The only liberal arts school for the deaf, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is an insular and close-knit institution. So when Eric Plunkett, a 19-year-old freshman, was found last fall bludgeoned to death in his dorm room in Cogswell Hall, the school’s 2,000 students immediately turned to one another for support. Staging hours-long vigils, they vented their fears and anguish in sign language while trying their best to carry on. Sophomore Torrey Zahler, 20, recalls a birthday party held just a few days after the murder at which freshman Joseph Mesa Jr., then 20, tried to console his friends. “He was upset like everybody—he grieved with us,” says Zahler. “He was very comforting to people.”
Though weeks passed with no progress in the case, a semblance of normality began to return to Gallaudet. Then, at 4:15 a.m. on Feb. 3, a fire-alarm went off in Cogswell Hall. Rushing room to room to make sure that the hearing-impaired students knew to leave the building, a resident assistant threw open the door of room 424. There he found Benjamin Varner, 19, his body bathed in blood, his face and torso slashed, and a bloody partial footprint outside that appeared to lead toward a back stairwell. Police, who discovered a blood-spattered black and gray jacket and a knife in a nearby trash bin, said it was clear that Varner had put up a struggle before he died.
Via special pagers and e-mail, questions about who could have committed such brutal crimes spread quickly through the 99-acre campus. This time terrified students didn’t have long to wait for an answer. The breakthrough came nine days later, when investigators found a forged check for $650 from Varner’s account made out to Joseph Mesa, who lived alone in an adjoining dorm. Police questioned him twice, and he denied any involvement. But on Feb. 13 he appeared at the university security office. “I want to be honest,” he said, according to police; “Okay, I did it.” The next day, Valentine’s Day, Mesa was arraigned on two counts of murder.
In his room, police discovered $600 in cash and a pair of blood-stained Nikes matching the footprint from Varner’s room. In a videotaped statement Mesa told investigators that, desperate for cash, he had entered Varner’s room, asked for his checkbook, then stabbed him 19 times with Varner’s paring knife, escaping with the checkbook, Varner’s wallet, and bank and credit cards.
Police say Mesa also admitted to killing Plunkett, who lived alone and suffered from a mild form of cerebral palsy. Because Plunkett had been secretary of the Lambda Society, a gay student group, many on campus had initially suspected a hate crime. But here, too, Mesa said the motive was money. After sneaking into Plunkett’s room, then choking him and beating him to death with a chair, he stole his wallet. Police said he then used Plunkett’s debit card, which had not been reported stolen, to gain access to a pornographic Internet site, tried to buy a bicycle on the Web and charged baby clothing for his goddaughter and nephew.
On campus Mesa’s confession evoked mixed feelings. “It was a shock to think that a friend of mine would kill another friend,” says junior Thomas Green, 25, who knew Plunkett and Mesa, “but we are moving toward some closure.”
That feeling will be a long time in coming for the families of the young men whose lives Mesa is accused of taking. Born almost completely deaf, Eric Plunkett grew up in Portland, Ore., before moving to Minnesota in 1997 with his stepfather, Chris Cornils, 35, who owns a pizza franchise, and his mother, Kathleen, 49, a bank finance manager. In high school at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, he was known for his sense of humor and his love of horror films like Scream. “He didn’t seem to have the pretenses that teenagers have,” says Thomas Zins, the school’s principal. But he did have a goal—to attend Gallaudet. Cornils recalls his stepson’s joy when the acceptance letter arrived last May: “He was yelling and screaming and jumping and running all around showing the letter to everyone.”
Ben Varner, too, was born with almost no hearing. “When I first discovered he was deaf, I cried,” says his mother, Diane, 50, who also has an older daughter with husband Willie, 53, who, like his wife, is a registered nurse. But Ben was endlessly curious and eager to connect with other people. “He was so isolated from people with his deafness,” says Diane, “and yet there was an intense interest in those he was isolated from.” He was fascinated with foreign cultures, and, after writing a school paper at age 11 on world religions, he became so intrigued with the teachings of Islam that he made connections with a local mosque and began studying the Koran. He became a Muslim at 13 and, in keeping with the faith, stopped eating pork. But what most of his friends remember about him was his boundless curiosity. “I know you’re up there right now asking all your usual questions,” his dentist and friend, Dr. Warren Branch, 45, said at his Feb. 9 funeral in San Antonio. ” ‘Where are the gates?’ ‘What’s going on?’ ‘How do I get these wings to fit?’ ”
Those who loved him are left with a more painful question: What might have pushed Joseph Mesa to commit the brutal crimes with which he is charged? Though he claimed money was the motive (Mesa had been suspended in 1999 for allegedly spending $3,000 on a stolen debit card), the ferocity of the killings indicates the possibility of something beyond that. “There’s plenty that hasn’t come out about Mr. Mesa,” says Washington homicide detective Darryl Richmond. John Kelly, a professional profiler assisting the police, adds that Mesa’s actions were consistent with “someone who has a deep passion for what he is doing.”
Born in San Francisco the third of four children of career military officer Joseph Mesa Sr., 45, and his wife, Grace, 45, Joseph Jr. moved with them to Guam when he was 3 and lived there until he went, alone, to Washington to attend the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, a high school on the Gallaudet campus. “His goal,” says his sister Josephine, 25, “was to be a teacher or a counselor.”
Now Mesa is being held without bond awaiting a November trial that could land him a life sentence, though university officials hope it doesn’t come to that. “A trial would reopen the wounds,” says spokeswoman Mercy Coogan. “A plea bargain…will relieve some of our stress.”
Students are ready for a return to normal. When Gallaudet offered a mentoring program to help students in the wake of the murders, 40 eagerly signed up. As for Torrey Zahler, he now keeps his door locked and checks through the peephole before letting anyone in. “But,” he admits pensively, “I would have let Joseph in too.”
Brian Karem, J. Todd Foster and Kate McKenna in Washington, Champ Clark in Minneapolis, Bob Stewart in San Antonio and Sharon Moshavi in Tokyo