Jeffrey Dahmer. The name conjures up terrifying things to most people – the Milwaukee Cannibal, the Monster of Milwaukee, the man who invited, drugged, photographed, strangled, sexually assaulted, dismembered and then cannibalized (with variations for each victim) young men primarily during a three-year period. He was eventually caught July 22, 1991 when potential murder victim number 18, Tracy Edwards, managed to get free from the confines of Dahmer’s apartment and flag down a police cruiser.
Dahmer also has the dubious distinction of usually being one of the top three named when those who study such serial criminals (by profession or personal interest in true crime) begin to list off notorious sexual serial murders such as Bundy, Gacy, Radar, Ridgeway, Lake, Ng, Bianci, and Bueno.
In the Dahmer case of multiple murder victims, there is of course the devastating damage something like this has on a city that is suddenly and without warning, under a massive media spotlight and the years that it takes for a community at large, to begin to heal. The night Dahmer and his apartment of atrocities were discovered; the medical examiner on the Dahmer case, Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, had it declared a localized disaster site. A community is not going to recover quickly from that kind of horror.
Among the legions of narcissistic, cruel, and sadistic serial killers however, there is something slightly more human and therefore possibly more redemptive about Dahmer that deserves some additional analysis about a desperately lonely and introverted man whose killing was not the end but a means to an end – in his case – the company of corpses.
I think of Dahmer as the reticent, polite, and sensitive young man that first appeared looking blank and pale in court and then later in interviews where he and his father, Lionel Dahmer, would try to answer the questions so many people had as to why these crimes occurred. Dahmer was pathetic and incredibly selfish as he began the process of trying to find sexual pleasure and companionable happiness with another man only to discover that what he really wanted was a completely incapacitated and compliant sexual partner who fit the very specific body type that he deemed perfect.
Killing for Company
Dahmer experimented on his drugged victims by drilling holes into their heads and pouring acid or boiling water into the wound. He hoped to create a living breathing zombie boyfriend that he could completely control sexually but his plan inevitably failed when his victim died. It was then that he would perform necrophilia and cannibalism acts on the corpses and then try to dispose of the bodies without arising unwanted suspicion.
Dahmer’s preferences when it came to the male physique were slender and lean yet athletic and slightly but not overtly muscular young men. Because so many of Dahmer’s victims were African-American or for the most part men of color, it was presumed at first that Dahmer hated non-Caucasians.
Dahmer vehemently denied that any of the murders were racially motivated and that what led him to approach the men he did was whether or not he was attracted to them and even more importantly met the physical predilections that stimulated him the most. Investigating detectives found no indications that Dahmer had problems with people of color, although some people reported that they did find him to be somewhat timid and reserved around women in general.
Like Dennis Nilsen in the U.K., (who was eventually convicted of killing 12 young men in 1983 although he admitted to police he had killed at least 15 men during a five year period), Dahmer killed for company who wouldn’t leave him.
The Detective and the Killer
It was the story of the shirt – the short-sleeved, white shirt with blue stripes and black denim jeans in the now infamous photograph that appeared on People magazine that made Dahmer out to look like a pale, unshaven, tennis player that initially drew me to contact former Milwaukee homicide detective Patrick Kennedy. He described how Dahmer asked him about his first court appearance and how he felt disgusting and rank in the institutional outfit provided. While most might have uttered “tough” to this admitted serial killer of 17 young men, Kennedy agreed to find something for him to wear to court and ended up bringing in clothes from his then sophomore son, Pat Jr.’s closet – a shirt given as a Christmas gift by Kennedy – and loathed by his son, and a pair of trousers.
The clothing became part of Dahmer’s estate upon his death, which is now the legal property of the victims’ families. This act of kindness as well as other comments Kennedy had made in interviews about the more human side of Dahmer in various profiles and specials on serial killers (as he became the Milwaukee Police Department’s go-to-guy on the subject of Dahmer), indicated to me that Kennedy might be able to shed some light on my questions about Dahmer.
Kennedy and I agreed to meet in person at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April 2013 where The Jeffrey Dahmer Files has been selected to screen for the first time in Madison.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, by filmmaker Christopher James Thompson, is an experimental documentary splicing together interviews, news footage from 1991, and acted and scripted vignettes featuring actor, writer, and filmmaker Andrew Swant as Dahmer. The filmmaker focused on the mundane tasks required in order to keep Dahmer’s killing spree secret. Thompson, who was a young teen at the time of the Dahmer case, divided his time between his parents’ homes in Milwaukee and Madison, so was able to bear witness to the reactions of people in both places as media from around the world descended on the story. As a filmmaker, he eventually decided to go back and explore the story two decades later and discover what had happened to some of the people directly involved in the case personally and professionally and to film their memories of those events as they unfolded.
