. “I explained to him that Kory was telling a little bit different story than what she was saying.”

At one point, Tonja Sydnor admitted that she had initially lied about the boy falling off his bike “to be consistent with what she told police in Riverdale,” Womack said.

She also told Womack that she had seen the child naked during the day on Monday, believing that he had just taken a shower, and that there were no visible signs of injuries, despite acknowledging the boy had gotten a whipping on Sunday.

“She got upset” when shown the photographs taken at the hospital after Christian was pronounced dead, said Womack.

Also asked by Womack to describe the whippings that Lennon delivered, on a scale of 1 to 10, the mother gave the same answer as the boyfriend provided to the question: seven and a half, Womack told the court.

The defendants, both dressed in orange Blue Ridge Jail jumpsuits and shackled at the hands and feet, sat apart from each other at a small table next to their defense lawyers. Lennon is being defended by private counsel, Henrico attorney Charles Cosby, while Sydnor was represented by Thomas Jones of Charlotte County.

The hearing got off to a halting start after Sydnor asked to change defense lawyers, having recently retained Jason Anthony, a Richmond attorney, to take over from Jones. However, Morrison ruled that Tuesday’s preliminary hearing would go forward, calling a late switch in counsel, raised only a day earlier, “too much” to allow.

“I’m a little shocked the attorney would handle things this way,” said Morrison in rejecting a request to delay the proceedings.

Anthony recently handled the successful defense of another county murder suspect, Tequan Jamal Watson, in the shooting death of 16-year-old Paul Damiano of Cluster Springs.

In a separate matter, Morrison also accepted a prosecution motion to drop — for now — a misdemeanor weapons charge against Lennon, who was charged after police found a Glock pistol in the car at the Riverdale car wash. The misdemeanor charge against Lennon, for possession of a firearm while under a protective order, will be brought before a grand jury for direct indictment at a later time, Martin indicated.

Morrison also found Lennon guilty of misdemeanor trespass in a separate matter unrelated to the death of Christian Sydnor. As part of a plea agreement with the prosecution, the charge was reduced from felony home invasion and Lennon was ordered to serve 30 days in jail, with the remainder of his 12-month term suspended.

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