TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) -- The man and woman who admitted to setting a deadly blaze at an apartment complex in Manhattan now know their fate in prison.
Patrick Scahill, 20, and Virginia Griese, 20, both of Manhattan, were sentenced Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson. Scahill was sentenced to 30 years behind bars and Griese was sentenced to 20 years.
In April, the duo pleaded 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.
The 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 drugs and 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 Virginia 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 narcotics. The group initially planned to use a weapon but that idea didn’t work out. Griese ended up buying a five gallon gas can at Wal-Mart and filling it up at the nearby Hy-Vee gas station all of which was caught on surveillance cameras.
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.
Vasanta Pallem’s parents and sister were in court Monday for the sentencing. Her sister said Vasanta came to the US in 2000 to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering in an effort to make her ultimate dream of becoming a renowned scientist come true. Her sister says her family is “still trying to understand why this unfortunate thing happened” to them and that her sister’s death has caused them extreme pain and trauma as they continue to try to cope with their loss. Vasanta’s father told the judge that his daughter’s life was cut short “by the thoughtless actions” of Scahill and Griese. Vasanta’s mother said on the night of the fire, her daughter packed her educational certificates and laptop when she heard the fire alarm going off and went into the corridor in a panic where she ended up being overcome by smoke and passing away.
Engineering Professor Alexander Matthews who ran the lab at K-State where Pallem worked described her as a hard worker who had lots of potential and who always finished her work and went out of her way to help others. "A wonderful person and scientist was lost in a tragic way," he said.
Jared Maag called several people to the stand, including Dennis Denzien and Frank Hanson. In exchange for their testimony, Denzien and Hanson are hoping for reduced sentences. They testified that Patrick Scahill was a drug dealer who sold a variety of narcotics on a daily basis out of his Manhattan apartment and also broke into cars on a regular basis, stealing items inside to later sell online or at local pawn shops. According to Denzien, Hanson and another friend, Gavin Hairgrove, Patrick Scahill also fired a gun on several occasions, including shooting into the air when he was driving in a neighborhood and shooting at a car that cut him off in a road rage incident.
According to his friends, Scahill also set fire to two Manhattan homes in the same night in October of 2012, allegedly targeting people who had ripped him off in drug deals. An arson on Colorado caused $1500 worth of damage and an arson on Kean Street caused $1000 worth of damage. No one was injured. Riley County detectives testified that the residents at both locations were involved with narcotics. On the stand, Scahill’s friends also alluded to an arson in Kansas City he was reportedly involved with but no details were provided. Virginia Griese was not present for any of these alleged crimes, the witnesses said but they testified that she was a willing participant in the plan devised the night Vasanta Pallem died.
Patrick Scahill and Virginia Griese, donning orange jumpsuits, both expressed remorse for what they did during their sentencing. Scahill asked Vasanta Pallem's family for forgiveness. They've been ordered to pay back $157,000 for the damage they caused at the Lee Crest Apartments.