Vegan Cape Coral mom found guilty in toddler son's 2019 malnutrition death

Tomas Rodriguez
Fort Myers News-Press

Sheila O'Leary stood frozen as jurors walked back into the courtroom and handed a guilty verdict to Judge Bruce E. Kyle regarding her toddler son's death.

The trial in 18-month-old Ezra O'Leary's Sept. 27, 2019, death began Wednesday.

The jury convicted O'Leary, 38, of Cape Coral, on six charges: first-degree murder; aggravated child abuse; aggravated manslaughter; child abuse; and two counts of child neglect. 

O'Leary faces sentencing at 1:30 p.m. July 25.

A group of friends who were in the courtroom walked out of the courtroom sobbing, wiping their tears.

Opening arguments:Trial begins for mom accused in toddler's death

Prosecutors reminded the jurors prior to deliberation that O'Leary had received counseling for an older child who "failed to thrive," and had to enroll in a series of parenting classes with her ex-husband.

Ezra's father, Ryan O'Leary, remains in Lee County Jail and faces a trial on the same charges. Sheila O'Leary's attorneys declined comment citing the second trial.

The O’Learys told police after Ezra’s death that the family followed a strict vegan diet, eating only raw fruits and vegetables, but that the toddler was also fed breast milk.

Closing arguments in Sheila O'Leary’s case began early Tuesday with jurors beginning deliberations shortly after noon.

“This child did not eat. He was starved to death over 18 months," said Francine Donnorummo, Special Victims Unit chief at the State Attorney's Office.

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Cape Coral vegan mom, Sheila O'Leary, was found guilty on all charges Tuesday, June 28, 2022. She will be sentenced on July 25, 2022, in the 2019 death of her child.

Assistant State Attorney Sara Miller co-prosecuted the case.

Among those who testified were Department of Children and Families staff; first responders; medical examiners; and local first responders; and O'Leary's ex-husband, Khang Chen.

Chen testified that he, O'Leary and their child Lilly had lived together at his mother's place in Virginia before the O'Learys moved to Southwest Florida.

Chen and Sheila O'Leary enrolled in parenting classes following a court order from Virginia's Child Protective Services.

“It was a class to educate new parents … or parents in general," Chen said. "How to raise a healthy child.”

Donnorummo used those parenting classes to support the state's point.

Closing arguments

She also used as evidence a series of Google searches O'Leary performed as the toddler's health began to decline.

Donnorummo said O'Leary failed to provide the infant with food and health care.

"This was a thought-out, planned course of action,” Donnorummo said.

She also emphasized O'Leary fed the children with only raw foods.

"She knew what she needed to do," Donnorummo said, adding that the toddler's condition was chronic.

The prosecutor again referenced the fact that O'Leary's oldest child, Lilly had been diagnosed with failure to thrive.

“Ignorance is not a defense in this case,” she said.

Cape Coral vegan mom, Sheila O'Leary, was found guilty on all charges Tuesday, June 28, 2022. She will be sentenced on July 25, 2022, in the 2019 death of her child.

She added that O'Leary told detectives Ezra hadn't eaten for a week and that he was having trouble sleeping the night prior to his death.

“She made choices that killed her child,” Donnorummo said.

She repeated that this took place over a prolonged period of time.

“Her pride cost Ezra his life," Donnorummo said. "It is a reckless disregard for human life."

Defense attorney Lee Hollander then addressed jurors.

He indicated the trial has been hard to follow and showed jurors a series of pictures of Sheila O'Leary from Lilly's phone.

“Does that look like a mom who wants to kill her kid?” Hollander asked. “Just because it happened doesn’t mean she committed a crime."

Hollander indicated there was no evidence of medical neglect, stating that the medical examiner concluded it was an accident after he conducted the autopsy and toxicology reports on Ezra.

“This is a tragically horrible situation,” he said.

After Hollander finished addressing jurors, Miller picked up the torch for the State Attorney's Office.

Miller said dying in one's sleep isn't a crime, but refusing to get medical care is.

“She chose to disregard Ezra's suffering," Miller said. "She chose to disregard his cries.”

“We’re here because their children were starving so much that the youngest starved to death,” Miller added as to why the state pursued O'Leary's case.

Cape Coral vegan mom, Sheila O'Leary, was found guilty on all charges Tuesday, June 28, 2022. She will be sentenced on July 25, 2022, in the 2019 death of her child.

Then, she discussed Ezra's physical appearance.

“She didn’t need a scale to see his bones," Miller said. "She didn’t need a scale to hear his cry.”

Ryan Patrick O'Leary, 33, was indicted on the same six charges.

Sheila O'Leary and Ryan O'Leary have remained in Lee County Jail since November 2019. 

Hollander declined comment and said he would answer questions after O'Leary is sentenced.

Tomas Rodriguez is a Breaking/Live News Reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. You can reach Tomas at or 772-333-5501. Follow him on Twitter @TomasFRoBeltran.