He explained a few of his reasons for making the film, which in addition to Kennedy, features interviews with Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen and Pamela Bass (a neighbor and acquaintance of Dahmer’s who lived across the hall from him).
“The film gives audiences today a chance to see where we were then and are now in terms of homophobia, race relations, law enforcement and community relations, drugs and crime – a whole host of things – but in the context of this infamous serial killer story and how it affected a city and the personal lives of those who were forced to live it because of their relationship or proximity to Dahmer,” says Thompson, who is also the director of the 2006 documentary film, Kyoko Naturally.
At 59, Kennedy is a solid 6 foot, 7 inches tall with slightly thinning brown hair and a distinctive handlebar moustache. Kennedy’s long, solid, tree branch-like arms completely enveloped me in a Midwestern welcoming bear hug on April 13.
Immediately after Dahmer’s arrest, he met with Detective Kennedy who at age 37 at the time was one of the younger detectives in the Milwaukee homicide unit. Over a short period of time, Kennedy seemed to quickly develop a rapport with Dahmer so much so that his supervisors played on this by insisting that he be one of the lead detectives that would continually meet with Dahmer throughout the interview process.
Other detectives would sit in on the process but Kennedy was the detective that Dahmer always requested which of course became the source of much kidding among his colleagues. Kennedy kidded then as he does now that luckily he wasn’t Dahmer’s type indicating his beefy yet still fit frame but admits that they did seem to connect through conversation, coffee, and cigarettes that first night. Over the six-week period, 16 hours a day, Dahmer discussed his ongoing abuse of alcohol which was something Kennedy could relate to as he himself is a recovering alcoholic. Jeff talked about his homosexuality and the conflicts he had with his family about the person they thought he was as well as the role religion and family had played in this life.
I was interested to find out what Kennedy thought about Dahmer in comparison to other notorious killers, what he was like during and in between interviews, and to either confirm or dissuade my suggestion that because Dahmer didn’t kill out of a place of rage but rather in order to keep his victims with him. In turn, I offered to read Kennedy’s manuscript on Dahmer which comprehensively details the intense six-week period that he spent interviewing and questioning Dahmer after his capture as well as the effects the case had on him personally as well as the entire city of Milwaukee, the devastation of his crimes, and its aftermath immediately following and for many years to come.
Dahmer was noted for taking responsibility for his crimes – a quality not usually shared by his ilk who often hold back information in an effort to frustrate and confuse investigators or in an attempt to hold on to some power over authorities. Most serial killers blame others, maintain their innocence, and try to minimize their culpability at every opportunity. Dahmer emerged as truthful as far as the detectives determined over the course of several weeks, yet not necessarily always immediately forthcoming.
“Jeff would never volunteer information. We would pose questions to him about some aspect of what we were discovering on an hourly then daily basis and he would confirm or deny it and it always checked out. I am convinced that everything Jeff told us was the truth as we were able to confirm almost everything. That said, he wouldn’t talk about anything related to his crimes unless we brought it up or asked first,” said Kennedy. For example, Dahmer didn’t discuss the fact that he had cannibalized any of his victims initially. It wasn’t until the M.E.’s office called to say that the quantity of tissue and muscle found wasn’t amounting to enough flesh based on what they were finding in terms of bones and skulls nor was it corresponding with what Dahmer himself was telling detectives as he chronologically recounted meeting each victim.
Further searches of Dahmer’s apartment revealed that he didn’t seem to have much in the way of food except for onions, mushrooms, potatoes, and peppers as well as condiments like ketchup and steak sauce. When detectives confronted Dahmer with what investigators were finding and not finding – Dahmer then admitted that he had been eating the dead as a way of making them a part of him.
“He said he was initially worried about what we, his family, and then eventually the rest of the world would think if he spoke up about cannibalizing so many of his young victims,” said Kennedy.
Aside from his reasons for withholding information about his cannibalism, Kennedy tended to believe though that the less than forthcoming nature of Dahmer was more about who he was all his life because when they discussed more innocuous subjects in between the interviews, he still needed to occasionally pull information out of Dahmer on the most mundane of topics.
“Jeff was secretive there is no question. He obviously found it difficult to share information and because of his crimes, he was careful about what he said and he was a consummate liar and manipulator. Initially, he lied to almost everyone about his sexual orientation, the extent of his drinking problems, and obviously all of his criminal activity. It seemed at that time, engaging in conversation exchange also seemed difficult for him as it seemed to take a lot for him to relate and ask questions or show natural curiosity in other people,” says Kennedy.
