Pittsburg student takento hospital hours after fight, died later

By Jeff Wells

Globe Staff Writer

PITTSBURG, Kan. - Police are releasing little information regarding the death of a Pittsburg State University student, but they do concede that friends removed him from the scene of a fight in which he was injured.

They also say that several hours lapsed between the fight and his arrival at the local hospital, which is across the street from the fight scene.

Zachary M. Willis, 19, a 2003 honors graduate of Pittsburg High School and a former three-sport athlete, died Sunday after being injured directly or indirectly in a fight early Sunday outside a convenience store.

Pittsburg police are continuing to conduct interviews and will not complete their investigation "for some time," police Chief Mike Hall said Wednesday. He said investigators have questioned 15 people, but he declined to say how many may have been eyewitnesses.

"We've been quite busy," Hall said.

"We are going in different directions, but we are very focused on this investigation. It is a tragedy for our community."

The fight, which reportedly involved a Pittsburg High School student who is a juvenile, took place about 12:30 a.m. Sunday on the parking lot at Gorilla X-Press, 2401 S. Rouse St. The store and two other nearby businesses were closed at the time. Hall said he would not comment on whether a surveillance videotape of the fight exists.

Hall said friends removed Willis from the scene after the fight, but he declined to discuss what took place next.

Willis later was taken by ambulance from his home at 405 W. Quincy St. to Mount Carmel Regional Medical Center in Pittsburg, then was taken by helicopter to St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., where he died. Hall said several hours passed from the time of the fight until the time Willis was taken to the Pittsburg hospital.

The hospital is across the street from the convenience store. The West Quincy Street address is more than two miles from the hospital.

Willis' body was taken to the state medical examiner's office in Topeka, and an autopsy was conducted. Police have not learned the results of the autopsy, Hall said.

The police chief declined to say whether investigators have determined whether alcohol was involved, but "that is part of the focus of this investigation," he said.

Crawford County Coroner Adam Paoni did not return two phone messages Wednesday.

Hall said no one has been taken into custody related to the incident. He said police will not recommend any charges to Crawford County Attorney John Gutierrez when they turn the case over to his office.

"I think in a case like this," Hall said, "it is important to have a fresh set of eyes look at what you have gathered."

Gutierrez was not available Wednesday afternoon. The court clerk's office said no charges have been filed in connection with the incident.

Meanwhile, Pittsburg school officials are helping students cope with the loss of the former student and allegations that one of their classmates might have been involved. "It is a difficult tragedy for everyone to work through," Superintendent Gary Price said Wednesday.

The student who reportedly was involved in the fight with Willis is a sophomore who plays on the high school's football team. Price said several teachers and counselors have visited with the student to offer counseling and to keep him updated on his schoolwork.

Price said that hypothetically, a student's involvement in an off-campus incident would not lead to school discipline, but it might affect his eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities. "Kids that are in activities have standards that they are to follow 24-7, like alcohol, drugs and things like that," Price said.

Willis' funeral will be at 10 a.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church, 415 N. Pine St. Price said high school students with notes from their parents will be excused to attend the funeral.

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