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2 former K-State students sentenced in arson death

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Two former Kansas State University students were sentenced Monday to decades in federal prison for starting an apartment fire earlier this year in Manhattan that killed a university researcher.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson sentenced Patrick Martin Scahill, 20, of Manhattan, to 30 years in prison, while Virginia Amanda Griese was sentenced to 20 years for her role in the Feb. 6 blaze. Both pleaded guilty in April to one count of arson resulting in death.

Vasanta Pallem, 34, a postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering, lived on the third floor of Lee Crest Apartments when Scahill dumped nearly 5 gallons of gasoline into the lower-level hallway and lit it.

In his guilty plea, Scahill said he started the fire to create a diversion that would prevent police from serving a search warrant on his apartment, where he feared investigators would find evidence of an armed robbery and drug crimes.

Griese admitted buying the 5-gallon gas can at a Walmart store, then pumping 4.7 gallons of gas into it at a Hy-Vee gas station. She and Scahill then drove around looking for something to burn before settling on the three-level, 12-unit apartment complex near Scahill's apartment.

Most tenants abandoned their apartments through windows or doors, while Pallem died of smoke inhalation after working her way from the top floor to a first floor exit.

"This case is a tragic story," said U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom. "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."

An autopsy showed the carbon monoxide saturation in Pallem's system was over 50 percent, more than enough to kill her, prosecutors said.

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.

Two associates of Scahill's -- Frank Joseph Hanson and Dennis James Denzien -- have pleaded guilty to robbing a Manhattan convenience store in the early hours of Feb. 6. Hanson went into the story carrying a handgun owned by Scahill, prosecutors said.

Hanson and Denzien were at Scahill's apartment when police responded to a disturbance call there and noticed the marijuana smell. Both have pleaded guilty in connection with the robbery and are scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 12.