Kansas students to be sentenced in arson death

07/06/2013 12:20 PM

07/06/2013 12:20 PM

Prosecutors are seeking a lengthy prison sentence for a Kansas State University student who pleaded guilty to setting an apartment fire that killed a researcher.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson is scheduled to sentence Patrick Martin Scahill on Monday for the February fire that killed Vasanta Pallem, a 34-year-old postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering. Authorities say Scahill and co-defendant Virginia Amanda Griese set the fire to divert the attention of law enforcement officials serving a search warrant.

Federal sentencing guidelines recommend 27 to 33 years in prison, but prosecutors say what Scahill did was “monstrous.” The defense, meanwhile, is pleading for a shorter sentence than the guidelines recommend, saying he accepted responsibility for the crime.

Scahill, 20, and Griese, 19, pleaded guilty in April to arson resulting in death. Although both face sentencing Monday in federal court in Topeka, court records as of Friday did not show a sentencing recommendation for Griese filed by either the prosecution or defense.

Prosecutors say Scahill emptied a 5-gallon container of gasoline in the lower hallway of the 12-unit Lee Crest Apartment Complex in Manhattan and ignited the liquid. Most tenants abandoned their apartments through windows or doors, while Pallem died of smoke inhalation after working her way from the top floor of the three-story apartment complex to a first floor exit.

In his plea agreement, Scahill admitted that he set the fire after officers who came to his apartment on an unrelated matter detected the odor of marijuana and told him they would be seeking a warrant to search the residence. Scahill said he wanted to divert the attention of law enforcement long enough to remove narcotics, a gun and other items associated with an earlier convenience store robbery.

Griese bought a gas can and paid for the gas to fill it, according to court documents. She and Scahill then drove around trying to find something to burn before settling on the apartment complex near Scahill’s home.

“The defendant’s conduct in this case is inexplicable and the level of depravity stunning,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Maag wrote in a court filing Friday.

“To ignite 5 gallons of a flammable liquid in the lower level of an apartment complex known to be occupied is, in-and-of-itself, monstrous; yet, when accompanied by the fact that the reason behind the decision was to divert law enforcement’s attention from other criminal conduct, the defendant’s actions are that much more egregious,” he said in the filing.

Defense attorney Richard Lake pointed to a psychological evaluation that indicated his client assumed responsibility for the offense without becoming defensive or deflecting blame.

“He expressed appropriate remorse and empathy for the victims,” according to the court filing citing the psychological report. “He recognized his inability to fully repair the damage that he caused, and he acknowledged prison as the appropriate punishment.”

Lake bolstered his plea for a shorter sentence with letters from Scahill’s teachers, pastors, friends and family members.

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