Deaf Student Stabbed to Death at University

W A S H I N G T O N, Feb. 5, 2001 -- Questions abound, but there are still no answers in a stabbing death at the nation's premier university for the deaf, the second murder in the same dormitory in only four months.

The case of 19-year-old Gallaudet University freshman Benjamin Varner has left the campus in fear. Varner was found dead with multiple stab wounds to the head, neck and chest in his fourth floor room in Cogswell Hall early Saturday morning.

"There was nothing but sweetness in this boy," the young man's father, Willie Varner, told reporters on campus this afternoon. "This was a super, kind, kind person and no reason for anybody to hate him — not at all."

As classes resumed today under stepped-up security and a heavy police presence, students, faculty and police investigators were all asking the same question.

'Why Does This Have to Happen Again?'

"Why does this have to happen again?" asked Thomas Green, 25, a junior at the university. "Why are we going through this again?"

The brutal killing this weekend was eerily similar to that of another 19-year-old freshman, Eric Plunkett, who was beaten to death in his room on the first floor of Cogswell Hall last year.

"When Eric Plunkett was killed in September, it shocked and hurt the community very badly," university President I. King Jordan told ABCNEWS. "For it to happen again — it's just outside anything I can understand."

Both slayings are unsolved and Washington, D.C. police say they have not ruled out a possible connection.

"Obviously that is one thing we are looking at," Police Chief Charles Ramsey said in a separate news briefing today. "We just don't have any evidence right now to show that they are in fact linked."

As the third day of the investigation drew to a close, police had yet to identify a suspect or a motive for the latest killing — one so bloody that the FBI's blood-splatter experts were called in to examine the crime scene.

Police detectives, having scoured the campus for physical evidence and conducted more than 100 interviews since Saturday, are now trying to reconstruct Warner's whereabouts in the hours and days preceding his death.

Because nearly all of the university's inhabitants are deaf, police must use sign language interpreters when interviewing witnesses, making the investigation even more difficult and time-consuming.

"With the number of witnesses that we have here and the difficulty that we've had in being able to conduct those interviews in a timely fashion because of the need to interpret," explained Ramsey, "it's slowed down the process considerably."

Ramsey also said police were focusing their investigation on the victim's friends and acquaintances off-campus.

Campus 'United in Fear'

Choking back tears as he pleaded for people to come forward with information, Warner's father could only speculate about the identity of his son's killer.

"I hope someone'll get caught. If there is a connection between the first murder and this, I sure hope they'll solve it," he said. "If that killer is one of the students, surely there is somebody … that has some kind of suspicions."

Rebecca Goldenbaum, 22, a senior and resident assistant in another dorm, says she has no suspicions about the death — only fear.

"I don't want to be alone," she says. "We're completely shocked. … I'm feeling just numb — just total disbelief."

"The students feel safe here — they always feel safe," adds Chris Kaftan, 22. "If it happens here, that means it could happen anywhere."

University officials say they have ramped up security — including identification checks of everyone stepping foot on campus and 24-hour patrols in each dorm by faculty and staff — in an effort to ensure that it does not happen again at Gallaudet

"We're taking every possible step to assure student safety on-campus," said Jane Fernandes, the university provost. "Students are concerned for their safety. They are afraid."

Fernandes said counselors from the school's mental health center were working around the clock to help students cope with their fear and grief.

"We are united in fear, but we are united in courage," says Fernandes. "We will not let this have any lasting effect on our community."

But for many students, the memory of the slayings, which shattered the peaceful serenity of this unique college community, may never fade away.

"This will stay with us for the rest of our lives," says Angie Geffen, "I know that for sure."

ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.