CARBONDALE, Ill. — Pravin Varughese was 19, a criminal justice major from suburban Chicago. Molly Marie Young was 21, an aspiring photographer from Marion.
They never met while studying at Southern Illinois University, but after their unresolved deaths, their grieving families have joined together to press for answers. Last week, the families' campaign led the local state's attorney to step down in favor of a special prosecutor in the Varughese case, as he did earlier with Young, amid questions about whether foul play was involved.
Young died in March 2012 at the apartment of her ex-boyfriend, a Carbondale police dispatcher. Her case remains open after the state's prosecutor couldn't determine whether a single gunshot to her head was an accident, suicide or homicide.
Varughese died in February 2014 after getting into a fight with a driver with whom he had hitched a ride from a late-night party. A county coroner ruled he died from hypothermia, but an autopsy done for the family noted blunt force trauma to the head.
In both cases, the parents say local and state police mishandled the death investigations, claiming investigators were too quick to blame the victims' behavior. They've hired the same Belleville lawyer and held a news conference last month to pique interest.
"I'll do everything I can to see that justice is brought for my daughter," said Larry Young, a retired electrician.
The Carbondale police chief and the Illinois State Police declined to comment, citing the pending investigation. SIU spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said the campus is safe, and that: "We need to be very careful to avoid drawing conclusions from distinct, unlinked events that are very specific to the individual circumstances."
The death of Varughese, who was Indian-American, has resonated in the ethnic enclaves of Chicago and Carbondale.
In late February, Jackson County State's Attorney Mike Carr released a 10-page summary of his office's investigation into Varughese's death, which noted that two independent pathologists supported the finding of hypothermia as the cause of death.
Varughese's body, clad in a T-shirt and jeans despite single-digit temperatures, was found in a heavily wooded area six days after the party. Witnesses said he had consumed at least six alcoholic beverages before leaving the party.
The driver told police that he hit his passenger in the face only after Varughese hit him as they argued inside the pickup truck. The fight continued as the pair got out of the truck, fell to the ground and rolled down a hill, with Varughese running into the woods as the state trooper arrived, Carr reported.
A county grand jury declined to issue an indictment. "Speculation, suspicion and rumors may help in developing investigative leads and evidence, but are inadmissible in courts of law and ... can never replace facts," Carr said in his report.
The Varughese family has filed a wrongful death civil suit against the driver, the city of Carbondale, its former police chief and the Jackson County coroner. A second suit is pending against the trooper for not filing a missing persons report. The driver did not return a message requesting comment.
"There is no doubt in my mind that my son was beaten to death," said Varughese's mother, Lovely Varughese, of Morton Grove.
The Young case has drawn tens of thousands of followers on the "Justice for Molly" Facebook page and yard signs are scattered throughout southern Illinois.
Young had withdrawn from Southern Illinois for health reasons but planned to re-enroll, her family said.
Young's ex-boyfriend, Richie Minton, told Carbondale Police Department colleagues in a 911 call that his ex-girlfriend had suffered a drug overdose. Soon after, the investigation was handed off to the Illinois State Police because Minton was a police employee. He has since left the department.
Minton, who has denied wrongdoing and whose attorney didn't return a message requesting comment, told investigators he didn't initially hear the gunshot because he had passed out drunk. He also attributed two long scratches on his side to Young grabbing him while he performed CPR.
A January 2013 coroner's inquest was unable to determine a cause of death. The state prosecutor's report, issued in October, was also inconclusive. It cited a series of suicidal text messages sent from Young's phone to Minton and others the night she died, as well as handwritten suicide notes found at the home she shared with her grandmother.
But the special prosecutor also noted that "the trajectory of the bullet does not exclude Minton as the shooter."
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