The star student from Minnesota in Room 101 taped pictures of his baby sister's first birthday party to his dorm wall in Cogswell Hall. With video cameras and the Internet, Eric Plunkett could watch her grow from afar.
In Room 102, Joseph Mesa hung the flag of his native Guam over his bed. A few doors down, the inquisitive one from Texas wrote to his parents online virtually every day; Benjamin Varner missed his mom. In nearby Krug Hall was the young man from New Hampshire, Thomas Minch, who loved the outdoors and dreamed of a Ford Explorer.
It was the fall semester of 2000, their first in college. The quartet had come from all points of the compass to do some growing up in the same small place -- a university in the nation's capital unlike any other. One thing made them as close as brothers: They were deaf.
In four months, they would be bound by tragedy as well. Plunkett and Varner would be slain in their rooms, and Mesa would be charged with killing them as he robbed them. Minch would be accused -- falsely -- of one of the killings and banished from the school he had long dreamed of attending.
Each had chosen Gallaudet University, but in many ways their choice seemed predestined. The university has been at the heart of American deaf culture since its founding 136 years ago, educating generations of deaf families by offering the best of two worlds -- the special attention that hearing schools have trouble providing and the independence that comes from being in a place where deafness is enriching, not disabling. More than on most campuses, Gallaudet students see themselves as kin.
Those on the first floor of Cogswell Hall certainly did. On an August night, Plunkett, Varner and Mesa joined others from their wing at a campus cafe called the Abbey, where M&M's, Ben & Jerry's and Snickers awaited. They were getting to know each other midway through their first week. Someone came up with a name for the west wing, where they lived, and everyone voted to keep it. The Wild, Wild West. The students adopted dorm rules: Respect others. Keep the bathrooms clean. Don't do anything in your dorm that you wouldn't do at home.
At the end, they joined hands and yelled their new name. One hand crisscrossed on top of another until there was a stack of intersecting fingers.
How deafness shaped their lives, how that brought them to Gallaudet, was a journey unique to each. What follows are portraits of Plunkett, Varner, Minch and Mesa.
Eric Franklin Plunkett craved adventure. He used to fill up his Christmas wish lists with requests for plane tickets. New York City, Winnipeg, Rome. Just in case that failed, as it often did, he'd ask for a new Nintendo video game, too.
He had a flair for the dramatic, treating everyday life in the two cities where he was raised -- Portland, Ore., and Burnsville, Minn. -- as if a curtain had just been raised. He couldn't just tell his parents he really didn't want to do yardwork. He had to make a show of it, lying flat on the ground, raking leaves all the while.
Other kids say they want to be astronauts or police officers when they grow up. Not Plunkett. His career of choice: chef at his favorite Japanese restaurant. They cooked the food at the table. It was so cool.
He was tall and skinny, energetic and outgoing, with a wide smile that showed off a perfect set of teeth.
"I have to look really good, because I'm going to college," he wrote to a non-signing hairstylist back home in Minnesota the week before classes started.
His family gave him his own name sign soon after he was born. A right hand in the shape of the sign language letter "E," held over the heart. Plunkett's mother, Kathleen Cornils, had contracted German measles while pregnant, and her second child was born deaf and with cerebral palsy. Cornils learned that he was deaf when he was about 8 months old, the only deaf child in a hearing family.
The family -- Cornils, her daughter Erin and Plunkett's father, Craig Plunkett -- read books on how to raise deaf children and took signing courses. They would adapt. They began teaching Eric signs almost immediately after they learned he was deaf. He grew to view his deafness as a gift.
"Mom, it must be so loud in here," he told Cornils one day, relishing his personal silence at a crowded shopping mall.
In Portland, he attended deaf programs in regular elementary and middle schools before becoming a student at the Oregon School for the Deaf in Salem. It was a boarding school, and Cornils felt as if she were sending her son to college when he was barely a teenager. Plunkett was not as athletic as other kids. The cerebral palsy weakened his legs and made it difficult to ride bikes or climb stairs. But he didn't equate cerebral palsy and deafness with dependence or timidity.
By the time he was about 15, he had taken trips to Florida, Colorado and California. When the family was debating moving to Minnesota, he hopped on a train by himself to take a look around. They moved in 1997, shortly before Plunkett turned 16. He started school at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault, also a boarding school. Plunkett lived in a dorm during the week and visited his family on weekends. His mother and stepfather, Chris Cornils, had moved to nearby Burnsville, a Minneapolis suburb of quiet cul-de-sacs with sleds on the porches in wintertime.
