Murder In A Silent Place

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CHRIS USHER FOR TIME

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Five days after Plunkett's body was discovered, District of Columbia police announced the arrest of Thomas Minch, another freshman, for second-degree murder. The arrest was a surprise, as police had excluded Gallaudet administrators from their deliberations. Investigators said Minch had admitted that earlier on the night of the murder, during an argument, he either pushed or hit Plunkett, who fell to the ground.

Although new on campus, Minch had attended camps for deaf youth leaders with many of the current students. Most found it impossible to believe he could have killed Plunkett. Tawny Holmes spent the night of the arrest with her boyfriend reviewing camp videotapes "to try to see if we could see it in him." They couldn't. Others, of course, felt mostly relief. Fernandes remembers driving home smiling, thinking, It's over.

And then, the next day, D.C. prosecutors vacated Minch's arrest, citing insufficient evidence. The police, however, made it clear he was still a suspect.

"What was happening? We didn't understand," recalls junior Tom Green. Says graduate student Dana Berkowitz: "Feelings were all confused and messed up." Information and its proper dissemination is a loaded issue in a deaf context. Marcus, the psychologist, notes that 90% of deaf Americans are born into hearing families and many are left with a "sense of feeling left out and in the dark. Someone might be talking at dinner, and the whole table breaks out laughing except for the deaf person, who says, 'What? What? What?' And they're only given two sentences or told 'We'll tell you later.'" The erratic, whipsaw police investigation was for Gallaudet's students a nightmare recapitulation.

That night Fernandes visited the campus' six dormitories. At each, students met her by the hundreds. "They were yelling. They were arguing. They were crying," she says. They hurled frantic questions. Was a murderer among them? Was she going to cancel any classes? Would the school close down? After each answer, interpreters shouted her ASL into speech for the hard-of-hearing who did not sign; others pressed her words tactilely into the hands of the deaf and blind. At one dorm the oversize crowd spilled outside, and Fernandes signed in the halo of a sidewalk light, her audience spread out into the darkness. She went to bed at 4 a.m.

In time, the campus relaxed. Minch had retreated to his hometown of Greenland, N.H. Recalls Darlene Prickett of the Gallaudet publicity office: "Most people felt that with him gone, things could start going back to normal." Accordingly, on Feb. 2 the Phi Kappa Zeta sorority threw a party, open to all, at a downtown establishment called the Diva Club. "We don't care what kind of music it is, as long as the bass is going, the rhythm," says junior Rebecca Goldenbaum. It was the first big bash of the new semester. Like many of the revelers, junior Jason Lamberton straggled back to campus at dawn, as the trees blew in a cold wind. When he arrived, he recalls, "I saw the police cars lining up, and I had to rub my eyes and pinch myself. It was the same scene all over again." And it was again at Cogswell. The victim this time was Benjamin Varner. An incorrigibly curious freshman, Varner, 19, had once been limited by a teacher to a mere seven questions a day. Now he lay in his room, stabbed at least 19 times, his throat slashed.

Instead of cell phones, many deaf people use instant messaging and pagers set to vibrate rather than beep. "A few hours after the body was found," says Goldenbaum, "everyone [in deaf America] knew. They knew in California. They knew in New York." And shortly afterward they knew that Minch, who had been in New Hampshire, could not have committed the crime.

"Have you ever seen the movie," asks Marcus, "where there is a killer on the loose and one of the potential victims is trying to trace a call from the murderer and a phone company operator tells her, 'The call is coming from inside your house! Get out!'? That's the way it was here." A police detective informed a crowd at the cafeteria that "anyone here could be a suspect." The mental-health center was swamped, and two students withdrew from the university. Fernandes couldn't sleep. She had moved out of her home and into a house on campus. Every night she wandered the dorms until 1 a.m., talking to students, kicking out chocks they had stuck in self-locking hall doorways.

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