Two K-State students have pleaded guilty to the charge of Arson resulting in Death in connection with an apartment fire that claimed the life of a K-State postdoctoral researcher.
20-year-old Patrick Scahill and 19-year-old Virginia Griese entered their pleas Wednesday afternoon in Federal District Court in Topeka before Judge Pamela Robinson. The two defendants were arrested following a fire that killed 34-year old Vasanta Pallem at her residence at 820 Sunset Avenue on the night of February 6. Firefighters and emergency personnel had found her unconscious when they responded to the report of the fire.
Scahill pleaded guilty with a plea agreement while Griese’s plea had no plea agreement. Both will be sentenced on July 15, the maximum sentence they can face is Life Without Parole.
The incident revolves around a case that started at a local Manhattan Dara’s. The press release from the U.S. District attorney’s office is published below:
TOPEKA – Two people have pleaded guilty to setting a fire that killed a woman in an apartment complex in Manhattan, Kan., U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said today.
Patrick Martin Scahill, 20, Manhattan, Kan., and Virginia Amanda Griese, 19, Manhattan, Kan., pleaded guilty to one count each of arson resulting in death.
In his plea, Scahill admitted he started the Feb. 6, 2013, fire at the Lee Crest Apartments at 820 Sunset Avenue in Manhattan that caused the death of Kansas State researcher Vasanta Pallem. Scahill admitted he started the fire in an effort to create a diversion that would prevent police from finding evidence in his residence of an armed robbery and other crimes.
The sequence of events began in the late evening hours of Feb. 5 when Scahill’s associates, Frank Joseph Hanson and Dennis James Denzien, conspired to commit a robbery at Dara’s Fast Lane, a convenience store in Manhattan. Early in the morning hours of Feb. 6, Hanson and Denzien robbed Dara’s Fast Lane. Denzien was the driver. Hanson entered the store brandishing a .22 caliber pistol owned by Scahill.
At about 6 p.m. that day, Riley County Police were dispatched to a disturbance call and knocked on the door of the residence where Scahill lived. Denzien and Hanson also were at the residence when police arrived. After police noticed a strong odor of marijuana from the residence, they told Scahill and the others they were going to seek a warrant to search the residence. Scahill, Denzien and Hanson left the residence while police were working to obtain a warrant.
Meeting together later, Scahill, Denzien, Hanson and Griese discussed the likelihood that police would find narcotics, a firearm and items associated with the robbery at Dara’s Fast Lane once they searched Scahill’s residence. They discussed ways to divert the attention of law enforcement officers long enough for Scahill to re-enter the residence and remove the incriminating evidence.
In the end, Griese, a friend named Gavin Hairgrove, and another person, drove to a Walmart where Griese bought a five-gallon gas can. Then they went to a Hy-Vee gas station where Hairgrove worked and Griese pumped 4.7 gallons of gas into the can. She paid for it with her debit card.
Later, Scahill and Griese drove around looking for something to burn. They chose the Lee Crest Apartments, a three-level, 12-unit apartment complex within sight of Scahill’s apartment. Scahill entered the building. He emptied the contents of the gas can in the lower level hallway, set the fire and left the building.
As the fire burned, a thick, black smoke rose through the building, forcing tenants out of their apartments through windows and out of balconies. Vasanta Pallem was unable to escape the building. She worked her way from her apartment on the top floor of the building to the first floor where she died near the east entrance of the complex. An autopsy showed she died from breathing fumes during the fire. The carbon monoxide saturation in her system was over 50 percent, more than enough to kill her.
After setting the fire, Scahill and Griese went to Griese’s apartment where Scahill cleaned up and discarded clothes soaked in gasoline. Hairgrove assisted Scahill in disposing of his shoes, which reeked of gasoline.
Later, investigators looking into the arson received tips that led them to Scahill.
Sentencing is set for July 15. They face a maximum penalty of life in federal prison.
Other defendants include:
Frank Joseph Hanson, 22, Manhattan, Kan., who has pleaded guilty and is set for sentencing July 8. Dennis James Denzien, 20, Manhattan, Kan., who is awaiting trial.Gavin Taylor Hairgrove, 29, Manhattan, Kan., who is awaiting trial.
Grissom commended all the investigators and law enforcement agencies that worked on the case, including 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, as well as Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Maag, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Wilkerson and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Disney, who are prosecuting.
In all cases, defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty. The indictments merely contain allegations of criminal conduct.