Two conflicting accounts of toddler Liam's final hours raise fresh doubts
The final hours of the short life of Liam Gonzales Bennett are a matter of conflicting accounts. What we do know is that he suffered a horrific death.
The little boy's mother Samantha Bennett and his stepfather Paul Noel McKeown both gave evidence on the final day of his inquest yesterday – presenting different pictures of what happened on that night.
The fact is that little Liam died soon after suffering 31 injuries to his head from blows so horrific he would have been immediately blinded by them.
Who dealt the blows is now the matter of a fresh investigation.
Liam's mother, dressed in black and clutching a tissue, cried as she took to the witness stand at Old Town Hall in Belfast yesterday.
The deputy retail manager told the court that on February 7, 2009, she had been trying to wean Liam off his dummy and that he had been a little tearful at bedtime but otherwise was fine.
Ms Bennett told Coroner Suzanne Anderson she had put Liam to bed at around 6.30pm, and left the bedroom door open, after feeding, bathing and taking a photograph of him with sunglasses, as he was due to visit his father, Juan Gonzalez Dias, in Tenerife soon.
She told the court she had cut the teat off Liam's dummy to put him off using it ahead of the trip away.
"I gave him his little snuggler and he went to sleep," she said.
"I gave him the dummy, but he didn't want it and I took it back off him."
Ms Bennett said he settled quite easily and that was the last time she saw him before leaving the house.
When Coroner Anderson asked Ms Bennett why she had put Liam to bed early she said he had been up earlier than normal, from around 6.30am, and had also had an afternoon nap earlier than normal.
When asked if she had caused the injuries that killed her young son she shook her head and said "no".
Ms Bennett said when her then fiance, Paul Noel McKeown, returned home to Sunningdale Park in Ballymena they chatted for a while and she showed him boots she had bought earlier that day.
Ms Bennett told the court that she told him she was going out to Tesco to get milk and left the house while he used a laptop.
She had just withdrawn money from a local cash machine at around 7.15pm when Mr McKeown called her.
"Noel rang me and said Liam wasn't breathing," she told the court. "He said 'quick, he's not breathing, come home'."
Ms Bennett raced back to the house in her car and found paramedics working on her son on the floor.
"I was in shock," she explained. "I said 'what's happened to Liam, what's happened to Liam?'
"I can't remember what else I said."
Following Ms Bennett's tearful evidence, the court heard from her former fiance, Paul Noel McKeown, via an internet video call from Australia, where he is working.
Mr Bennett told the court when he arrived home after 6.30pm Liam was in bed, which he thought was unusual as he is usually put down to sleep at around 7.30pm.
He also claimed Liam's bedroom door had been closed, contradicting Ms Bennett's earlier evidence that she always left the bedroom door open.
When Coroner Ms Anderson asked him who closed the door, he replied: "It would have been Samantha."
At this point Ms Bennett, sitting with family in the public gallery, took a sharp intake of breath and shook her head. Mr McKeown told the court Ms Bennett had left the house not long after he got home to buy milk from Tesco, something he also found unusual.
"It was unusual because she said she was going for milk and we had plenty of milk in the fridge," he claimed.
Mr McKeown told the court that around 10 minutes after Ms Bennett left the house he heard Liam crying.
He said: "I looked into his cot and his back was arched, so I picked him up. I tried to do mouth to mouth straight away."
He added: "He was breathing, but not breathing normally; he was struggling to breathe."
Of Ms Bennett's arrival back at the house, he said: "She was... she was quiet. I think she said 'what happened', I can't recall, it should be in my statement."
When Coroner Anderson detailed the horrific injuries Liam had suffered and then asked Mr McKeown could he explain to the court how Liam sustained them, he replied, "no".
When asked if he had caused them, he said: "No, I did not."
When questioned by his own barrister, he also added that all his statements, over 40 hours of interviews with the police and others, were "100% truth".
"Everything I gave was 100% accurate," he added.