Episode 077: Pravin Varughese

April 24, 2023

The mysterious death of a college sophomore ignites a family’s search for answers and a years-long quest for justice. What really happened to Pravin?

Episode Media
Pravin Varughese
Pravin Varughese
Distance between the party on W College Street and where Pravin’s body was found off Hwy 13 (Google Maps)
Wooded area where Pravin’s body was found (KFVS)
Gaege Bethune (Jackson County Sheriff’s Department)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week’s case was recommended to me by Emily from the Wining About Herstory podcast. It’s a mysterious case that seems to be so close to getting justice, but somehow keeps missing it. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Pravin Varughese grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. His parents, Matthew and Lovely, had immigrated from India to the United States in 1990 and were working in the medical field, raising their three children in a happy, loving home. As the middle child and only boy in the family, Pravin was loved and nurtured, and he grew up to be a bright, outgoing young man.

After graduating from Niles West High School in 2012, Pravin enrolled at Southern Illinois University. He wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement, so he chose to major in criminology and criminal justice.

Pravin jumped into college life with both feet. He had a close circle of friends and was known to be the life of the party. He was quick to laugh and always tried to make others around him feel comfortable. He and his cousin Ashley shared an off-campus apartment, which allowed them to be independent while also having some level of family support.

On the evening of February 12, 2014, Pravin and Ashley decided to go out for the night. The two young men hit up a few parties on West College Street, just a few blocks north of the main SIU campus. It was a typical college party – music, dancing, drinking. Around 11pm, Ashley and Pravin split up; Ashley had a late shift at the local bar where he worked, and Pravin said he would just get a ride home with a friend and he would see Ashley in the morning.

But in the morning, Ashley knocked on Pravin’s bedroom door and got no answer. When he tried the doorknob, it was locked. Ashley assumed Pravin must have left for class early, so he didn’t think anything else of it.

However, later that afternoon, Pravin’s best friend Kyle texted Ashley and asked if he had seen Pravin. He hadn’t shown up for any of his classes that day, which was very out of character for him. His cell phone was going straight to voicemail, and he wasn’t responding to any messages.

Kyle and Ashley decided to retrace Pravin’s steps the night before. They headed back to the last house on West College Street where Ashley and Pravin had split up, but there wasn’t any sign of him. They walked around the immediate area, wondering if Pravin had gotten super drunk and passed out in someone’s yard, but again, there was no sign of their friend. They even called local hospitals and police stations in the area, but no one had seen or heard from Pravin.

Back at the apartment, Ashley got the landlord to open Pravin’s door. It was his last hope at finding his cousin. Unfortunately, the room was the same way Pravin had left it the day before. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Finally, Ashley called the Carbondale Police Department and reported Pravin missing.

Police released a picture and description of Pravin to the local media, asking anyone who may have seen him to call into the tipline. By this time, Pravin’s family was on their way to Carbondale, making the 6-hour drive from their home in Chicago. His mother Lovely told the Crime Junkie podcast that she called Pravin’s phone over and over again during that drive, but it went to voicemail every time. Lovely knew that Pravin would have called her back immediately if he could, and the fact that he didn’t just solidified her knowledge that something was very wrong.

When Pravin’s family arrived at the Carbondale police station, they were told something that true crime fans are all-too familiar with – don’t worry, he probably just walked off and will show up in a few days. But Pravin’s family was not putting up with that. They knew that Pravin was not the type to just disappear without letting anyone know. They insisted that police launch an investigation to find Pravin.

Lovely told Crime Junkie that Carbondale police said they didn’t have enough staff for a full-scale search, so the family decided to take matters into their own hands. On Saturday, February 15th, a search party made up of Pravin’s family and friends met up at the police station, determined to comb the area near West College Street. K-9 units from the Pulaski County Emergency Services Disaster Agency joined in the effort, but after hours of searching they were unable to come up with any trace of Pravin.

The family also reached out to the local media and to the Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, begging for help with Pravin’s case. They knew that they needed to put more pressure on the Carbondale police in order for them to take this case seriously. Thankfully, it worked, and the search was back on.

Investigators processed Pravin’s laptop and began to dig into his cell phone records and banking activity. As they interviewed witnesses who had been at the party on West College Street, they started to put together a rough timeline of Pravin’s last movements.