Plunkett blossomed at the Minnesota school. The academy, which sits on a hilltop outside Faribault, is an intimate school built 135 years ago. There, old and new stone buildings provide a protective environment for about 150 preschool to 12th-grade students.
"He took risks," Principal Thomas Zins said of Plunkett. "He accepted challenges. He didn't let anyone say 'no' to him."
Plunkett dyed his hair red or bleach-blond, depending on his mood. He graduated with second-highest academic honors in the 10-student senior class. His English teacher, Janet Skjeveland, gave him the news.
"He was jumping up and down," she recalled.
Plunkett debated whether to attend a community college that offered programs for the deaf, but Gallaudet remained his number one choice.
At Gallaudet, the bonds that tie people together are singular -- deafness and pride in it. Virtually everyone speaks the same language -- American Sign Language -- and day-to-day campus life relies on the eyes, not the ears. Employees entering an office flick a light switch instead of knocking on the door. Things are felt, not heard, like the vibrations of two-way pagers with keypads attached to nearly everyone's hip to communicate on a campus with no use for cellular phones.
Like elsewhere, students run for student body president and throw touchdowns at football games. Unlike elsewhere, lunchtime at a campus snack bar features across-the-room signing. Gallaudet is a tranquil place, a 99-acre island of redbrick buildings and grassy hills in a frayed section of Northeast Washington.
Plunkett first visited the campus when he was 4, while his family attended a summer program on raising deaf children. When the letter admitting him to Gallaudet as a freshman finally arrived, his mom opened it without waiting for him.
"I was dying to know, and I wasn't going to wait for the weekend," Cornils said. She and Plunkett's stepfather drove to the Minnesota school to tell him, bringing balloons.
A surprised Plunkett greeted them in the lobby of the dormitory.
"He thought he was in trouble," Cornils said. She hid the balloons until Plunkett opened the letter. That weekend, the family helped Plunkett frame and hang it on a wall in the family room. He told his mother it was temporary; he would replace it in four years with his diploma.
His new adventure began in August. The Cornilses helped Plunkett, 19, move into his dorm room at Cogswell, and they attended New Student Orientation together. At the end of the trip, after his mom and stepdad dropped off a care package of blankets and Top Ramen noodles, they embraced for snapshots.
"Don't worry about me, mom," he told Cornils. Then he walked away, headed for lunch, turning around to wave.
Cornils would remember that moment, the last time she would feel her son's touch.
Benjamin Scott Varner's first word was "hot." He was 13 months old. The day before, his mother had pointed at the stove. "Hot stove," she said. The following night, Varner crawled near the stove, held up his hand and said it, "Hot."
"I can't believe it!" Diane Varner cried. "Did you hear that?"
It was the tiniest of miracles, the audible fruit of one mother's determination. Her son had been born into the world of the deaf, and she had dedicated herself to ensuring his success in the hearing one. Though his parents and his sister could hear, deafness ran in the family, on his father's side.
Ben Varner had a profound hearing deficiency but wasn't totally deaf. From 8 months old, he wore hearing aids. His mother became his closest friend, his most devoted teacher, his fiercest protector. She sent away for teaching guides and lay on the floor next to her infant son, getting him to focus on listening with his hearing aids, so he would learn to speak.
"What color is the ball?" she would ask. She would say the words, "The ball is red." Her hopes were far from grand. "I wanted him to be able to pull up to a gas station someday and say, 'Fill it up.' Or go into a restaurant and say, 'I want a hamburger without mustard,' " Diane Varner said.
Willie Varner was an Army nurse stationed at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash., when his only son was born in 1981. Shortly after he was born, the Varners began looking for schools that specialized in teaching listening and speaking skills to deaf children. They found one in San Antonio, the Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children. The Army agreed to transfer Willie Varner to nearby Fort Sam Houston.
When the youngest Varner began learning to read, his mother would turn her kitchen into a classroom, labeling her kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator, the chairs. The door was labeled, "Door." The window was labeled, "Window." She would sit her son on a stool when she cooked. "Mommy's going to get the eggbeater now," she would say, describing every little move.
"And I would do this over and over and over again, day after day after day," Diane Varner said.
