College sophomore Pravin Varughese went out to a party, but he never made it home. He was later found dead in the middle of nowhere. How did he die? Was it from the cold? Or was it cold-blooded murder?
On a cold weeknight in February 2014, Pravin Varughese made his usual call home from Southern Illinois University, where he was a sophomore. It was the last time his parents ever speak to him.
"He called home every night, every single day we talked to him," said Pravin's mother Lovely Varughese. "We both talked to him that night around 9."
That same night in Carbondale, Ill., Pravin attends a party off campus.
The stories vary as to what happens next.
But at around 11 p.m. that night, police say, Pravin got into a pickup truck driven by a relative stranger, 22-year-old Gaege Bethune, who is leaving another party on the same street.
Exactly where they are going, and why, remains a mystery.
Shortly after midnight, a state trooper pulls up with his dashboard camera rolling behind Bethune's truck, already parked along Illinois Route 13 in Carbondale with its flashers blinking.
Bethune is alone. Pravin Varughese is nowhere to be seen. According to the trooper's report, Gaege Bethune says that he picked up an African-American male hitchhiking. He says the man tried to rob him and then took off down the sloping hillside from the road and into the woods
Local radio host Monica Zukas has been on top of the story since the beginning.
"Why didn't that trooper go look for whoever we now know he said had robbed him?" asks Monica Zukas. "Are we missing something?"
The trooper briefly shines a flashlight into the trees and sees nothing. Bethune heads off for home. And normally that might be the end of it.
The trooper's report makes no mention of Pravin and the local Carbondale Police are not alerted of the incident until days later.
"If somebody was just robbed, we've got a potential criminal now on the loose. Why aren't we looking for him?" said Zukas.
But for Pravin and his family, it's only the beginning of a saga that will change lives forever.
That same morning Lovely Varughese, Pravin's mother, who is a hospital nurse, says she wakes up with a profound feeling of dread that will not go away. Later that day she gets a call from police.
Pravin has been reported missing by a cousin in Carbondale.
Lovely and her husband Matthew Varughese drop everything and drive 300 miles south to Carbondale to help find their son. In fact they end up in a hotel almost within sight of the very spot where Bethune's truck was parked on the side of Route 13.
That's when Lovely Varughese has a powerful dream that haunts her for days, while police and Pravin's friends comb the city for her son, with no luck.
"The dream I had was he's in a car, somebody is driving him, and I see the door open and somebody is pushing him and he is rolling on the slope," Lovely tells Crime Watch Daily. "In Indian culture, they say if you have an early morning dream it is true. And I said, 'I have a feeling somebody has him.'"
The local airwaves are filled with news of the missing college student.
Police get a phone call from a cousin of Gaege Bethune, the driver of that pickup truck that was pulled over on Route 13. The cousin says Bethune recognized Pravin's face on TV and admitted that he had been in the truck with him that night.
Bethune voluntarily comes in for police questioning. Police intend to get to the bottom of this. But little do they know they have barely begun.
The college town of Carbondale, Illinois is stunned by the sudden disappearance of popular student Pravin Varughese. Police helicopters, dogs and hundreds of volunteers search for him everywhere.
And now detectives sit down with the last person believed to see him alive for a recorded interrogation.
Gaege Bethune was driving a pickup truck parked on Route 13 caught on police dash-cam video the night Pravin Varughese went missing. Bethune told the trooper who pulled up behind him on the scene that he was robbed by a man he picked up hitchhiking.
But now his story seems to be changing. He tells detectives it was Pravin who asked him for a ride as he left an off-campus party. And Bethune says he thinks Pravin was looking for drugs.
Bethune: "I offered the man a ride. Driving along, 'right here, make a left here, right here,' 30 minutes go by, talking to his friends about some cocaine or whatever it was."
Detective: "Do you remember how long his phone conversation was?"
Bethune: "No sir."
Detective: "Did it seem like he made multiple calls?"
Bethune: "Probably two to three."
Detective: "Did it sound like he ever successfully arranged for anything?"
Bethune: "Not successfully. Maybe we spent so much time just driving in circles."
But there could be a hole in that story big enough to drive his truck through.
Detective: "Would there be any reason that his phone records show that he didn't make any calls during that time you were with him?"
Bethune: "I mean, Hell, he could have been on the phone acting like he was on the phone."
Detective: "He didn't make any calls, he didn't receive any calls."
Bethune: "Then he was talking to himself, but he was talking."
But police do find an incoming text on Pravin's phone from earlier that evening, possibly from someone dealing drugs. And later, texts from Pravin's phone that stated "got some yay" and "got 2 g's." "Yay" is a common street term for cocaine.
But Lovely Varughese says her son has no history of buying or using drugs.
"We have Pravin's phone record, his text messages, his Facebook messages, we have thousands and thousands and thousands," said Lovely. "There is not a single one that he talked about drugs."
