A July 11 article on the sentencing of Joseph M. Mesa Jr. in the slayings of two Gallaudet University students misspelled the last name of Mitchell Hugonnet, who interviewed Mesa at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Also, Hugonnet is a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. (Published 7/12/02)
Joseph M. Mesa Jr. was sentenced yesterday to two life-without-parole terms for the brutal murders of two of his Gallaudet University classmates, as prosecutors and court-appointed psychiatrists portrayed the 22-year-old from Guam as a serial killer in the making.
By the time Mesa wrapped his beefy arm around the neck of fellow freshman Eric Plunkett in fall 2000, he was beginning to live out deadly fantasies he had harbored since adolescence, two court-appointed psychiatrists wrote in evaluations that prosecutors quoted in a sentencing hearing before D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert I. Richter.
Mitchell Hugonett, a psychiatrist who interviewed Mesa at St. Elizabeths Hospital, compared Mesa's psyche to that of serial killers in an FBI study. He wrote that Mesa "found the murder as gratifying as if it were an end in and of itself."
Mesa told the doctors of beating a cat to death with a baseball bat when he was a teenager, then killing its kittens. He related the tale "with a twinkle in his eye," one of the doctors said.
"There's a dark side to his being, and I don't see any meaningful prospect of that being erased," Richter said from the bench. "The court finds that this is one of the rare cases where a sentence of life without parole is appropriate and warranted."
Richter spoke in a packed courtroom on a rainy morning as relatives of the victims clutched pictures of the dead and choked back sobs. The families of Eric Plunkett and Benjamin Varner, who were 19 when killed in their dorm rooms at the renowned school for the deaf and hard of hearing, seemed to sink back in their seats after the judge imposed the harshest sentence allowed by District law.
Mesa, wearing a blue prison jumpsuit and watching a sign language interpreter, did not flinch when Richter handed down the sentence.
"I'm very, very sorry for what I have done," he told the judge earlier during the hearing. "The victims will be in my memory forever, for they had done good things for me."
Plunkett's older sister Erin said after the hearing, "This is what we were hoping for." She said the entire family had been on medication to "keep from waking up screaming in the middle of the night."
Varner's mother, Diane, said, "The judge read Joseph just right."
Mesa was convicted of fatally beating Plunkett, a friend, on Sept. 27, 2000. He was also convicted of fatally stabbing Varner, another friend and freshman, on Feb. 1, 2001.
He choked Plunkett in a headlock before dropping him to the floor and kicking him several times in the head. He then fatally beat him with a chair. Five months later, Mesa stabbed Varner at least 16 times, slashes most frequently aimed at the face and throat. He took a few hundred dollars in cash and checks from both victims.
Mesa turned himself in to police 10 days after Varner's slaying.
He testified at his trial that black-gloved hands told him in sign language to carry out the killings, visions he had seen since age 10. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Jurors deliberated less than three hours before convicting him of all 15 felony charges.
Yesterday, Mesa and defense attorney Ferris R. Bond asked Ricter to incarcerate him at an institution where he might receive psychiatric help, and Bond asked the judge not to impose the maximum penalty.
Richter sentenced Mesa to life without parole on all six murder charges but said four of the counts would be vacated after his appeals had been exhausted. Prosecutors had stacked multiple counts for each killing in case a charge fell through.
Mesa's family members, who had planned to attend the sentencing, were delayed by stormy weather on Guam.
The details that emerged at the hearing added a layer of complexity to the portrait of Mesa, a short, muscular young man.
Family and friends on Guam had described him as a role model for the island's deaf youngsters, a determined student who learned to play football and was resolved to succeed. His high school classmates voted him "Most Likely to Be Rich."
James R. Boasberg, a prosecutor Mesa threatened to kill during the trial, said Mesa was an emerging serial killer.
"He derived great excitement and pleasure from these killings," Boasberg said.
Serial killers develop in pre-adolescence, said Robert K. Ressler, a former FBI agent and author of the "Crime Classification Manual," who helped create the agency's behavioral sciences unit to track such killers. They usually limit their destructive fantasies to animals or property for most of their teenage years, before graduating to human targets, he said.
"By the ages of 7 or 9, their mind-set is cast in a certain direction," Ressler said, citing his studies. "It sets out a road map to becoming a killer who takes their fantasies into realities."
Lauri Rush, director of the mental health center at Gallaudet, said the school is still healing.
"Friends of Eric and Ben are struggling with feelings of depression, and friends of Joseph are getting over feelings of betrayal. But we are a strong community, and we are recovering," she said.