Crime & Courts

Wichita grandfather tried to save 2-year-old, pleads for end to child abuse 'plague'

End child abuse ‘plague,’ Wichita grandfather pleads

Zak Woolheater — speaking personally Tuesday about what he sees as a Wichita-area child abuse crisis — recalled noticing bruises and marks on his grandson Tony’s head and body in October. Woolheater tried to save his 2-year-old grandson from abuse.
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Zak Woolheater — speaking personally Tuesday about what he sees as a Wichita-area child abuse crisis — recalled noticing bruises and marks on his grandson Tony’s head and body in October. Woolheater tried to save his 2-year-old grandson from abuse.

Zak Woolheater — speaking personally Tuesday about what he sees as a Wichita-area child abuse crisis — recalled noticing bruises and marks on his grandson Tony’s head and body in October.

So the maternal grandparents took 2-year-old Tony Bunn to Wesley Medical Center and reported that they suspected child abuse, Woolheater told reporters at a news conference in downtown Wichita.

Two-year-old Tony Bunn talks about being hungry in a family video provided by his grandfather Zak Woolheater. Woolheater tried to save his grandson after seeing bruises on his body in October. The boy died over the weekend of blunt force trauma.

Tony, who would have turned 3 this summer, was given back to his mother and her boyfriend after the grandparents had custody of him for 12 days in October, Woolheater said.

“I believe that he should have remained with us.” The grandparents hadn’t been able to see Tony since October.

Now Tony is dead.

Woolheater said his grandson was the victim of blunt force trauma, "which stopped his heart sometime early Friday morning." Police discovered the injuries this past Friday when they went to the home where Tony was living with his mother and her boyfriend in the 800 block of North Woodrow. The 2-year-old’s mother, Elizabeth Woolheater, 22, and her boyfriend, Lucas Diel, 25, are in jail on suspicion of first-degree murder and child endangerment.

Police and the state child protection agency investigated reports of abuse in October.

On Tuesday, District Attorney Marc Bennett said charges against Elizabeth Woolheater and Diel will be announced Wednesday afternoon.

Also Tuesday, Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said there are “concerning trends in the Wichita Region we needed to address."

"Quite simply," she said in a written statement, "if we aren’t fulfilling our mission to serve the children and families of Kansas to the best of our abilities, then critical changes are needed. Therefore, effective today, DCF will be making a number of personnel changes."

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At the news conference Tuesday, the grandfather’s voice caught, and his eyes welled with tears as he spoke of the family’s loss.

First, he wanted the world to see who Tony was.

So he held out his cellphone and played a video of Tony smiling and toddler-talking about “mac and cheese.” Next to him, a relative held a stuffed toy monkey with a goofy face. A nurse gave them the monkey, to be laid down with Tony.

The pain is overwhelming, Woolheater said.

He looked into the cameras and asked everyone to “Stop this plague.” He referred to the deaths or disappearance of other Wichita-area children. “Please join me in stopping this epidemic.” His hand shook as he held and read from a piece of paper.

He shifted back to his grandson, calling him the “most amazing kid you’ll ever see. … Never a sad or dull moment with him."

Through organ donation, Tony’s heart is going to a 3-month-old, and his pancreas, stomach and intestine to a 3-year-old.

Woolheater came back to the crisis. “This needs to stop.” He pleaded for everyone to speak up if they see or suspect child abuse.

Shayla Johnston, an attorney representing the grandparents, then spoke to reporters, referring to the “crisis of child abuse deaths,” saying that every 26 days since Feb. 15 there has been a child abuse tragedy in the Wichita area.

“All we know is the system is broken,” partly because of miscommunication between child protection agencies, Johnston said.

“There seems to be too many chefs in the kitchen.”

When abuse occurs, she said, people need not to rely on the state Department for Children and Families. Instead, she said, people should report their concerns directly to police and then follow up with prosecutors at the District Attorney’s Office.

“We’re not really focused on fault right now,” she said, speaking on behalf of Tony's grandparents.

The state agency has a high burden of proof for its child abuse investigations, she said. “That’s not an excuse to let a crisis like this occur.

“If you want action, go to the Wichita Police Department.”

Woolheater, the grandfather, said that a car and bike wash and "awareness ride" will be held beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday at the AutoZone at 425 N. West. The rides will end with live music and a silent auction. Donations will be used to cover funeral and other expenses, he said.

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