Murder In A Silent Place

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CHRIS USHER FOR TIME

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A Confession
At the instant on Feb. 13 in the school auditorium when police interpreters signed the news of Joseph Mesa's arrest to the entire campus body, the yell of relief was so loud that junior Ron Rood says, "I felt for that moment that I was hearing." Then there was a silence as the crowd considered the friend and classmate who police said had admitted double homicide. Son of a U.S. Army chief warrant officer, Mesa is a native of Guam. He was an enthusiastic athlete in high school; the Washington Post noted that when he was a school wrestler, it had once taken three boys to pin him. After transferring to Gallaudet's Model Secondary School for the Deaf, he had academic problems. His lawyer later suggested that he reads at about a fourth-grade level. But he is a handsome young man, deeply devoted to his girlfriend (also from Guam), with a wide circle of friends. Even today, Abbas Ali Behmanesh, a junior, attests that "he's very generous. He's willing to help anyone who needs his help."

Behmanesh, however, had long known of Mesa's dark side. In 1999 the older student was a resident assistant when Mesa's roommate accused Mesa of lifting his ATM card and stealing $3,000. Behmanesh called in school security, and when Mesa confessed, the school suspended him for a year. Before he left, Behmanesh says, the two had a long talk in which Mesa attributed his bad habits to involvement with a criminal gang in Guam. Says Behmanesh: "He said, 'I saw a lot of blood.'"

This would have been news to the D.C. police, who were unaware of Mesa's record and apparently fixated on Minch until the second murder. In April, officers told the Washington Post that when Minch confessed to hitting Plunkett, the head detective stopped the interview cold, arrested him and erroneously told other police Minch had confessed to the killing. Meanwhile the detectives failed to notice that Plunkett's wallet was missing and that someone had used his debit card after he died. They had failed to run a routine check on Mesa's school records, even though he was the one to sound the alarm over Plunkett's disappearance. The Post story amounted to an accusation that a better investigation could have prevented Varner's murder. D.C. executive assistant chief Terrance Gainer conceded, "We need to do better."

Varner's killing produced clues impossible to bobble. "There was blood all over the bedroom," testified Detective Darryl Richmond at Mesa's bail hearing in February. There were bloody footprints made by Nike Air Max sneakers. Reportedly tipped off by a $650 forged check of Varner's made out to Mesa and cashed after Varner's death, police searched Mesa's room and came up with a pair of bloody Air Maxes. After initially protesting his innocence, Mesa finally told Richmond, "O.K., I did it." With the aid of two interpreters, Richmond said, Mesa made a 3 1/2-hr. video statement: he had walked into Varner's room, noticed a paring knife under his microwave and slashed him to death before stealing his checkbook. He also confessed (according to a police affidavit) to "choking, beating and kicking" Plunkett "until he was sure that he was dead." Asked Mesa's mood at the time of the confession, Richmond testified, "He said he was glad he was telling us because the Gallaudet community was in an uproar and he felt bad about that."

On June 8, an Assistant U.S. Attorney announced the government's intent to seek a maximum penalty of life without parole for Mesa, following his indictment on 15 counts, including two of first-degree murder. His lawyer, without offering details, entered a plea of not guilty. The trial is scheduled for November.

Us Against Us
In the end, what is striking about the Gallaudet murders is how non-deaf-specific they are. Though in his confession he allegedly claims to have killed for money, no one truly knows why Mesa may be a murderer; there is no suggestion yet that his deafness played a role. The police appear to have fumbled the case out of sheer incompetence, not because it occurred in a deaf venue. Indeed, the murders' most troubling long-term implication for the Gallaudet community is not a suggestion that deaf people are somehow different from anyone else but that, as regards the cardinal stain of murder, they are the same.

A persistent American myth regarding the deaf is that they are children of nature, well meaning and helpless. Mercy Coogan, Gallaudet's public relations director, has heard countless variations on the theme since Mesa's arrest. "People want to know how a deaf person could do this," she says. "The tendency is to say, 'Ah, God love 'em.'" This kind of condescension infuriates the deaf. And yet they too--for their own reasons--are stymied by Mesa's alleged confession.

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