Pair indicted on federal charges for fire death

By Katherine Wartell

Federal charges were filed Thursday against a man and woman accused of intentionally setting an apartment fire that killed a Kansas State University researcher in February.

U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom announced the federal charges at a news conference here Thursday morning.

Patrick Scahill, 20, Manhattan, and Virginia Griese, 19, Manhattan, are charged with one count of arson resulting in death in connection with an apartment fire on Feb. 6 at Lee Crest Apartments, 820 Sunset Ave. The fire resulted in the death of Vasanta Pallem, 34, a tenant of the complex.

Scahill and Griese were arrested by Riley County officers on Feb. 8 for first-degree murder and aggravated arson, and have been confined to the Riley County Jail on $1 million bond since then. Officials said the two will be transferred to Topeka on Wednesday, when they will make their first appearances before a federal magistrate judge.

Because of the involvement of the ATF in the investigation, officials said from the beginning that federal charges were a possibility. Riley County Atty. Barry Wilkerson said Thursday that the County Attorney’s office and ATF agents had requested federal assistance.

Grissom, who said the duo acted in reckless disregard for human life, said federal prosecution could result in a stiffer punishment—life in federal prison without parole. He said in cases like this, the U.S. Attorney’s office is “prepared to prosecute this case to full extent of federal law.”

Grissom said investigators do not have an underlying motive, but believe Scahill and Griese poured gasoline down the lower level hallway of the apartment complex and lit it on fire. He said there is no evidence they were specifically targeting Pallem, who lived on the upper level.

Grissom expressed his condolences for Pallem, a postdoctoral researcher in K-State’s chemical engineering department. “She had a brilliant career in front of her,” he said.

Jared Maag, assistant U.S. attorney, will prosecute Scahill and Griese with the assistance of Wilkerson and Assistant County Attorney Barry Disney, who, Grissom said, were designated as special assistants.

Marino Vidoli, special agent in charge for the ATF, called the fire a “wanton criminal act.”

The Riley County Police Department, Manhattan Fire Department, Kansas Bureau of Investigations and State Fire Marshal’s Office also assisted in the investigation.

Scahill is a former K-State student, while Griese was a sophomore in biology at the university at the time of her arrest.

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