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City, former chief ask for dismissal of lawsuit

Geoffrey Ritter
Weekend Times

MURPHYSBORO — Two of the three parties named as defendants in a $5 million lawsuit alleging wrongful death in this year’s unsolved disappearance and demise of SIU student Pravin Varughese filed responses this week asking that the case be dismissed.

Belleville attorney James C. Cook, representing the city of Carbondale and its former chief of police, Jody O’Guinn, argued in responses filed this week 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.

“Chief O’Guinn has immunity from liability for his exercise of discretion in assessing a missing person’s report, how to respond, or even if one should respond,” says Cook’s response filed Sept. 9. “… The duty of care owed by police officers, a municipal police chief or police department is owed to the public at large, not to any specific member of the community or to plaintiff’s decedent in this case. This principal is commonly referred to as ‘the public duty rule.’”

In the initial lawsuit filed last month, Lovely Varughese, the mother of Varughese, alleges her son was attacked and left for dead in February. Then, she says, O’Guinn failed to properly investigate the incident.

Authorities found the body of Varughese, an SIU sophomore from Morton Grove, the morning of Feb. 18 in 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, 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. Reportedly, a fight had ensued between Varughese and the vehicle’s driver, Gaege Bethune, just moments before Varughese fled.

The lawsuit accuses Bethune of contributing to Varughese’s death by allegedly hitting him in the head with a blunt force instrument — an assertion that stems from an independent autopsy commissioned by the family that, unlike the first autopsy, concluded such trauma had contributed to the student’s death. 

Reports from other media last week asserted, based on interviews with Lovely Varughese’s attorney, Charles Stegmeyer, that Bethune has not yet been served with his portion of the lawsuit because he is on the run, possibly even in Arkansas.

Bethune’s father, Don Bethune, told the Times Friday that is absolutely not the case.

“No one has even talked to me, his mother, brothers, aunts, uncles or friends,” Don Bethune said. “He has never left … and we have no family in Arkansas and no one has tried to contact the family for sure. He has no reason (to flee).”

City Manager Kevin Baity terminated O’Guinn late last month, although he said his reason had no connection with the Varughese case or any others that have stoked controversy in Carbondale. O’Guinn has contested that. A court review of the Varughese lawsuit has been scheduled for early next year. 

Sarvela gives State of the University

Geoffrey Ritter
Carbondale Times

CARBONDALE — While flat enrollment numbers gave the SIU campus some much-needed positive news last week, Interim Chancellor Paul Sarvela says myriad challenges remain — many of them, as usual, revolving around the university’s long-term financial situation.

In his first State of the University Address Tuesday, Sarvela said that while SIU officials are pleased with a generally flat state appropriation of $103.9 million for fiscal year 2015, possible mid-year cuts due to the pending expiration of the state income tax increase could lead to some “tough sledding” mid-year.

Also contributing to a current total budget shortfall of $6.7 million is $3 million in decreased tuition revenue compared with last year — the result of strategic tuition waivers. Overall, the university’s budget, excluding the School of Medicine, stands at about $430 million, and Sarvela says university officials already are working on ways to plug the gaps.

“For context, this compares with nearly 7 percent in cuts we made in the 2010 fiscal year, during the depths of the recession,” Sarvela said of the budget shortfall that currently needs filled. “It is doable, and we have already started working on them.

“Generally, our goal will be to make cuts through administrative reductions as much as possible in order to limit reductions to academic units.”

Sarvela added that following the termination of the university’s marketing contract with Lipman Hearne earlier this year, efforts have been made to move many elements of the university’s promotion in-house, resulting in savings in the millions of dollars. He also said student workers will be allowed to exceed the maximum 20 hours per week of work time during breaks and the summer and that the university would continue looking at ways of improving administrative efficiency.

On other fronts, Sarvela focused heavily on the university’s obligations to students and in developing a strong faculty. He said that while many faculty positions have been lost due to retirements, SIU recently has filled 34 tenured or tenure-track positions and has approved another 41 for next year. 

Sarvela also revisited this fall’s enrollment numbers — up 25 from 2013, the first increase in a decade — and said the university has plenty to do in order to “continue our momentum.”

“While we don’t yet have our fall-to-fall freshman to sophomore retention numbers finalized, we had an early signal that we were making progress when we saw improved fall-to-spring data earlier this year,” Sarvela said.

He called recruitment and retention “a shared responsibility of every faculty and staff member” and said that the university will conduct a national search for a new director of admissions. In the meantime, retired Dr. Harold Bardo will return part-time to help advise that office’s staff.