Judge gives separate prison terms for pair in deadly arson

By Katherine Wartell

The man and woman convicted of killing a K-State researcher after setting the apartment complex she lived in on fire in February were sentenced to prison Monday in front of a packed courtroom in Topeka.

Though Patrick Scahill, 20, and Virginia Griese, 20, appeared together for the nearly six-hour hearing, District Judge Julie Robinson doled out separate sentences. She gave 30 years to Scahill, who actually set the fire at Lee Crest Apartments close to midnight on Feb. 6, and 20 years to Griese. While Griese purchased the gasoline used to set the fire, she waited in her car while Scahill poured gasoline down the length of the lower level of the complex and lit it on fire.

Their act killed Vasanta Pallem, 34, a K-State postdoctoral researcher who lived on the upper floor of the complex. Pallem had attempted to exit the building through a stairwell, but her body was found collapsed near the entrance of the complex. An autopsy showed the carbon monoxide saturation in her system was above 50 percent, more than enough to kill her, officials said.

The pair in April pleaded guilty to arson resulting in death.

On Monday, the judge had tentatively sentenced Griese to about 24 years in prison before reducing it following Griese’s statement to the court in which she apologized for Pallem’s death and spoke about how she planned to turn her life around. The judge said she was moved by Griese’s statement that she would “honor (Pallem’s) memory” in everything she does and told Griese that she has “all the hope in the world” for her.

The judge also ordered the pair to pay a joint restitution of approximately $157,000.

In his statement to the judge, Scahill called the experience the worst of his life and, addressing Pallem’s family who were present in court, said he hoped they could one day forgive him.

The sentences followed statements by the family and friends of Pallem, Scahill and Griese.

Pallem’s parents, who traveled for the hearing from India, spoke lovingly of their daughter as did Pallem’s sister, who lives in Tennessee. Her sister told the court that she spoke with Pallem over Skype not long before her death. “It was only me and her,” she said, of their close friendship. She said her sister dreamed of becoming a renowned scientist.

Pallem’s mother questioned why the apartment complex did not have a lock-and-key system for entry.

Family and friends also spoke on behalf of Scahill and Griese, expressing their sorrow for the Pallem family and requesting leniency for the pair. Scahill’s father said his son is a good boy who got involved with the horrible drug culture, while a family friend said Griese had a tremendous amount to contribute to society.

Scahill’s mother told Pallem’s family that she would give her life for their daughter’s and said, “Our grief is different than yours, but it is still grief.”

Under the sentencing guidelines for felony crimes, which take into account criminal history, the maximum sentence Griese, who has no criminal history, could have gotten was about 30 years, while the maximum for Scahill, who has some criminal history, was about 34 years. Judges may sentence outside the guidelines if they believe there is a “substantial and compelling” reason to do so.

Their sentences were less than what prosecutors sought, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Maag asking for an upward departure of 40 years for Scahill and the maximum 30-year sentence for Griese.

The arson had been committed as part of a failed plan to divert police attention from a search warrant police were planning to execute at an apartment belonging to Scahill and two other men, Frank Hanson, 23, and Dennis Denzien, 20.

Both Hanson and Denzien have pleaded guilty for their part in an armed robbery at Dara’s Fast Lane on Claflin Road, committed the morning of the arson. While Denzien waited in the getaway car, Hanson entered the store with a .22-caliber gun belonging to Scahill and demanded money, getting away with about $200.

When police were called to the area of their apartment, 1838 Anderson Ave., on the night of the robbery for reports that someone was firing a BB gun at parked cars, an odor of marijuana led them to Scahill’s door. The officers announced their intentions to search the apartment and told the men they could wait with them while a warrant was obtained or leave.

According to officials, the men left and reconvened at the apartment of a friend, Gavin Hairgrove, 19. They knew incriminating evidence from the robbery, as well as narcotics, would be found in the apartment, so they hatched a plan to draw police away from the area so the evidence could be disposed of before police found it.

Additional details from the night were discussed Monday by Denzien, Hanson and Hairgrove, who is charged with accessory after the fact, after they were called to the stand by Maag.

Hairgrove, who was not speaking on condition of a plea agreement, said that the initial plan, discussed at Hairgrove’s residence, was to shoot a gun near Scahill’s apartment to distract police.

Griese, who was not friends with Scahill, was drawn into the plan by Hairgrove, who said he knew she had a gun at her parents’ house.

But the gun plan was discarded, he said, after they drove to Griese’s parents’ home and found they were still awake.

It was then decided, with Scahill reportedly leading the conversation, that something should be set on fire.

Surveillance videos show Griese purchasing a 5-gallon gas canister at Wal-Mart and filling it with gas at Hyvee Gas. Scahill lit the fire at Lee Crest Apartments close to midnight, after Griese drove him to the complex.

The pair returned to Griese’s apartment, where Hairgrove and Scahill’s girlfriend were waiting. According to Hairgrove, Griese described the fire as “beautiful” and joked to Scahill’s girlfriend that Scahill was almost lit on fire.

In pushing for a stricter sentence, Maag also asked the men about past alleged crimes involving Scahill, which are said to include two other arsons committed in Manhattan, significant drug dealing and a road rage incident during which Scahill allegedly shot at another car that cut him off.

In closing statements, Maag called the arson one of the most barbaric acts he has ever seen as a prosecutor and said the loss of life could have been horrific.

Both attorneys for Scahill and Griese — respectively, J. Richard Lake and Thomas Bath — said their clients have taken full responsibility for their actions and never intended for anyone to get hurt. Bath also said Griese got caught up in Scahill’s “jet-stream.” Both asked for downward variances from the sentencing guidelines.

Griese’s sentence of 20 years is below those guidelines, giving the U.S. Attorney’s office the option to appeal.

Hanson and Denzien are scheduled to be sentenced for the armed robbery on Aug. 12, while Hairgrove is awaiting trial.

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