MANHATTAN, Kan. (WIBW) -- The duo charged in a fatal apartment in Manhattan that claimed the life of a Kansas State University researcher has admitted to setting the deadly blaze.
Patrick Scahill, 20, and Virginia Griese, 19, both of Manhattan, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court Wednesday afternoon to the charge of Arson Resulting in a 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.
Members of the Riley County Police Department, Riley County Attorney's Office, Manhattan Fire Department, State Fire Marshal's Office and ATF were in the courtroom Wednesday, sitting in on the proceedings. The fire was investigated by local, state and federal authorities.
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 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.
Prosecutors said the suspects did not specifically target Pallem when they set the fire. The arson was meant to create a diversion that would prevent police from discovering evidence inside Patrick Scahill's apartment from an armed robbery.
In the early morning hours of February 6, 2013, Frank Hanson III and Dennis Denzien (Patrick Scahill's roommates and friends) robbed the Dara's Fast Lane on Claflin Road in Manhattan, getting away with $200. Denzien drove the getaway car and Hanson went inside to rob the convenience store, carrying Scahill's .22 caliber pistol. Scahill did not know about the hold up.
Later that same day around 6 PM, police responded to the apartment on Anderson Avenue where Scahill, Denzien and Hanson lived to a report of someone firing a weapon at parked cars. When police arrived, they smelled marijuana. Police informed Denzien and Scahill that they were going to obtain a warrant to search the residence as Hanson escaped out a back window.
The men later convened at a friend's place, also joining up with Amanda Griese, and talked about how police would find evidence from the Dara's robbery inside their apartment and how they could divert the focus of police so that Scahill go could back in and get rid of all of the incriminating items like the gun, clothing, a mask and drugs. The group initially planned to use a weapon that idea was scratched and Griese ended up buying a five gallon gas can at Wal-Mart and filling it up at the nearby Hy-Vee gas station.
Griese and Scahill drove around looking for a place to set a fire and ended up at the Lee Crest Apartments. Scahill emptied the gas can in the lower level of the complex and ignited it, causing a build-up of thick, black smoke. Many of the residents went out on their balconies to safety but Pallem tried to work her way down to the 1st floor exits, causing her to inhale toxic fire gases. She died near the east entrance of the complex. Carbon monoxide levels in her system were more than 50 percent.
Meanwhile, Griese helped Scahill get rid of his clothes at her apartment and gave him other clothes to wear because his reeked of gasoline. She left the gas can at her parent's house.
Back at the apartment where Scahill, Denzien and Hanson lived, police got a search warrant and found clothing matching the description from the robbery at Dara’s. Police obtained a second warrant and found a mask, gloves, a backpack and the firearm used in the robbery- an RG Industries Model RG14 .22 caliber revolver. The whole plan hatched by the group of friends ultimately failed.
Prosecutors say authorities knew early on that the apartment fire was intentionally set because of the stench of gasoline and burn pattern. They did not have any leads in the arson case until they received two phone tips that led police to question Scahill and Griese. They both admitted to their roles in setting the fire and described how they carried out their plan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Maag said.
Griese and Scahill could face life in prison without the possibility of parole and a fine of up to $250,000. They remain in custody. They're scheduled to be sentenced July 15, 2013.