Gaege Bethune, the man charged with two counts of murder in the death of an SIU student, entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment Tuesday in Jackson County Court.
MUPRHYSBORO — A packed Jackson County Courtroom on Friday expected Circuit Judge Mark Clarke to set a trial date for Gaege Bethune, who is facing first-degree murder charges in the death of 19-year-old Pravin Varughese.
Instead, Bethune’s defense attorney, Michael Wepsiec, told the judge he was going to file a motion for a change of venue.
Wepsiec told the court he planned to file the motion in two weeks as he was about 90 percent finished with the document. He cited information in discovery along with social media discussions as part of his basis for wanting to move the trial.
Illinois state’s attorney appellate prosecutor, David Robinson, said the state will be objecting to the change of venue, saying most of the social media chatter Wepsiec was referring to didn’t come from Jackson County.
“He (Bethune) can get a fair trial anywhere — even Jackson County,” Robinson said.
Gaege Bethune, the man charged with two counts of murder in the death of an SIU student, entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment Tuesday in Jackson County Court.
Robinson went on to say he fears the exchange about a new venue could cause the trial to be pushed out for possibly be a year.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Robinson said quoting Wepsiec from a previous case.
Wepsiec said he is playing catch-up to the prosecution in the case since he only started working on it when the indictment on Bethune came down in July, while the prosecution has worked on the case for three years. He also cited working on other cases and still trying to interview witnesses.
A little more than a year after Varughese’s death in February 2014, a Jackson County grand jury returned the no true bill for first degree-murder charges against Bethune, meaning no charges were filed. At the time, Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Carr said from his perspective, the criminal investigation was over.
Shortly after the grand jury, Carr recused himself from the case, and a special prosecutor was appointed to look into the case.
“Bethune has the right for his (defense) to do a full investigation,” Wepsiec said.
Judge Clark inquired about where the trial could happen outside of Jackson County without completely breaking down the court’s system. Wepsiec said he would favor somewhere in the northern 20 counties.
Clark set a case management conference to rule on the change of venue motion at 9 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 16.
Lovely Varughese, Pravin Varguhese's mother, said the change of venue doesn’t bother her.
“He can take this case wherever he wants,” she said. “Pravin’s case is known all over the world, so I don’t know what is his reason for taking it elsewhere. I personally think it will attract more media attention.”
Varughese went missing the night of Feb. 12, 2014. His body was found six days later in a wooded area off the 1400 block of East Main Street.
3 years after her son's death, Lovely Varughese thanks special prosecutors after suspect indicted on murder charges
CARBONDALE — In an open letter to her Facebook friends and followers, the mother of a 19-year-old found dead in a patch of Carbondale woods in 2014 thanked the investigating agency and prosecutors who filed murder charges against the man believed to have been the last to see her son alive.
Police said they learned the 19-year-old got a ride that night, reportedly getting into a pickup truck in the 600 block of West College Street. After an altercation with Bethune — the driver of the vehicle — Varughese got out and ran into the wooded area where his body was later found.
WEST FRANKFORT — On a Sunday afternoon this summer, Elizabeth Hernandez’s attention flitted back and forth between the beans on the stove and her 2-year-old son, Maximus, who tugged at a pants leg to ask her help with turning on a game on the family’s electronic tablet.
The older two boys, Kharloz, 9, and Juanluca, 7, were snuggled up on the couch glued to “A Secret Life of Pets.”
Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco, Elizabeth’s husband and the father of three young boys, has lived in the U.S. without papers for about 20 years, after first coming across the border in secret in 1998. He was detained on Feb. 9 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement paid a visit to his house looking for someone else. Now, he faces the possibility of deportation.
WEST FRANKFORT — Twenty years ago, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco set out to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. It wasn’t something he always wanted to do. As a young boy, he didn’t dream of making his way to the land of opportunity and raising children with his beautiful wife in a little house on a humble corner plot of rural America across from the business he manages.
Carlos said that if he is deported, he will not take his family with him. Elizabeth and the children are American citizens. While Elizabeth grew up in Mexico, where she lived until the age of 12, West Frankfort is the only home the boys have ever known. Elizabeth said she is concerned, but tries not to waste too much time dwelling on the numerous scenarios that may play out because it will not change the outcome, and she doesn’t want their children to be negatively affected by the situation or their worry over it.
“I’m more of the kind of person where I don’t get nervous and panic until I know what’s going to happen, because sometimes you never know and you can just worry too much and then everything is going to be fine,” she said. "So I’m just kind of a person that stays calm until I need to worry. And plus, I have them. …
“If they see me, that I’m worried or I don’t feel good, they’re going to not feel good.”
