During the second week of trial for Gaege Bethune — charged with murdering Indian American student Pravin Varughese four years ago in Carbondale, Illinois — coroners delivered conflicting reports June 11 on the witness stand, invoking a large measure of uncertainty into the formerly, relatively clear-cut case.
On the night of Feb. 12, 2014, Bethune picked up Varughese — a student at Southern Illinois University — on a stretch of road near a wooded area in Carbondale. Varughese was coming home from a birthday party hosted by Sarah Wilks; Bethune had also attended the party but was asked to leave several times, testified Wilks at the trial, being held in Murphysboro, Ill., saying she had asked him to leave because of previous negative encounters.
Bethune initially told police he had offered Varughese a ride because he had no jacket and was walking in the frigid weather. The suspect said he had asked Varughese for gas money, at which point the victim jumped out of the car and ran away on foot.
Video footage taken from an unnamed source shows a car, similar in make to Bethune’s, and a man appearing to carry a body across the street.
An initial coroner’s report ruled that Varughese — whose body was found four days after he was reported missing — ruled that the young man had died of hypothermia. Dr. James Jacobi, who performed the first autopsy, testified that lesions above Varughese’s right eyebrow had post-mortem discoloration and were likely caused by abrasions and environmental factors. Jacobi stuck to his conclusion that Varughese had died of hypothermia, testifying under cross-examination that he had found a small brain hemorrhage on the victim’s scalp, but that could not have caused his death or incapacitation. He testified that the victim’s toxicology reports did not indicate the presence of any drugs, but did indicate a urine alcohol level 04.9 percent.
Dr. Scott Denton, chief pathologist with the McLean County, Illinois Corner’s Office, testified that those with elevated alcohol levels often do not feel the effects of hypothermia, as the alcohol makes them feel warmer than they actually are. Disorientation is a common effect of hypothermia, and can cause a victim to lose balance and coordination, and appear drunk.
Denton concluded that Varughese’s manner of death was accidental.
After the initial coroner’s report was released in 2014, the Varughese family privately hired a coroner, Dr. Ben Margolis, to perform a second autopsy. The pathologist concluded in 2014 that Varughese had died of blunt force trauma.
On the stand, Margolis testified that the bruises on Varughese’s forehead were consistent with the manner in which knuckles are spread out in a fist. Margolis also testified that he found no fractures or lacerations on Varughese’s skull. Under cross examination, the pathologist concurred that the bruises on Varughese’s forehead could have come from a punch.
Friends of Varughese and Bethune took the stand to piece together what had happened on the fatal evening. Both sets of friends brought up cocaine, but it was unclear who was actually looking for cocaine that evening, according to a WPSD news station report.
Desiree Dunning, who was 16 at the time of the incident, testified that Bethune had asked her if she wanted to do cocaine that night. She declined, but added that she did not see whether Bethune actually had any cocaine with him.
Ashley Thomas, Varughese’s roommate at college and cousin, testified that Varughese had never used nor sold cocaine. Another friend, Aneeta Johnson, testified that Varughese called her that night, around 12:30 a.m., and said “Aneeta, don’t hang up.”
“I’m trying to help you,” Johnson said she heard her friend saying during the call. She said she also heard a car door slam, and an argument, and then the sound of running before she hung up.
Bethune’s cousin, Jonathan Stanley, testified that Bethune told him what happened: he gave someone a ride home and that person tried to rob him. Stanley said he went to police after he saw coverage of Varughese’s disappearance on TV. (See earlier story in India-West here.)