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‘He can now rest in peace’: Mother of SIU murder victim says son’s ‘day finally came’ after guilty verdict reached

A+mourner+holds+a+photograph+of+Pravin+Varughese+on+Saturday%2C+Feb.+11%2C+2017%2C+during+a+memorial+ceremony+in+the+woods+bordering+Illinois+Route+13%2C+where+police+say+the+SIU+student+died+of+hypothermia+about+three+years+ago.+%28Luke+Nozicka+%7C+%40lukenozicka%29
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)

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)

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)

By Diana Wallace, Chicago Tribune

When Southern Illinois University student Pravin Varughese was found dead in the woods in 2014 after being missing for five days, authorities in Carbondale initially chalked it up to a tragic accident.

The family of the 19-year-old student from suburban Morton Grove was simply unwilling to accept that.

His relatives pushed for further investigation, had an independent autopsy performed that conflicted with the local coroner’s findings, held a news conference that included a member of Congress and filed suit against Carbondale and its police chief, who was fired soon after.

All that effort culminated late Thursday — more than four years after Varughese’s death — with a jury’s announcement of a first-degree murder guilty verdict against Gaege Bethune.

The Eldorado, Ill., man’s mysterious encounter with Varughese shortly before the student’s death was at the center of the family’s suspicions that foul play was a factor.

“Pravin’s day finally came. He can rest in peace now,” his mother, Lovely Varughese, told the Tribune by phone from Carbondale early Friday.

Lovely Varughese, who led the family’s push for answers in the case, had been up most of the night after the jury announced its verdict at close to 11 p.m. Thursday, receiving calls of support from as far away as India.

She and her family stayed in Carbondale for the two-week trial and waited for seven hours at the Jackson County courthouse in nearby Murphysboro Thursday while the jury deliberated.

When the verdict finally came down, “this was really overwhelming … it was very emotional,” Varughese said, noting there were tears flowing in both families, hers and Bethune’s. The 23-year-old defendant had been free on bail while awaiting trial, but after he was convicted Thursday, his bond was revoked and he was taken to jail.

He faces 20 to 60 years in prison.

Throughout the trial, she said, Bethune’s defense attorney, former Jackson County state’s attorney Michael Wepsiec, “just kept saying the family was supposed to accept (authorities’ findings). I’m like, no, my son’s name has to be proven.”

Wepsiec said Friday morning he intends to seek a new trial, saying the injuries found on Pravin Varughese should never have led to a murder conviction for his client.

“We’re certainly going to file a motion for a new trial and see what we can do with that,” he said. “”Right now I think we’re all in shock at the verdict of guilty on the felony murder based on the aggravated battery. The evidence does not support that.”

Prosecutors said Bethune and Varughese, a Niles West High graduate, were intoxicated when the two fought and Bethune beat and robbed Varughese before he wandered into the woods on the frigid night.

Wepsiec had argued that only superficial bruises were found on Varughese’s body and $24 was in his wallet.

But the first-degree murder verdict was a stunning reversal from authorities’ early view that there was no indication of foul play and that Varughese’s death was the result of hypothermia.

From his family’s view, there were too many questions.

According to their own statements, police knew early on that he’d had a dispute with a man – later publicly identified as Bethune –  before wandering into the woods, where he was found in only jeans and a shirt despite single-digit temperatures.

[L]ate that night he posted a tweet that read: “Bloody knuckles … guess I was in a fight #backdown.”

An Illinois State Police report also revealed early on that a state trooper came across Bethune’s vehicle at just after midnight the same night, and that Bethune had a red mark on his face and told the officer that a man he’d offered a ride to punched him and then ran into the woods.

The officer scanned the woods and then left, the report stated.

There was apparently no follow-up, though state police said at the time that the trooper might not have been aware of a subsequent missing-person report on Varughese.

Now, in his mother’s mind, justice has finally been served. Even before she knew the outcome, “I was pretty peaceful,” she said, crediting in part the members of her extended family and many local residents who attended the trial, in some cases taking time off work to be present.

“The amount of people that came into the courtroom every day to support us was … unbelievable,” she said. “(There are) so many for whom justice is denied in this area, and they are all looking up to us and this gives them hope. … The way these people come and hug you. They are really thanking us for taking that extra step to go this far.”

Tribune reporter Matthew Walberg and The Associated Press contributed.

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