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Officials stay quiet on Varughese case

Geoffrey Ritter
Carbondale Times

CARBONDALE — The Jackson County state’s attorney is staying tight-lipped on what will happen in the case of an SIU student found dead under mysterious circumstances earlier this year, despite growing criticism from the victim’s family and their supporters.

Contacted Tuesday morning, State’s Attorney Mike Carr said he had no further information to share regarding the February death of 19-year-old Pravin Varughese, and he declined to give any timeline for how his office might handle the case.

“We have no comment on that,” Carr said.

Similarly, Interim Carbondale Police Chief Jeff Grubbs declined to comment on the case, citing its open status with the state’s attorney’s office and pending litigation against the city.

Authorities found the body of Varughese, an SIU sophomore from Morton Grove, the morning of Feb. 18 in a wooded area on Carbondale’s east side — five days after he was reported missing after having last been seen at a house party. The day he was found, then-Carbondale Police Chief Jody O’Guinn said foul play was not suspected in the incident and that Varughese likely died of hypothermia in the woods after running from a vehicle on Rt. 13.

Since then, however, a host of new questions have arisen, from the presence of an Illinois State Police trooper at the scene of the disappearance to a second autopsy commissioned by the family showing that blunt force trauma to the head likely played a role in the student’s death.

New calls for answers

Over the weekend, Morton Grove Mayor Dan DiMaria, representing Varughese’s hometown, played host to a Chicago-area press conference on behalf of the Varughese family. The event drew a handful of speakers, among them U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky.

Schakowsky stressed the need for justice.

“Pravin Varughese is not going to come back, but we can still have justice in this case, and we can still have answers in this case,” she told the crowd of supporters. “We still don’t have the answers that we need. This is shrouded in the kind of ambiguity and confusion that at this point in time is really torturous for the family, and it’s wrong. It’s time that we get answers.”

Varughese was reported as having last been seen around 11 p.m. Feb. 12 at a house party on West College Street in Carbondale. After the body eventually was found, O’Guinn said Varughese apparently made a new acquaintance at the party and accepted a ride from the person. However, a fight reportedly ensued between the two, and Varughese abruptly exited the vehicle and fled into a wooded area east of Buffalo Wild Wings. O’Guinn said the student, who wasn’t wearing a coat on an extremely cold night, was unable to find his way out of the woods. 

Later, however, it was revealed that an Illinois State Police trooper had an encounter with the driver of the vehicle, Gaege Bethune, just moments after Varughese fled into the woods. According to an ISP report filed about a week after Varughese’s body was found, the driver told the trooper he had picked up a pedestrian along Rt. 13, and that the pedestrian had punched him, attempted to rob him and then jumped from the vehicle.

The State Police incident report details a brief encounter initiated by an unidentified state trooper at 12:33 a.m. Feb. 14. The trooper says that on Rt. 13 just east of Giant City Road, he encountered a dark-colored pickup parked on the south shoulder with its hazard lights on. After stopping behind the truck, the trooper observed a male outside the truck on the passenger side. The trooper told the driver to get back into his vehicle.

“I approached the driver and asked if everything was OK,” the trooper wrote in the incident report. “The driver stated he was OK and I asked for identification. The driver handed me his Illinois driver’s license which identified him as Gaege Bethune.

“Bethune stated he was headed home when he observed a black male walking eastbound on Route 13. Bethune asked if the pedestrian needed a ride and he said yes. When the pedestrian got in the truck Bethune stated he showed the pedestrian his wallet with some cash in it and stated ‘I can take you anywhere however, I need some money for gas.’ Bethune stated the passenger punched him in the face, jumped out of the truck and ran south into the woods. Bethune stated he ran after the pedestrian but was not able to locate him.”

The trooper reported then checking the wood line but not seeing anyone. 

Carbondale Police received a missing-person report about Varughese later that morning. The driver reportedly identified himself to police four days later. Police found Varughese’s deceased body in the woods soon afterward.

Ambiguous from the start

Although local authorities cited hypothermia as the preliminary cause of death, the Varughese family obtained an independent autopsy from Ben Margolis of the Autopsy Center of Chicago. That second examination cited bruising on Varughese’s head and forearm that Margolis concluded was the result of blunt force trauma. 

