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People Top 5
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- August 12, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 5
The Door of Evil
The Unimaginable Horror in Apartment 213 Leaves a Shaken City Wondering About the Serial Killer in Its Midst
Rauth and Mueller are veteran cops who thought they'd seen it all. Nothing, however, could have prepared them for the chamber of horrors awaiting them behind the door of apartment 213. An acrid, putrid stench assaulted their noses as 31-year-old Jeffrey Dahmer pale, soft-spoken, his breath reeking of beer—politely let them in. Mueller headed for the bedroom, where a Polaroid camera lay on the bed. He indeed discovered a butcher knife underneath. But what caught Mueller's eye were the photographs spilling out of the highboy. They showed homosexual sex acts, men in various stages of undress—and corpse after corpse, bodies mutilated and dismembered, including one eaten away from the nipples down, apparently by acid.
With a shock, Mueller realized the pictures had been taken in that very room. After scrutinizing another grisly photo, he ran to the kitchen area, prompting Dahmer to leap up from the living room sofa, screaming like a terrified animal. When Mueller opened the refrigerator, he made an unspeakable discovery: a human head, sitting on the bottom shelf next to a box of baking soda. As the officers led the handcuffed Dahmer outside, neighbors—who say he attracted stray cats—heard him meowing.
Over the next several hours, in grim procession, officers wearing oxygen masks and protective suits turned up the remains of 11 men from the slaughterhouse that was Dahmer's home. Three more heads were found in a lift-top freezer. Five skulls, apparently scraped clean, were stowed in a box and a filing cabinet; two more were stashed on a closet shelf. Police found five full skeletons and the remains of six other bodies—three of which were in a chemical-filled, 57-gallon plastic drum in the bedroom. Body parts were stored about the apartment—including bones in cardboard boxes and decomposed hands and a genital organ in a lobster pot—as were bottles of acid, chloroform and formaldehyde and various tools, including three electric saws. The sickening carnage eerily recalled the serial murders dramatized in this year's movie thriller The Silence of the Lambs (see box, page 36).
Dahmer confessed to the murders of the 11 victims whose remains were found in the apartment and later to six others that may date back as far as 1978. His lawyer, Gerald Boyle, said Dahmer had told him, "This is my fault. There is a time to be honest." In his admissions, Dahmer detailed a ritual method to the madness. He lured his victims most of them black and homosexual—from shopping malls, bus stops and bars by offering them money to pose for pictures at his apartment, where he then drugged them with sedatives, strangled and dismembered them.
And, like Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs, Dahmer hinted he too had a taste for human flesh. There was no food in apartment 213, only condiments. Inside the freezer were packed lungs, intestines, a kidney, a liver, a heart—the latter, he said, had been saved "to eat later."
Dahmer's ordinary, even banal background at first seemed to mock efforts to fathom what lay behind such evil. He was known as a mild-mannered man who worked, of all places, in a chocolate factory. But as reporters pressed further with family and acquaintances, a portrait emerged of a disturbed young man—an alcoholic, a homosexual who despised gays and a convicted child molester. No one could have known that his aberrant behavior was steadily building toward a criminal pathology, but there were clear signals of distress that were treated too lightly by mental health officials, the criminal justice system and perhaps his own family. Neighbors in the Oxford Apartments concede they discounted clues that now seem to flash ominously: foul smells wafting from the apartment, bulging bags of trash Dahmer was constantly dumping and the late evening whine of a power saw.
Born in Milwaukee and raised in the well-to-do community of Bath, Ohio, just outside Akron, Dahmer was traumatized at an early age. At 8, he was sexually abused by a male in the neighborhood. At Revere High School in nearby Richfield, where Dahmer played tennis and clarinet, he was considered bright but was unwilling to apply himself, preferring instead the role of prankster. "He had a bizarre sense of humor," says classmate John Backderf. "He bleated like a sheep in class, had fake epileptic seizures in the hallways. I don't remember having a normal conversation with him." He developed a ritual walk to the school bus: four steps forward, two back, four forward, one back, day after day, never deviating.
There was a darker side to such odd behavior. Dahmer began drinking heavily, often consuming several beers before going to school. Because of his preoccupation with death and torture, friends began wondering if he was dabbling in the occult. Around that time, in 1975, neighbor Jim Klippel, then 16, was walking in the woods behind the Dahmers' ranch-style house when he came upon a mutilated dog carcass. The head was mounted on a stick next to a wooden cross. The body, skinned and gutted, was nailed to a nearby tree. (Dahmer's stepmother, Shari Dahmer, said that young Jeffrey—who developed a keen interest in chemistry after receiving an introductory set from his chemist father—"liked to use acid to scrape the meat off dead animals.")
By his senior year, Dahmer's mother, Joyce, and his father, Lionel, were in the throes of a bitter divorce in which they fought over custody of their younger son, David, then 12. After the separation, Joyce returned to Wisconsin with David. "Jeffrey was left all alone in the house with no money, no food and a broken refrigerator," said Shari, who married Lionel after his 1978 divorce. "The desertion really affected him."
Dahmer has now confessed he committed his first murder that June. He picked up a 19-year-old hitchhiker, Steven Hicks. Dahmer invited the youth to the house in Bath to drink beer, then bludgeoned and strangled him with a barbell before dismembering the body, cutting up the pieces and scattering them in the woods. Dahmer drew a map of the area for investigators who have already dug up about 50 bones, many tentatively identified as human rib or vertebra fragments.
