Lovely Varughese has never seen the autopsy photographs of her 19-year-old son, Pravin Varughese, who police say froze to death in a wooded area on the edge of town more than two years ago.
But on Tuesday night, she traveled from her Chicago-area home to present those photos to members of the Carbondale City Council and plead for their help.
“I thought they needed to hear what my nightmare is,” Lovely Varughese said after the meeting, standing in a hallway at the Carbondale Civic Center, with a manila folder under her arm.
She told the council she did not make the six-hour trip for revenge or to cast blame on anyone. There have been conflicting stories by police, differing opinions from investigators and forensic experts and alternative findings in autopsies, she said. And after two years, Lovely Varughese said, she simply wants to know what happened to her son.
“We are more than confused with everything we have heard,” she said. “We don’t know what to believe.”
The official story
Pravin Varughese was last seen by friends at a house party in the 400 block of West College Street the night of Feb. 12, 2014. Police officials have said he accepted a ride home with a stranger, Gaege Bethune, who is the last known person to see him alive.
In his official statement to police, Bethune said he was attempting to drive an intoxicated Pravin Varughese home when a fight broke out between them; the two exited the vehicle and he hit Pravin Varughese multiple times in self-defense. Pravin Varughese fled into the woods as police arrived, Bethune said, where his body was found five days later.
A state trooper happened upon Bethune’s pickup truck at 12:33 a.m., according to a report from the Illinois State Police. Video from the trooper’s dashboard camera shows him conversing with Bethune and scanning the woods briefly from the roadside with a flashlight. The encounter was not reported by the trooper until after Pravin Varughese was known to be missing.
After the discovery of the 19-year-old SIU student’s body, Carbondale police said there was no evidence to support that Pravin Varughese had sustained any injuries and no foul play was suspected. No criminal charges were filed.
In 2015, a grand jury decided not to indict Bethune after a wrongful death claim was filed by the family. Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Carr released a finding corroborating Bethune’s story, and concluded Pravin Varughese would have been too intoxicated to navigate through the dense forest at night in frigid temperature before succumbing to hypothermia, which was ruled his cause of death.
A tale of two autopsies
When she saw her son’s body for the first time, Lovely Varughese said, it looked like he had been beaten.
The original autopsy conducted in Jackson County documented dark-colored marks on the forehead of Pravin Varughese as “post-mortem discoloration” and mentioned only superficial cuts to the face and hands as injuries sustained.
The family commissioned a second autopsy that was performed by Dr. Ben Margolis of the Autopsy Center of Chicago in February of 2014. Margolis found “a deep, recent and healing defensive bruise to the right forearm, a patterned abraded bruise to the right forehead, and bruise to the central forehead as well as other head injuries,” according to a statement from the autopsy center.
The findings in the second autopsy were not presented by the state’s attorney during the grand jury trial.
A toxicology report conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. James Jacobi also showed Pravin Varughese had no drugs in his system and no alcohol other than ethanol, which is naturally produced during post-mortem bodily changes.
“Strangely, [the results are] negative except for postmortem bacterial urine alcohol,” Jacobi wrote on the report addressed to Jackson County Coroner Dr. Thomas Kupferer. “No reason for his bizarre behavior and hiding in the woods.”
‘Is this a joke?’
For the last two years, Lovely Varughese claims Carbondale police have denied her requests for police reports because the case is still classified as an open investigation. One public records request sent to the Carbondale police department returned a large box of newspaper articles, she said.
“Is this a joke?” she asked the city council. “I’m tired of being treated like a moron.”
The Varughese family filed a $5 million wrongful death civil lawsuit against Bethune, the City of Carbondale, former Carbondale Police Chief Jody O’Guinn and Jackson County Coroner Kupferer in 2014.
All parties have since been removed from the suit except for Bethune.
On March 2, 2015, Carr requested a special prosecutor from the state’s appellate court be appointed “to avoid even the appearance” that he made improper decisions. Since then, the special prosecutor has yet to release a report of the investigation and public records have remained sealed.
“Everything is being blamed on an open investigation,” Lovely Varughese said. “What investigation? If there is one, please keep us informed.”
During the meeting, Councilman Adam Loos said the public should provide as much information to the family as possible “without endangering an investigation.”
“I am not judging whether or not we have done that or not, but that is what we should do,” he said.
When asked to respond to Lovely Varughese’s statements, Carbondale Police Chief Jeff Grubbs said the department cannot comment on the ongoing investigation because it is in the hands of the state’s appellate prosecutor.
Bill Lukitsch can be reached at [email protected] or 618-536-3329.