As the Varughese family independently gathered information, however, they reported that their relationships with local officials frayed even further. Varughese’s mother, Lovely, said that during a conversation with State’s Attorney Carr earlier this year, the prosecutor told her he had “embarrassing” evidence that showed her son was dealing drugs at the time of his death.

Even if that were true, Lovely Varughese said Saturday, it should not preclude the search for real answers about how her son died.

“Does that make it OK for my son to have injuries and die, and we have no right to find out what happened to my son?” Lovely Varughese asked at Saturday’s press conference. “They made a monster out of him, and we have to clear his name.”

Lawyer attacks Carr

This fall, the Varughese family filed a five-count civil lawsuit alleging wrongful death against Bethune, the last person to see Varughese alive, and negligence on the part of Carbondale’s former police chief — O’Guinn was fired in late August, although the city manager said it was unrelated to the death of Varughese — and the city of Carbondale.

The lawsuit accuses the driver, Bethune, of contributing to Varughese’s death by allegedly hitting him in the head with a blunt force instrument. The rest of the lawsuit centers squarely on O’Guinn, accusing him of failing to secure a crime scene or take any other action during the days Varughese was missing. 

The final two counts of the lawsuit focus on the city of Carbondale, which the Varughese family contends is liable for the actions of O’Guinn. Belleville attorney James C. Cook, representing the city of Carbondale, argued in a response filed last month that the city and its police department bear no specific liability for the student’s death in February.

Forming the crux of Cook’s argument is the notion that the city’s police have “public-official immunity” from liability for making judgments on how to best serve the public need.

The lawsuit is scheduled for a review in court next week, but the suit still hasn’t been served to Bethune — a fact his father, Don Bethune, says is mystifying. Don Bethune said this week that no one has contacted his son or family and that despite some rumors to the contrary, Gaege Bethune remains within the state right now.

The Varughese family’s attorney, Charles Stegmeyer, was pointed in his criticism at the press conference, even suggesting that State’s Attorney Carr resign if he doesn’t want to convene a grand jury or ask for a special prosecutor.

“We have been stonewalled by the city of Carbondale, the state’s attorney and, as far as I’m concerned, the state’s attorney’s office and any of their investigators,” Stegmeyer said. “They are in my opinion using the Freedom of Information Act as a way of blocking important information.

“He represents the people of Jackson County, not just a segment of Jackson County.”

Durbin urges action on student loan debt

Geoffrey Ritter
Weekend Times

CARBONDALE — Shantel Franklin says that despite a college education at SIU, she’s unsure what will happen next.

“It concerns me what I’m going to do next, because I don’t really know how these loans are going to affect me in the future,” Franklin, an SIU junior, said last week.

Franklin spoke during a roundtable on student debt hosted by Sen. Dick Durbin, who visited the Carbondale campus to urge support for a bill that would improve the terms under which many college graduates repay their student loan debts.

Durbin, the Senate assistant minority leader who faces a reelection campaign this fall against Republican challenger Jim Oberweis, said during the roundtable that about 1.7 million Illinoisans have a combined $47 billion in student debt. Overall, the nation has accumulated $1.2 trillion in total student loan debt.

“A college education is still a ticket to a better life, but it’s one that we’ve got to step back and look at as a nation,” Durbin said. “The total amount of student debt today exceeds the total amount of credit debt in America. It is second only to home mortgages in terms of the size of the debt.”

Durbin is cosponsor of a bill with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren that he says would help debt-addled college graduates get a better handle on their obligations. The Bank on Student Emergency Loan Refinancing Act would allow students in good standing on their debts to refinance them at an interest rate under 4 percent.

Last month, Senate Republicans blocked the bill, calling it an election-season ploy by Democrats. They also criticized the funding for the measure, which would require an income tax increase on wealthy earners.

Durbin also used his stop at SIU to criticize for-profit universities, which he said are failing students academically and saddling them with crippling debt. Durbin said that while for-profit institutions cater to about 10 percent of students in higher education, they are responsible for around 20 percent of total federal financial aid. In the end, 46 percent of all loans to their students end in default.

“It is an outrage,” Durbin said. “The students are deep in debt, not likely to finish school, and have worthless diplomas when they graduate.”

Durbin urged students to contact legislators via social media to urge movement on the bill.