- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

The second student found dead in his dormitory room at Gallaudet University this school year was stabbed to death, D.C. police announced yesterday.

Benjamin Varner, 19, of San Antonio, was found about 4:15 a.m. Saturday in a fourth-floor room of Cogswell Hall, police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile said yesterday at a news conference at the university's Edward Miner Gallaudet Memorial Building.

"At this time, we are told there appears to be multiple stab wounds to the head and body," Sgt. Gentile said, adding police are waiting for an official report from the city's medical examiner.

The FBI was called to assist in the investigation, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said.

Mr. Varner's fourth-floor dorm room at the school for the deaf and hearing-impaired was splattered with blood, police said.

"It was pretty apparent early on that we needed [the FBI's] assistance in processing the scene, primarily blood-splatter experts," Chief Ramsey said, adding that police have no motive for the slaying.

"We are looking for a cutting instrument… . As of right now, we do not have a weapon in our custody."

Sgt. Gentile said police would continue today to scour through Mr. Varner's room, as well as the entire dormitory and campus, for clues. Students with rooms in the dormitory were temporarily reassigned to other rooms on campus or moved off-campus, University Provost Jane Fernandes said.

Mr. Varner lived alone in the same 150-resident dormitory where freshman Eric F. Plunkett, 19, of Burnsville, Minn., was found beaten to death Sept. 28.

Five days after Mr. Plunkett's death, police charged an 18-year-old freshman with second-degree murder but released him the next day because the U.S. Attorney's Office, citing lack of evidence, would not prosecute. The student then was barred from entering the university.

At that time, police said the two young men were involved in a physical struggle resulting in Mr. Plunkett's death, but both Sgt. Gentile and Chief Ramsey were tight-lipped yesterday as to what may have led to this latest tragedy at the university in Northeast.

"The fact that this is the second time in four months, obviously, is significant to everyone concerned," Chief Ramsey said. "But we don't need to jump and fast forward to the point where we start making connections that we're not prepared to make yet and all of those kinds of assumptions."

Sgt. Gentile said police are continuing to investigate what caused a fire alarm in the dormitory to go off at about the time Mr. Varner is believed to have been killed.

Mr. Varner was described by fellow students and Ms. Fernandes as "a very serious student, very quiet and very involved in his studies."

Mr. Varner's parents arrived in the District yesterday and met with university officials.

A police source said yesterday that it is not likely that the student charged in the earlier slaying could have been involved in Mr. Varner's death.

"He couldn't set foot on this campus if he tried," the source said, describing security at the 137-year-old university as "tight" because only one of five gates is used as an entrance for students and visitors.

Neither police nor university officials could say whether Mr. Varner was part of any student organizations. Mr. Plunkett was the secretary of the Lambda Society, a club for homosexual students, and his death sparked concerns about the safety of homosexual students on campus.

Neither Sgt. Gentile nor Chief Ramsey would comment on a report that the one-time suspect in Mr. Plunkett's slaying was in the District in the past few days to appear before a grand jury.

"We will not do anything to jeopardize an investigation or interfere with an individual's right of a fair trial," Sgt. Gentile said.

There have been no other arrests in Mr. Plunkett's death.

Police again suspect the crime was committed by someone who had access to the campus and the dorm, which requires a magnetic swipe card to enter.

"It would have to be someone internal or a friend of a student," the police source said.

Yet, Chief Ramsey appeared to be cautious about whether or not there was a link between the two slayings.

"There is no evidence to link the two yet, but we are looking at that possibility," he said.

Chief Ramsey said more than 100 students were interviewed and the entire Cogswell Hall was deemed a crime scene.

"It's a slow process because of communication, and having to have everything translated for us, it makes it a bit slower," Chief Ramsey said.

With a bright red sign at the security post that says "100% I.D. Check" and stepped-up police patrols, university officials once again have put up their guard.

"We thought the worst was behind us, and we became a little more lenient with security at the front gate," Ms. Fernandes said.

Ms. Fernandes said she was on an "emotional roller coaster" and was trying to keep together the "strong sense of community" that made Gallaudet a unique university, where crime was almost nonexistent.

"I couldn't have imagined," said a visibly drained Ms. Fernandes.

Chris Soukup, president of the university's student body, said "there is a lot of tension, a lot of stress" on the campus, adding he has confidence the police will solve the killings.

"I think the large concern right now is just not knowing. Period. I think that's the scariest thing at all, not knowing," Mr. Soukup said.

While he didn't know Mr. Varner personally, Mr. Soukup gave some insight into the Texan's innocence: "His [resident assistant] said he called his mother every night."

The District, as with all homicides, is offering a $10,000 award leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. Anyone with information in the case should call 202/727-9099 or the hearing impaired TTY line, 202/727-1240.

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