Pravin Varughese was found dead in the woods near his university campus in February 2014. Last September, a judge tossed the conviction of Gaege Bethune who was found guilty of Pravin’s murder.
Lovely Varughese, an Illinois resident, describes herself as a simple woman who had to suddenly learn the intricacies of the American legal system while dealing with the worst emotional trauma for a mother. A nurse by profession, in the past five years, Varughese has been fighting a difficult and emotional battle to bring justice to her son — 19-year-old Pravin Varughese, who was found dead on February 18, 2014, in the woods in Carbondale, IL, near the Southern Illinois University campus where he was studying. Pravin was reported missing five days earlier. In June last year, after four long years of court proceedings, the judge found Gaege Bethune, with whom Varughese was last reported to be with, with first-degree murder conviction. But in what the family describes as the biggest blow they received since 2014, the case took an unexpected 360-degree turn last September when the judge vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial.
“It was heart-breaking and shocking,” says Lovely Varughese with a faltering voice. “Just when we thought that it would be the last hearing and our son would get the justice he deserved, we are left with no choice but to revisit the pain and trauma of these past years,” she says.
The two-week jury trial presided over by judge Mark Clarke had ended in June last year, when Gaege Bethune, who was also 19 at the time of Varughese’s murder, was convicted with first-degree murder. But in September, the judge vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial. This essentially means that Bethune is set free as he awaits a new trial, the date of which has not being announced. The Illinois Supreme Court later denied a request by the state to review judge’s decision.
The case made many headlines back in 2014. According to prosecutors, Varughese died after a drunken fight with Bethune while the two drove around in Bethune’s vehicle. According to authorities, the fight ended with Varughese wandering off in the wooded area of Carbondale. He was found dead five days later. The initial official autopsy said he died due to hypothermia due to frigid cold February mid-west weather.
However, Pravin’s mom, Lovely Varughese, vehemently opposed the report. “The official autopsy reported [in 2014]that Pravin died of hypothermia but when we ordered a private autopsy, it was revealed that Pravin had 22 injuries on his body,” she says. “His forehead had a dent, his right hand had a defense injury, his nose was swollen and lips were busted.”
But something made the family doubt the first autopsy report, Lovely Varughese says, “When I saw the body, I noticed a bruise on the forehead. I questioned it and I was told that it was due to frost bite. Even though, I was not convinced I went ahead with the version. But when we brought Pravin’s body to the funeral home, the funeral director spoke to me and said, ‘Lovely, you are a nurse, you know about medicine and injuries. He has an injured body.’ Our doubts came true with the second autopsy.”
Talking about how a series of allegations were raised about Pravin, she says, “A lot was said about my son and coming from Indian culture, shame hits you first. But maybe it was the spirit of my son that was prompting me to tell the world his real story. Maybe he wanted to be known for what he really was and not what he was made out to be. There was no drug or alcohol in his blood. There was some alcohol in his urine as according to friends he had two beers that night at the party.”
According to friends, who were with Pravin that night, he was attending a birthday party at Carbondale. After the party, he left and, presumably that is when he met Bethune, who, according to Lovely, was attending another party there. The two got together in a vehicle. The mom says the clues point out that Bethune got her son in his vehicle and attempted to rob him and hit him leading to his death.
But with this recent reversal, the Varughese says that her family is being given an unfair deal. She says, “We do not think about race or other such issues. But when things like these happen you just sit back and think is there an element of racism there?”
She states, “One thing is for sure that the officials underestimated us.”
Recalling the days when the incident happened, she says, “When the news came, my husband and I were so out of our minds that it was our daughter who was interacting with the officials. Perhaps they thought we didn’t know English or won’t understand the laws and hence not question what was being said.”
The Varugheses repeatedly proved the opposite and were so active through the entire trial. Lovely says, “I admit that I was the woman who had never ever gone to a bank on her own. I did not know nothing about legal system, but when this happened we were not scared or held back, and I educated myself to talk with anyone and everyone. It was a mission to get the truth.”
She also felt prejudices along the way. “While most people were good, some officials did make us feel that we are second class citizens,” she says. “I was questioned on my education and knowledge but that did not deter me.”
The family also met people who became fellow crusaders in their cause. Among them, Carbondale radio host Monica Zukas.
“Monica is like my right arm,” Varughese says. “She told me what I didn’t know.”
On how the two got together, Varughese says, “During the time Pravin’s case happened, there was another murder of a girl, which Monica was actively pursuing on her show. One of our friends from church sent a flyer to her asking her to look into the case. Though Monica initially said she knew nothing about it but when the news of Pravin’s death came, she felt a push and joined hands with us in pursuing the case.”
Varughese is also grateful for state attorney David Robinson, who has been zealously working on the case.
Remembering her son, she says, “Pravin was a very funny guy, he was talkative and life of every party. He wanted to work with FBI. During his college years he was a great friend, a simple guy, who also worked in Jimmy John’s and had a balance of both Indian and American values.”
On what the family now expects, Varughese says, “I do not care how many days or years the convict spends in the jail but what I do want is that he takes responsibility for what he did. When once he admitted to have hit Pravin, it meant the world to me. It was for me the reassurance that my son will get justice.”
As the family prepares for another court hearing in a few days, there is a pall of gloom but as Varughese says, “There is also a renewed conviction to give Pravin the justice. So, we will continue this fight relentlessly.”