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Man pleads guilty to aiding in robbery that led to arson death

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, May 9, 2013, at 7:50 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, May 11, 2013, at 4:29 p.m.

Correction: Gavin Hairgrove is 19. His age was incorrectly listed in a previous version of this story.

A man charged in connection with an arson that killed a K-State researcher has pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting a robbery — part of a series of events that led to the woman’s death, according to U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom.

Dennis James Denzien, 20, in his plea admitted to driving to Dara’s Fast Lane on Feb. 6 so his passenger, co-defendant Frank Joseph Hanson, could rob the store, Grissom said Thursday in a news release.

While police were trying to obtain a warrant to search Denzien’s home, other co-defendants in the case devised a plan to distract authorities so evidence from the robbery, including a gun and mask, could be removed, Grissom said.

Ultimately, two of the co-defendants — 19-year-old Virginia Amanda Griese and 20-year-old Patrick Martin Scahill — drove to Lee Crest Apartments, poured gasoline in a hallway of the building and ignited a fire to create the distraction. Vasanta Pallem, a post-graduate researcher, died as she tried to escape smoke rising to her third-floor apartment.

Denzien’s sentencing is set for Aug. 5. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

Others awaiting sentencing are Scahill and Griese, who each pleaded guilty in April to one count of arson resulting in death, and 22-year-old Frank Joseph Hanson, who pleaded guilty to robbery, Grissom said.

Gavin Taylor Hairgrove, 19, who helped dispose of gasoline-soaked apparel and drove with Griese and another person to buy the gas can used in the fire, is set for a change of plea hearing June 10, Grissom said.

All are Manhattan residents.

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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