Indian American Lovely Varughese waged a years-long battle to reopen the mysterious murder case.
On June 13, around 5:30 pm, Lovely Varughese received a call from Illinois State Attorney Appellate Prosecutor David Robinson, who had been investigating the mysterious death of her son Pravin Varughese in February 2014.
The prosecutor, who had been on the case for more than 27 months, told her that he had something important to share with her. Varughese wanted to make sure that her husband, Mathew, and their daughter Priya (24) were also on the call.
When Robinson broke the news to the family that a Jackson County, Illinois, grand jury had made a decision to charge Gaege Bethune and that he will be indicted soon, the three were overwhelmed with emotion.
Bethune, now 22 years old and a resident of Eldorado, a small town that is an hour away from Carbondale, where Pravin attended school, is the last person believed to have seen the Indian American teenager the day he went missing.
“That call was something that evaded us for three years and five months,” Varughese told The American Bazaar on Wednesday. “For five minutes, we were all crying and crying.”
After the three regained their composure, Robinson — “who stayed on the phone all along” — explained the charges: two counts of battery and robbery. If convicted, Bethune could get anywhere from 40 years to 120 years of jail time.
Robinson, who took over the investigation of the case, along with his colleague Dave Neal, as special prosecutors in March 2015, would call again later in the evening to inform the family that Bethune was arrested and was in jail.
After posting a bond for $1 million, Bethune, who pleaded not guilty, was released on bail July 14. Among the conditions set by the court is that he should not have any contacts with the victim’s family.
For Varughese and her family, it was the moment that brought closure to the tragic death of Pravin.
“Finally, finally, finally… some answers,” she said.
Varughese (53), a homecare nurse with Presence Health, and Mathew Varughese (55), a respiratory therapist working for Kindred Healthcare, live in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove. Both are immigrants from Kerala, India; Mathew came to the United States in 1985, while Lovely moved here in 1990, two years after their marriage.
The incident that changed the couple’s life forever happened on February 12, 2014.
Pravin Varughese, who was a student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, was on his way back from a party, but he never reached his townhouse near the campus. The teenager placed a desperate call to a friend around 12:30 AM, during which he reportedly sounded out-of-breath.
After an intense search for nearly six days, Varughese’s body was found in the woods in an area roughly three miles from the SIU campus.
Initially, the Carbondale police said an individual had given Varughese a ride from the party, and that person had come forward with that information on his own volition four days after the boy went missing.
The police theory went like this: Varughese probably couldn’t tell the man who gave him the ride — later identified as Bethune — where he lived and, therefore, he was dropped off at a random location, where he froze to death in the cold.
But Lovely Varughese and her family never believed the police theory. Suspecting foul play, they commissioned a second autopsy after the coroner that conducted the initial autopsy said there were no injuries on the boy’s body and hypothermia was the reason he died.
As the American Bazaar reported, the second autopsy revealed that there were at least three major injuries to his head from blunt trauma, and his eye was badly damaged. The victim also looked to have tried some sort of a defensive move.
Despite the second autopsy report, State Attorney Michael Carr, who investigated the case initially, closed it a year later. He informed the family February 25, 2015, that a secret grand jury decided not to charge anyone with the murder.
“They did not take [the case] seriously,” Varughese told The American Bazaar in a June 2014 interview. “They thought it was just a typical college kid who went partying, got drunk, and disappeared. They said that college kids do this, they go missing but then come back in four or five days, and we told them from the beginning that that’s not Pravin. He would never, ever do that.”
In that interview, Varughese also disputed the police claim that Pravin was drinking, saying: “The people who were there at the party, all the girls and boys, they told us he did not drink at the party.”
The grand jury decision prompted Varughese to redouble her efforts to get justice for her son.
“We didn’t buy it at all,” she said. “In [Carr’s] report, he said 18 times that Pravin was drunk, despite a toxicology report [stating otherwise]. I was not going to let him get away with that. I decided to fight for my son.”
The family filed lawsuits against the City of Carbondale and its police.
Carr’s report and his continued stonewalling flabbergasted Varughese, and it still does to this day.
“I have no idea why Michael Carr did what he did,” she said. “I just want to sit with him and ask him why did he do it. All these [charges against Bethune] should have been [filed] in 2014. Instead it took them three and a half years to clear my boy’s name… just because of Michael Carr.”
But despite Carr’s refusal to press charges, one decision made by him turned out to be crucial. In March 2015, he decided to recuse himself from the case.
That led to the appointment of Robinson and Neal as special prosecutors.
Yet, Varughese’s efforts to get the police report detailing the investigation were unsuccessful, despite filing several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. “Nobody was telling me anything,” she said. “Every time I filed [FOIA requests], Michael Carr would deny it.”
