- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

D.C. police are continuing to collect evidence and question students at Gallaudet University, where freshman Benjamin Varner was found fatally stabbed in his dorm room in Cogswell Hall early Saturday.

Police have not indicated whether this case is related to the killing of another freshman, Eric Plunkett, last September. Eric, 19, lived in the same 150-room residence hall as Benjamin. Eric's killer remains at large.

But Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said yesterday that authorities, including blood splatter experts from the FBI, already have gathered an "enormous" amount of evidence from Benjamin's room, where the student lived alone. Police also have interviewed, with the help of interpreters, more than 100 hearing-impaired students since the crime was committed.

"We've got a lot of people on campus who are willing to cooperate with our investigation," Chief Ramsey told reporters at a news conference yesterday afternoon. "It only takes one bit of information sometimes to make a difference."

Chief Ramsey also urged Benjamin's friends and other students who knew the victim to come forward with any information that could help police solve the slaying. Benjamin had friends who lived off-campus in the Northeast section of the District, but police said they don't know if the student met them the night he died.

"We're asking anyone who knew Ben or who might have seen him Friday to come forward," Chief Ramsey said. "We're trying to piece together what took place in the victim's room before he was found."

Benjamin, 19, of San Antonio, was stabbed repeatedly in the head and body before he was found by university security early Saturday morning in the same residence hall where Eric was found beaten to death Sept. 28. Police yesterday would not confirm or deny whether a knife and bloody clothing were found in a trash bin outside Benjamin's residence hall.

In his first public appearance since his son's death, Benjamin's father, Willie Varner, told reporters he believes the killer might somehow be "associated" with his son's dormitory. But Mr. Varner did not elaborate on his comment.

Mr. Varner also said he doesn't know whether his son's slaying is connected to Eric's death. Eric was the secretary of the Lambda Society, a club for homosexual students. Benjamin was not a member of any student organization, and, according to his father and other students who knew him, was not a homosexual.

"There's no connection there in regards to sexual orientation," Mr. Varner said. "I'm 100 percent sure of that."

In Eric's case, police initially charged an 18-year-old freshman with second-degree murder five days after Eric was slain. But authorities released the student the next day because the U.S. Attorney's Office, citing lack of evidence, would not prosecute.

As investigators searched the Northeast campus for clues in the case, students and faculty went back to class for the first time since the slaying. Most students said they are angry that another student had been killed, and they are scared that the killer could be among them.

"Anyone is in danger right now, anyone," said Angie Geffen, 30, a third-year student from Georgia. "Most of us were numb and confused when we found out that another student had been killed. The natural response is to be scared that you might be next."

Jonelle Deja, 25, said she isn't scared for her safety. But Miss Deja, a Cleveland native, said she has now become suspicious of all of her classmates.

"I now wonder what if this person is in my class," Miss Deja said through an interpreter. "What if this person who I just chatted with is the one who killed this student? You think about that now."

Police have remained tightlipped about their investigation into Benjamin's death, an element that has frustrated many students. Police declined to comment on whether Benjamin might have been a witness in Eric's slaying since both students lived in the same building, four floors from one another.

Authorities also would not comment again on a report that the onetime suspect in Eric's slaying was in town in the past few days to appear before a grand jury. Police sources have said, however, the former suspect was home at the time of the latest killing.

University officials said they have increased security on campus and have shut down Cogswell Hall, where both bodies were found, for the rest of the spring semester. Officials have stepped up police patrols and have asked professors and staff members to monitor residence halls at night. More outdoor cameras also will be hung on buildings throughout the campus.

Since Saturday, officials closed all but one gate, where a D.C. police officer stands guard next to a university security officer, who logs each guest's driver's license number and license plate number before letting him or her on campus. Officials also have asked all students to show their student identification cards and sign a roster when entering a residence hall.

The university's enrollment is estimated at 2,000.

University Provost Jane Fernandes said students and faculty are trying to continue with their studies, but they need a resolution to the two slayings. "All of us are frustrated that two murders have happened and both are unsolved," Ms. Fernandes said through an interpreter. "All of us share a certain level of fear, but we also have courage. We are not going to let this take away from what we do here because we are a courageous community."

Ms. Fernandes said university officials are in the process of setting up a fund in memory of Benjamin, with donations going toward creating scholarships for students. Donations can be sent to: Cathy Sweet-Windham, director of development, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE, Washington D.C. 20002.

Benjamin's family struggled to hold back tears yesterday afternoon as they spoke about their son and brother. During a brief news conference, Mr. Varner described Benjamin as a "good son who loved to explore different cultures." Officials said Benjamin was interested in majoring in business and enjoyed computers. Benjamin always kept in touch with his parents either by telephone or e-mail.

"It's unbelievable that something like this could happen to him," Mr. Varner said. "I was in complete shock because Ben never had anything bad to report."

Mr. Varner said Benjamin was considering moving out of Cogswell because he was annoyed by the false fire alarms that frequently went off at night.

Benjamin's sister, Jennifer, warned the killer that he or she will soon be caught. "Your evil will not consume me," she said. "You haven't won."

Police ask anyone with information to call TTY telephone line 202/727-1240 or the regular phone line 202/727-9099.

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