Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Gallaudet Murders

Called on the Carpet

In April, the original police investigation at Gallaudet University took heat from reporters at the Washington Post. They had tracked the records back to the arrest of Thomas Minch to try to learn why the police had never considered Mesa a suspect. It turned out that the detectives had missed some key evidence that could have prevented the murder of Benjamin Varner.

Among the problems was the fact that Eric Plunkett's wallet had been missing from his room, which would point toward robbery as a motive and alert police to look for financial transactions. In fact, Eric's debit card had been used on the day he died, yet no one followed up on this obvious clue. In addition, Mesa already had a record of debit card thefts and he was the one who had alerted the RA to the supposed odor. (A basic rule of police work, apparently not followed in this case, is to check out the first person at the scene.)

The mistakes began almost immediately, with the assignment of the case to an investigator with a mixed record, with nearly half of his cases over the six preceding years still unsolved and three arrests dismissed for lack of evidence.

The police had interviewed Mesa, since he lived across the hall, but had not requested a background check on him, which would have revealed the suspension for theft. They also did not investigate the fact that Mesa's account differed from that of others; no one else had smelled an odor. His behavior had been indicative of a person who wanted the body to be found.

Once it was found, there was no routine inventory of items in Eric's room, which would have turned up the missing items. The detectives also failed to follow up on purchases made with the card, which meant that no one requested videotapes from the stores where the purchases were made until after the tapes had been erased.

Then there was the Minch interrogation. He was arrested for murder as soon as he admitted to hitting Eric during an argument. He did not confess to murder, but records indicate that the interrogating detective told his superiors he had extracted a confession. No one asked for corroborating evidence and a newly promoted commander had failed to question the detective closely as to whether he actually had a case against the boy.

A new team of detectives had been assigned after Minch was released, but they had accepted Minch as the suspect, failing to look for new clues or consider other angles. It was a classic case of tunnel vision: they all were thinking inside the box that the first detective had built, despite his obvious errors. No one established a timeline leading up to the murder, another routine investigative activity. In short, there were many inexcusable errors.

Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer
Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer

Officials acknowledged this. "We are accountable," said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer in the Post. "We need to do better."

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