As Pravin and Ashley partied on the night of February 12th, Pravin posted several times on his Twitter account. After Ashley left the party, Pravin tweeted at 11:06pm, “99% of the time I have no idea whats going on” and again at 11:17pm, “Bloody knuckles… guesss i was in a fight #backdown”. But no one really remembered seeing Pravin get in a fight that night, so investigators didn’t really know what to make of the tweets.

According to police records, Pravin was then seen leaving the party just before midnight, exiting through the back door of the house. There were no more tweets or texts sent from his phone after that, but his phone records showed that at 12:29am, Pravin called his friend Aneeta in Chicago. Aneeta told investigators that when she picked up the phone, Pravin said, “Don’t hang up.” Pravin sounded like he was out of breath, like he had been running or had gotten winded somehow. During the 2 minute phone call, Pravin didn’t talk to Aneeta – she could just hear him arguing with someone. At one point, a man’s voice said, “Give me that back,” and Pravin replied, “I’m trying to help you!” Aneeta told detectives that she thought Pravin had called the man “Greg” or maybe “Mark”, but other than that, she couldn’t figure out what was going on. When Aneeta realized that Pravin wasn’t going to talk to her, she ended the call.

Days passed, and Pravin’s family continued to push for answers. They put together a fundraiser and were able to offer a $15,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Pravin’s disappearance or for his safe return.

On February 17th, Pravin’s family and friends gathered together for a candlelight vigil on the campus of Southern Illinois University. Pravin’s sister Priya told KFVS that her brother was always there for his family, that he called home every night. Not knowing where he was was devastating. “It’s just a complete shock. Sometimes, it doesn’t even feel like reality.”

Then, on February 18th, Pravin’s family got the news they had been dreading: Pravin’s body had been found.

Just a few miles away from where he was last seen, police discovered Pravin’s remains in a thick wooded area off Highway 13 in Carbondale. He was wearing jeans and a sock on one foot, his red t-shirt underneath his body, his cell phone by his hand. His other sock and a pair of shoes lay on the ground nearby.

Investigators told the family that Pravin had gotten drunk at the party and had probably been taking drugs. After getting a ride with a friend, they had gotten into a fight and Pravin had wandered into the woods alone. The temperature had been below freezing that night, and Pravin didn’t have a coat. He had likely gotten lost in the rough terrain and had died of exposure.

But this story did not make any sense to Pravin’s family. Pravin was a cross-country runner and was in great shape. He didn’t do drugs, and his friends didn’t remember him seeming drunk at the party. Also, he had his phone on him that night; even if he had gotten lost, he would have called someone for help.

When the autopsy was completed, the family was even more confused. The Jackson County Coroner determined that Pravin’s cause of death was hypothermia. The cuts and scratches on his body were caused by the trees and thorns in the wooded area where he was found. There were no other obvious signs of trauma. However, the toxicology report found no trace of alcohol or drugs in Pravin’s blood. If Pravin had been so drunk the night of the party, there would at least be something there.

The final straw came when Pravin’s body was taken to the funeral home. Lovely told Dateline that the funeral director pulled her aside and told her that something wasn’t right. When he brought Lovely to see her son’s body, she agreed. Pravin was covered in bruises, and on his head were multiple large dents that looked as though he had been struck. Lovely was a trained nurse and had seen many bodies during her career; what she was seeing now didn’t seem consistent with the coroner’s ruling of death by hypothermia.

After the funeral, Pravin’s family hired their own pathologist to conduct a second autopsy. In May of 2014, Dr. Ben Margolis, Director of the Autopsy Center of Chicago, reported that there were 22 injuries on Pravin’s body, including four blows to his head and face, and a bruise on his right arm that went down to the bone, likely a defensive wound. Dr. Margolis concluded that the underlying cause of Pravin’s death was “significant blunt force trauma to the head.” He believed that Pravin’s head injury had caused him to become disoriented and eventually succumb to hypothermia.

When the results were released, Pravin’s family felt a small sense of relief. Lovely told the Chicago Tribune, “It gives me a feeling that I’m not crazy. The instinct as a mother, and the knowledge as a nurse, I think it paid off.”

Lovely also said that this revelation renewed her determination to find the truth. “I will fight to my last breath. Whatever we’ve been through shouldn’t happen to another family. Whatever they did in Carbondale, or didn’t do, that has to change.”

But as we know, the wheels of justice turn slowly.

