After nearly three and a half years of waiting, the family of a 19-year-old Southern Illinois University student found dead in the woods near Buffalo Wild Wings in Carbondale, breathed a sigh of relief as an Eldorado man was indicted by a Grand Jury on Thursday.
Gaege Bethune, 22, was indicted on two counts of felony murder in the death investigation of Pravin Varughese, 19, of Morton Grove, according to the State's Attorneys Appellate Prospector's office in Springfield.
Bethune turned himself into Jackson County authorities Thursday night, according to his attorney, former Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Wepsiec. His bond was set at $1 million. On Friday morning, Bethune posted $100,000 and was released from custody.
The appellate office released a statement Thursday saying it was tasked with determining whether sufficient evidence existed to seek an indictment, specifically, "the potential offense of homicide." The appellate office received the case in March 2015 after a Jackson County grand jury returned a no-true bill against Bethune for criminal charges in February 2015. At the time, Jackson County State's Attorney Michael Carr said from his perspective, the criminal investigation was over. He then released his findings from his investigation into the case. Afterward, he stepped down from the case and turned it over to the special prosecutor.
There have been questions about Varughese’s death since he went missing the night of Feb. 12-13, 2014. He was found five days later in a wooded area off the 1400 block of East Main Street.
Police reported he got a ride on Feb. 12 from Bethune. The two got in a fight, and Varughese got out of the vehicle and ran into the woods where he was later found, police said.
Varughese’s February 2014 autopsy revealed no signs of foul play and said hypothermia was the preliminary cause of death, according to Jackson County Coroner Dr. Thomas Kupferer.
Lovely Varughese, the mother of Pravin Varughese, said the news of the indictment did give her some relief.
"We just waited for that day," she said. "It was like a relief knowing Pravin's name is cleared."
Since Pravin's death, Lovely and the Varughese family has fought for answers, but due to the fact it was considered an open investigation by authorities, such information was able to be released. In May, appellate court granted the city of Carbondale permission to release police records pertained to Varughese's death.
Lovely said she wasn't going to stop pursuing criminal action against her son, as she had maintained throughout the investigation her son was physically harmed, leading to this death.
"I didn't know how I was going to get it done," Lovely said.
Lovely said she has been dreaming of the day she would meet Bethune face-to-face. She knows she won't get to speak to him, but she will be in Carbondale Tuesday for Bethune's arraignment at 1:30 p.m. in Jackson County Circuit Court.
Wepsiec released a statement Friday saying he will represent Bethune, and that Bethune did not murder Pravin or perform any acts causing his death. Also, he said Bethune did not rob or attempt to rob Pravin. Wepsiec said Bethune and his family intend to fight the charges to the “bitter end” in court.
“My deepest sympathies go out the Varughese family,” he said in a news release. “However, one cannot judge a case by sympathy or emotions; one has to look at the evidence in this case. And, the evidence clearly shows that Gaege did not murder Pravin.
“Gaege is innocent. By law, Gaege is presumed innocent. Under the facts and circumstances, Gaege is innocent. After a trail in this case, the world will see that Gaege is innocent and did not kill Pravin.”
Also in February 2014, it was learned that a state trooper actually came in contact with Bethune shortly after the altercation took place on Feb. 13 at about 12:10 a.m.
The trooper’s report said he spoke to Bethune and was told the driver picked up a pedestrian on Illinois 13. Bethune then told the trooper he asked Varughese for gas money, then he was hit in the face, at which time Varughese got out of the car and ran into the woods.
According to the same report, the trooper searched the tree line on Illinois 13 and asked Bethune if he needed any more assistance. When Bethune declined, the trooper and Bethune left the scene. The trooper’s dash cam showed the two speaking and leaving the scene.
Two months later, the Varughese family had a second autopsy completed, Dr. Ben Margolis of the Autopsy Center of Chicago, which found different results from Jackson County’s. Margolis’ report showed blunt force trauma to the head was the underlying cause of death for Varughese.
In August 2014, the Varughese family – desperate to find answers – took legal action. The family filed a five-count, $5 million wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against Bethune, the city of Carbondale, and then-Carbondale Police Chief Jody O’Guinn. Kupferer was later added to this lawsuit, but was later dismissed by the family, along with the city and O’Guinn.
Lovely said the support from the Southern Illinois community has been shocking, and she can't thank the people of this region enough for their kind words.
"I never knew Southern Illinois before Pravin went to college. But the love and support we have received since Pravin was gone, it was unbelievable," she said. "The support from Southern Illinois is so special to us."
Wepsiec called Varughese’s death a tragedy, and the shock and sorrow of losing a child is unfathomable.
"Much has been posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media by persons who think they know what happened. Almost all of these posts have been based upon speculation, rumor, gossip and other insidious innuendo,” Wepsiec wrote in a news release. “Many of these posts find their origin in the public pronouncements of a self-styled activist who has befriended the Varughese family. Instead of providing sincere comfort and sympathy, this self-appointed advocate has fanned the embers of the Varughese family's grief with her wild accusations.”