The murder of Eric Franklin Plunkett, secretary of the Lambda Society, a gay and lesbian group, stunned the community of Gallaudet University, the nation's premier educational center for the deaf and hard of hearing. The 19-year-old freshman, who had cerebral palsy, was found beaten to death in his dorm room on the Washington, D.C. campus Sept. 28.
There was a sense of discomfort, yet relief when police announced the arrest of Thomas Minch, an 18-year-old fellow freshman at Gallaudet, in connection with Plunkett's death.
But on Oct. 4, the U.S. Attorney's Office dropped all charges against Minch only moments before he was scheduled to be arraigned on charges of second-degree murder in D.C. Superior Court.
Later that evening Assistant Police Chief Terrance Gainer said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. Inexperienced investigators had made a premature arrest, which upon review, did not constitute a sufficiently strong case to make the charges stick.
Minch had voluntarily gone to the police station on Tuesday afternoon to make a statement. Gainer said the lead detectives arrested him based upon weak circumstantial evidence. "If he had confessed, he would still be in jail."
Forensic evidence from the crime scene has not been fully processed. That includes a chair believed to have been used in killing Plunkett. Perhaps fingerprints, fiber or blood on the chair will provide a link to the killer. The police said they are continuing their investigation and Minch remains a prime suspect in the slaying.
Minch and Plunkett had become friends in the month since both arrived on campus. Police initially said they believed that a personal dispute had escalated into violence. One television station reported that the pair had a physical relationship that Plunkett wanted to end.
In 1981 a lover's quarrel between students at Gallaudet ended with the stabbing death of a male. The partner was convicted and sentenced to a 15-year prison term.
Minch left campus upon release from custody and family cleaned out his dorm room. He is believed to have returned home to Greenland, New Hampshire. Gallaudet Provost Jane Fernandes said they could not guarantee Minch's safety, but she left open the possibility of his return once the matter is resolved.
The general reaction from students was one of confusion. On the one hand, those who knew Minch found it hard to believe that the quiet, slightly built teen could kill anyone. Yet they also were aware that the tight security on campus made it highly likely that the murderer was one of their own, not an outsider.
Officers of the Lambda Society said that their complaints of anti-gay harassment had not been taken seriously by the police. A meeting at the office of the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) Oct. 6 brought them together with local gay leaders and the police to talk through the issues.
Commander Jennifer Greene of the 5th Police District vowed to do better. A TTY machine is being installed at the district headquarters. The keyboard and teletype machines will allow the deaf community to communicate directly with the police over regular phone lines.
Gallaudet held a memorial service for Plunkett Oct. 6. It was the first time his parents had spoken in public. "Eric touched the lives of people from coast to coast," said his stepfather Chris Cornils. "His life is one to be celebrated with joy."
Plunkett's mother Kathleen thanked the community for their support and asked them share any information they have with the police.
The Eric Plunkett Memorial Scholarship Fund has been established in his honor. Donations can be sent to the Development Office, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002 or by calling ( 202 ) 651-5410 for more information.