After attending Ohio State for a few months, Dahmer dropped out and enlisted in the Army in December 1978. Posted to Baumholder, West Germany, he was still the quiet loner, except during drinking binges when he would become increasingly moody and defiant. Lying in bed, headphones blasting Black Sabbath and other heavy-metal music, Dahmer would guzzle martinis until he passed out. Finally, in 1981 he was given an early discharge.
Later that year, he moved to the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis to live with his paternal grandmother, Catherine. He worked for a downtown blood bank before taking a job in 1985 at the Ambrosia Chocolate Company, where he was a stock clerk. His inner disturbances continued to erupt to the surface. He was arrested by Milwaukee police for lewd and lascivious behavior in 1986 over an incident in which he urinated in front of some children. He professed an interest in having a girlfriend bill began picking up lovers at gay bars—all the while denying his homosexuality and telling acquaintances he detested gays. He was fascinated by horror movies such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Family members recalled finding bones in the trash and in a chemical-filled vat in the basement.
At the time, Dahmer insisted he was stripping flesh from animal carcasses, but he recently made another grisly confession: He admitted that, beginning in 1985, he had killed three men at his grandmother's house. Those bodies were apparently disposed of—save for the skull of victim Anthony Sears, 24, which was kept as a ghoulish souvenir and found in the apartment on 25th Street.
With his arrest in Milwaukee in 1988 for fondling a 13-year-old Laotian boy and offering him cash to pose for nude photos, Dahmer again came close to being either stopped or found out. But despite a request by the prosecuting attorney for a longer sentence during which Jeffrey could be placed in programs for alcoholics and sex offenders, the judge ordered a one-year prison term that allowed him to leave for his job and receive psychological treatment as an outpatient. Released after 10 months in March 1990, he met regularly with his overworked probation officer, but only at her office and not at his home, which is usually required. Dahmer's stepmother told reporters that his stint in prison changed him for the worse. "Something happened to him that he would never talk about," said Shari. "Everyone knows what happens to a child molester in prison. I don't know if that's what happened, but when he came out he was hardened, and he hated black people."
Indeed, by his own admission, Dahmer killed three black men over the next year. During that same period, his neighbors at the Oxford Apartments began to sense something was amiss. Pamela and Vernell Bass, who lived in apartment 214, noticed an oppressive odor in the hallways that never went away. "I went sniffing at all the neighbors' doors," recalls Pamela. "When I got to Jeff's I could smell it coming out of the crack." When she knocked at 213, Dahmer opened the door, revealing a spotless, tidy kitchenette-living room. He offered apologies for the stench, explaining that his freezer had broken and all his meat had spoiled. Dahmer was utterly convincing, explaining to Pamela that he had locks on the bedroom and closet doors to guard against intruders. "I thought he was keeping burglars out," she says, "but it seems he was keeping people in."
By May, the murderous rampage accelerated. Shortly after midnight on the 27th, two women saw Dahmer chasing a 14-year-old Asian boy, naked and with blood on his buttocks, down the alley behind the Oxford. When police arrived, they told the women to go home. The boy, a Laotian named Konerak Sinthasomphone, was dazed and apparently unable to respond. Dahmer convinced the cops that he and the boy were gay lovers having a spat. Konerak's remains were found amid the carnage at apartment 213. He was also the brother of the Laotian boy Dahmer molested three years earlier.
Dahmer claimed four more victims in the next seven weeks. First was 20-year-old runaway Matt Turner, whom Dahmer picked up at a Chicago bus terminal and lured all the way back to his apartment. Turner's head was placed in the freezer and his body stuffed in the 57-gallon barrel. Then followed Chicago resident Jeremiah Weinberger, 24. Dahmer strangled former high school track star Oliver Lacy, 23, before having anal sex with the corpse. It was Lacy's heart that Dahmer saved to eat later.
On July 15, Dahmer was fired from his job at Ambrosia because of chronic absenteeism. Three days later, as neighbor Vernell Bass returned home around 6 P.M., he heard the whine of a power saw: Dahmer, it appears, was at work on his last victim, 25-year-old Joseph Bradehoft. "I wondered what the hell he was building in there," says Bass. "My wife thought he was building bookcases. Then, when the buzzing stopped, I heard him yelling, 'Motherf—er, I told you, goddamn it." It seemed strange because I didn't hear anyone respond or talk."
Dahmer, who is being held on $1 million cash bond, has been charged with first-degree murder for four of the killings he initially confessed to; other counts are sure to follow, each of which carries a mandatory life sentence. Meantime, Dahmer's lawyer has hired a forensic psychologist to lay the groundwork for an insanity plea. "There's no doubt he's insane," said Lionel, who visited his son in prison. But like all fathers, Lionel is compelled to offer some kind of defense. "[Jeffrey] was not born a monster," he said. "He is not a monster."
Dahmer's high school classmate John Backderf sees it differently. He recalls a recent gathering in which he and other classmates talked about their days at Revere High. "You remember Jeffrey Dahmer?" one of them asked. Replied another, offhandedly but with chilling prescience: "Oh, he's probably a mass murderer."
CIVIA TAMARKIN in Milwaukee, and bureau reports
- Civia Tamarkin,
- John Tayman.
January 30, 2015
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