Some of course would say that Dahmer willingly confessed because he was essentially caught red-handed with body parts all over his apartment but one has to be reminded of the arrogance of John Wayne Gacy in Chicago who despite the fact that they pulled 29 bodies out of his basement crawlspace, maintained right up until his execution that he didn’t know about the bodies or that his young, male employees must have committed the murders because they had access to his house and crawlspace.
Disposing of the Bodies
Like Gacy, Dahmer’s serial murdering began to escalate shortly before his capture and he too began picking up and killing men faster than he was able to dispose of the dead bodies. Dahmer consumed by eating as well as reducing bodies in huge barrels and acid and getting rid of the leftover sludge by throwing it away or flushing it down the toilet. Very occasionally he would package body parts in trash bags and dispose of the remains in dumpsters. Many of Dahmer’s neighbors told police and media after he was identified that they had complained numerous times about unusual smells and odors emanating from the apartment. Dahmer would explain that the smells were related to either his freezer or a fish tank in his apartment.
Kennedy, who was one of the first homicide detectives on site and was the second law enforcement officer to observe the severed head of one of Dahmer’s victims in his refrigerator, explained that the moment they walked through the main doors of the Oxford Apartments, he and his partner immediately recognized the smell of decomposition in the air.
“It was a very hot night when we were dispatched to Dahmer’s place so the air was already thick and heavy. As soon as we walked in, the smell of rotting flesh was unmistakable to anyone who has ever been in the proximity of a morgue or body scene,” said Kennedy. By the time they reached Jeff’s apartment, the two uniformed officers who had responded to Edward’s complaint, had a slightly disheveled Dahmer restrained and cuffed and down on the living room floor. Kennedy, like everyone present in the apartment had no idea yet what they were dealing with that hot summer night and would not have suspected the quiet, reserved, thin, blond man of being a serial killer. The image of the victim’s head in that state is a memory that Kennedy is regrettably able to conjure up easily even more than 20 years later.
Others in law enforcement and forensic psychology who also interviewed Dahmer after his crimes were uncovered seem to find him more pathetic than psychotic; more sad than sadistic; more desperate than demented. According to retired FBI agent Robert Ressler, in his book, I have lived in the Monster, about Dahmer he wrote, “His (Dahmer’s) intent was to kill the intellect of the victim and to keep their bodies alive and compliant. This action seemed to me the ultimate expression of Dahmer’s inability to relate in any normal way to another human being.” But as Ressler and others are also quick to point out, Dahmer caused a lot of damage, mayhem, and suffering to a great many people during his short life.
When I ask Kennedy about whether Dahmer complained about being bullied as a young person, Kennedy said that Dahmer never used the word” bully” specifically in their conversations although he knows that Dahmer did tell others that he had been victimized as an adolescent. Others who knew him as a teenager claim that Dahmer was often the target of bullies and in fact was once beaten up by a small group of teenage boys.
Kennedy was curious as to why a Canadian writer would be so interested in talking about Dahmer. I explained to him that I had known a few young men whom I felt were similar to Dahmer, without the criminal activity. To me, they were similar to him in the sense of their being desperately lonely, seemingly invisible young men who has few if any friends, difficulty in any kind of social situation, and paralyzing shyness. I explained that I tended to be a bit of a magnet for a few of these alienated fellows and therefore could sort of sympathize with the side of Dahmer that tried so urgently to fit in with his peers yet found connecting with most people difficult from early on in his development.
As Robert Ressler writes, “Wherever people become alienated from society, wherever neighbors hardly know one another, wherever families do not keep in very close touch, wherever runaway teenagers roam dangerous streets, wherever violence is made to seem a viable response to troubles, an upsurge in serial murder will be one troubling response.” from, I have lived inside the Monster. “The big city gives rise to alienation, anonymity, and anger, all of which are elemental components of serial killings.”
As a child, Dahmer is not known to have tortured or killed animals, which is common amongst the childhoods of notorious killers. Dahmer is known to have collected, inspected, and dissected the corpses of dead animals he found in the woods near his home or road-kill off the streets of his family’s home in Bath, Ohio. The young Dahmer would ride around the slightly isolated neighborhood on his bike, collecting dead animals, which he would bring home.
