Crime & Courts

Mother sentenced in beating death of toddler who wouldn’t eat hot dog

A Sedgwick County judge on Friday ordered a Wichita mother to spend just over 19 years in prison for abusing and killing her 2-year-old son over uneaten hot dogs, saying the “sentence has been earned.”

“Neither the rule of law nor the community tolerates this kind of harm done ... to our children,” Judge Jeff Syrios told Elizabeth Woolheater after announcing that she’d spend 233 months in prison for the death of her son, Anthony “Tony” Bunn, on May 6, 2018.

“Tony was under your charge. And your job was to raise him and protect him,” the judge said.

“You failed him in the very worst way possible.”

Reading from a prepared statement Woolheater, 24, apologized for her role in Tony’s fatal beating and abuse. Her boyfriend, Lucas Diehl, is serving a nearly 49-year prison sentence for second-degree murder. She pleaded guilty to second-degree intentional murder and two counts of child abuse in August.

“I know that I’ll never be able to make up for or undo the mistakes I made,” Woolheater said as she stood in court beside her defense attorney while several of her relatives, including her parents, looked on.

“I know that I failed my son when he needed me.”

But she said, “I do want it to be known that I did love Tony — and I still do — with all my heart.”

Because she had no criminal record, the most prison time Woolheater could get for the murder conviction under the state’s sentencing guidelines was 165 months — just under 14 years — and 34 months for each child abuse conviction.

Her plea agreement recommended she receive the maximum sentence possible on each count and that they be served back-to-back, for a total of 19 years, 5 months.

Sedgwick County Assistant District Attorney Monika Hoyt urged the judge to follow the agreement as written.

Woolheater’s defense attorney, Quentin Pittman, told Syrios: “This is the plea agreement my client wanted, not her attorney.”

In tear-filled, emotional speeches to the judge, Woolheater’s family members said they hope she gets help in prison.

“If he was here, I think the only question he would have for you is, ‘Why?’ “ Woolheater’s mother, Nancy Woolheater said of her grandson in court.

“ ‘Why, mommy? Why didn’t you protect me? Why didn’t you love me enough? I loved you.’ ”

Tony died on May 6, 2018, two days after was beaten unconscious in his Riverside neighborhood home while he was with his mother and Diel, her boyfriend. Police who responded to the scene found the boy on the living room floor, not breathing.

Woolheater and Diel gave conflicting stories about what happened to Tony when they talked to police and neither explained the boy’s extreme injuries. She told authorities that she “lost it” when Tony refused to swallow pieces of hot dog she gave him for breakfast, slapped him across the face and hit him again while Diel held the food in the boy’s mouth, according to an affidavit released in the case.

She told police that she heard Diel hitting Tony repeatedly after she left the room and saw her son with a bleeding and swollen face, a broken front tooth and a cut on his lip when she returned.

Diel, meanwhile, denied touching the boy that morning and told police that Tony had been hurt falling out of bed.

Court records say Diel’s mother, a registered nurse, urged Woolheater by phone to call 911 when Tony stopped breathing.

But Woolheater “did not know if it was dire enough to call for EMS.”

Tony’s autopsy report showed other injuries that pointed to a pattern of abuse, including a broken nose, arm and rib and bruises on his face, back, stomach and buttocks. The charges Woolheater admitted to say Tony was abused for months.

Records show his abuse was reported to the state’s child welfare agency seven months before he died, but the Department for Children and Families didn’t follow through on key steps that might have saved him.

His DCF social worker, Kena Battle, was also the social worker for Evan Brewer, the 3-year-old Wichita boy whose body was found encased in concrete in September 2017 months after he died from horrific abuse.

In court Friday, Woolheater’s father told her that he still loved her and that he sees the “little girl I held when you were born” when he looks at her or her photos.

But, Zak Woolheater said, a parent’s job “is to be there for their kid.”

What happened to Tony should “never happen to any child,” he told her.

“Tony still visits me every night, and he has since the day his pain stopped,” Zak Woolheater told the court. “He’s always smiling. I talk to him daily.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle