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Mother of SIU student found dead 3 years ago: ‘I feel like I’m walking forward, not back’

Pravin Varughese's older sister Priya, his mother Lovely, and his father Mathew kneel during a memorial ceremony on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2017, in the woods bordering Illinois Route 13, where police say he died of hypothermia about three years ago. (Luke Nozicka | @lukenozicka)

Pravin Varughese's older sister Priya, his mother Lovely, and his father Mathew kneel during a memorial ceremony on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2017, in the woods bordering Illinois Route 13, where police say he died of hypothermia about three years ago. (Luke Nozicka | @lukenozicka)

By Olivia Spiers

Lovely Varughese crossed over thickets and climbed barbed wire fences Saturday alongside her mournful husband and daughters to kneel at the place where police say her son froze to death three years ago.

Pravin Varughese was a 19-year-old criminal justice student at SIUC when he was found dead in a wooded area on the east part of Carbondale. The case has been mired in controversy the last three years as the Varughese family sought answers to questions they had about the details of his disappearance.

“Walking through the woods this year is so different,” Lovely said. “I feel like I’m walking forward, not back.”

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Lovely Varughese said the special prosecutor in the case has provided new evidence that suggests suspicions about her son’s death are warranted.

Monica Zukas, former podcast host of Reality Check and close friend of the Varughese family, said coming back to the site was “bittersweet” for her this year.

“It’s nice to see someone is handling this case like the porcelain egg it is,” Zukas said.

At the place where the body was discovered, Rev. Liju Paul led a memorial where about 50 family members and friends gathered to sing some of Pravin Varughese’s favorite hymns followed by a prayer for the family members to remain hopeful during the ongoing investigation.

Pravin Varughese's mother Lovely folds her hands Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, during a memorial ceremony in the woods bordering Illinois Route 13, where police say her son died of hypothermia about three years ago. (Luke Nozicka | @lukenozicka)

In February 2014, the college student was found dead in a wooded area beside Illinois Route 13 after he had been reported missing for five days. The Jackson County coroner ruled Pravin Varughese’s death an accident caused by hypothermia following an investigation by Carbondale Police Department.

Investigating officers learned that Pravin Varughese accepted a ride home with a man named Gaege Bethune after leaving a party in the 400 block of West College Street. Bethune later told police he was attempting to drive an intoxicated Pravin Varughese home when a fight broke out between them.

Bethune told police he hit Varughese multiple times in self-defense before police arrived and he fled into the woods where he was found dead five days later, according to court records and police reports. 

The family commissioned a second autopsy, which was performed by Dr. Ben Margolis of the Autopsy Center of Chicago. Margolis concluded that dark-colored areas around Pravin Varughese’s forehead initially classified as post-mortem discoloration were actually deep bruises, and determined blunt-force trauma was an underlying cause of death.

In July 2016, Pravin Varughese’s case went to the special prosecutor after the Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Carr filed a motion in circuit court to excuse himself from the case.

Carr told the judge he would recuse himself in part because of “an intense national media campaign” to prosecute Bethune, the last person to see Pravin Varughese alive. 

A mourner holds a photograph of Pravin Varughese on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, during a memorial ceremony in the woods bordering Illinois Route 13, where police say the SIU student died of hypothermia about three years ago. (Luke Nozicka | @lukenozicka)

After the memorial, the family and friends went to SIU’s engineering building to award the Pravin Action Committee’s scholarship.  Sheila Simon, former lieutenant governor and law professor, presented the scholarship to Keshawn Lacy, a sophomore at John A. Logan Community College studying criminal justice.

“It’s really inspiring to see the family turn their tragedy into something like this,” Simon said. “It’s tear-jerking.”

Lovely Varughese held back tears as she read to Lacy a card that she gave her son on his first day of college. Lacy said she hopes to work for the FBI someday, just as Pravin aspired to do.

“I wish all the success for you that Pravin wanted,” Lovely Varughese said. “He had big dreams, and I see that in you, too.”

Lovely Varughese said making the trip back to Carbondale is difficult, but she will continue to come back every year to keep her son’s story alive.

“I feel him when I’m here,” she said. “A piece of my heart will always be here.”

Staff writer Olivia Spiers can be reached at [email protected], 618-536-3325 or on Twitter @_spierso.

To stay up to date with all your SIU news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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