Final report expected in Varughese case

Submitted by Carbondale Times on

Geoffrey Ritter
Carbondale Times

Two years later, closure remains elusive in the case of an SIU student found dead under mysterious circumstances, although the special prosecutor reviewing the case says his office plans to issue its report soon.

Pravin Varughese, a 19-year-old SIU student at the time, was reported as having last been seen the night of Feb. 12, 2014, at a house party on West College Street in Carbondale, where he apparently hitched a ride with a new acquaintance, Gaege Bethune. However, a fight reportedly ensued between the two, although the details of what exactly happened remain uncertain. Authorities found Varughese’s body five days later in a wooded area after an extensive search. 

The State’s Attorney’s Appellate Prosecutor’s office has been reviewing the case since early last year, when Jackson County State’s Attorney Mike Carr announced that a grand jury had declined to file any criminal charges in the case. Carr’s announcement drew heated criticism from family and friends of Varughese.

Patrick Delfino, director of the office reviewing the case, said Tuesday that his office is close to finishing its review, after which it will forward the results to the presiding judge. Delfino declined to comment on the case in any great detail.

“We’re still working on it and getting closer to completing our review,” Delfino said. “We will have covered every base. It’s taking us a lot longer than we thought.”

Varughese was reported as having last been seen around 11 p.m. that evening when he hitched a ride with Bethune, whom he had just met.

“During the ride Varughese was using his phone,” Carr said in his report issued last year. “When asked which way to turn, Varughese just pointed or told Bethune to turn without explaining where they were going. After several minutes of driving in a town which Bethune claimed he was not familiar, and being almost out of gas, Bethune told Varughese that he was going to let him out, and that Varughese just ignored him. Bethune explained that Varughese would not get out of his truck and was for the most part just ignoring him during the ride, other than to provide an occasional instruction about where to turn. When Bethune turned on to Illinois Route 13, he told Varughese that he could get out at the gas station down the road. Bethune said that Varughese became enraged and swung and hit him.”

A fight apparently ensued, with Bethune stopping the truck and rolling down an adjacent hill with Varughese as they struggled outside of the truck, authorities say. When an Illinois State Police trooper came on the scene because of the hazard lights on Bethune’s truck, Varughese fled into the woods, according to Carr’s account. The trooper did not immediately file a report on the encounter.

After Varughese’s body was found, forensic pathologist James Jacobi conducted an autopsy that concluded Varughese died of hypothermia — a conclusion that was contested months later when Varughese’s family announced the results of a second autopsy conducted by Ben Margolis of the Autopsy Center of Chicago. That autopsy cited bruising on Varughese’s head and forearm that Margolis concluded were the results of blunt force trauma.

That document never made it to the grand jury, but Carr addressed Jacobi’s original findings and said two renowned pathologists reviewed Jacobi’s work and came to the same conclusion about hypothermia.

“The scratches, cuts and minor injuries to Varughese’s upper torso area are consistent with the explanation Bethune gave to police about Varughese jumping up and running into the woods in a T-shirt,” Carr said. “Bethune had no similar cuts or scratches to his face, neck, head or hands. The presence of numerous cuts and scratches all over Varughese’s upper torso and arms are consistent with injuries one would have received after having run through this densely wooded area in only jeans and a thin T-shirt.”

The Varughese family pursued a civil lawsuit against Bethune, the city of Carbondale, former police chief Jody O’Guinn and Jackson County Coroner Thomas Kupferer. Late last summer, the family dismissed all parts of the suit not dealing directly with Bethune — something Varughese’s mother, Lovely Varughese, said was aimed at allowing for more records about her son’s death to be released.

Another family whose child was found dead also has made allegations that important evidence was excluded or ignored during the course of legal proceedings. Molly Young was found dead in March 2012 in the apartment of a then-Carbondale Police Department dispatcher, and her father has claimed over the past four years that investigators have slanted some pieces of evidence in order to say Young shot herself in the head. 

At the same time, Young’s father, Larry Young, has alleged that prosecutors entirely ignored other pieces of evidence that cast suspicion on the former dispatcher, Richie Minton. In 2014, Delfino’s office completed a review of that case that largely supported Carr’s decision not to prosecute.

Varughese’s family has planned a memorial service for this Sunday at a Chicago-area church. They also plan to visit the site where his body was found along with Carbondale Police this Saturday afternoon.