Until that night?
"Only that one night, just that one time, so we don't know whether somebody else texted from his phone or somebody else told him to text that," said Lovely.
Back in the truck, Gaege Bethune says things start getting ugly.
Bethune: "I asked him multiple times, 'Where are you going? Where's your destination,' and he can't really give me an exact spot. I told him, 'Look, I got to go,' and he wasn't cooperating. That's when he started to rage a little bit and he'd swing and punch me in my eye, and I pulled over on the side of the road."
Bethune says Pravin got out of the truck and that the two of them grappled as they rolled down the hill.
Bethune: "A couple of hits were exchanged on the way and he was on top of me at one point, and I was on top of him at one point. Fight maybe lasted 30 seconds. I wouldn't even really call it a fight. A little scuffle, you know? I do know for sure the first hit, I hit him dead-square in the face."
And right about then, police say, there is at least one unintentional call from Pravin's phone: A pocket dial answered by a female friend. That friend told police she heard a male voice telling Pravin to "give me that back" and what sounded like Pravin replying "I'm trying to help you," and "give me my pills back." And she says she heard the sound of someone running before she discontinued the call.
Detective: "Do you remember anybody saying the phrase 'I'm trying to help you?'"
Bethune: "No sir."
Detective: "Is that something you would have said to him?"
Bethune: "I mean, he had punched me in my face. I don't remember no one trying to 'help you.'"
In a second recorded interrogation police ask Gaege Bethune about a story he told friends shortly after the incident with Pravin.
Bethune: "I didn't know the kid was missing and I told the story, I went to tell them, like, I wasn't scared, like I was Mr. Tough Guy, you know. I don't want my friends to think I'm weak. I told him the kid was kind of scared of me, he jumped out real quick and he took off running and I chased him and I hit him and he turned around and I just hit him, knocked him out. That's what I told him."
But now Bethune is telling police that Pravin ran into the woods just before the trooper pulled up.
The stories don't seem to match up, but at least detectives know where to search. And the next day they make a horrific discovery in the woods about 400 yards from where the truck was parked.
It's Pravin Varughese. Dead.
And now the Varughese family gets the dreaded knock on the door of their hotel room where they've been waiting for any news of Pravin.
"He said, 'Pravin is found,' and I said 'Is he alive?' and he said no," said Lovely Varughese. "That was it. All our family was there so there was like all this screaming from everyone. I knew our family is not going to be the same anymore."
But Lovely is a trained nurse, and she has her suspicions about how her son died. She demands to see his body. And what she sees shocks her beyond belief.
"As we walked in I saw the bruise on his forehead and I -- somehow the word came out of my mouth -- I said 'Who beat my baby? Who beat my son?'" said Lovely.
Local radio show host Monica Zukas investigates big local news stories, and has dug deep into this case. She's obtained a folder of evidence photos, most of them too disturbing to air on television.
"This is two different dents and then he also has two or three other strikes to his head that are also bruises," said Zukas. "You don't want to show this, but this is -- the bruise was so deep it was into the muscle to the bone."
And the Varughese family is stunned all over again when Carbondale Police Chief Jody O'Guinn gives this answer at a press conference shortly after Pravin is found and before an autopsy is performed.
A reporter asked: "Since no foul play is suspected I take it that the condition of the body would lead you to believe that there hadn't been a fight. He wasn't injured physically."
"There were no obvious signs of trauma that would be caused by something other, by any kind of a suspicious means or any kind of altercation," O'Guinn said. "So no outward signs that we were able to see."
Pravin's family believes he was killed, and they may finally get the justice they've say they've been waiting for.
Adding to the hurt, Lovely Varughese says her son's reputation is still taking a pounding, even after his death.
"When I met with the state's attorney, he tried to tell me that my son was involved in many illegal activities," said Lovely. "He tried to paint a picture of my son who was a drunk and a drug dealer. He told me 'You thought you had a model son. He was not a model son you thought you had.'"
A report from state's attorney Michael Carr says that multiple witnesses described Pravin Varughese as either "intoxicated" or "highly intoxicated."
"Even if he was high and intoxicated he never should have died that night. The injuries killed him," said Lovely.
Now the anxiously awaited results of Pravin's autopsy are released, and they are equally shocking to the family.
"The coroner called me and said hypothermia was the reason, no injury," said Lovely.
But Lovely Varughese, a registered nurse, doesn't buy it.
"I saw every single injury on my son, so when the authorities started telling me and the autopsy said there is no injury, I said 'No one can deny my eyes. I saw my son,'" said Lovely.
The autopsy says there is an "absence of significant trauma" and that the body has abrasions and scratches associated with being found in a wooded area.
"The funeral director after he saw Pravin came to us and said you need to see your baby, he has injuries," said Lovely. "This is not a frostbitten body."