In May of 2014, the Chicago Tribune reported that in the early morning hours of February 13th, an Illinois State Trooper spotted a black pickup truck with its emergency flashers on, parked along the side of Highway 13 in Carbondale. Dashcam footage showed Trooper Chris Martin pulling up behind the truck at 12:34am and speaking with a young man who was already out of the vehicle, walking up the embankment. The man told the trooper that he had picked up a black male walking along the highway and had stopped to give him a ride. But they had gotten into an argument, and the hitchhiker had gotten out of the truck and had run into the woods.

The trooper took a brief look around the area near the truck, shining his flashlight into the trees. But that was the extent of his search for the supposed runaway hitchhiker. He spoke with the driver of the truck for about 10 more minutes before both men got back into their vehicles and drove away. Trooper Martin did not contact the Carbondale Police Department to report the incident in their jurisdiction; in fact, it was 11 days before he filed a report at all, well after Pravin’s body had been found.

However, in spite of the trooper’s inaction, the last person to see Pravin would show up at the police station just days later to tell his story.

NBC5 obtained video recordings from the days following Pravin’s disappearance showing Carbondale police questioning the driver of the black truck, 19-year-old Gaege Bethune. According to Gaege, he had seen Pravin’s picture on the local news and realized that it was the same person he’d given a ride to just days before. “I put two and two together real quick and I just couldn’t. Honest. I couldn’t look at the screen. Made me sick to my stomach. That the boy was… the boy didn’t show up home.”

However, while Gaege said he went to police on his own accord, other reports from multiple sources, including court documents, say that Gaege’s cousin was the one to approach investigators after Gaege told him about the altercation with Pravin.

Either way, Gaege sat in an interview room at the Carbondale Police Department on the night of February 17th and told a brand new version of the story.

According to Gaege, he had lied to the state trooper about picking up a black male who ran into the woods because he was worried the trooper would notice he’d been drinking and would arrest him for driving under the influence. The truth was that he had given Pravin a ride out of the goodness of his heart. “I’m a nice guy. I help just about anybody I see. If I see an old woman standing on the side of the road with a bag full of groceries, I’m gonna help her out.”

Gaege said that Pravin was clearly drunk when he got into the pickup truck. A few miles down the road, Pravin became combative and aggressive, and Gaege had pulled over and told him to get out. When Pravin refused, Gaege tried to pull him out, and the two of them had fought.

The timeline suggests that this was when Pravin called his friend Aneeta and she heard him arguing with someone. He was out of breath, suggesting that he may have been running or fighting. Gaege told police, “The fight maybe lasted thirty seconds. I wouldn’t even call it a fight. A little scuffle.”

However, Gaege also claimed that he was afraid of Pravin because of the color of his skin. “You know I was scared for my life. I didn’t know what he was capable of. Definitely wasn’t my race and I ain’t used to being around that type of population.”

Just a few minutes later, the state trooper pulled up, and Gaege said that he shouted that the cops were there and Pravin took off into the woods. That’s when Gaege said he lied and told the trooper that a black man had tried to rob him before running off.

This seemed to satisfy the Carbondale police for the time being, but two days later, Gaege was back in the interview room, telling a completely different story.

This time, Gaege said that he was leaving the party on West College Street around 11:30pm when Pravin approached his truck and asked for a ride. Gaege said he felt sorry for Pravin because it was cold and he didn’t have a coat. In exchange for the ride, Pravin said he would get Gaege some cocaine, but Gaege declined the offer. As they drove through town, Gaege said Pravin was talking to someone on his phone about getting drugs and wouldn’t give Gaege directions. Gaege finally got fed up and told Pravin that he was going to drop him off at a gas station.

At this point, Gaege claimed that Pravin was enraged and hit Gaege in the head. Gaege pulled the truck over and tried to get to Pravin. “He jumped out. Swung at me aggressively. I defended myself. I missed the punch and I hit him. That’s when he kind of fell into me dead weight and grabbed me.” Gaege then said that they wrestled for a moment before rolling down the embankment, continuing to take swings at each other. That was when the trooper arrived and Pravin took off.

There are several holes in this version of the story, particularly with Gaege’s claim that Pravin was trying to buy cocaine over the phone. From Pravin’s phone records, we know that Pravin didn’t use his phone at all between the time he left the party and when he called Aneeta at 12:29am. There was only a tiny window of time between that call and when the trooper showed up on the scene.

