Gallaudet Suspect Arrested
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Gallaudet Suspect Arrested

Freshman Held in 2 Slayings; Robbery Alleged

By Arthur Santana and Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 14, 2001; Page A01

A 20-year-old student at Gallaudet University was charged last night with the slayings of Benjamin Varner and Eric F. Plunkett after he told investigators that he killed the two fellow freshmen during separate robbery attempts, authorities said.

In announcing the arrest of Joseph Mafnas Mesa Jr., of Guam, authorities officially cleared Thomas W. Minch, another freshman who was arrested after the first killing and then quickly released when the U.S. attorney's office determined that police did not have evidence to hold him.

The arrest brought a mixture of shock and relief to a campus that had been devastated by the slayings of two students in four months. But as University President I. King Jordan expressed gratefulness "that we seem to be moving to closure," he also noted at a news conference last night that "there's a real sense of sadness."

When police announced the arrests to a standing-room-only crowd of students and faculty at the university's auditorium, the crowd burst into applause in words and sign language.

"It's almost like you've been holding your breath for five months and you're taking your first breath," said Chris Soukup, president of the student body. "We're not back to normal yet by any means, but this has been a huge first step."

Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said Mesa entered Varner's room late Feb.1 with the intention of robbing him. He said the two struggled, and Mesa who allegedly armed himself with a four-inch paring knife that belonged to Varner's roommate repeatedly stabbed the freshman from San Antonio.

Before Mesa left Varner's room, he allegedly took at least one check from Varner's checkbook and apparently wrote himself a check for more than $600, Gainer said. "It looks like it was a straight-up robbery," Gainer said. "He went right into the room and was going to rob him, and a fight ensued."

Mesa, a freshman who lived across the hall from Plunkett last semester, was charged with two counts of felony murder in connection with the deaths of Varner and Plunkett, both 19, said Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. Mesa is to be arraigned today in D.C. Superior Court.

Mesa, of Barrigada, Guam, was arrested about 7:30 p.m. after being questioned for several hours at police headquarters yesterday, where he gave police a statement, Gainer said.

Mike Wynne, a Gallaudet senior who attended high school with Mesa, was asked if Mesa was capable of violence.

"Murder, no," he said. "He wasn't the kind of person to do something like that."

Earlier yesterday, D.C. police served a search warrant at Mesa's third-floor room in Krug Hall and found bloody shoes and clothes, according to police sources. Gainer would not discuss specific items taken from the room during the 2 a.m. search. Mesa and other residents of Cogswell Hall, the freshman dorm, had been moved to Krug after the slayings.

"Evidence was confiscated that was consistent with what we were looking for," Gainer said. "There's a lot of forensic evidence yet to be processed."

Police began to focus on Mesa on Saturday, when they found at least one check written to him, Gainer said. The check, acquired by police from Varner's bank, was apparently written by someone other than Varner, according to U.S. Secret Service handwriting experts, Gainer said. "From that point, we started developing information on him."

Mesa apparently suffered minor cuts to his hands in his struggle with Varner, Gainer said. Police sources have said that Varner's killer may have left the dorm floor through the basement before discarding a bloodstained blue windbreaker and the small knife in a trash bin behind Cogswell Hall.

Sources have also said that soon after the discovery of Varner's body after a fire alarm on the floor was tripped about 4:15 a.m. Feb.3 police dogs followed a scent across the campus's football field to New York Avenue NE, where they lost the scent. Gainer would not speak about those details.

Police soon found the bloody jacket and the knife in the trash bin. Last week, police publicized a picture of the windbreaker, and had received tips from some of Mesa's friends that he had owned a similar jacket, Gainer said.

On Monday, hours before police searched Mesa's room, the freshman surrendered his passport to police, Gainer said. "We had lengthy conversations with him [Mesa] on Saturday and more on Sunday," Gainer said, adding that sign-language interpreters were necessary for the interviews.

Yesterday, Gainer said, Mesa told them he had killed Plunkett and Varner. Gainer declined to detail the student's specific comments, but he said the 20-year-old appeared relieved.

"I detect that he's happy to get if off his chest," Gainer said.

Gainer said Gallaudet students interviewed during the investigation described Mesa as a "pushy, bully-type individual." It was not immediately clear why Mesa chose to rob Varner, other than the fact that "Varner was described as an easygoing young man who may have been an easy mark for a bully," Gainer said.

A Gallaudet student who identified herself on her Web site as Mesa's girlfriend described him as a "good role model for me. He brought me to Gallaudet University. He always encourages me to be successful in my future."

Police, meanwhile, were relieved to have closed two high-profile homicide cases.

"We, as a police department, have a mixed reaction," Gainer said. "We're so happy that we might bring a small amount of closure . . . and maybe try to restore calm to a major and significant D.C. university."

University officials said last night that they plan to "make overtures" to Minch in an effort to get him to return to Gallaudet.

The freshman, then 18, left school after he was charged about a week after Plunkett's death. Police said at the time that the two young men had a dispute that erupted into a physical altercation that led to Plunkett's death. But the charges were dropped the next day, as senior police executives said detectives had arrested Minch prematurely.

"You have to think of Thomas Minch and his family and how we can help them heal," Gallaudet spokeswoman Mercy Coogan said last night. "The healing process is something that will take a long time. But the good news is, it's going to happen."

The slayings devastated the Northeast Washington campus of the school for the deaf and hard of hearing. Coogan said Friday that the campus has forever changed. "I can't imagine that we'll ever be the same again," she said.

One student withdrew from the university after Plunkett's body was found on Sept.28, and two others left after Varner's death. In recent days, students have been attending daily noontime campus meetings with police and university officials to learn the latest developments in the slayings. The grieving was starting to turn toward frustration.

The campus became a ghost town at night, as the university heightened security. Those who drove to the campus were asked for license and ID, and security workers recorded license plate numbers.

In the dorms, faculty and staff were asked to volunteer round-the-clock in the dorms in an effort to answer questions and put students at ease.

Outside the dorms, 17 security cameras are placed around the campus. Campus officials bought more cameras after Plunkett's death, but hadn't installed them yet. Officials also had been considering installing security cameras inside the dorms, but have not done so.

The 99-acre campus has a small-town atmosphere, in which sign language is the dominant means of communication. Classes are taught in sign language. When a teacher wants to get a class's attention, she'll flip the light switch so that everyone looks up. When the football team's center is about to hike the ball, a massive drum on the sidelines is whacked. The vibrations are a signal to hike the ball.

The parents of Varner and Plunkett had little to say last night.

Varner's mother, Diane, said last night from San Antonio that police had notified her about the arrest, but she declined further comment.

Kathleen Cornils, Plunkett's mother, said she was surprised by the news. "I have no comment at this time. I'm going to get more information."

Staff writers Allan Lengel, Martin Weil, David A. Fahrenthold and Clarence Williams and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

2001 The Washington Post Company