Oddly, the report also calls Pravin a "Middle Eastern male" and at one point a "female." And a handwritten note in the report reaffirms death from hypothermia, saying there is "no reason for his bizarre behavior and hiding in the woods."
But as far as any alleged drugging goes, Pravin's toxicology report comes back negative.
"They tested him for every single drug under the sun, and I knew 100 percent Parvin will come back negative for drugs. Alcohol, these are college kids, so, you know, I wasn't sure. I have never seen him drunk," said Lovely.
The family hits back and commissions a second autopsy. And now it's almost as if the two coroners are talking about two different bodies.
"The first autopsy said the markings on his forehead was postmortem discoloration, no injuries," said Lovely. "The second one, total, there are 22 injuries listed in his autopsy."
The second autopsy concludes that the underlying cause of Pravin Varughese's death is "significant blunt force trauma to the head." And it notes at least "three separate injuries" and a "defensive injury to the right arm." But it says the immediate cause and the manner of death is undetermined pending further investigation.
"I do have strong opinions at this point. But they are all from documents like these," said Monica Zukas.
Monica Zukas is a local radio host and activist for families of victims. She's been a clearinghouse of information on the case, obtaining documents through Freedom of Information requests and interviewing witnesses.
"All I know is somebody's baby had major injuries and they were trying to bury that baby and say he didn't have injuries, and that was not happening on my watch," said Zukas.
Zukas agrees that hypothermia is a factor in Pravin's death. However:
"Cause of death and manner of death are two different things," said Zukas. "If it's 19 degrees out and I duct-tape you to a tree, your cause of death is probably going to be hypothermia. But your manner of death is foul because I rendered you unable to get yourself to safety. I feel like that's exactly what the situation is."
Yet even with second autopsy results, the visible injuries on Pravin Varughese's body and no evidence of drugs in his system, a grand jury declines to indict Gaege Bethune for any crime.
But Pravin's family isn't finished with their fight for justice. They file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city of Carbondale, the police and Gaege Bethune.
"There was public reports saying that we filed lawsuits in hopes of collecting money," said Pravin's mother Lovely. "No money in the world is going to bring us Pravin back."
On the heels of that action, Carbondale Police Chief Jody O'Guinn is suddenly fired, although the department says it has nothing to do with the Pravin Varughese case.
"Mistakes were made, there's no doubt about it, mistakes were made," said Zukas. "Whether some of those mistakes were intentional or not, it doesn't matter at this point. They could have done better in many areas."
Lovely Varughese refused to give up. For more than three years she fought to get justice for her son. The family did finally drop the suit against the police and the city, but reached a settlement with Gaege Bethune.
Then, a dramatic milestone, as a new special prosecutor once again brings the case before a grand jury. This time they come back with a stunning indictment: a charge of first-degree murder against Gaege Bethune.
"We got the news that we can put our mind to peace," said Lovely. "All our work, three and a half years, paid off. I'm not calling this as a victory at all. It is a peace of mind."
In a written statement to Crime Watch Daily the Carbondale Police Department says: "It is an ongoing case and pending an outcome in the case, we cannot comment. We are unable to by law."
Former Carbondale Police Chief Jody O'Guinn agreed to sit down with Crime Watch Daily as we demand answers about the case, and why he so quickly dismissed the possibility it was murder.
The press conference that he gave on February 18, why did he assert that there was no foul play suspected? And this was before the autopsy results were in.
"We did ask the coroner if the injuries on Pravin's body were consistent with being in an altercation, or if they were consistent with running through a heavily wooded area in total darkness where he had the possibility that he could run into trees, he could run though a barbed wire fence which was on the property at the time," said O'Guinn. "The coroner did explain to us that that could be the cause of those injuries as well. So we were going on information from the coroner."
And his take on Gaege Bethune's guilt or innocence?
"I do think he has some culpability in it because he was involved in the altercation with Pravin," said O'Guinn. "However I don't personally believe that he was the cause of Pravin's death."
Gaege Bethune has pleaded not guilty to murder and is free on $100,000 bail as he awaits trial beginning later this fall.
The Varughese family says they are now leaving it to the judge and jury to decide exactly what or who killed Pravin Varughese -- a force of nature or an act of man.
"I do believe he was murdered," said Lovely Varughese. "If we believed everything we were told, we would have lived our life blaming our son for his death. That's the saddest thing."
Currently, Gaege Bethune isn't doing interviews as he prepares for trial. However, his defense attorney tells Crime Watch Daily that he believes the evidence will show his client is not guilty. He just sent us a statement:
Bethune's attorney Mike Wepsiec sent us a statement that reads in part: "First... Gaege did not murder Pravin. He performed no acts causing the death of Pravin. "Second... Gaege did not rob or attempt to rob Pravin. Gaege, with the support of his family and friends, intends to fight these charges to the bitter end in a court of law, no in the court of public opinion. ... By law, Gaege is presumed innocent."
Statement in full: