People Magazine Investigates tracks a killer who terrorized Washington, D.C.'s Gallaudet University in 2000 and 2001

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February 11, 2019 11:42 AM

In 2000, the on-campus murder of Gallaudet University freshman Eric Plunkett brought panic to the famed college for the deaf in Washington, D.C.

Just weeks into the fall semester, the outgoing 18-year-old had been found dead in his single dorm room in Cogswell Hall. He suffered blunt force trauma, including injuries to his face and head. Police surmised he’d been choked and then beaten using a nearby chair, which was flecked with blood spatter.

Police believed the scene suggested a rage killing — perhaps by someone Plunkett knew.

In the insular campus setting where students had once felt safe, police started questioning those with knowledge of Plunkett’s activities and easy access to his room.

Eric Plunkett
courtesy plunkett family

One of his new friends, Joseph Mesa Jr., also 18, lived across the hall. It was Mesa who’d first raised concerns after Plunkett failed to show up for a scheduled math tutoring session and his always-open door remained locked.

Police questioned Mesa, but focused their attention elsewhere after learning that Plunkett had an apparent romantic interest in another student, Thomas Minch.

“I had told police we were really good friends, but never were close, like best friends, but I had no type of an intimate relationship or any type of interest with him,” Minch recalls in tonight’s episode of People Magazine Investigates, which airs at 10 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery. (An exclusive clip of the show, titled “The Sound of Silence,” is shown above.)

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

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Minch had been at theater rehearsal during the time authorities believe Eric was killed. “But there was still enough time after rehearsal for Thomas to have committed the murder,” says retired detective Sgt. James LaFranchise of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department.

Police also learned about a recent confrontation between the two.

“Eric had invited me to come to his room just to sit and chat, and he was trying to make some moves on me,” says Minch. “And I had told him, wait a second, we’re good friends, I would rather not go that far, and he kept just trying to push it a little bit.”

Police arrested Minch — but the prosecutor found no probable cause and refused to charge him. Police weren’t dissuaded and kept him on their radar, leaving Minch in limbo. With suspicions swirling, Gallaudet banned him from campus.

Benjamin Varner
The Washington Times/ZUMAPRESS.com

But a second student’s murder months later led police to wonder if they’d missed their man.

Early on Feb. 3, 2011, a fire alarm roused the residents of Cogswell Hall. In the search to clear the dorn, a residential advisor opened a locked door and found Plunkett’s former neighbor Benjamin Varner, 19, dead in his room. He’d been stabbed in the head, back, neck and chest, and his throat was slashed.

But this time, a trail of bloody sneaker prints offered new clues. And once again, the student body at Gallaudet University wondered who among them might be a killer.

People Magazine Investigates: The Sound of Silence airs tonight (10 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.

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