Ben Varner stayed at Sunshine for eight years and progressed rapidly. Lisa Lopez, a counselor there, credits the school and Varner's mother for his growth in vocabulary and tone of speech.
"Behind every oral deaf kid who really learns how to listen and speak, there is a family member who had to practically dedicate their life toward the success of that child," Lopez said.
The Varners sent their son to public schools beginning in the third grade, hoping that school interpreters would help him become fluent in American Sign Language, which is not taught at the Sunshine school. But from elementary school through MacArthur High School in San Antonio, Varner seldom paid attention to the interpreters, prefering to use the listening skills he learned early in life. He wanted to be part of the hearing world.
But he struggled with his deafness, coming home from school so exhausted that he would head straight to bed.
"He used to come home, and it was so hard for him, always straining to hear," Diane Varner said. "He'd say, 'I wish I could hear! I wish I could hear!' "
But he excelled academically, getting A's and B's. He had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He would amaze his parents, memorizing the exact distance between Mars and Venus, taking more interest in studying the rules of baseball than actually playing it.
He studied foreign cultures and became so engrossed in the stories of faraway places that Willie Varner received an unexpected call one day when Varner was in high school. It was an official from the Israeli consulate. His son had applied for a visa.
Varner read books on the Middle East and books on sports rules and books on astronomy and books on whatever happened to capture his attention. At 13, he joined the Islamic Center of San Antonio and became a student of the Koran.
He kneeled on his bedroom floor almost every day to pray, facing Mecca, the holy city, and later would carry a green, pocket-size Koran. His curiosity about Islam had been sparked after working on a class paper on religious beliefs.
"He just liked to be left alone to do his thing, sit off by himself and read his travel books," said Wendall Watson, MacArthur High's principal.
Varner had a solitary disposition and was selective about whom he befriended. He grew more comfortable in social situations during his junior and senior years. His senior year, he traveled to Australia with a student group, reading about the country for months in advance and talking about it for months afterward.
Diane Varner wanted her son to attend Gallaudet because its support system would make learning less stressful. Ben Varner's main interest, however, was in the school's location. Washington offered the international flavor and experiences he had always sought. When he found out he was accepted, he studied the school's history and started memorizing District maps.
Diane Varner went with her son to Gallaudet in August to help get him settled. She stayed in a room at the campus hotel as Varner moved into Cogswell. The night before she returned home, Varner, 19, visited his mother in her room. He sat on the bed opposite hers and then lay down, tears rolling from his eyes.
"Ben, I know this is going to be one of the hardest things in the world that you've ever done," his mother said. "But trust me, you can do this."
When it was time to go, they embraced. Varner backed into the hallway, and his mother closed the door. She stood there and heard him cry in the hall. She leaned against the door and cried long after he was gone.
Thomas William Minch was born into a world of silence. His mother and father were deaf, and so were his younger brother and five of their cousins. He grew up in Portsmouth, N.H., one of the oldest seacoast towns in the nation. Smokestacks and ships' masts rise across a horizon of winding cobblestone streets, while funky art shops and vintage clothing stores inject some spice into downtown.
The Minch family is well-known among the town's 23,000 residents and is considered a kind of royalty among the local deaf community. Minch, his family and their attorney declined requests for interviews, but those who worked or went to school with Minch describe a young man comfortable building bridges between the deaf and hearing worlds.
When Minch was 4, his parents, William R. and Cathy Minch, moved to nearby Greenland, N.H.
"Tommy was respectful and pleasant. And he always was patient with me even though I never learned to sign," said Marion Carlton, 95, who was the family's landlord for 14 years. Carlton's daughter was so enchanted with the Minch family that she learned American Sign Language.
Minch treated his deafness as part of his uniqueness and charmed so many dinner guests and classmates that he inspired some of them to learn how to sign. Managers at the Market Basket supermarket in Portsmouth hired Minch as a bagger when he was 16 and were pleasantly surprised to watch him put customers at ease, said merchandiser Patrick Kane. But Minch didn't want to just bag groceries.
"He wanted to work the cash register. And frankly, we just weren't so sure about that," Kane said. "But we finally let him have a try, and he was great."