Because of the massive backlog of the immigration courts, Carlos’ next hearing before an immigration judge is not scheduled to take place until April 2021.
A lot could change between now and then when it comes to immigration law and enforcement. A presidential election will have passed, meaning President Trump, who has followed through on campaign promises to more strictly enforce immigration laws during his first year in office, could either be entering a second term, or, a new person will have moved into the White House. Either of those scenarios could bring changes to immigration laws or enforcement policies — either strengthening or loosening them — that are impossible to predict.
The Hernandezes are hopeful that Carlos will be allowed to remain in the United States. But they also know it’s possible that his pursuit of legal residency will not go in their favor.
WEST FRANKFORT — The year after returning to Mexico for his sister's funeral in 2002, about five years after he came to America by sneaking across the border with a friend, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco made another visit to his home country.
Elizabeth and Carlos said they have discussed what might happen with their two older children, but she also teaches them not to spend too much time dwelling on what might be. Instead, they have tried to be proactive and positive toward preparing for that day, she said.
“I’ve even told them you’ve got to practice your Spanish, because we might have to go to Mexico for a while or to see him, and possibly to live there. And they’re like, ‘OK, but why?’” And then I have to explain to them that he doesn’t have papers to live here. They kind of understand. They hate the situation, but they’re good.”
Carlos said that if he is deported, he does not want to take his family out of America. They will arrange ways for them to visit when they are out of school for breaks, he said. But Hernandez said it would not be fair to uproot his boys, who have only known life in America, and move them to a foreign country.
Carlos and Elizabeth have been married for 10 years. Carlos had been assigned to help open and manage the La Fiesta restaurant in 2007, and Elizabeth applied for a job. Carlos said that when he first heard that someone from the small Mexican town of Comburindio, Heutamo, Michoacan, was applying for a job, which has a population of less than 700 people, he rolled his eyes.
But when he met Elizabeth, Carlos said he was instantly smitten and surprised by the ways she shattered his negative stereotypes about country people from Mexico. Elizabeth wasn’t so interested at first, he said. According to Carlos, she had heard about his past troubles with drinking, and was skeptical about his intentions.
Eventually, he said, she decided to give him a chance. After they started dating, they were married seven weeks later. Their wedding reception was held at the La Fiesta restaurant. Not long after, their oldest boy, Kharloz, came along, then Juanluca, and five years later, little Max. The two shared much in common.
Elizabeth also came to America without authorization, but her situation was different because she was so young. When she was only 4 years old, Elizabeth said her dad left the family, and her mom didn’t know how she was going to provide for three children by herself. “She didn’t have anything to feed us. So mom left,” she said. Elizabeth said her mom applied for a visa to travel to America legally, but there were complications that prevented her from using it. Ultimately, she crossed the border illegally and landed in Chicago, Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth said she was heartbroken that her mother had left her and her siblings with their grandmother. But when she became older, Elizabeth said she understood why her mom made the decision she did. She sent back money every week from her various cooking and cleaning jobs to help their grandmother afford to keep them fed and clothed, she said. Eventually, her mother remarried.
Eight years later, Elizabeth said her mother sent for her and she went to live with her and her stepfather in Chicago. Once she arrived, he adopted Elizabeth, and because she was a child, Elizabeth was able to become a legal resident of the U.S. For years, she kept that status while remaining a citizen of Mexico.
After she graduated high school in Chicago, Elizabeth said her mother decided to move the family to McLeansboro to get a younger brother away from his friends in Chicago who were causing him to fall into trouble.
Elizabeth was hired to wait tables at a Mexican restaurant. “I didn’t want to move. It was so depressing at first. I was working in the restaurant all day, every day,” she said. Elizabeth said she went with her mom because she needed help looking after her younger half siblings. “It’s very different here,” she said of Southern Illinois compared to Chicago. “It took me a long time to figure out what people were talking about when they asked for a soddy. And I’m like, you mean a pop? And then you’d hear stuff like Sund-ee, Mond-ee, Tuesd-ee,” she said of the local dialect, with good-natured laughter.
Elizabeth said she will always prefer big cities such as Chicago, where she spent her formative years. But Southern Illinois has been a nice place to raise a family, she said, adding that her boys enjoy it here. The public school district has been good to them, she said. Though Frankfort Community Unit School District 168 has a 95 percent white student population, Elizabeth said that her boys have not faced any discrimination that she is aware of from other children or staff. School officials were supportive when the stories broke about Carlos’ arrest, she said.
