Thursday, July 11, 2002

The mothers of two murdered Gallaudet University freshmen yesterday expressed satisfaction after the killer, Joseph Mesa Jr., also a freshman, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“They’d better alert that prison” that Mesa is “very dangerous,” said Diane Varner, of San Antonio, mother of Benjamin Varner, 19, who was stabbed 17 times in his dormitory room Feb. 1, 2001.

“Don’t make another mother go through what I had to do,” said Kathleen Cornils, of Minneapolis, mother of Eric Plunkett, 19, who was strangled, kicked, bludgeoned and slammed with a chair in his dormitory room four months earlier on Sept. 27, 2000.

Mr. Plunkett and Mr. Varner were deaf, as is Mesa.

U.S. Superior Court Judge Robert I. Richter sentenced the expressionless Mesa, 22, to six life terms in prison and 90 more years for the murders, as well as for burglaries, robberies, forgeries, carrying a dangerous weapon and uttering a bad check, all associated with the slayings.

“Life without parole is appropriate,” Judge Richter said. “The most important consideration when all is said and done is the need to protect others.”

Before he was sentenced, Mesa, a native of Guam, admitted his crimes, but asked for mental help to “try to find out what’s wrong with me.”

“I’m very, very sorry. I pray that you will forgive me,” Mesa said in sign language. “Both victims are in my mind forever and they will be in my mind forever.

“I feel very bad. I want to learn how to control myself,” he signed.

But prosecutors asserted that Mesa was en route to being a serial killer and that he had written to his girlfriend, Melani de Gusman, that he was going to plead insanity at his trial.

“The killing was as important to him as the money,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeb Boasberg, reminding the judge that Mesa had testified in his trial that he was controlled by “black hands” and threatened to kill the prosecutor.

Mesa was considered a friend of his two victims, and of Thomas Minch, of Greenland, N.H., who was arrested Oct. 3, 2000, and investigated for Mr. Plunkett’s murder.

Mr. Minch was released the next day, but subsequently sued the university, contending his life was ruined. The university, renowned worldwide, is the only four-year liberal arts college in America specializing in educating the deaf and hearing impaired.

“Mr. Mesa destroyed a sense of safety and security at Gallaudet,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Collins, emphasizing that a lenient sentence would endanger communities wherever Mesa went.

High security, still in place, was imposed on the campus and students after the killings.

“I’m totally confident that that great institution will recover,” Judge Richter said yesterday.

The seven-man, five-woman jury heard three weeks of testimony, but only deliberated a little more than three hours on May 21 before rejecting Mesa’s insanity plea and finding him guilty on 15 counts.

“There are no winners,” said defense attorney Ferris Bond, who asked Judge Richter to send Mesa to an institution for treatment of his mental condition.

“There are some very deep-seated mental problems that he is unable to address,” said Mr. Bond, adding that he would appeal the verdict and sentence to a higher court.

Mrs. Varner described her son as purely innocent and trusting. Mesa had a liking for a chair in her son’s room and would take it for several days before returning it. Another time, she admonished her son for giving $60 to Mesa for cab fare from the airport.

“I couldn’t let him stay at the airport,” her son explained.

Mr. Plunkett’s sister, Erin Plunkett, 26, of Portland, Ore., choked back tears during her victim-impact statement that she still gets “incredible headaches” and “cries in the middle of comedy shows” as a result of her brother’s death.

Miss Plunkett wants to enroll at Gallaudet to become a certified sign language expert. She, her sister, mother and stepfather, Chris Cornils, will stay in Washington the rest of the week to participate in Deaf Way II, a celebration of the deaf culture attended by 9,000 persons from 110 countries.

“Eric told me not to worry about him. He was an adult,” said his mother, describing his departure to Gallaudet two years ago.

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