Minch attended public schools, where an interpreter would follow him to class, although he learned to read lips and spoke fairly well. When Minch's only brother, Brian, had to transfer to a school in Massachusetts because there was no longer a school for the deaf in New Hampshire, Minch testified before the state legislature, said Mike Ritter, president of the New Hampshire Association of the Deaf. Minch spoke of how difficult it was for deaf children to be mainstreamed in regular schools and of the need for more interpreters at extracurricular activities.
At Portsmouth High School, Minch had few problems, though. As a senior, the slender Minch played a king in a production of "Once Upon a Mattress," mouthing the words as someone offstage said them aloud.
"He was just one of the gang," recalled drama teacher Jean Proulx. "Sometimes, he'd be leaving and I'd yell to his back, 'See you tomorrow, Tommy,' without realizing he didn't hear me," she said. "He was that courageous about it."
Carlton remembers the day last August when the Minch family loaded up their van to take Minch, then 18, to Gallaudet.
Said Howie Weisbrot, former owner of the Little Professor bookstore in downtown Portsmouth, where Minch used to work: "He was extraordinarily excited he got into Gallaudet. He came by the store to tell me he got in as soon as he got his acceptance."
Joseph Mafnas Mesa Jr. was an island boy in the big city. In his youth, he kept a water buffalo and raised roosters for fighting behind his family's house on a bluff in northeastern Guam.
He was born deaf, while his father was stationed in San Francisco with the Army, and he was 2 when his family arrived in his father's native Guam. Joseph Mesa Sr. had a hard time with his son's deafness at first. But he came to accept it and learned sign language, as did the rest of the family. Mesa was the only deaf member in a hearing family.
He was the first deaf student on the youth league football team, playing center. Parents rooted for him on the sidelines, clapping with exaggerated gestures so he could see them from the field.
"He proved a lot of people wrong about being disabled," said his brother, Patrick, 18. "He just went ahead and did things, and became a strong influence on both the deaf community and the hearing community."
Mesa always impressed elders, taking their hands when he met them and pressing them to his forehead or lips in an old-fashioned gesture of respect.
In 1996, after his freshman year in high school, Mesa transferred to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, a high school on the Gallaudet campus. His parents had hesitated about sending their son so far away, but they eventually agreed. On his trips home, he would sing the praises of finally going "outside" the island, friends said.
"He was always encouraging the other deaf students," said Gerri Mandell, then a teacher of deaf students at Guam's John F. Kennedy High School. "He would say, 'You don't really have to stay here on Guam. There's more than just going to the community college. There's Gallaudet.' "
At the Model school, students nicknamed him "Islander Joe." He had grown into a stocky young man with a mustache and had joined the wrestling team. One day, it took three guys to pin him. A teacher recalled Mesa as a quiet, polite student.
Steven Gagnon recalls a different Mesa. Gagnon, who lived with Mesa as a sophomore at the Model school and now attends Gallaudet, said he watched Mesa walk into another student's room, lift a wallet from a dresser and steal $45. Yet, Gagnon said, Mesa would often give money to friends. And it wasn't uncommon for him to pay for meals, Gagnon said. Mesa would sometimes brag about being rich, he said. In fact, in his senior yearbook, Mesa was named "Most Likely to be Rich in the Future."
After graduating from the Model school in 1998, Mesa enrolled in the English Language Institute, a college prep program at Gallaudet that helps students improve their reading and writing. Delvin Arnold shared a dorm room with Mesa in 1999 and said that Mesa stole his ATM card and withdrew $3,000 from his account over several days that April.
Mesa was suspended after the case was brought before a campus judicial board, Arnold and other sources said. He received a one-year suspension and, after paying back Arnold, returned as a freshman in fall 2000.
District police confirmed that Mesa was suspended for theft. University officials would not discuss Mesa's past, citing the confidentiality of student records. Mesa spent the 1999-2000 school year on Guam, telling family members that he needed a break from school. Mesa's attorney declined to comment.
"The court has asked us, voluntarily, not to speak with the press," said Ferris Bond, the attorney. "All of our talking regarding the case will be done in court or in front of a jury."
Arnold said of Mesa, 20: "I begged him to stop stealing. He told me . . . he would be a better person when he returned to Gally."
In the small world of the Gallaudet freshmen dorms, Plunkett, Varner, Minch and Mesa not only knew each other as classmates, their lives often intertwined.
One day in Minnesota, Erin Plunkett had the computer and video camera up and running, to see and talk live with Eric, when someone walked into his room. She asked who it was. Plunkett told her his friend from across the hall was borrowing a movie. She would later recognize the person as Mesa.
