The graduating seniors of Gallaudet University sat quietly on folding chairs in the campus gym before receiving their diplomas yesterday and bowed their heads to remember two classmates who were not there.
The celebration of graduation was tinged with sadness. Eric F. Plunkett and Benjamin S. Varner entered the university for the deaf and hard of hearing in fall 2000, along with many of the 300 students who graduated yesterday. But both were murdered on campus during their freshman year.
Fara Wilson, her hands moving fluidly through American Sign Language gestures while an interpreter spoke into a microphone, described for the several hundred family members, friends, faculty and administrators the "emotional chaos" of the graduates' first year.
"We felt as if our dreams of a wonderful college life were shattered," said Wilson, 23, of St. Louis. But, she added, "my parents always told me, 'Take on life one step at a time, and eventually you'll get to your goal.' And now, here we are, at the goal line."
Amid the traditional revelry of graduation day, as fathers carried bouquets of roses for their daughters and family and friends crowded around graduates for hugs and photos, memories of Plunkett and Varner -- and of the tumult surrounding their deaths -- lingered. Remembrances and pictures of them were placed in the program among the names of graduates honored at the university's 135th commencement. And seated in the audience were Plunkett's mother and stepfather, Kathleen and Christopher Cornils; his father and stepmother, Craig and Lois Plunkett; and his sister, Erin.
Kathleen Cornils said that she was proud of the graduating seniors for overcoming so many obstacles but that she couldn't help thinking of her son throughout the ceremony. "You look at every graduate who walks across the stage and think: 'That should have been Eric. That should have been him with his big smile,' " she said in an interview.
The slayings in the 2000-01 academic year left their mark on Gallaudet, the 1,800-student university on 99 acres in Northeast Washington that has become a cultural and educational center for deaf people around the world. But perhaps those touched most directly on campus by the slayings were members of the Class of 2004, the 234 students who in their freshman year coped with the vicious deaths of two classmates, the arrest of a third and the confession of a fourth. At such a small, distinctive university, where being deaf can be a point of pride that turns strangers into fast friends, nearly every freshman at the time knew the victims, the murderer or the initial suspect.
"That year was a very difficult year on campus," said Mon Ching Ng, 22, who graduated yesterday with a degree in computer information systems. "My family wanted me to quit Gallaudet, and I had to convince them that I wanted to stay here."
Plunkett, 19, was found in his Cogswell Hall dormitory room Sept. 28, 2000, the victim of a fatal beating. Plunkett's friend Thomas W. Minch was arrested by police five days later and then released by police and prosecutors because of a lack of evidence, although they did not clear him immediately. A few months later, on Feb. 3, 2001, Varner, 19, was found stabbed to death in his Cogswell room.
Joseph M. Mesa Jr. was later arrested and charged with killing his two classmates, and Minch, who had since been barred from the university, was cleared as a suspect. In May 2002, jurors rejected Mesa's insanity defense and found him guilty of premeditated murder and related robbery and burglary charges. Taking the stand in his own defense, Mesa said that he had been haunted by visions of hands in black leather gloves that instructed him in sign language to kill his two classmates. He was sentenced in July 2002 to two prison terms of life without parole.
"We think of ourselves as a class of disasters," senior Tawny Holmes, 21, said in an earlier interview. Holmes said the murders, followed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the October 2002 Washington area sniper shootings, made many in the freshman class worry that something terrible would happen each of their four years at Gallaudet. But Holmes and other seniors said the murders and their aftermath taught them two powerful lessons about human nature: that people are not always who they seem to be; and that life is precious, so act accordingly.
Back in 2000, in the first months of the freshman fall semester, Gallaudet reeled from Plunkett's slaying, Minch's arrest and release, and a growing concern among gay men and lesbians on campus about what they felt was an anti-gay climate. Plunkett had been the secretary of a gay student group, and some students believed at first that Plunkett's death had been a hate crime. Then, early in the spring semester, Varner's death brought what psychology professor Robert L. Williams called a "sense of unreality" to Gallaudet as students coped with another loss, compounded by fears that a killer walked among them.