As is the case with any child born in America, the Hernandezes’ children are citizens. Elizabeth, who has been a legal resident for years, decided to become a citizen as well in 2016. “Obviously, I was the priority for that,” Carlos said.
The two made the decision during the campaign, as Trump turned up the notch on the immigration debate with his heated words on the campaign trail. They thought it might help their pursuit of Carlos’ legal status, and provide additional protections for the family in the event Carlos was deported. When they were first married, the couple obtained a lawyer in Chicago that walked them through filing paperwork for a family-sponsored immigrant visa, but it was never processed despite the thousands of dollars they spent on the process, Carlos said.
Elizabeth said she was apprehensive about the process at first, because it meant choosing between being an official citizen of the U.S. or Mexico. But she went through with it, to help her family.
“When you go to the citizenship ceremony, the judge says, ‘Just because you become American citizen does not mean you have to give up your culture.’ That’s what makes America great. I liked that part.
"You become a citizen but you don’t forget your culture, your home. I did like that part she said about how this is what makes America different than everybody else, because here you can be whatever you want.”
Early in 2017, Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco was unexpectedly thrust under an international spotlight when he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and his story made international headlines. This mini-series, "The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door," aims to shed more light on Hernandez’s journey to America, his ongoing legal battle, his family, and the Southern Illinois community that offered its support to his case. The weeklong series kicked off on Dec. 31 with The Southern Illinoisan naming Hernandez as its "Person of the Year." The Southern chose Hernandez because his story puts a familiar face on a complex national debate playing out in our backyard, and illustrates the many ways in which immigration law, and rural America, are as messy as life itself.
CARBONDALE — Carbondale Community High School administrators aren’t hanging their heads after learning that its principal, Daniel Booth, agreed to a five-year contract to be the superintendent of Carbondale Elementary School District No. 95, according to Superintendent Steve Murphy.
A familiar face will lead the charge for Carbondale Elementary School District No. 95.
“I know the faculty, the board and the whole community is really excited for Daniel and for Carbondale,” he said Friday. “Although we care about him very much, we know he’s staying in Carbondale and he is doing something good for the children in Carbondale.”
He said the high school still possesses successful administrators, a phenomenal board of education and amazing faculty members.
“We still have those characteristics in place,” he said.
Although everything is dependent on the route the school board decides to go, Murphy said the public can probably expect a job posting for a new principal in mid- to late January.
In the past, Murphy said, the high school has gone with a selection committee made up of faculty that shuffles through applicants and conducts preliminary interviews to come up with finalists.
“We have a lot of faculty involvement because the faculty is so strong,” he said.
After those initial finalists are chosen, the district traditionally forms a smaller committee which makes a recommendation to the board. Murphy said those interviews could happen in March and a new principal could be selected in April or May.
However, there aren’t any set plans on how the search or process will happen, as Murphy was just referring to how the searches have happened in the past. He said the search most likely wouldn’t be limited in scope and external and internal candidates will have a chance to apply.
Qualified internal candidates could have a leg-up on the competition based solely on familiarity.
“Typically, when you are talking about a principal, if you have somebody internally that rises to the top, it is nice to have experience in Carbondale or in the district and who knows the culture and how the district functions,” Murphy said.
The high school superintendent said when the news broke to the faculty at CCHS, there were some initial tears about Booth’s leaving, but by the end of the meeting, there was a standing ovation for him and everybody was excited.
“If you are a great leader and when you leave everything falls apart, then you weren’t really a great leader,” Murphy said. “I think Daniel was a great leader and a lot of the strides he made will stay with us for a lot of years to come. Everybody is excited for a new opportunity.”
BENTON — During a preliminary injunction hearing Friday at the Benton Federal Courthouse, a transgender Menard Correctional Center inmate made her case for immediate relief, asking to be transferred to a women’s facility, while her civil federal case is litigated.
Appearing before Judge Reona Daily, Strawberry (Deon) Hampton told her story of alleged incredible abuses suffered by her at the hands of correctional officers in multiple Illinois Department of Corrections facilities.
The larger lawsuit filed in August contains more than 12 counts, including violating the equal protection clause, excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment, and violating the Illinois Hate Crime Act. As a final outcome of the lawsuit, Hampton seeks transfer to a women’s facility where she said she would feel more safe, and also a jury trial for all applicable criminal offenses.
The abuse Hampton alleged she suffered, were, she believes, because of her status as a transgender woman. She told accounts of often being “gay bashed” and harassed for her gender status.
