2 people sentenced in arson death of K-State researcher

TOPEKA, Kansas — Two people have been sentenced to prison for a fire that killed a Kansas State University researcher in February.

A judge sentenced Patrick Martin Scahill, 20, of Manhattan, to 30 years and Virginia Amanda Griese, 20, of Manhattan, to 20 years.

Scahill and Griese pleaded guilty in April to one count of arson.

They admitted setting the fire as a diversion to prevent police from finding narcotics and evidence of an armed robbery the previous day.

The fire killed Vasanta Pallem, a 34-year-old postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering.

“This case is a tragic story,” said U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom in a press release. “A promising young woman who came to the United States to further her education died in a fire deliberately set by a young man who gave no thought to her or the other people whose lives he was endangering.”

Grissom says Dara’s Fast Lane, a convenience store in Manhattan, was robbed by two of Scahill’s associates on Feb. 5. Grissom says they used a pistol owned by Scahill.

Later that day, police responded to a disturbance call at Scahill’s apartment. The suspected armed robbers were with him. Police smelled the odor of marijuana and said they would be back with a search warrant.

Grissom says Scahill, Griese, and the two robbery suspects met to discuss ways to distract officers long enough to let Scahill remove incriminating evidence from his home.

Grissom says Scahill and Griese looked for something to burn and chose Lee Crest Apartments, a 12-unit apartment complex within sight of Scahill’s apartment.

The prosecutor says Scahill poured gas in the lower level hallway of the Lee Crest Apartments, set it on fire and left the building.

Residents escaped through windows and balconies, but Pallem was unable to get out. She made it from her apartment on the top floor to the first floor before collapsing near the entrance.

An autopsy shows she died from breathing fumes during the fire.

Two other people have pleaded guilty in the case. Frank Joseph Hanson, 23, of Manhattan, and Dennis James Denzien, 20, of Manhattan, are set for sentencing Aug. 12.

Grissom says Gavin Taylor Hairgrove, 19, of Manhattan, is awaiting trial.

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