His father, a scientist, believing he had a prodigy in his midst, encouraged him by showing how to separate the fur from the bones and how to clean the bones using acid rather than questioning his interest in this unusual and perhaps unhealthy pursuit. While it was definitely a strange hobby for a young kid to be so curious and engaged in and somewhat innocently encouraged by a parent, I think it is important to recognize that Dahmer is not known to have shown cruelty to animals or felt the need to exert control over another living thing through torture or infliction of pain and suffering.
Dahmer’s first reported killing occurred when he was 18 years-old in Ohio after he picked up a hitchhiker, Steven Hicks, 18, who was on his way to a music festival. Hicks agreed to accompany Dahmer to his family’s home to drink beer and hang out. It was only when Hicks tried to leave that Dahmer struck him with the grip of a barbell. Dahmer claimed and most tend to believe his story later during his 1991 confession that he only meant to knock Hicks out but that the blow he struck killed him instead. It would be a further nine years and after moving to Wisconsin, before Dahmer would kill again and then very shortly after that kill with regularity once he decided to completely stop ignoring his urges for sex with men, drugging, and eventually killing them.
The first few killings occurred while Dahmer lived with his paternal grandmother in the place of his birth, West Allis, Wisconsin before he moved into the apartment in Milwaukee where the majority of the murders took place. In 1991, it was a primarily African-American neighborhood that also housed many of the city’s drug dealers and heavy users. More importantly to Dahmer though was its low-rent affordability and proximity to the area primarily known at the time for its gay bar scene.
Dahmer was not unappealing and was quite popular amongst the gay men who frequented the bars, dance clubs, and bathhouses along the Milwaukee’s cruising strip. The blond haired, boyish looking, pillowy-lipped young man picked up a lot of men and according to detectives who later investigated Dahmer; he didn’t kill every man he picked up. He killed the men that he was most attracted to and with whom he felt a connection and with whom he wished to pursue a long-term relationship.
Unfortunately Dahmer seemed to be incapable of participating in a stable relationship so chose instead to pick-up partners for casual encounters or in most cases offered his victims money to pose for photographs at his apartment. According to Ressler, the inability to maintain healthy relationships is not uncommon amongst many serial killers, “...young men who were loners as children…turned to fantasy as a result of physical and mental abuse during childhood and were mentally unstable to participate in normal, consensual sexual relationships as young adults.”
Kennedy and I discuss narcissism, a common trait among serial murderers as I question how much of a narcissist Dahmer really was and he describes him as the ultimate navel-gazer.
“He absolutely wanted complete control and domination over every aspect of his partner as there were aspects of gay sex that he didn’t enjoy,” he says. I agree with Kennedy, but am thinking too of the publicity seeking narcissistic killers who write letters to the press before they are caught such as BTK and Son of Sam. If anything, Dahmer did all he could to avoid drawing attention himself obviously in order to avoid detection but I think also because he was not one who craved fame and attention, at least not initially.
While he may have spent all of his time, money, energy and resources in search of his perfect orgasm which ultimately cost each victim his life in an effort to be satisfied, Dahmer also seemed a great deal of time loathing himself, fantasizing, and escaping his pathetic existence through alcoholism. I also wonder if describing Dahmer as a psychopath is truly accurate because he did seem capable of having great feelings of love and affection towards his father, mother, brother, step-mother, and grandmother.
Kennedy describes that during their down periods – discussing things other than Jeff’s murders and sexual activities – Dahmer demonstrated great ability to show a caring, empathetic, and even loving nature towards others. It seemed only when he was responding to questions about his crimes that he seemed to change over to this almost robotic, apathetic, monotone-speaking being.
Dahmer seems to me to have been a sensitive, shy, and immature young man. He lacked motivation or ambition which perhaps can be in part blamed on his long-time drinking problem. He may not have been happy with his “going nowhere” existence, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he attempted to equip himself for a more productive life. His crimes, once embarked upon, became the focus of his entire world.
“People always say that I must have seen evil in his eyes as I sat down face to face with him during our interrogations and I have to honestly tell them that I didn’t. I saw a very normal, ordinary guy who – when we talked about things other than his crimes – seemed very much like me, like you, like anybody you would meet,” says Kennedy. Despite Dahmer’s crimes, Kennedy describes an odd kind of kinship that developed during the long interrogation as he genuinely began accepting Dahmer’s remorse for his murder spree and therefore experienced some grief when he was beaten to death.
However, Kennedy quickly adds that he didn’t befriend Jeff at all during the time they spent meeting and never considered him as anything other than a murder suspect. He did not continue to correspond with him and in fact never saw him again after Dahmer was led off to prison in 1991 for his monstrous misdeeds. Kennedy continued on as a homicide detective when in 2001, he retired from the Milwaukee Police Department and returned to university to earn his Ph.D. Kennedy went on to teach Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Marquette University.