Varner, who e-mailed his mother virtually every night, happened to mention that Gallaudet was such a diverse place. He had even met a student from Guam, named Joseph.
Plunkett and Minch had become friends during the start of the semester. Their families sat together at an afternoon session during New Student Orientation. Thomas Koch, the Cogswell boys' wing resident assistant, said he saw Plunkett, Mesa and Mesa's girlfriend, Melani De Guzman, at Union Station, preparing to take a Metro train to do some shopping.
No one saw any signs of what was to come.
On Sept. 28, about 8:30 p.m., Koch opened Plunkett's room with a master key. Mesa had told him that Plunkett hadn't been to math class and that he "smelled something funny" coming from the room. Plunkett had been beaten to death.
The next evening, students gathered outside Plunkett's first-floor window for a candlelight vigil. A tree by the window became the site of a makeshift memorial of signs, pink carnations and pictures of Plunkett. Minch helped design posters for the memorial. Mesa was one of many students who recounted his memories of Plunkett at the vigil, and he talked about helping Plunkett with his math homework, students recalled.
"He looked very sad," said freshman Ryan Zarembka, Mesa's roommate in Cogswell. "He looked like he was talking from his heart."
In the days that followed, the Lambda Society, a student club for gay men and lesbians, sought assurances from police that Plunkett's death was being investigated as a possible hate crime. Plunkett was secretary of the club, elected the week before his death. He had never talked about sexual orientation with his family, but they did not dispute students who say Plunkett told them he was gay.
Police focused their investigation on Minch. Authorities have said they learned that he and Plunkett had had an ongoing dispute and, on the night of killing, Minch had pushed Plunkett to the dorm floor in front of others. Minch was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, and the university barred him from campus. But he was promptly released for lack of evidence, and the university later invited him to return.
In light of Mesa's arrest, his role in the discovery of Plunkett's body and his prior suspension for theft take on new importance. Police officials now say they were unaware of Mesa's record of theft on campus during the investigation of Plunkett's death. University officials, however, said they had no knowledge that theft was part of the investigation, knowledge that might have prompted research into Mesa's past.
On Feb. 3, Varner's body was found in his fourth-floor Cogswell dorm room. He had been fatally stabbed. Fearing there was a serial killer, campus security resumed its beefed-up patrols and university officials discussed plans to further increase security, debating whether to install video cameras in dorm buildings and panic buttons in all dorm rooms.
Some parents flew from across the country to be by their children's side, staying at the campus hotel. Some students didn't attend class for a week. And when on campus, they walked in pairs at night, if at all. Former president Bill Clinton called University President I. King Jordan to offer his condolences.
On Feb. 13, Mesa walked into a campus security office and said, according to court documents: "I want to be honest. I did it." He admitted killing Plunkett and Varner because he needed the money, the documents said. Mesa told authorities that he took Varner's checkbook, wallet and credit cards. Mesa had presented a forged check at a local bank and obtained $650 in cash. He told authorities that he took Plunkett's wallet and used his credit cards, court documents say.
Last Monday, Plunkett's mother sat in a District courtroom, clutching the hand of her husband, Chris. Mesa was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and sat up straight, watching an interpreter sign the proceedings. Nearby was Mesa's mother, Grace. The two mothers were seated less than an arm's length apart. A judge ordered Mesa held without bond and scheduled his trial for November.
These days, Diane Varner remembers her son coming home last Christmas, more mature, more assured.
"When he got off the airplane, that boy melted in my arms," she said. "We just stood for five minutes, and I just held him safe."
Minch, who police say is no longer a suspect in Plunkett's death, returned to Portsmouth. His friends at Domino's Pizza also greeted him with hugs.
"When he first came back, I gave him a big hug and asked him if there was anything I could do for him," said Miranda Greene, 20, who worked with Minch at the pizza place and was a year ahead of him in school. "And he just said to me: 'Don't worry about me, Miranda. I can take care of myself.' "
Plunkett's mother, Kathleen Cornils, likes to keep flowers at the cemetery in Minneapolis where her son's remains are. Her florist had cherry blossom branches a while back. She took them there for Plunkett. They remind her of Washington.
And at Gallaudet, in the sign language that is the currency of life on campus, students now use a symbol they rarely used before: a right index finger jabbed past the side of an open left palm -- the sign for murder.