Although investigators didn’t necessarily believe Gaege’s story, they still thought that Pravin had died from exposure, and they didn’t have enough evidence to prove that Gaege was responsible for what had happened. In February of 2015, the Jackson County State’s Attorney’s Office convened a grand jury to look at the evidence in the case, but the jury opted to not indict Gaege Bethune for the murder of Pravin Varughese.

Again, Pravin’s family was left without justice, but they weren’t giving up. In the years following Pravin’s death, the Varughese family filed several wrongful death lawsuits, including one against the Carbondale Police Department for failing to conduct a proper search for Pravin’s body, and one against the state trooper who failed to search for Pravin on February 13th, claiming that if he had followed through and immediately filed a report, Pravin may have been saved. The family also filed a suit against Gaege Bethune, claiming that he beat Pravin and left him for dead.

The family continued to fight, even as hope seemed distant. Lovely told WSIU, “We have been left in the darkness, with no answers, for over two years now. We still don’t know what happened to Pravin that night, when he died. How much pain was he in? Was he alone during his last time in this world? How scared was he, and a million more questions. I have sleepless nights.”

Finally, after three and half long years, a second grand jury indicted Gaege Bethune in connection with Pravin’s death. He was arrested and charged with two counts of felony murder in July of 2017. A year later, his trial began.

Jurors listened to nine days of testimony in the case against Gaege Bethune. The prosecution argued that Gaege had violently struck Pravin in the head, causing him to become disoriented, which directly led to his death in the woods. They played the videos of Gaege’s interviews with police, highlighting his inconsistent statements and outright lies. They also debated Gaege’s character, showing past social media posts where Gaege used violent language and racial slurs.

The defense claimed that Gaege was just a Good Samaritan who had been taken advantage of by a drunk and combative Pravin. When Gaege tried to defend himself, the scuffle had ended with Pravin running off, dressed only in a t-shirt and jeans, not nearly enough clothing to keep him warm during the winter night. Gaege took the stand in his own defense, admitting that he lied to the state trooper but that he was just afraid of getting in trouble for drinking and driving.

Witnesses gave conflicting testimonies about the events of the house party on February 12th. Some said that Gaege had been the one looking for cocaine that night, others said they didn’t remember that at all. Several witnesses testified that Gaege was acting drunk, and so was Pravin. It was hard to get a clear picture.

Multiple experts testified about Pravin’s autopsy and toxicology reports, and the jury was shown photographs of Pravin’s injuries. Although they differed in their opinions on the severity of Pravin’s wounds, they seemed to agree on the fact that Pravin had ultimately died of hypothermia and that blows to his head may have been a contributing factor.

On June 14, 2018, the jury found Gaege Bethune guilty of first-degree murder with aggravated battery in the death of Pravin Varughese.

Pravin’s family was overwhelmed with relief. Lovely told WPSD that just before hearing the verdict read, she was confident in the jury’s decision. “I touched Pravin’s picture. I remember that. And I heard ‘Mummy, we got it.’ I was completely peaceful. I did not cry.”

However, that peace would be short-lived.

In September of 2018, a Jackson County judge vacated Gaege’s conviction on the grounds that the initial indictment used improper and unclear wording that could have impacted the jury’s decision. He ordered a new trial, and Gaege was released on bond.

Special Prosecutor David Robinson strongly disagreed with the judge’s decision. He told WPSD, “There is never a question in my mind that we proved the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. We will absolutely retry this case. I have full confidence the jury will return the same verdict.”

Robinson’s office asked the Illinois Supreme Court to review the judge’s decision, hoping to get it overturned, but the court declined. In November of 2018, the state announced they would not retry the current case against Gaege Bethune, but that they may seek another indictment in the future.

As of this recording, Gaege Bethune is a free man, and Pravin’s family is still searching for justice.

Every year, on the anniversary of Pravin’s death, the Varughese family makes the pilgrimage to Carbondale to visit the site where he died. Lovely leads the way, pushing back thick branches until she reaches the right spot. “Just because he died here I feel like his soul is here. I feel like he’s calling me back here.”

The Varughese family has set up a scholarship in Pravin’s name to support students planning to major in criminal justice. It’s yet another way they can advocate for change. Lovely told WSIL, “We feel like he planted a seed and it is growing, and his legacy and his memory will live on.”