“I wrote it all out immediately afterwards just to get it out of me. Over time, I began to review it and work on it as it became clear that I was always going to be known for this case so I wanted to make sure it was as complete as possible. After meeting Chris and participating in the film, I was encouraged to see if there would be interest in this story from my point of view by a book publisher,” says Kennedy. Dahmer’s prediction that Kennedy would be famous after taking Dahmer’s confession eerily came true to some extent as in many ways; it was a career-making case.
The Victim Who Almost Got Away
Kennedy also dedicated a great deal of time working with others to learn from the mistakes made during the Dahmer case specifically in the death of Konerak Sinthasomphone, victim number 13 who managed to escape Dahmer’s apartment while Jeff was out buying beer. Dahmer had left him unconscious from a drugging. Neighbors found Sinthasomphone naked and bruised on the street and called police. Dahmer calmly came upon the scene and boldly strode over to police and politely explained that the young man was of age and his boyfriend. He blamed the boy’s slurring on alcohol and offered to take police up to his apartment and show them his identification.
Dahmer’s neighbors (again mostly African-American) complained to police that the young man was just an adolescent and intoxicated and bruised but police chose to believe Dahmer. The police escorted Sinthasomphone back to Dahmer’s apartment and though he couldn’t actually produce I.D., he was able to show the officers photographs of the young man taken earlier in the evening which they deemed as satisfactory proof of Jeff’s story.
Dahmer later confessed that he murdered Sinthasomphone within half hour of the police leaving his apartment. Sinthasomphone was aged 14, but according to Kennedy, Dahmer believed he was older and while slight and thin, he was tall and muscular and appeared to be older than the young age of 14 to many people who saw photographs of him.
While it seems difficult to believe that someone as reserved as Dahmer would have the confidence to even approach police and attempt to talk his way out of the situation, everyone who met him always comments on how polite, unassuming, deferential, and soft spoken he was all the time. Dahmer never abducted anyone off the street. He managed to charm and converse well enough with young men that unfortunately all of his victims went with him willingly. He also had previous experience in talking his way out of a variety of incidents in the past including one night while trying to dispose a dead body he managed to fool police by saying that he was depressed over his parent’s divorce so he was out late driving around and taking trash to a local dump.
Regardless of how Dahmer managed it, Kennedy felt that police needed to be more involved with the communities they were policing and that more training needed to be implemented as to how to engage and communicate with neighborhood leaders and long-time residents in an effort to work more closely together. He also stressed how the police in the Sinthasomphone case were being told various stories including the slurred Laotian words of the victim, but in the end the police believed the polite Caucasian, who sounded and looked like them, and unfortunately that decision cost the young man his life. This aspect of the case is one that Kennedy usually includes as part of the training he has developed. It became apparent to many after the Dahmer case that relationships between numerous communities had to be developed including race and sexual orientation groups in order to build better communications, understanding, and representation at all levels of law enforcement and politics.
Due to Dahmer’s notoriety, the prison placed him in solitary confinement, which was 23 hours in a cell by himself with one hour for physical activity. For a lonely man who craved companionship, this must have been near impossible to bear and within a short period of time, he requested to be placed with the general population – no doubt he knew that it was a certain death given his infamy and popularity amongst groupies and fans of “famous” serial killers.
When Kennedy was told that Dahmer had requested the transfer, he remembers many of the officers around him predicting that he wouldn’t survive one year. Approximately six months later, on November 28, 1994, Dahmer was sent along with two other prisoners to clean a bathroom at the Columbia Correctional Institute in Portage, Wisconsin. Christopher Scarver, first beat his fellow prisoner in front of Dahmer before turning his weapon, a grip from a barbell weight on Dahmer who put up no resistance. Coincidentally, it was the very same kind of weapon Dahmer used against his first murder victim.
During the autopsy the prison doctors found no marks or bruises on Dahmer’s arms, which would normally be found if the victim had attempted to defend himself. I find this troubling as is it human instinct to defend oneself against physical harm – fight or flight – but he knew that he was a marked man, he saw a man die in front of him before the killer turned his sights on him and he allowed himself to be killed. He was 34 years-old.
Pat Kennedy and I communicated again via e-mail on April 16 after each of us returned to our respective homes. I was in the process of reading his manuscript and had already begun to make notes, when I learned two days later that Pat had suffered a massive and fatal heart attack on Thursday, April 18, 2013.