TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) -- A Manhattan arson case will be reviewed by a panel of experts with the Department of Justice to determine whether federal prosecutors should pursue the death penalty or life in prison for the suspects.
Patrick Scahill, 20, and Virginia Griese, 19, both of Manhattan, were arraigned in U.S. Magistrate Court in Topeka Wednesday morning.
They entered a plea of not guilty 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.
During a press conference in Manhattan last week, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom revealed that the suspects were being federally prosecuted for the crime and had been indicted by a federal grand jury.
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
"This was no accident. This was two individuals taking gasoline, walking down a hallway, dumping the gasoline and lighting it," Grissom said during last week's press conference. He said there's no evidence Pallem was specifically targeted.
Officials have not provided any information on a motive but sources say the arson was meant to divert the attention of authorities from their investigation into a crime that happened the same day. Patrick Scahill's roommates, Frank Hanson and Dennis Denzien, are facing federal charges in connection with an armed robbery at the Dara's Fast Lane on Claflin Road Wednesday, February 6, 2013, around 1:20 AM. They pleaded not guilty during their arraignment Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Maag said the cases are "related" during court proceedings Wednesday but the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Kansas has declined to say how the cases are connected. Maag was not able to make any comments to WIBW Wednesday.
Gavin Hairgrove, 19, was also arraigned Wednesday in connection with the arson. He charged with being an accessory after the fact. According to his indictment, Hairgrove "received, relieved, comforted and assisted one or more offenders in order to hinder and prevent their apprehension, trial and punishment." He entered a plea of not guilty. He faces up to 15 years in prison. Officials could not provide any other details on his alleged involvement.
As for Patrick Scahill and Virginia Griese, they remain in custody of the United State Marshal's Service. Officials say the maximum possible penalty under the federal statute for their charge of "Arson Resulting in Death" is the death penalty.
Per federal procedure when the maximum penalty is death, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Kansas will submit information on the case to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s Capital Case Unit. The unit reviews cases from around the country and will recommend whether prosecutors should go forward with seeking the death penalty or a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Officials said it would be a "matter of months" before all of the case information is exchanged and a recommendation is received from Washington, D. C.