Police Video Recordings Detail Moments Before SIU Student Vanished Into Woods

Pickup driver tells his version of what happened

Gaege Bethune, the last person to see 19-year-old Southern Illinois University student Pravin Varughese alive, described himself to Carbondale Police as a good Samaritan who offered a ride to a stranger that frigid February night in 2014.

“I’m a nice guy. I help just about anybody I see. If I see an old woman standing on the side of the road with a bag full of groceries I’m gonna help her out,” Bethune told Carbondale Police in a videotaped interview after the teen was reported missing two years ago.

Varughese’s body was found in the woods days later near the university where he had been attending school.

NBC5 Investigates obtained the Carbondale police video recordings, which show two interviews conducted with Bethune on February 17 and February 19 in 2014. Carbondale detectives say Varughese had been drinking heavily when he got into Bethune’s Dodge Ram pickup truck for a ride home. Bethune told Carbondale police detectives that Varughese became combative and refused to get out of his truck so he pulled over.

“The fight maybe lasted thirty seconds,” Bethune said. “I wouldn’t even call it a fight. A little scuffle.”

Bethune told police he turned off his pickup before the two men scuffled. When an Illinois State Trooper stopped to check the parked pickup, Bethune says he yelled at the cops and Varughese took off into the woods. 

“You know I was scared for my life. I didn’t know what he was capable of, “Bethune told detectives. “Definitely wasn’t my race and I ain’t used to being around that type of population.”

Bethune said that he had been drinking and feared getting a DUI. He lied telling the trooper that a “black male” tried to rob him and then “ran south into the woods.” The trooper looked with a flashlight into the woods but saw no one. Varughese never came home and when his disappearance made the local news, Bethune recognized his face.

“I put two and two together real quick and I just couldn’t . Honest. I couldn’t look at the screen,” Bethune said. “Made me sick to my stomach. That the boy was…the boy didn’t show up home.”

One of Bethune’s cousins alerted Carbondale police. They searched the woods and found Pravin’s body. The coroner says Pravin died of hypothermia but the Varughese family hired a pathologist who performed a second autopsy which found blunt force trauma to their son’s head.

“We are very upset the way Carbondale police handled the case,” his father, Matthew Varughese, said.

Matthew and Lovely Varughese are suing Bethune, accusing him of causing their son’s death. 

“He repeated the same lies over and over again,” added Lovely Varughese.

Pravin’s parents say the state trooper’s dash-cam video shows that Bethune’s pickup truck was running and not turned off as Bethune said. They also say the bruises on their son show Bethune minimized the fight.

Bethune was asked to come into the Carbondale police station for a second interview on February 19.

“We feel you weren’t completely honest with us,” Detective Brooke Hammel told Bethune.

In fact, during the second interview, Bethune changed some of the details.

“He (Pravin) jumped out. Swung at me aggressively. I defended myself. I missed the punch and I hit him,” Bethune said. “That’s when he kind of fell into me dead weight and grabbed me.”

Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Carr says the death investigation found Varughese died of “hypothermia and an accident” and did not “support criminal charges.” 

“I never, ever, ever in a million years expected something like this would happen,” Bethune said. “I was just trying to be nice and help somebody. I was just trying to help him.” 

NBC5 Investigates reached out to Bethune’s attorney Richard Schumacher who is handling the civil lawsuit. 

“I’m not sure why [the parents] are going after Mr. Bethune,” Schumacher said. “My client didn’t have anything to do with it.” 

Schumacher says he is convinced his client had nothing to do with Pravin’s death adding, “there is absolutely no evidence against my client.”

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