Daily Egyptian

Family, friends grieve for Pravin Varughese two years after his death

Front row, from left to right: Pravin Varughese's younger sister Preethi, his older sister Priya, his mother Lovely and his father Mathew kneel during a memorial ceremony on Saturday in the woods bordering Illinois Route 13, where police say he died of hypothermia about two years ago. (Luke Nozicka | @lukenozicka)

By Bill Lukitsch, @Bill_LukitschDE

Family and friends of Pravin Varughese gathered Saturday in Carbondale for a memorial service in the wooded area where police say he froze to death about two years ago.

Carbondale police first discovered the body of the 19-year-old SIU student on Feb. 18, 2014 in the woods bordering Illinois Route 13, five days after he was reported missing. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his disappearance have left the Varughese family seeking answers.

“The support that we get from a lot of people keeps us going,” said his mother, Lovely Varughese. “It’s really, really hard every day. We are living a nightmare.”

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Some attendees traveled hundreds of miles to join his mother, father and two sisters for the ceremony. About 60 people, led by Carbondale Police Chief Jeff Grubbs, trekked through an unmarked trail that was covered in mud, dead leaves, ice and trees to the site, roughly a quarter mile from where police say he was last seen.

The service began with a favorite hymn of Pravin Varughese’s, followed by prayer. Afterward the family sobbed and embraced one another as they knelt on frozen ground beside a portrait of their lost loved one.

Lovely Varughese said after the ceremony the family will not rest until they find justice for her son. 

“There is no way we are going to stop,” she said. “We will follow this up and we will fight.”  

Special prosecutor Patrick Delfino was assigned to review the Pravin Varughese case almost one year ago, but the mother said she has lost faith in the efficacy of the judicial system and thinks the family is still being left in the dark.

MORE: State’s Attorney requests special prosecutor in Varughese death

Police have said Pravin Varughese accepted a ride home with a young man he met that night near a party in the 400 block of West College Street. Gaege Bethune, who is the last known person to see him alive, told police he was attempting to drive an intoxicated Pravin Varughese home when a fight broke out between them. Bethune said he hit Pravin Varughese multiple times in self-defense before police arrived and he fled into the woods where he was found dead five days later. 

Lovely Varughese said she thinks there is more to the story. 

“I believe [Bethune] had a part in it and he knows something,” she said. “Hopefully, one day we will hear.”

Officials have said multiple witnesses described Pravin Varughese as intoxicated and concluded he would have been unable to navigate through the dense forest at night in frigid temperature before succumbing to hypothermia, which was ruled his cause of death. Carbondale police did not suspect foul play at the time and criminal charges were never filed.

MORE: Body of missing student found | SIU community celebrates life of Varughese

But Lovely Varughese said those claims were an attack on her son’s character and contradicted forensic evidence.

A toxicology report conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. James Jacobi showed Pravin Varughese had no drugs in his system and no alcohol other than ethanol 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.”

Kupferer ultimately determined the death was accidental.

After the memorial Grubbs said he did not want to be a focus in this story or detract attention from the Varughese family.

“We are following the legal processes and we will release all relevant records once that’s completed,” Grubbs said in response to criticisms from the community and Varughese family concerning a lack of transparency in the case.

An Illinois state trooper happened upon Bethune’s pickup truck at 12:33 a.m. on the shoulder of Illinois Route 13 and stopped to investigate, according to a police report. Bethune told the trooper he had been in a fight, but reported different details on the scene. He later told the prosecuting attorney he lied to conceal the fact that he was intoxicated.

Dashcam video shows the trooper speaking with Bethune and scanning the area with his flashlight for about 10 minutes before both cars left the scene. The stop was not reported to Carbondale police until after Pravin Varughese went missing. 

Knowing a state trooper was on the scene that night has been especially difficult for the Varughese family because it seems probable Pravin Varughese was alive when the trooper encountered Bethune, Lovely said. 

“For that state trooper who has taken an oath to serve and protect, I feel like he failed us,” Lovely Varughese said. “He failed Pravin.”

A grand jury did not indict Bethune on murder or manslaughter charges in February of last year. But the Varughese family said they disagree with Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Carr’s conclusion and claim he did not present key evidence.

“Not even one time in [Carr’s] report does it say [the toxicology results were] negative,” Lovely Varughese said. “It feels like my son didn’t have a lawyer.”

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 multiple deep bruises on the forehead and right arm of Pravin Varughese and determined blunt-force trauma was an underlying cause of death. The findings in the second autopsy were not shown to the grand jury.

MORE: Second autopsy shows bruising on VarugheseVarughese family’s suspicions confirmed

On March 2, 2015, Carr filed a motion in circuit court to excuse himself from the case, citing reasons of “an intense national media campaign” pushed by the Varughese family to prosecute Bethune.

“Following my statement last week that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a prosecution, the focus of the family’s campaign for prosecution shifted from the investigation to vague unspecified challenges about my impartiality in reviewing the investigation,” he wrote at the time. 

Carr wrote that he disagreed with the family’s accusations but was requesting a special prosecutor “to avoid even the appearance” of having made improper or unfair decisions. 

The special prosecutor assigned to the case was provided with the second autopsy results last spring, according to a statement by the Autopsy Center of Chicago.

The Varughese family also filed a $5 million civil suit against Bethune, the city of Carbondale and former Police Chief Jody O’Guinn. Kupferer was later added to the suit, but all parties have since been excused except for Bethune.

MORE: Former police chief, Carbondale and coroner dismissed from Varughese case

Lovely Varughese said the family dropped charges of negligence against city and county employees to expedite the trial process, obtain withheld police reports and dispel allegations that the family was motivated by financial gain.

While the last two years have been filled with agony and uncertainty for the family, they hope to find answers soon, Lovely Varughese said.

“We’ve been through so many nightmares and two years later we are still sitting here,” she said.

Bill Lukitsch can be contacted at [email protected] or (618) 539-5336.

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