Crime & Courts

System failed latest Wichita child to die from alleged abuse, attorney argues

Anthony Bunn, age 2.
Anthony Bunn, age 2. Courtesy photo

Seven months before 2-year-old Anthony Bunn’s mother and her boyfriend were arrested on suspicion of murdering him, police investigated whether he was being abused.

Now a lawyer is arguing that the child protection system failed to protect the child.

Shayla Johnston, an attorney representing the Wichita boy’s maternal grandparents, says in a court document filed over the weekend that the system failed to act in Anthony’s best interests.

After the toddler was the victim of “known physical abuse in October 2017,” he was safe and in the custody of his grandparents for 12 days in October, says the document filed in Sedgwick County District Court.

The document alleges “mishandling of this child’s known physical abuse.”

The system “failed to follow reasonable protocols expected to secure permanent placement and supervision of the child,” says the document filed by Johnston.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families on Monday evening said it "can confirm that we did conduct a joint child abuse investigation concerning Anthony Bunn with local law enforcement in October 2017. We are deeply saddened by this senseless tragedy ... and staff are reviewing this case to determine whether personnel, policy or procedure changes are necessary to prevent further tragedies from occurring."

Johnston is an aunt of 3-year-old Evan Brewer, another alleged victim of child abuse whose body was found in concrete this past September. Evan's mother and her boyfriend are facing charges in his death. Johnston has said that the child protection system failed Evan as well.

Anthony's death comes at a time when the state child protection system has been under scrutiny for other child tragedies. Relatives of 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez, who disappeared in February, say they called the state to report suspected abuse. Relatives of Evan Brewer called police and the Kansas Department for Children and Families repeatedly. Investigators found evidence that he had been tortured.

In the latest death of a Wichita child, Johnston is representing Zachary and Nancy Woolheater, parents of Anthony's mother. Johnston filed the document as part of the grandparents' effort to intervene legally on their grandson’s behalf and to deal with his end-of-life medical care.

Anthony’s mother, Elizabeth Woolheater, 22, and her boyfriend, Lucas Diel, 25, are being held in the Sedgwick County Jail on suspicion of murder and endangering a child.

Police have said that Anthony was not breathing when officers went to a house in the 800 block of North Woodrow on Friday morning. The boy had severe injuries to his head and face. He was rushed to a hospital and died, police said.

In October, Wichita police investigated a child abuse case now related to the recent case, police said Monday, but there was not enough evidence to file any charges then. Police on Monday released a partly blacked-out copy of an Oct. 16, 2017, police report of possible child abuse. The report said the possible abuse began on July 23, 2017, and ended on Oct. 16, 2017.

The October police report listed the location for the abuse as 822 N. Woodrow, where the mother and boyfriend were arrested Friday. That is Diel’s address, according to court records. Information about the victim and reporting person or witnesses was redacted from the report.

On Monday afternoon, the District Attorney’s Office confirmed that the earlier case was presented as a child abuse case to prosecutors in November.

District Attorney Marc Bennett is expected to make a statement Tuesday afternoon after investigators present the new case to prosecutors, said DA spokesman Dan Dillon.

Diel, the boyfriend arrested in Anthony’s death, was convicted of criminal threat in January 2016, records show. He received probation and later was sent to prison for about two months before being released in June 2017. He was discharged by the Department of Corrections on March 10.

In an April 2016 court document, Diel said he took an anti-depressant, and a Sedgwick County judge ordered him to “re-engage in mental health treatment.”

In October 2016, a warrant was issued for Diel after a probation officer said Diel admitted to drinking alcohol and after he tested positive for methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. He also failed to attend drug/alcohol treatment and anger management classes, the warrant said.