Murder In A Silent Place

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A Deaf Oasis
It is summer session at Gallaudet University. A few lazy clouds threaten to water the already green campus and bathe a modest statue of founder Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Off the main quad, an orange steam shovel dips, lifts and pivots, grumbling to itself. Few students hear it. Gallaudet is the country's foremost college for deaf people. When Jim Haynes, at work nearby, instructs his philosophy class that "Plato argued that the concept behind this desk is more real than the physical thing itself," he does so manually, in crisp American Sign Language (ASL). His 12 students watch his hands intently, with the exception of a girl who is deaf and almost blind. She focuses on an interpreter, who repeats Haynes' signs a foot from her face, providing a level of service that would be remarkable at most colleges but is commonplace here.

The philosophy class ends, and several young men offer an impromptu campus tour: This lot is where the new high-tech center will be built. This circular driveway is the main outdoor hangout. And in this otherwise empty dormitory, a lone television set is playing. The TV, visible through a window, glows on, always tuned to the same channel, day and night. "After the second murder, they evacuated the building," says one of the students through an interpreter. "And they forgot to turn it off. Kind of eerie."

This is the story of a kind of paradise and how, over a six-month period starting last fall, it was almost consumed from within. Chartered in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln, Gallaudet is host to only 2,000 students each year. But to America's estimated 2 million deaf people, the university's symbolic heft outstrips that of the U.S. Capitol, five minutes south by car. The deaf Harvard, Wharton and Brookings rolled into one, it has produced generations of leaders, activists and entrepreneurs. Whether in classrooms where teachers lecture in sign language, on playing fields where athletes key into the vibrations of huge drums rather than audible signals or in the cafeteria where gossip and flirtation are no less hot for being silent--Gallaudet embodies a heady ideal: an oasis where the deaf person can shed the role of handicapped outsider and step into a cultural majority, where the tyranny of spoken speech is stripped away and, in the words of Provost Jane Fernandes, "the dreams open up."

No human community is Eden. In addition to America's usual dividers--race, class, religion, sexual orientation--the students face lingering, debilitating fears of powerlessness and exclusion and wage often bitter linguistic debates over topics abstruse to the hearing world--ASL vs. cued speech; mainstreaming vs. specialized education; and the use of cochlear implants, surgically installed devices that counter some deafness. But until this year, Fernandes was convinced that the school's overriding bond of deaf solidarity would inevitably prevail.

Of course, up until this year she shared an assumption described by school psychologist Alan Marcus. "That a deaf person would kill another deaf person," says Marcus, "is a foreign idea. Fight with. Argue with. Cheat on. Steal from. Embezzle, maybe. But not kill."

It is a premise that requires revisiting in light of the indictment this month of one of Fernandes' students in the brutal murder of two others.

It was 10 p.m. last Sept. 28, and Fernandes had just got home. The flasher attached to her phone was blinking, the sign that it was ringing. It was Gallaudet. Fernandes jumped into her Camry, raced back to campus and arrived in time to see a colleague standing on a bench so he could be viewed by the crowd, as he signed the latest news. A freshman had been bludgeoned to death.

Months before, Eric Plunkett, 19, had framed his Gallaudet acceptance letter and told his mother, "In four years, I'll replace this with my diploma." Now his battered body lay in his room in a dorm called Cogswell, discovered when a hallmate named Joseph Mesa Jr. told a resident assistant that Plunkett had missed class and there was a peculiar smell coming from his room.

When Fernandes, delegated by Gallaudet President I. King Jordan to try to handle this bizarre situation, arrived, stunned freshmen were wandering through Cogswell's lobby. "We were shell-shocked," says Tawny Holmes, freshman class president. "I went back to my room and just felt unsafe." Student-body president Chris Soukup hurried over to Fernandes to say the university's gay community was in a state of high alarm. Plunkett had just been named secretary of the campus Lambda Society. And Lambda members claimed that there had been a marked increase in death threats against gays. Some, Fernandes discovered, were hard to document. But at least one had left a paper trail. A freshman had gone to the school's judicial-affairs committee and asked what to do if someone was picking on you; the complainant was Eric Plunkett.

The issue got nasty. A national gay-rights group announced that anti-gay activity on campus added up to a pattern of harassment. At an event called Enrichment Day, a Baptist participant sparked the ASL equivalent of a shouting match when she argued, within weeks of Plunkett's death, that God would not allow a homosexual into heaven. Gay students feared walking on campus alone. The university quickly took a hard line on anti-gay speech. Jordan wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post asserting, "If deaf people ought to know about one thing, it is the importance of inclusion and access for all." Still, Fernandes recognized her community's delicacy, the ease with which one group could "go floating away, because people were afraid for their lives."

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