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2 plead guilty in arson that killed KSU researcher

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Two Kansas State University students pleaded guilty Wednesday to arson resulting in death for setting a blaze that killed a university researcher in an effort to create a diversion that would prevent police from finding evidence.

The U.S. attorney's office said Patrick Martin Scahill, 20, and Virginia Amanda Griese, 19, both of Manhattan, entered the plea in federal court in Topeka. The Feb. 6 fire killed Vasanta Pallem, a 34-year-old postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering.

Prosecutors said two other defendants, including Frank Joseph Hanson, who has pleaded guilty, robbed a Manhattan convenience store with Scahill's pistol on the day of the fire. Later that day, police responding to a report of a disturbance knocked on Scahill's door. Police smelled marijuana smoke, said they were going to seek a warrant to search the residence and left.

Prosecutors said Scahill, Hanson, the other robbery suspect and Griese began discussing ways to divert the attention of law enforcement officers long enough for Scahill to remove narcotics, a firearm and items associated with the robbery from his apartment. Ultimately, Griese bought a five-gallon gas can and then paid for gas to fill it.

Later, Scahill and Griese drove around looking for something to burn, ultimately settling on 12-unit apartment complex near Scahill's apartment. Prosecutors said Scahill entered the building, emptied the contents of the gas can in the lower level hallway, set the fire and left the building.

Pallem lived on the third floor and died from the fumes near the entrance of the complex.

A fifth person charged in the case is accused of accompanying Griese to buy gas and helping Scahill dispose of shoes that reeked of gasoline.

Sentencing is set for July 15. Scahill and Griese face a maximum penalty of life in federal prison.