Jeffrey Dahmer

updated 12/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Despite America's penchant for make-believe mayhem, the real thing retains the power to stun and sicken. The same moviegoers mesmerized by the cannibalistic madman Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs were appalled at the trail of carnage left by Milwaukee chocolate-factory worker and convicted child molester Jeffrey Dahmer, 31, who after his July arrest calmly admitted to the murders of 17 young men. Even policemen who thought they had seen it all were stunned by what they found in apartment 213: severed heads, rotting body parts and signs that Dahmer shared Lecter's appetite for human flesh.

Dahmer plans to present an insanity defense at his January trial and has taken a CAT scan to spot brain abnormalities. What remains a mystery is how he escaped detection for 13 years after his first killing at age 18. No one seemed alarmed when, as a teenager, Dahmer placed the head of a dog on a stake in the yard of his Bath, Ohio, home—the same yard where he would later bury his initial victim, a 19-year-old hitchhiker. In Milwaukee the late-night whine of a power saw and the stench that emanated from Dahmer's apartment for more than a year proved annoying to neighbors but not so disturbing as to raise any suspicions. Even in a world in which murder is commonplace, people do not expect to find horror next door. Three policemen—two of whom have since been fired—were so trusting that they turned over to Dahmer an Asian boy they found naked, bleeding and dazed last May outside the killer's building; the youth quickly became victim No. 13.

The implication is frightening: If Dahmer's crimes could go undetected for so long, it is likely there are others like him among us. Indeed, says FBI consultant Ann Burgess, a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychiatric nursing: "Dress him in a suit and he looks like 10 other men."

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