MANHATTAN, Kan. (WIBW)-- Federal prosecutors are taking the lead in a deadly Manhattan arson case, seeking stiffer penalties for the suspects in the federal court system.
During a press conference in Downtown Manhattan Thursday morning, U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas Barry Grissom announced that federal charges have been filed against Patrick Scahill, 20, and Virginia Griese, 19, both of Manhattan. Kansas State University officials list Scahill as a former student and Griese as a current student.
The duo has been indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of "arson resulting in death" in connection with an apartment fire that was intentionally set and claimed the life of 34-year-old Dr. Vasanta Pallem, a postdoctural researcher at Kansas State University.
Grissom says his office is ready to prosecute the case to the fullest extent of the law. Federal prosecution paves the way for harsher punishment. If convicted on state charges, officials say the suspects would most likely have been sentenced to 20 years behind bars. If convicted in federal court, the maximum sentence is the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"The indictment alleges the defendants acted in reckless disregard for human life and that Ms. Pallem died as a direct result of their actions... You may be asking why this case is prosecuted federally. The Riley County Attorney’s Office reached out to our office early on and we made a decision after rather extensive consultation that this case would be better handled in the federal context versus in state court. The reason why we made that decision is because of the penalty that a conviction in this case could bring. A conviction in a case like this can result in life in federal prison without parole," he said.
Taking part in the news conference along with Grissom were Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson and Marino Vidoli, Special Agent in Charge with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as representatives of other law enforcement agencies.
The deadly fire broke out late on the night of Thursday, February 6, 2013 at the Lee Crest Apartments at 820 Sunset Avenue. Most of the occupants in the building, which is adjacent to K-State’s campus, are university students.
Crews had extinguished the fire and were doing a search of the building when they found Pallem in medical distress, suffering from respiratory problems.
She was rushed to Mercy Regional Health Center where she died from smoke inhalation.
Pallem, a native of India, worked in the university's chemical engineering department and lived in an apartment on the top floor of the apartment complex.
"As demonstrated by this tragedy, arson is a violent crime and can have a direct result and a devastating loss. Arson is not just a property crime. It affects lives and in this case, it can take lives. This criminal act has had a devastating effect on the Pallem family and this community. Our hearts grieve and go out to the Pallem family during this difficult time and we hope that these charges can bring a sense of justice to them," Vidoli said Thursday.
Grissom added: "She had a brilliant career ahead of her and her life was tragically cut short while she did her studies here at Kansas State University."
No one else was injured in the fire. Local, state and federal authorities, including the ATF, investigated the deadly blaze and news of Scahill and Griese's arrests came Friday, February 8, 2013 but officials have not released any details on the case.
During the press conference Thursday, Grissom could not provide details on an underlying motive in the case or the circumstances surrounding the arson. He said Scahill and Griese poured gasoline down the hallway of the apartment complex and set it on fire.
"I anticipate that there will be more details about this investigation that will be made public in the not too distant future. I can say that we have no evidence that the defendants specifically targeted this victim... This was no accident. This was two individuals taking gasoline, walking down a hallway, dumping the gasoline and lighting it," he said.
"On behalf of the United States Attorney’s Office, this unfortunate young lady who was killed in this event, we want to express our sincere condolences to her family. Nothing that we do on this case is going to erase the loss that they suffered but I can promise that we will do everything in our power to seek justice for her in the prosecution of this case and we won’t rest until that prosecution is completed," he added.
Court records do not list defense attorneys for the defendants. They are scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Topeka on Wednesday, March 13th. They remain in custody.
Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson said: "What will be sought is justice for the tragic death of Vasanta Pallem, a person who had a bright future and a desire to teach students. We cannot bring Dr. Pallem back but we can bring justice to this tragic event. That justice is in the very capable hands of the U.S. Attorney's Office and we are confident in the outcome of that endeavor."
Wilkerson and Assistant Riley County Attorney Barry Disney have been named special prosecutors in the case to assist with the federal court case.
Scahill and Griese were originally charged by the state with Felony Murder and Aggravated Arson but officials say the state charges will be dismissed to give way to the federal charges.
Pictures of Scahill and Griese are not available because the Riley County Police Department does not released booking photos taken in their jail. They did not live at the Lee Crest Apartments and it's unclear why they targeted that particular location.
Repairs are still being done to the apartment complex in the wake of the fire.