A Mother's Fight for Justice: The Story of Pravin Varughese
On a cold February morning in 2014, Ashley realized that his cousin Pravin was not in their room. The two cousins were sophomores at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. They had been out at a party the night before, and Ashley wasn’t sure if his cousin had left early to work out or go to a class. By that evening, however, no one had seen Pravin and he wasn’t answering any phone calls. His cousin and roommate reported him missing to the Carbondale Police Department. When Pravin’s mother, Lovely, received that fateful call her entire world changed forever. This is the story of a mother’s fight for justice and the story of Pravin Varughese.
Pravin Mathew Varughese was born July 29th, 1994, in Evanston, Illinois. His parents, Mathew and Lovely Varughese were first-generation immigrants from South India. His father worked as a respiratory therapist and his mother as a nurse. Pravin was an athlete, participating in Cross County and Track during high school. Pravin honored his heritage by participating in Indian dance. He was a happy person and his family states he was always laughing and joking. He was charismatic and just a fun person to be around.
When Pravin approached the end of high school, he began to look for colleges. He wanted to work in law enforcement, and Southern Illinois University had a respected criminal justice program. Despite his parent’s initial shock at his choice to pursue a career in criminal justice, they supported their son as he began college along with his cousin Ashley. Pravin was popular on campus and enjoyed college life. Pravin and Ashley admittedly partied as most college kids do, but a party in February of 2014 would lead to tragedy.
Pravin was last seen at a party in Carbondale on February 12th, 2014, at approximately 11 pm. According to his phone records, he called a friend from Chicago at approximately 12:30 am on February 13th. According to the friend, she heard sounds that made her believe Pravin was running and maybe arguing with someone. The friend said that Pravin told her not to hang up, but she eventually did hang up the phone. There were two Twitter posts made by Pravin that night: “99% of the time I have no idea whats going on” at 11:06 pm and “Bloody knuckles… guess I was in a fight #backdown” at 11:17 pm (Chicago Tribune, 2014).
That second tweet caused some to speculate Pravin may have been in a fight with someone at the party, but those at the party painted another picture. They said a window had fallen on Pravin’s hand, and Pravin joked about being in a fight which was very much his character. Witnesses said he left the party that night on foot and was not seen after that by anyone who knew him.
Pravin’s family hurried the six hours south to Carbondale to look for Pravin. A reward was offered for any information about the missing nineteen-year-old. Pravin was described as a nineteen-year-old male of Indian descent who stood 5’7” and weighed 150 lbs. He was wearing a red t-shirt, dark blue jeans, and purple shoes the night he disappeared. He had a tattoo on his chest that read “Fear God”. Mathew and Lovely were desperate to find their son, despite some authorities suggesting he was just a college kid who was out partying.
On February 17th, a young man came to the Carbondale Police Department to inform them of something disturbing his cousin had told him. He said his cousin, Gaege Bethune, told him he had picked up a man matching Pravin’s description and had a fight and the boy ran into the woods off Route 13 on the east side of Carbondale. Gaege Bethune was brought in for questioning and told a hell of a story. Meanwhile, police searched the wooded area right outside town in Carbondale. They found Pravin Varughese.
Lovely Varughese described the moment she was told Pravin had been found. She asked if he was alive, and they told her the unfortunate news that he was deceased. Lovely and her family were told that Pravin accepted a ride from a recent acquaintance and after an argument, Pravin left the vehicle. They were told he was highly intoxicated and likely died of hypothermia after fleeing into the woods. Clothing has found nearby although Pravin was found without his shirt and shoes on. Authorities explained that when someone suffers hypothermia, they sometimes strip clothing because they have a false sense of overheating.
Before the autopsy was performed, a press conference was held. Carbondale Police Chief Jody O’Guinn said, “the difficult terrain and low temperatures are believed to have contributed to Varughese’s difficulty finding his way out of the woods” (Northwest Herald, 2014). Deputy Chief Stan Reno said, “there were no obvious signs of trauma of Varughese’s body” (Northwest Herald, 2014). However, this theory didn’t make sense to Lovely and Pravin’s family.
Pravin’s family asked to see him, and arrangements were made for them to see Pravin at the local hospital. As soon as Lovely saw him, she knew something was wrong. Pravin had what looked like a bruise on his forehead. The authorities explained that Pravin was found face-down, and the bruised area was frostbite. They were told that Pravin was heavily intoxicated. They were told he was a drug dealer looking for drugs the night of his death. Lovely knew that was not true. She knew her son. However, the autopsy performed in Carbondale listed the cause of death as environmental hypothermia. Toxicology results showed no drugs or alcohol in Pravin’s system.
When Pravin’s body was transferred to Chicago for the funeral, the funeral home director told Lovely she needed to see the extent of the wounds on his body. Pravin had over twenty wounds to his body that indicated he had been beaten. Although her culture tells her not to question authority, Lovely knew she had to advocate for her son. She hired a medical examiner to perform a second autopsy on Pravin. The toxicology results were reviewed, once again showing no drugs or alcohol in Pravin’s system. This time, the medical examiner determined at least three blows to the head were consistent with blunt force trauma. The blunt force trauma was considered a secondary cause of death contributing to Pravin dying of hypothermia in the Carbondale woods.
Gaege said that Pravin asked him for a ride and was texting people trying to score cocaine. However, he wouldn’t give Gaege a place to drop him off and Gaege finally got angry and pulled the truck over outside of Carbondale. He told a few different versions of this story, one in which he says Pravin tried to rob him, but he later admitted that was not true. He said once the truck stopped Pravin punched him and the two rolled down the hill into the wooded area, exchanging punches along the way. He said he saw a trooper pull up behind his truck, at which point Pravin ran off.
A trooper did pull over, seeing Gaege’s emergency lights on. His dash came video shows Gaege coming up from the wooded area, talking to the officer, and then the officer shining his flashlight into the wooded area. “The driver told the trooper he had offered to give the man a ride but told the man he would need money for gas. The driver said the man then punched him in the face, jumped out of the truck, and ran into the woods. The driver tried to chase the man but couldn’t find him” (Bullington, 2014). The officer said he didn’t see or hear anyone in the woods but noticed a red spot on Gaege’s face. Gaege declined any further assistance, and the trooper cleared the call. Lovely said “If he knew there was an altercation and somebody ran into the woods, I wish he would have called backup. Or at least in the morning, they could have found him alive” (Bullington, 2014). The trooper did not immediately file a report on the incident.
Despite the knowledge that there had, in fact, been a fight that night between Gaege Bethune and Pravin Varughese, Lovely was told no foul play was suspected. She was told her son was on drugs and severely drunk, but toxicology proved that to not be the case. Friends of Pravin said while he did have a little to drink that night, he was not drunk and did not use drugs. Lovely wanted the truth. She wanted to know how her healthy nineteen-year-old ended up dead in the woods, unable to help himself.
Pravin’s family and friends formed an action committee to further the investigation and demand justice for the Varughese family along with Southern Illinois radio host Monica Zukas. Lovely and Monica became good friends as they searched for answers. It would take a few years and a mother advocating for answers before Monica and Lovely received the unredacted files in the case. By this time, State’s Attorney Michael Carr had presented evidence to a grand jury, and they had declined to charge Bethune with a crime. Lovely Varughese said, “the decision was unfair because Carr had not subpoenaed Dr. Ben Margolis, the Harvard-trained independent forensic pathologist and Director of the Autopsy Center of Chicago” (DeFiglio, 2015).
Lovely had to defend her son’s reputation as people called him a drug dealer, a drunk college student who passed out in the woods, and other disparaging remarks. Lovely knew that was not the case. After all, Pravin’s toxicology results were negative. His friends said he was not selling or doing drugs, but he did occasionally drink. Not only were authorities not honest and forthcoming about the physical violence inflicted upon Pravin, but they were blaming him for his own death.
Once Lovely and Monica had the files, they found several disturbing things. First, photos from where Pravin was found show he was found on his back, not face down as Lovely was told. The bruising was then described by Carbondale authorities as “post-mortem discoloration”. However, Dr. Margolis disagreed strongly. The bruises extended to the bone and indicated Pravin had been in a violent altercation with defensive wounds.
They finally watched the video-tapped interview of Gaege Bethune. In this video, recorded on February 17th, Gaege says “He definitely was not my race. I am not used to being around those types of people” (Who Killed My Son). Gaege admitted to the fight, indicating that the police knew the day before Pravin was found that he had been in a fight. Yet, they denied any of his injuries were from an altercation. The trooper finally submitted his report several days after the incident, which contradicted the story Gaege already told authorities. The trooper noted he found the situation suspicious and noted Gaege was acting nervous, but no follow-up was done and Gaege was not considered a suspect.
Lovely Varughese is a prime example of a momma bear who refused to give up her fight for justice. She kept pushing along with Monica and eventually a special prosecutor was named in this case. When the special prosecutor investigated this case, he came to a very different conclusion than Michael Carr. This time, a grand jury was presented all the evidence in the case including the toxicology results, the second autopsy report, and the conflicting statements given by Gaege Bethune. Gaege Bethune was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder in 2017, three years after Pravin’s death.
According to the indictment, Pravin’s death was a result of hypothermia following being beaten and robbed. According to the documents “Bethune admitted to authorities that he inflicted multiple punches to the head and face, rendering (Varughese) ‘dead weight’” (Chicago Tribune, 2017). Pravin’s parents came to his defense, stating he was not guilty of killing Pravin and that their “son will fight the charges and that they have retained a lawyer for his defense” (Chicago Tribune, 2017).
In June of 2018, the trial against Gaege Bethune began in Jackson County, Illinois. During the trial, witnesses who were with Gaege that night said he appeared intoxicated and was using cocaine (Who Killed My Son). The prosecution explained that Gaege assaulted Pravin as he tried to rob him. The assault rendered Pravin likely unconscious and unable to get out of the woods. The prosecution showed that drugs and alcohol were not a factor in Pravin’s death as his toxicology was negative. Gaege Bethune took the stand in his own defense and admitted to hitting Pravin in the face (Who Killed My Son). The jury found Gaege Bethune guilty of first-degree murder.
Gaege Bethune’s family told Southern Illinoisan that the Facebook posts made by Lovely Varughese and supporters of the Varughese family unfairly tainted the jury and caused their son to be convicted unjustly (Williams, 2018). They petitioned to have the verdict overturned, but the petition was denied. It seemed that the Varughese family had finally found justice. But then, something happened that shocked everyone.
On the morning of the sentencing hearing, Gaege Bethune (pictured) was led to the courtroom in street clothes and without shackles, immediately raising concerns for the Varughese family. Judge Mark Clarke made an announcement that shocked Pravin’s family. He announced that there was no prosecutorial misconduct, there was significant evidence for the jury to find Mr. Bethune guilty, but there was a problem. He said that a syntax error including the placement of a comma and the word “knowingly” on the indictment may have confused the jury. For this reason, he set aside the guilty verdict. Gaege Bethune was a free man.
Gaege Bethune was set free in 2018 after the verdict was set aside and charges were dropped against him. The special prosecutor claimed he would rebuild the case and bring Bethune back to trial, but so far there has been no movement in this case. Gaege Bethune remains a free man four years after being convicted of murder. He could, however, be recharged at any time. Although this shocking ruling by the judge set Bethune free, Lovely Varughese says she is at peace knowing that what happened to her son is known and a matter of public record (Who Killed My Son). She believes that race and prejudice played a role in this case.
As part of my research into this case, I interviewed Lovely Varughese. Lovely has been very outspoken and shared her story with many news outlets including a special on Investigation Discovery, Dateline, and several podcasts. She wants to bring awareness to the problems in our justice system and inspire change. She believes Pravin would have been an excellent police officer and would fight for social justice in our criminal justice system. I asked Lovely the following questions and will share her answers below.
Gina: What do you want the world to know about the person Pravin was? How should he be remembered?
Lovely: I want the world to know what a wonderful son Pravin is, a loving, caring, funny kid who had high hopes and dreams about his future. Loved his life and lived a full life. Never held a grudge. I was Pravin to be remembered for his love and compassion to others.
Gina: Has the State’s Attorney indicated if or when Gaege will be tried again?
Lovely: The special prosecutor has not given us any dates.
Gina: What if anything has the university done differently to protect students?
Lovely: I feel the university always should do more to protect their students. These are young students, most of them are just leaving home for the first time, and naturally, they want to enjoy their freedom. I feel there should be more education from the college to students on the dangers they could face and how to protect themselves.
Gina: History can’t be undone, but what if anything could bring you and your family peace?
Lovely: Pravin’s death has made many changes. The scholarships that we started in Pravin’s name give us a lot of peace.
Gina: What advice will you have for someone who finds themselves in the position you were put in?
Lovely: I would tell people who are in our position not to ever give up. Do not be afraid to ask questions and challenge the authority. Do not lose your spirit and listen to your own intuitions. Be the voice of your loved one and never give up. Trust in the Lord and believe that he will lead you to the truth and give you peace.
As Lovely indicated, there is now a scholarship fund in Pravin’s name given to criminal justice majors. This is one way in which the family honors Pravin’s memory and invests in the future of law enforcement. If you would like to donate to the Pravin Varughese Memorial Scholarship Fund, please visit our website for more information.
Justice for Pravin (Visited 2022) Justice For Pravin Facebook Page; (2) Justice For Pravin | Facebook
Bullington, J. (2014) Family wants answers in SIU student’s death; Chicago Tribune; 18 Apr 2014
Berger, S. (2014) Family questions details of SIU student’s death; Chicago Tribune; 30 Oct 2014
DeFiglio, P. (2015) State’s attorney requests review of Varughese investigation; Chicago Tribune; 5 Mar 2015
Associated Press (2015) Families seek answers after 2 student deaths in Carbondale; The Belleville News Democrat; 15 Mar 2015
Duncan, D. (2018) Bethune trial starts Monday; The Southern Illinoisan; 3 Jun 2018
Duncan, D. (2018) Bethune found guilty of murder; The Southern Illinoisan; 15 Jun 2018
Southern Illinoisan (2018) Judge overturns Gaege Bethune’s murder conviction in the death of Pravin Varughese; Southern Illinoisan; 30 Dec 2018
Chicago Tribune (2014) Family of missing SIU student offers reward; Chicago Tribune; 17 Feb 2014
Northwest Herald (2014) Foul play not suspected in SIU student’s death; Northwest Herald; 20 Feb 2014
Chicago Tribune (2014) Details emerge in mysterious ’14 death of SIU student; Chicago Tribune; 18 Jul 2017
Williams, N. (2018) Social Injustice?; Southern Illinoisian; 22 Jul 2018
FindAGrave (accessed 2022) Pravin Mathew Varughese; Retrieved at: Pravin Mathew Varughese (1994-2014) - Find a Grave Memorial
Who Killed My Son? (2021) Who Killed My Son?; Investigation Discovery
Dateline (2022) At the Edge of Town; Dateline Weekend Mystery; NBC