Welcome to Tell-Tale Crimes, the crime column of the QC. Tell-Tale Crimes will aim to provide a look at both local and national crimes and cases that are sometimes interesting, sometimes relevant, and sometimes both, from the perspective of a true crime enthusiast. So here I am writing scary stories, both local and national, and true ones at that. Be forewarned, the pieces published in this column will contain descriptions of violent crimes or crime scenes. Thank you for reading.
When writing pieces for this column, I am usually the one who picks and chooses the stories that I write. However, in an interesting turn of events, this story was actually requested. What follows is a fascinating tale of friendship, murder, and wrongful arrest.
On Sept. 29, 2000, the body of Joseph Plunkett was discovered in his blood-spattered dorm room on the campus of Gallaudet University, a university for deaf students. Thomas Koch, the Residential Advisor for the building, had opened the room with the master key after Joseph Mesa, a fellow student, told Koch that Plunkett had not shown up for math class and that there was a strange smell coming from his room, according to the Washington Post. His body was immediately taken to the local hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The medical examiner determined that he had died from blunt force trauma as well as a broken neck, and he had probably been beaten to death with his desk chair.
During the investigation, police were informed by students at Gallaudet University that Plunkett was the secretary of the LGBTQIA+ club on campus — he had been elected to the position only a week before his death — and he had a tumultuous relationship with a fellow student by the name of Thomas Minch. Members of the club had also voiced their concerns to police that Plunkett’s murder was a hate crime. That concern, as well as an eyewitness account of Minch pushing Plunkett down to the floor, prompted authorities to arrest Minch on suspicion of murder. Minch was quickly released due to lack of evidence; but, as a result, Gallaudet barred him from the campus.
On Feb. 3, 2001, Benjamin Varner was found dead in his dorm room after suffering 17 stab wounds. This resulted in police and campus authorities fearing that there was a serial killer loose at Gallaudet, and they discussed adding security measures to the campus. Students began walking in pairs at night and parents from across the country flew in to the stay at the campus hotels so that they could be closer to their children. The people of Gallaudet University were in fear.
10 days later, that fear would be quelled. Joseph Mesa, the student who had originally reported Plunkett missing, walked into the police station on Feb. 13 2001 and confessed to both murders. Mesa told police that he killed both students because he needed the money that he would steal from them afterwards. According to the Washington Post, he took Plunkett’s wallet and used his credit cards, and then took Varner’s checkbook, wallet, and credit cards. He later presented a forged check to the local bank and withdrew $650 using Varner’s account.
Mesa, a native of Guam, was apparently an inspiring child during elementary and high school. He would constantly encourage other deaf students to work hard, and those who knew him had nothing but high praise for his work ethic as well as his athleticism. However, those who knew him at Gallaudet knew he had a tendency to steal. A former roommate told authorities that, in 1999, Mesa stole his ATM card and withdrew $3,000 from his account over several days. This resulted in Mesa getting a one-year suspension from the campus, and he returned in 2000.
During his trial, Mesa claimed that he had been told to murder Plunkett and Varner by a vision of hands wearing black gloves, belonging to professional wrestler “The Undertaker.” Because of statements like this, Mesa’s attorney tried to use the insanity defense, to no avail. He was sentenced to six life terms without the possibility of parole, and at the time of the trial, there was no test to prove the sanity or insanity of a deaf person. There are papers that exist today for the psychological assessment of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, but it does not seem to extend beyond that yet.