Suspecting that their lawsuit against the city and the police might be the reason the police were refusing to release the report, the family dropped the case in August 2015.
The police “still refused the report saying that it’s an open investigation,” said Varughese.
In April 2016, she and Monica Zukas, a former radio host, who had been helping her navigate the gargantuan criminal justice system and the local government, spoke to the Carbondale City Council. “I spoke for 14 minutes,” said Varughese, adding that the representatives patiently listened to the two.
A month later she would meet with the city’s mayor and the police chief.
Finally, the police released the 10-page report to Varughese in May 2016 after Robinson instructed them to.
“There were many inconsistencies [in the police report],” she said. “We made them public on Facebook to get attention.”
Another positive development in the case for Varughese was a July 25 meeting with Robinson.
“In the meeting, he told me that Pravin was a good boy, and that we raised a good child,” she said. “For the first time I heard [the police] say nice things about Pravin.”
After hearing and reading untruths and even innuendos on the internet about her dead son, those words gave immense joy to the mother in Varughese.
“We knew who Pravin was,” she said. “He has always made us proud — even in his death.”
At the meeting, the prosecutor said he was still working on the case. “We felt very comfortable for the first time,” she said. “That gave me so much peace.”
Since then, Varughese said Carbondale Police had also been extremely helpful.
Robinson also called the family to give regular updates.
The first clear indication that the tide was beginning to turn came in February 2017, when Robinson filed an “entry of appearance” with the court. “That means [the prosecutor] is telling the judge he has enough evidence and he is going forward with the case,” Varughese said.
Then came the institution of the grand jury, which returned the charges July 13.
Asked how she felt when she saw Bethune in the court for the first time during the indictment, Varughese said: “I thought I was going to throw up. I was getting a panic attack. He looked at our face. That instance, he turned his face.”
Varughese said she was not disappointed that her son’s suspected killer is out on bail. “That’s his right,” she said. “To me, at least he has been held accountable. All my fight was to prove that my son had an injury and someone had caused that injury. I have closure for doing my part for the justice for my son.”
For Varughese, who grew up in Kozhencherry in south central Kerala, the fight on behalf of her departed son was not easy. “I tried to push through the system,” she said. “It was a brick wall.”
She added that a “regular person has no clue” how the criminal justice system functions. “Three and a half years ago, I had no clue,” she said. “It was no-no everywhere we went. They can shut you down, even if you are strong willed. I feel that you have to believe in yourself.”
Besides the belief in herself, Varughese had a support system that included her family, friend Zukas, and numerous other friends and members of the local community.
The support was overwhelming. “I have received thousands and thousands of messages,” she said. “Pravin has become a son and a brother to many.”
One steadfast ally all along has been Zukas, the radio host who reached out to Varughese after hearing about her son’s loss. Soon the two would become sisters-in-arms. “I could not have done it without the help of Monica. Me and her, we talked about it every single day. I didn’t know her [prior to Pravin’s death]. We were six hours apart. She never knew a single Indian family before meeting us.”
Many friends from the Chicago-area Indian American community formed a Pravin Action Council to support the family.
Another person who was in touch with Varughese was Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who represents Illinois’ 9th congressional district, which includes a part of Morton Grove.
After Bethune’s indictment, Varughese received a call from Schakowsky. Said Varughese: “The congresswoman told me: “‘Honey, I am so proud of you.’ ‘I said: ‘I don’t know how I did it. God has given me the strength.”
Varughese said there were many occasions when she was on the verge of quitting. “There were days I would say, ‘I can’t do it,” she said. “Then I would hear my son’s voice.”
Now that the suspected killer has been indicted, Varughese said “a ton of weight has been lifted.” She will go back to the normal life of being a nurse. Many, who were impressed with her dedication to her son’s cause, have advised her to enter politics. “I am still a nurse,” she said. “I intend to retire as a nurse. For me, my family is everything.”
The family includes her daughter Priya, who earned her doctoral degree in physical therapy a couple of months ago, and youngest daughter Preethi (16), who is in 10th grade.
Varughese said she wasn’t sure Priya — who was very close to Pravin and was devastated by her brother’s death — would complete the program. “We are proud of her,” Varughese said of Priya, who is now preparing for a board exam to start a career in physiotherapy.
She doesn’t know when the Pravin murder trial will commence. Whenever it does, Varughese will not have any role. “Now it’s up to the prosecutor, [Bethune’s] attorney, the jury and the judge,” she said. “Now I can sit on the sideline.”
Was Pravin Varughese murdered? (June 17, 2014)