Crime & Courts

Wichitans say goodbye to the third child abuse victim in four weeks

Pallbearers carry the casket of 2-year-old Anthony "Tony" Bunn out of St. Joseph Catholic Church after his funeral May 17.  He would have turned 3 on July 23.
Pallbearers carry the casket of 2-year-old Anthony "Tony" Bunn out of St. Joseph Catholic Church after his funeral May 17. He would have turned 3 on July 23.

Past the long row of Bikers Against Child Abuse motorcycles, past a black hearse and beyond a stained-glass window proclaiming “Saint Joseph Church, 1916,” Tony’s body was there. Just inside the church door. Just to the right.

It was an open casket for 2-year-old Anthony “Tony” Bunn of Wichita, rushed by ambulance to a hospital on May 4 after he stopped breathing. Police said he had suffered severe head injuries.

Thursday was the funeral Mass for Tony — the latest victim of the worst kind of child abuse and the third child in the Wichita area to die from abuse in just four weeks.

For those who came, the service was to honor Tony's short life and welcome his eternal spiritual life.

“He was such a pretty baby,” a woman said, as people paused one by one and in pairs to view his body before the Mass began.

And then a boy, maybe 4 — dressed in a blue shirt, striped tie and shorts — walked without hesitation and alone right up to the coffin.

He gazed into the immaculate casket.

Practical and symbolic items had been carefully set around Tony’s body: a red-and-gold action-figure with fierce eyes, a Mickey Mouse button, a Jesus picture card, a Jesus figure on the cross and a white pocket-sized Bible. Tony’s body had been dressed like a biker, in a little black biker’s vest, red head scarf or cap.

The boy peering in reached in.

With the palm of his hand, he gently touched the back of Tony’s head.

Minutes later, Tony’s maternal grandparents, Zak and Nancy Woolheater, bent their faces down over the casket.

They got close enough to kiss his face.

As the Rev. Pat York addressed the people in the pews, he quickly acknowledged the pain and senselessness.

York told the mourners that as he tried to process this 2-year-old’s death, he couldn’t help think to himself: “What the hell! … It doesn’t make any sense. … Life just sucks!”

The parish priest said it in a loud and pained voice.

Tony’s death is among several child abuse homicides and a disappearance in which a child is feared dead, all within the past year in the Wichita area. Among the other child victims: Evan Brewer, age 3; Lucas Hernandez, age 5; Jesslinn Hulett, age 7 months; and Jazz Gwyn, age 6 months. Tony would have been 3 on July 23.

Last week, Zak Woolheater told reporters that his grandson’s death is part of a child abuse crisis. It must stop, he said.

Tony’s mother, Elizabeth Woolheater, and her boyfriend, Lucas Diel, weren’t at his funeral because they are in jail, charged with murdering him.

On Thursday, under an arched ceiling and two rows of chandeliers, in front of 20 lit candles, the pastor continued. “Bad things happen … to sweet people,” York said. “No words can make sense.”

Still, he added, “God’s divine love … is more powerful than this very sad situation.”

And if people stand by what is right and good, he said, “maybe we can prevent this from happening to another innocent child.”

Why evil happens and the “what-ifs” can’t can’t be answered, he said.

Even if there were answers, he said, it wouldn’t end the sorrow.

As for Tony, he said, “Where the little man is … where Tony is now … he’s living in God’s embrace.”

Through the service, Zak Woolheater clutched the same stuffed monkey that a nurse put with Tony after he had been brought, near death, to the hospital. It was the same stuffed monkey that the grandfather held last week when he stood in front of reporters.

At one point in the Mass, the priest asked those in the pews to turn to someone near them, to wish each other well. Strangers smiled and shook hands.

It was part of the mix of the real and the spiritual.

The priest ended the funeral Mass with another prayer. In front of the boy who had gently and briefly touched Tony with his palm, the priest asked that God “hold you up in the palm of his hand.”