Starved woman’s family fear she died from negligence

A woman who starved to death in her Melbourne home had told her family she was scared her husband would "eat all the food and leave her nothing", an inquest has heard.

Sonya Szala, 49, weighed just 26kg when she was found cold and dead in her bed by her husband of more than 25 years in 2016.

Her brother, John Smrdelj, said he believed his sister was a prisoner in her own home and recalled her crying in gratitude when he brought her groceries some months before her death.

A coronial inquest on Thursday heard evidence John Szala would buy his wife up to two bottles of laxatives per week and his medication was found in her system at the time of her death.

Mr Szala on Thursday refused to give evidence at the inquest after unsuccessfully attempting to have details of his wife's death kept secret.

Police have twice urged the Director of Public Prosecutions to lay charges against him.

James Fitzgerald, representing Mr Szala, told the court there was still a "very real" prospect his client could face criminal proceedings.

Sonya Szala with her husband, John.
Sonya Szala with her husband, John.

Ms Szala died in October 2016 after a long battle with anorexia, counsel assisting Darren McGee said, though she was never formally diagnosed with the eating disorder and there was no record of her ever seeing a doctor.

Paramedic Ciara Bloomer recalled Mr Szala's "unemotional and matter of fact" demeanour after she responded to his triple-0 call on the evening of 10 October.

Ms Bloomer said she found Ms Szala lying on her bed with her eyes and mouth open and her body was covered in faeces.

She was cold, stiff and rigor mortis had begun to set in, she told the court.

Mr Szala told paramedics and police the last time he spoke to his wife was that morning when they fought about her health, money problems and his cancer diagnosis.

John Szala. Picture: Tony Gough
John Szala. Picture: Tony Gough


"He said, I should have called triple-0 instead of listening to (his wife)," Ms Bloomer said.

Attending police observed a fully stocked fridge with neatly labelled food, as well as cans of food in a spare room and frozen meals defrosting on the bench at the Meadow Heights home.

Mr Szala told police his wife would eat just one meal per day - dinner - but that it was substantial and she had recently taken a liking to pumpkin and potatoes.

Mr Smrdelj said he was surprised by this.

"Sonya said she was fearful John would eat everything before she had a chance to eat," he said.

He said the last time he saw his sister was about five months before her death when Mr Szala was in hospital for cancer treatment.


The victim's brother, John Smlderj. Picture: Tony Gough
The victim's brother, John Smlderj. Picture: Tony Gough

Mr Smrdelj bought $250 worth of food and "she was so grateful she cried".

Later that week he did another grocery shop but was instructed by his sister not to buy sweets or cakes because her husband would eat them all.

Mr Smrdelj said he did not believe his sister had anorexia and that Mr Szala was withholding food from her.

A specialist emergency doctor who viewed autopsy photographs said any reasonable member of the public would recognise the woman needed urgent medical treatment.

Dr David Eddey said it was likely Ms Szala died of complications from her eating disorder - something that could have been treated if medical treatment was sought earlier.

"It's a prolonged process, (that is) potentially reversible," he said.

Dr Eddey agreed with Mr Fitzgerald that anorexia was a difficult condition to treat as sufferers are often resistant to help, but said people could be forced to undergo treatment under a mental health order.

Mr Smrdelj said his sister was depressed after the death of their mother, who took her own life in a house fire at the back of Ms Szala's property in 2006.

"She had a happy personality (and) had the potential to be happier but it was taken away from her," he said.

Coroner Phillip Byrne deliver his findings at a later date.

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