Police awaiting autopsy results as community mourns KU student Villagomez-Saldana

Gianfranco Villagomez-Saldana

Submitted photo of Gianfranco Villagomez-Saldana.

Many people saw Gianfranco Villagomez-Saldana leave a party near Ninth and Michigan streets early Saturday morning, walking alone out into the cold, but no one yet knows what led to his death a few blocks away, according to Sgt. Trent McKinley, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman.

As the Kansas University community mourned the death of Villagomez-Saldana, a 23-year-old student from Peru, police said they were awaiting autopsy results later this week to learn the cause of death. They do not at this point suspect foul play, McKinley said.

McKinley said that Villagomez-Saldana was with a group of fellow international students who gathered at a home at Ninth and Michigan after having dinner at a local restaurant. Police have talked to many of the 30 or so people thought to have attended the party. They’ve received conflicting reports about whether Villagomez-Saldana was seen drinking.

“We don’t know at this point in time if he was intoxicated,” McKinley said, “or if he was aware of his surroundings or not. He had been in town for years.”

Nor do police know why he left the party alone, McKinley said.

A nearby homeowner, who declined to be interviewed, found the man’s body on Monday afternoon behind her house in the 800 block of Avalon Road, a dead end street at the west edge of the Village Square apartment complex.

The house backs up to a steeply sloped wooded area that connects to backyards of homes on the next street uphill, Broadview Drive. With no alleyway or sidewalk, the only way to access the area would be through yards.

When Villagomez-Saldana was first reported missing Saturday evening by his girlfriend, Donna Jo Harkrider, he was described as last seen wearing a blue shirt with a KU Jayhawk logo on it, a long sleeve gray shirt, a black jacket, jeans and white tennis shoes. Early Saturday morning, when Villagomez-Saldana was last seen, the temperature had dipped to 3 degrees with a wind chill of 10 degrees below zero, according to the National Weather Service office in Topeka. Temperatures remained frigid until his body was discovered, with highs of 24 degrees Saturday, 26 degrees Sunday and 19 degrees Monday.

But despite the conditions, given the short distance between the party and where Villagomez-Saldana was reportedly heading – his girlfriend’s apartment at 11th and Mississippi streets — McKinley said clothing alone shouldn’t have been cause for concern.

McKinley called the investigation atypical of cases where no foul play was suspected.

“We brought in a lot of personnel on this based on the amount of information we received Saturday night,” McKinley said.

Off-duty officers were called in Sunday and surveillance footage from nearby businesses was reviewed. Meanwhile, a search party convened on Sunday and Monday before the Avalon Road homeowner found Villagomez-Saldana’s body.

Kansas University officials released statements mourning the student’s death.

“On behalf of the entire University of Kansas community, I offer my condolences to the family and friends of Gianfranco Villagomez-Saldana,” said Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. “His loved ones who searched long hours over these past frigid days for a sign of hope also are grieving now, and my thoughts are with them as well.”

Michael Branicky, dean of the School of Engineering, said: “The School of Engineering family is deeply saddened by news of the passing of one of our students. Gianfranco was a kind and beloved student with a keen intellect and a promising future. He was an active member of the Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers. We ask the School of Engineering community to come together to support one another at this difficult time. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his friends and family for their loss.”

Andrea Herstowski, associate professor and interim chair of the department of design, said: “This news is heartbreaking. Gianfranco was a lovely young man with a bright smile and a warm heart. Our thoughts and sympathy go out to all who knew and loved him. He was a gifted young man who was generous with his time and talents, and he will be missed.”

Since September 2012, Villagomez-Saldana had worked in the KU Libraries’ International Area Studies as a student assistant for the Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American and Caribbean area, the university said.

“Gianfranco brought a broad range of skills and talents to his work,” said Lorraine J. Haricombe, dean of libraries. “He was creative, detail-oriented and dedicated to his studies. Our library colleagues will most remember Gianfranco for his outgoing and friendly personality. His charisma and enthusiasm were contagious, and we will miss his presence terribly here in Watson Library. Our hearts to go out to Gianfranco’s family and close friends at this time of immense loss.”