Victim’s family speaks in arson sentencing

By Katherine Wartell

TOPEKA — The duo charged in connection with a fatal February apartment fire that resulted in the death of a K-State researcher appeared in federal court Monday for sentencing.

Patrick Scahill, 20, and Virginia Griese, 19, appeared in front of District Judge Julie Robinson for the charge of arson resulting in death. Both pleaded guilty in April to the Feb. 6 fire at Lee Crest Apartments in Manhattan authorities say they set to divert the attention of law enforcement officials serving a search warrant.

Federal sentencing guidelines recommend 27 to 33 years in prison, but the defense is pleading for shorter sentences than the guidelines recommend.

At the time of publication, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Maag was calling witnesses, including Scahill’s former roommate who was arrested in a related armed robbery, to the stand.

The witnesses testified about the night of the arson and about previous alleged crimes involving Scahill.

The family of the victim, Vasanta Pallem, 34-year-old postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering, also gave statements at the start of the hearing, with her mother, father and sister speaking on her behalf.

Her father said that news of her death “left us gasping for oxygen” because Pallem was their “lifeline.”

Her mother broke down on the stand while recounting her daughter’s life.

Sentencing is expected to take place this afternoon.

Prosecutors say Scahill emptied a 5-gallon container of gasoline in the lower hallway of the 12-unit Lee Crest Apartment Complex in Manhattan and ignited the liquid. Most tenants abandoned their apartments through windows or doors, while Pallem died of smoke inhalation after working her way from the top floor of the three-story apartment complex to a first floor exit.

In his plea agreement, Scahill admitted that he set the fire after officers who came to his apartment on an unrelated matter detected the odor of marijuana and told him they would be seeking a warrant to search the residence. Scahill said he wanted to divert the attention of law enforcement long enough to remove narcotics, a gun and other items associated with an earlier convenience store robbery.

Griese bought a gas can and paid for the gas to fill it, according to court documents.

She and Scahill then drove around trying to find something to burn before settling on the apartment complex near Scahill’s home.

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