Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Deaf Serial Killers

It's surprising to learn that several serial killers have been deaf

In a small town in Ghana recently, three men were arrested for the murders of five women. One, who was not named, claimed to be deaf, and he was caught after accosting a woman who managed to escape. Although a deaf serial killer is quite rare, if he’s not lying he’s not entirely unique. In fact, half a dozen known serial killers have been deaf, and one of them actually targeted deaf victims.

For example, there’s Patrick McCullough. He was explosively angry, even as a child. At first, psychologists thought he was mentally retarded and hyperactive, so he received medications he should never have had. His delayed diagnosis of deafness impeded his development of language skills and contributed to his tantrums. It’s no surprise that he ended up institutionalized.

Later McCullough went to prison for committing two murders. He assaulted several other people and stalked two girlfriends who'd broken up with him. He could not abide rejection. In 2001, when yet another woman tried to end their brief relationship, he shot her to death before ending his own life.

Donald Lang, born into poverty in 1945 in Chicago, was also deaf. There were few resources to assit with his needs. As an adult, he killed a prostitute, admitting it with gestures and signs, but a deaf attorney got him a reduced charge. Once released, Lang killed another prostitute, and this time there was plenty of evidence against him, including a picture he drew. Suspected in other murders, Lang was confined to a minimum-security prison.

A student at Gallaudet University, a liberal arts institution for the deaf and hearing-impaired, targetted fellow dorm residents. On September 28, 2000, Eric Plunkett failed to show up for dinner and a student who lived across the hall from him in Cogswell Hall, Joseph Mesa Jr., told the resident advisor that he smelled a bad odor coming from Eric's room. When the RA went inside, he found Eric bludgeoned to death.

The following February, a fire alarm went off in Cogswell Hall during the early morning hours. The RA who investigated the fourth floor came across Benjamin Varner. He was in his dorm room, which was spattered with blood. Benjamin apparently had fought hard for his life.

It was clear from the crime scene that the attacker had been injured, so detectives watched for someone with recent injuries. They also kept an eye on Benjamin's bank accounts, since his checkbook was gone. Bank records showed that someone had posed as Benjamin at his bank to cash a check. Detectives requested the bank's videotape.

Secret Service handwriting experts said that Benjamin had not written the check, which was made out to Joseph Mesa, a freshman who lived in Cogswell Hall. A picture of him matched the image on the bank surveillance video. Others recalled that he'd lived across from Eric Plunkett. The police arrested him.

On Mesa's body were several fresh wounds and his fingerprints matched those found in Benjamin Varner's room. After several interviews, Mesa admitted to the crimes.

"To be honest with you," he said to a detective, "I did it."

Testifying via an interpreter, Mesa offered an unusual insanity defense. He claimed that he'd been unable to stop himself from killing. He'd had a "devil on his shoulder" urging him to get money and an angel urging him to resist the devil. Mesa further explained that a pair of hands, gloved in black leather, had signed to him the commands to commit the murders. He identified the hands as those of a professional wrestler known as the Undertaker, but also said they had been signing to him since childhood. The hands had shown him exactly how to kill both Eric and Benjamin.

Mesa’s defense did not prevail. Neither did a diagnosis of intermittent explosive disorder. The jury deliberated just three hours and found him guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. Mesa was sentenced to life without parole.

The deaf killer in Ghana allegedly operated with others. The victims, ages 25-34, were killed between September 2011 and June 2012. All were posed and mutilated, and their killer(s) took items of clothing, sandals, beads, cell phones, and even weapons from them. In one incident, the killer placed a goat’s skull between the victim’s thighs. Three had been bound around the neck with red calico. These cases are still pending.

Deaf killers defy media stereotypes of agile predators who hone their five senses in the service of murder. Seemingly, if one has an urge to kill, even a significant developmental impairment might not deter.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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