Hampton, who has identified as a women since the age of five, said guards at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center she was routinely abused both physically and verbally by her correctional officers during her stay there.
“They degraded me on a daily basis,” Hampton testified. She said officers regularly called her a “whore” “fa----” and a “n-----” They also intimidated her, Hampton alleged, into performing sexual acts on her cellmate while the officers watched.
Hampton recalled an incident where she and her cellmate were taken from their cell by officers — there are several pages of defendants named in the lawsuit’s complaint document which include the warden of Menard Correctional Center as well as a list of correctional officers — and told to dance for the men. She said she was also told to have phone sex with one officer and forced to put her mouth on the penis of another.
“It made me feel like a sex slave,” Hampton recalled.
After having enough of the abuse, Hampton said she decided to file a formal complaint. For this, there was a consequence, she said.
“I’m putting you whores in (segregation),” Hampton remembered being told, adding that the officer said this was because of her making it known she wanted to file a grievance under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
She said after she did not comply with removing the complaint, she was beaten by officers.
“I was punched. I was kicked. I was spit on,” she said. She remembered telling her alleged assailants, “Please don’t kill me.”
She said her clothes were cut off, along with parts of her hair, and some of her teeth were broken as part of the incident.
After Hampton was transferred to Menard, a maximum security facility, she said the abuse didn’t stop. Instead, the retaliation for filing complaints — of which she claims she has made hundreds — came with her.
The complaint document for the suit said that from her multiple grievances filed, Hampton was told an investigation into the events at Pinckneyville would be conducted. However, it said there is no evidence this ever happened.
Hampton testified that the verbal abuses did not stop when she came to Menard — in fact, five other inmates who lived in close proximity to Hampton corroborated her story. She said there were incredible bouts of violence, as well.
One incident allegedly occurred when Hampton was being taken for psychiatric care. She was put in a holding cell with a group of offenders she was supposed to be segregated from for fear of violence toward her.
She testified that one man, whose handcuffs were in front of him as opposed to the standard behind the back, began beating her and the guards stood by.
“They was laughing,” she said, as she “screamed for help." Instead, she said, the guards came in when another inmate tried to defend her and maced everyone involved. Hampton and the man who defended her alleged it was known the man who came after her was sent by officers in the prison.
She also said after getting what she believed to be a bug bite that caused swelling, she was taken by officers after several attempts to get medical care, and was, instead, brutalized. Several inmates — all of whom said they spoke voluntarily — said they saw Hampton dragged, half-naked, to and from her cell. When she was returned, they said she had bruises and extensive swelling, aside from that caused by her initial medical condition.
During cross examination by the state, Hampton resolutely denied ever identifying as a homosexual — she has always identified as a woman and is attracted to men. She also denied ever telling prison officials she was “OK being a man.”
“I identify myself as a woman just as you are,” she told the attorney.
Hampton has not undergone surgery for gender reassignment but, as was revealed during Dan Pacholke’s expert testimony, she has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and does undergo hormone therapy.
Pacholke, an expert in correctional security, said he believes Hampton’s placement in Menard is wrong. In fact, he said keeping prisons safe is all about knowing how to best sort inmates.
Testifying for the plaintiff, Pacholke said after reviewing Hampton’s background, including a history of being victimized in a juvenile facility, he thought the placement within Menard seemed “incorrect.” He said the Gender Identity Disorder Committee seemed more concerned with Hampton’s genitals rather than “her own concerns for personal safety.”
Pacholke also took a look at her disciplinary ticket pattern. He said he noticed an increase in tickets after her serious allegation was made against IDOC staff. When asked if he thought this was retaliatory behavior, he did not deny the possibility.
“It fits the pattern where some retaliation is involved,” he said.
Hampton also noted that she thought the increase in tickets after her complaint were retaliatory during her testimony. She said she felt it was a tactic by correctional staff to discredit her and intimidate her.
It was said multiple times throughout the hearing that Hampton and the other inmates testifying were scared of retaliation for their participation in the hearing. In fact, some said they were told not talk by guards.
“You better not run your mouth,” Edward Taylor testified he was told during an inmate count Friday morning.
“I’m in fear for my life being here today,” he said.
Hampton, who appeared via teleconference from Menard, spoke out several times during testimony that some of the defendants were indeed working as security officers outside the room where testimony was taking place.
The judge had Menard representatives call to ensure no one associated with the lawsuit was in the area where witnesses were testifying.
Testimony will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday, with the last of the plaintiff’s experts and several defense witnesses.
Michael Tarm of the Associated Press contributed to this story. This story has been updated from a previous online version.