The duo accused of setting a deadly February apartment fire here pleaded guilty to arson resulting in death in federal court Wednesday. Officials said the arson/murder was part of a plot to distract police from finding incriminating evidence related to an earlier armed robbery.
Patrick Scahill, 20, and Virginia Griese, 19, both of Manhattan, admitted their involvement in starting a fire at Lee Crest Apartments, 820 Sunset Ave., in the late hours of Feb. 6. The fire killed Vasanta Pallem, 34, a tenant of the complex and a post-doctoral researcher at Kansas State University.
In court Wednesday, prosecutor and Assistant U.S Attorney Jared Maag indicated that Pallem, who lived on the upper level, attempted to exit the building by taking the east stairwell.
First responders discovered her body near the east entrance. An autopsy showed she died from breathing fumes. Officials said the carbon monoxide saturation in her system was more than 50 percent.
Until Wednesday, officials were tight-lipped about the details of the case, including the connection between the arson and the earlier armed robbery. The full story emerged during both defendants’ change of plea hearings.
Maag said the events began in the early morning hours of Feb. 6, when Scahill’s two roommates, Frank Hanson, 22, and Dennis Denzien, 20, robbed Dara’s Fast Lane, 1816 Claflin Road, at gunpoint, stealing about $200. (While Hanson, the gunman, pleaded guilty to the crime in April, Denzien, allegedly the getaway driver, is awaiting trial. Both are charged with brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.)
Police did not suspect the men until after they were called to the area of their apartment, at 1838 Anderson Ave., at about 6 that same night on an unrelated report that someone was firing a pellet gun at unattended vehicles.
A strong odor of marijuana, Maag said, led responding officers to the men’s apartment door, and for approximately 20 minutes, police attempted to make contact before Scahill and Denzien opened the door. Unbeknownst to police, Hanson had also been in the apartment, but he had left through a back window.
Officers informed the two men that they intended to search the apartment and told them they could wait with the officers while the warrant was authorized or they could leave.
Maag said Scahill and Denzien left, reconvening with Hanson at the apartment of friend Gavin Hairgrove, 19.
Knowing that police would find drugs, a gun and items from the robbery in their apartment, Maag said the men decided that creating a diversion would give Scahill time to re-renter the apartment and grab the incriminating evidence before police could find it.
During their scheming, Maag said, Griese joined the men at Hairgrove’s apartment. (Hairgrove was later arrested for accessory after the fact and is awaiting trial.)
Scahill and Griese eventually determined to start a fire within eyesight of Scahill’s apartment, apparently hoping the officers waiting to search his apartment would leave to respond to the fire.
On Wednesday, prosecutors said they are in possession of surveillance footage of Griese purchasing a 5-gallon gas canister at Wal-Mart and subsequently filling it with gas at Hyvee’s gas station. Griese made the purchases on her debit card, while Hairgrove reportedly accompanied her.
She waited in the car, however, while Scahill emptied 4.7 gallons of gasoline throughout the hallway of the lower level floor of the Lee Crest Apartments, a 12-unit complex, and ignited it. Scahill started the fire shortly before midnight. Though it reportedly only took 10 gallons of water to put out, the fire produced a thick, black smoke that forced residents to escape through their windows and balconies.
After igniting the fire, Maag said, the pair drove to Griese’s apartment, where Scahill cleaned up and Hairgrove allegedly helped to dispose of his gasoline-soaked shoes. Scahill had minor singing to his hair and knees.
Police did not have any significant leads in the case until they received a tip naming Scahill more than 24 hours after the arson.
Police had arrested Scahill and Denzien on the night of the arson in connection with items found in their apartment. Scahill was not implicated in the robbery, but was arrested on a number of drug charges and for criminal possession of a firearm, reportedly the 22-caliber handgun used in the robbery. Hanson was arrested for armed robbery the following day near Grandview Plaza.
Maag said Scahill and Griese confessed to the arson in interviews following the phone tip.
In court, prosecutors indicated that Scahill accepted a plea agreement while Griese offered a blind plea, or a guilty plea that is entered with no plea agreement in place.
Both still potentially face a maximum of life in prison without parole. They will be sentenced on July 15 by Judge Julie Robinson.
Both the arson and robbery case were made federal shortly after those involved were arrested.
Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson and Assistant County Attorney Barry Disney acted as special assistant U.S. attorneys for the prosecution.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Riley County Attorney’s Office, the Riley County Police Department, the Manhattan Fire Department, the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Kansas Bureau of Investigations and the Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s Office assisted in investigating the arson.