- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

A Gallaudet University freshman confessed to police he had targeted two fellow students he's charged with killing because he believed they were easy marks for robbery, court records released yesterday show.
Joseph Mafnas Mesa Jr., 20, who was ordered held without bond at his arraignment yesterday, had told authorities, "I want to be honest, I did it," records show.
Mr. Mesa, of Guam, confessed to killing Benjamin Varner and Eric Plunkett, both 19, and outlined to detectives in detail how each of the attacks transpired, according to court documents.
D.C. Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said last night Mr. Mesa "implicated" himself in both slayings when he voluntarily spoke to authorities Tuesday afternoon.
Mr. Mesa told authorities he planned to kill Mr. Varner and Mr. Plunkett days before both attacks so he could steal their checkbooks and credit cards, which police say he did, court records indicate.
He told police he had decided on Mr. Plunkett, of Burnsville, Minn., because he knew Mr. Plunkett was weak from a medical condition. He said he sneaked up on Mr. Plunkett from behind, and choked and beat him until he knew Mr. Plunkett was dead, court records show.
Mr. Mesa told police he had chosen Mr. Varner because he knew he lived alone and thought he had money. Mr. Mesa said he asked the student for money before picking up a knife that lay near Mr. Varner's microwave oven, grabbing him from behind and cutting his throat, court records show. Mr. Mesa told police he repeatedly stabbed Mr. Varner until he could no longer escape.
Both bodies were found in Cogswell Hall on the school's Northeast campus, where all three students lived on the first floor until Mr. Plunkett's death Sept. 28. After the slaying, Mr. Mesa moved to Krug Hall, and Mr. Varner moved to Cogswell's fourth floor.
Police arrested Mr. Mesa on Tuesday after authorities found bloodstained cross-training shoes and $600 in cash in Mr. Mesa's room. FBI experts confirmed that the shoes matched the bloody shoe prints found in the hallway outside Mr. Varner's dorm room.
He was charged with two counts of felony murder Tuesday night.
Authorities said in court records Mr. Mesa cashed a $650 check belonging to Mr. Varner about a day before Mr. Varner was found slain in his room Feb. 3. Police said Mr. Mesa identified himself to the bank teller when presenting the check, and FBI experts found that the signature did not belong to Mr. Varner, court records show.
Mr. Mesa also used one of Mr. Plunkett's credit cards to purchase children's clothing on the afternoon Mr. Plunkett was killed, court records indicate.
Mr. Mesa's friends told The Washington Times yesterday Mr. Mesa had been unemployed since last fall when he left his job at the school cafeteria, where he cleaned tables and served food.
Dressed in a blue-and-green windbreaker and beige corduroy pants, Mr. Mesa did not communicate with his attorney during the 10-minute hearing yesterday afternoon at D.C. Superior Court. A sign-language interpreter was provided to relay information.
About two dozen Gallaudet students filled four of the 12 rows in the courtroom to watch the proceedings. Some, including Mr. Mesa's girlfriend, began to quietly sob when Mr. Mesa was led into the room in handcuffs.
Prosecutor Jennifer Collins asked D.C. Superior Court Commissioner J. Dennis Doyle that Mr. Mesa be held without bond pending a Feb. 23 court hearing because of the seriousness of the charges. Mr. Mesa's attorney, Ferris Bond, argued that his client be put in a halfway house and ordered to wear a monitoring bracelet.
Commissioner Doyle rejected Mr. Bond's request. "There is no condition that would adequately assure his return," Commissioner Doyle said. He also ordered that Mr. Mesa submit handwriting, blood and saliva samples.
Mr. Varner's father, Willie Varner, told The Times yesterday in a telephone interview he wants justice for his son's death. But he said he was not surprised to learn that the suspect was someone from Gallaudet.
He said he and his wife were glad a suspect was in custody. "But we've also got feelings of sadness and pain as we read details of what happened to Ben," he said from his home in San Antonio. "We don't feel good."
When asked what he would say to Mr. Mesa, Mr. Varner said: "I wish he'd burn in hell. I can care less about him and his family. All I can say to this boy's father is that he's got a bum for a son."
Students at Gallaudet woke up yesterday with a sense of relief and some sadness that a member of their community had been charged in the crimes.
"Certainly, there's no joy here," said university spokeswoman Mercy Coogan. "There is frustration. People are numb, tired and emotionally drained. But we have to work together and help each other work through this."
Ms. Coogan said security will remain tight on campus. University officials will continue to install security cameras on buildings and residence halls. Officials also are discussing installing an internal panic button system inside dormitories that would alert campus security to suspicious activity.
Mr. Mesa's friends said yesterday that he showed no physical or emotional signs of distress after both attacks.
"He just walked around campus as he always had done," said Tyese Wright, 21, a psychology major.
But she said Mr. Mesa was known as a bully when they both attended Model Secondary School for the Deaf on campus in the late 1990s. "He got into some fights, and he did start some fights," she said. "He was more like a pushy person. In some ways, he was a bully when it came to his ego."
Police initially charged an 18-year-old freshman with second-degree murder five days after Mr. Plunkett was found dead. But authorities released the student the next day because the U.S. Attorney's Office, citing lack of evidence, would not prosecute.
Ms. Coogan said officials had sent a letter to that student, stating that they will welcome him if he chooses to return to Gallaudet.
The student could not be reached for comment last night.

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