- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2000

Federal prosecutors yesterday dropped a murder charge against a Gallaudet University student who was accused of killing a fellow student last Thursday in a dorm room.

U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis said in a statement that her office had insufficient evidence to charge Thomas Minch, 18, with second-degree murder in the death of Eric Franklin Plunkett, 19.

Mr. Minch, of Greenland, N.H., walked out of D.C. Superior Court yesterday, and his parents quickly drove away with him after prosecutors declined to charge him.

The murder charge, which was filed Tuesday, was dismissed "without prejudice," meaning prosecutors can charge Mr. Minch again if investigators find more evidence.

The Metropolitan Police Department's No. 2 official indicated Mr. Minch is not yet in the clear. "He was not vindicated; he just wasn't charged," said Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer. "We're keeping an open mind, and he's on my mind."

An autopsy revealed that Mr. Plunkett, 19, of Burnsville, Minn., was beaten to death. Police sources said a chair in his room was the weapon.

Mr. Plunkett's death shocked students at the world's premier university for the deaf and hearing impaired, which occupies a large swath of fenced-in land in Northeast.

The case marks the second time since August that police arrested a murder suspect only to have the charges dropped. In August, the U.S. Attorney's Office dismissed a murder charge against a Bowie man who was accused of the May slaying of an Alexandria woman.

Police arrested Jason Liser, 23, in connection with the death of Vidalina Semino, 54, who was found shot in her car in Southeast in the early hours of May 6.

Investigators apparently based much of their case on a photo of Mr. Liser at an ATM shortly after Miss Semino disappeared that night. Mr. Liser's attorney said his client was using his girlfriend's bank card at the time.

Mr. Liser recently filed a $60 million dollar lawsuit against the D.C. government and a police detective, accusing them of false arrest and other violations.

Yesterday, Chief Gainer defended his investigators in a telephone interview, saying detectives on Tuesday made the judgment call they thought was appropriate.

"They made a responsible call based on the evidence in front of them," he said. "In the light of day, it looks a tad different. I would not have made the same call [Tuesday] based on what I read today, but I come at it from a different perspective" as an attorney and high-ranking police official.

"They made an OK judgment call [Tuesday], and it's equally appropriate for the U.S. Attorney's Office to change that decision," he added.

Chief Gainer sought to reassure students yesterday, saying the suspect is not an intruder from outside the school. "In our estimation, there is not a murderous marauder on the loose in that area of the city" or on campus, he said.

"There is evidence [the slaying] may be more domestic related than not," the chief added.

Police Cmdr. Jennifer Greene of the 5th District said Tuesday that Mr. Plunkett and Mr. Minch had a "personal relationship" but would not elaborate.

Other police officials said the two men exchanged words and a fight broke out between them in Mr. Plunkett's dorm room.

Chief Gainer said investigators now will go through the physical evidence again, reinterview witnesses and try to re-create the crime.

"We're confident we can solve this case," he said. "It just wasn't ripe today. It's far from over it's just a little set back."

Police continue to say they have no evidence the slaying was a hate crime, even though some students this week said they have observed anti-homosexual comments and writings on campus.

Mr. Plunkett was secretary of the Lambda Society of Gallaudet University, a homosexual group with about 20 members.

• Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

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