The murder trial of Tavon Ludy began Tuesday with emotional testimony from his former fiancee, whose child he is accused of killing, and a recording of his police interview.
Ludy, 27, is charged with first-degree murder, accused of punching Torian Whittaker to death on his fifth birthday. Ludy also has been charged with aggravated battery to a child, accused of also beating Torian’s older brother, Zajamin.
Toria Coleman, the boys’ mother, testified against Ludy on Tuesday. Coleman began crying when asked how old Torian was at the time of his death.
She and Ludy had been living together for almost a year in unincorporated Glen Carbon, and they were engaged. She was pregnant with Tavon’s son, Keaton, at the time of Torian’s death. Coleman was active duty with the U.S. Army at the time.
Coleman was charged with felony child endangerment in Torian’s death and has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in exchange for a sentence of probation. She also lost her position with the Army, according to prosecutor Jennifer Mudge, and is now a dispatcher with a garbage truck company.
“Torian was awesome,” Coleman said, crying. “All he wanted to do was go to school… He liked to ride his bike; he loved football.”
On Sept. 29, 2013, the boys were just getting up in the room that they shared when she woke up. It was a Sunday, and they planned to go to a fashion show, and then celebrate Torian’s birthday with cake and ice cream, she said.
She left the boys with Ludy, going to buy a birthday present that morning while the boys were getting breakfast. She went to Toys R Us and Kmart, she said, and came home with the present.
“What did you see when you arrived?” Mudge asked.
“Caution tape,” she said, and broke down crying.
At the hospital, she was told that her son was dead. She spent the next couple of nights in jail, as police charged her with child endangerment.
Coleman said that she had always disciplined the boys with verbal correction with the occasional spanking with a belt with clothes on. When Ludy moved in, however, she said he told her she was too lenient with her sons and as the man of the house, he should take over.
“They got a whupping if necessary, they did push-ups, they ran ... up and down the hill,” she said of Ludy’s disciplinary methods.
The night before, Zajamin had been struck seven times in discipline, she said; Ludy believed the boys should be struck one time for each year of their ages.
“We agreed that they would be disciplined and I was a bit lenient,” she said. “We agreed that Tavon would take over the discipline.”
She said when she had duty on the weekends or if she was sent into the field for a few days up to a few weeks, the boys were left with Ludy.
I didn’t know it was as bad as it was. I would have stopped it.
Toria Coleman, Torian’s mother
“I didn’t know it was as bad as it was,” she said. “I would have stopped it. I go back to that same stupid conversation, that he’s the man of the house, he’s supposed to be the disciplinarian, and the woman is supposed to sit back and say when they did something wrong, and he would take care of it from there.”
Defense attorney David Fahrenkamp asked if Ludy called himself the boys’ father, and if he loved them. She replied to the latter, “Sure,” in a tight voice.
During cross-examination, Fahrenkamp pointed out that she negotiated a deal on her case last week, and will have to return later to finish adjudication of her deal. If she completes her supervision, she hopes to be able to re-enter the Army, she said.
“So you are fulfilling your deal,” he asked.
“I’m supposed to come here and tell what happened,” she replied.
Earlier, the jury heard testimony from first responders and the recording of the 911 call summoning first responders to the house that morning.
Later, the prosecution played a recording of Ludy’s initial interview with police. When asked about the boys, Ludy said they were active kids and liked to play — he said Torian was very smart, too smart for his preschool.
At the time, Ludy did not know that Torian had died.
Ludy told police that Torian was in trouble because he had wet the bed the day before and both boys were sneaking food at night. Then he said Torian disobeyed him when he gave him an instruction.
So he said he punched Torian in the chest, knocking him off a stool. He said the child got back up, and then fell forward into a refrigerator door.
The police then played his 911 call, in which he seems to say he punched the boy five times.
“I don’t feel like I did nothing wrong,” Ludy said. “I didn’t knock him the (expletive) out. Sometimes I just don’t know my own strength.”
When asked if he hit Torian harder than he’s hit him before, he said no. “I wasn’t trying to kill him,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that… I was still in my right mind.” Later, he said in retrospect it was “maybe too much.”
After the collapse, Ludy said that he was scared because Torian was not responsive and his whole body was loose. He called 911, he said, and tried to do CPR while he waited for first responders.
But police pointed out that he was talking with them for more than an hour and never asked how Torian was doing. When told he was dead, there was a long silence, and then Ludy insisted that he couldn’t be.
Then he buried his face in his hands, and said nothing for a few minutes. Finally he said, “I thought someone said he was okay.” Then he seemed to start crying, and said, “I can’t believe it.”
He said he was trying to be a father, and to be a good man. “I don’t know what to do with myself now,” he said, still apparently crying. “I don’t know how to live.”
I don’t know what to do with myself now. I don’t know how to live.
Tavon Ludy, after being told the child was dead
However, under questioning from the prosecution, Madison County Lt. Kristopher Tharp, the officer who interviewed Ludy, said he did not see tears coming from Ludy’s eyes. The camera continued recording for a few minutes after police left the room and Ludy was left alone. He seemed to break down and sob while alone.
Fahrenkamp asked him if he was an expert on tear ducts, and Tharp clarified that he did not believe Ludy’s grief to be genuine.
The prosecution also presented a series of texts from Ludy’s phone that day, which detailed his attempts to reach Coleman before and after calling 911. Coleman had earlier testified that she did not receive the messages, as she had not taken her phone with her.
The trial will continue Wednesday.