The ties were strong among the victims, the killer and their classmates. In the west wing of Cogswell that first semester, Mesa lived in Room 102. Plunkett was in 101. Varner lived in 109. They were part of what they called the "Wild, Wild West" wing, first-floor dorm neighbors who had just started to get to know each other during their first year of college. Mesa had even attended two on-campus candlelight vigils after the murders, publicly sharing with grieving students his memories of Plunkett.
After the murders and Mesa's arrest, some students struggled to maintain their focus in the classroom. The university's Mental Health Center extended its hours into the evenings and on weekends to provide counseling.
Wilson, who spoke during yesterday's commencement, majored in early childhood education -- pulling off a 4.0 during her chaotic freshman year -- and graduated with honors. "I'm not sure if I would have been able to survive the experience if I was at another university," she said this week.
As a freshman, she lived on the second floor of Cogswell and remembered Plunkett as a pleasant student whom she first met one day in the cafeteria, when she had been eating alone until he asked to join her. The tall, lanky Plunkett, raised in Portland, Ore., and Burnsville, Minn., had been a popular student who made friends easily. Varner, of San Antonio, was shy but bright, known for excelling in his studies and for his strong Muslim faith.
Their murders made the Class of 2004 stronger, Wilson said during her speech. "Surely we will face other tragedies," she said. "But we have the courage, and we know where to find the support, to survive them."
The incidents have left an impact on and off campus. Security measures installed after the killings remain in place today, including panic buttons in each freshman dorm room and 80 outdoor cameras monitoring the grounds and all dorm entrances and exits.
Two lawsuits have been filed in D.C. Superior Court. One filed by the Varner family against the university and the District alleging wrongful death was recently dismissed but is being appealed. Another filed by Minch against the District alleges false arrest, defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Joel M. Finkelstein, Minch's attorney, said a pretrial hearing is set for July.
Minch now lives in New Market, N.H., working part time as a sign-language instructor at the University of New Hampshire. Responding to an e-mail, he wrote that he has had a "difficult time" since he left Gallaudet.
He resumed his education, briefly attending the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, but he withdrew, saying people "still think I am connected to the Gallaudet University murder, even though Mesa is in jail."
After initially barring Minch from the campus during the Plunkett investigation, the university invited him back after Mesa's arrest. But he said he does not wish to return to Gallaudet.
"The memories are very unpleasant," Minch wrote.
University Provost Jane Fernandes said that the school experienced a small drop in enrollment the academic year after the two murders -- from 1,321 undergraduates in fall 2000 to 1,245 in fall 2001 -- but that since then, "we're back up to the same level we were before."
University officials said they are aware of only five students who withdrew because of the killings.
Four years later, there is no hint of dark times at Gallaudet. After the slayings, Cogswell and another dorm building adjacent to it were renamed the Ballard Residential Complex.
The dorm rooms where the murders took place are still used by students, but no one lives there. Plunkett's old room, 101, was converted into a video lounge where students unwind in front of two big-screen TVs.
Varner's room, 424, where he moved after Plunkett's death and where he was killed, is now a computer lab.
There are memories in small details. About 400 of Plunkett's old VHS movies -- from "Great Expectations" to "West Side Story" to "Home Alone," most recorded onto tapes -- were donated to the university by his family. Students at the old Cogswell building check them out from a cassette-lined closet in the lobby and watch them in his old room, where a picture of Plunkett and a plaque adorn the white-painted wall of the Eric Plunkett Video Library.
In a secluded corner of campus atop a grassy hill sits a black metal bench, nestled in a small garden overlooking athletic fields. It marks the spot where Varner, who began identifying himself as a Muslim when he was about 13, used to kneel and pray.
"Today, we're talking a lot about them," said Kyle Amber Clark, 25, who graduated with a psychology degree. "Today is in honor of their death. They would have been here today." Clark stood outside the Field House for a moment during the ceremony, hugging friends who approached her.
No one seemed to notice a small stone marker nearby, in an expanse of grass off Florida Avenue NE. It reads: "In Memory of Eric Plunkett and Benjamin Varner." A single tree, its leafy, low-hanging branches swaying gently in the breeze, grows above it.
Slain were freshmen Eric F. Plunkett, top, and Benjamin S. Varner, both 19.I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University, thanks graduating seniors for their hard work and persistence.Joseph M. Mesa Jr. is serving two life terms.