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“His behavior didn’t change. The object changed.” This is what psychologist at George Washington University, David Silber, stated when asked about the relation between Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood activities and his unspeakable crimes later on in life that traumatized civilians and Milwaukee’s finest law enforcement. The name “Jeffrey Dahmer” conjures images of his numerous brutal murders. However, as his violence was believed to be spurred by his childhood experiences, his court case and his capture involved some of the best, and worst, work done by the American justice system.
As a young child, Jeffrey Dahmer had a considerably unusual childhood. In 1964, at the age of four, his father, Lionel Dahmer, noticed Jeffrey was developing an interest in the remains of small animals; while he was sweeping some out from underneath his house and placing them in a bucket, Jeff was thrilled by the sound they made (“Jeffrey Dahmer’s Childhood”). That same year, according to a “Twisted Minds” web page article, he underwent a double hernia operation, which left him vulnerable and scared for he did not understand what was going on.
By age six, Jeff and his family moved to Doylestown, Ohio, where his younger brother, David, was born and, according to Radford University, his teachers began reporting him feeling neglected. Only two years later, his family moved to Bath Township, Ohio, where his father claimed he had been sexually abused by a neighborhood boy (“Dahmer’s Compulsions”). Such a traumatic experience as this most likely would follow him throughout the rest of his life.
By age ten, his hobbies evolved into somewhat of an addiction. Jeff had begun collecting road kill, bleaching chicken bones, decapitating rodents, and even taught himself how to use acid to strip the meat of dead animals from their bones (“Childhood”).
During his teenage life, those around Jeff began to notice some distressing changes occurring within him. According to Radford University, Jeff discovered alcohol at thirteen, and, by the time he was sixteen, he was sneaking scotch into his morning classes. He most likely took to alcohol because he felt unaccepted, as his peers began viewing him as desperate and lonely. His parents, Joyce and Lionel Dahmer, constantly quarreled and, just like any other teenager, he took their arguments to heart (“Childhood”).
In 1978, the same year Jeff graduated high school, his parents divorced and his mother gained custody of Jeff’s younger brother, David (“Dahmer’s Compulsion”). Former neighbor Susan Lehr spoke on his attitude and personality when these events were occurring, stating that, “something devastating [was] going on in his life and there wasn’t anybody there to help him,” (“Cannibal”). This could have possibly been what sparked him to become the monster that the public know him as today.
Jeff took his parents’ divorce extremely hard. According to Los Angeles Times, his mother and brother moved to Wisconsin while his father stayed at a motel, leaving him alone in his house, feeling abandoned and developing an intense fear of loneliness. While alone in his house, Jeff claimed his first victim, hitchhiker Steven Hicks (Newton 46). When asked about the incident thirteen years later, 31-year-old Dahmer told police that “[Hicks] wanted to leave and I didn’t want him to leave,” so, as a result, he killed him in order to keep him from doing so (“Cannibal”).
Jeffrey Dahmer first came to authority’s attention in October 1981 when he was placed under police custody for public intoxication and disorderly manner at a Ramada Inn (Yusof). According to Newton’s serial killer encyclopedia, he was also arrested in 1982 for indecent exposure at the Wisconsin State Fair and again in 1986 for similar charges (47). At this point, his attraction to young individuals was becoming more and more noticeable. On September 26th, 1988, Dahmer was charged for sexually assaulting a thirteen-year-old Laotian boy at his Milwaukee apartment (Newton 47). During trial, Assistant District Attorney Gail Shelton urged to get Dahmer imprisoned for five to six years, saying that “it [was] absolutely crystal clear that the prognosis for treatment of Mr. Dahmer within the community [was] extremely bleak… and just plain [was not] going to work.”
However, Judge William D. Gardener refused to send him to prison where psychiatric help was not available, and, instead, sentenced him to a one-year work release program at the Franklin House of Corrections for the rehabilitation of sex offenders (Yusof). On May 16th, 1991, police were informed about a naked and bleeding boy, named Konerak Sinthasomphone (coincidentally the brother of the Laotian boy of 1988), stumbling through the Milwaukee streets that lead back to Dahmer’s apartment (Newton 47). According to Newton’s serial killer encyclopedia, Dahmer falsely told Officers John Balcerzak, Richard Porubcan, and Josheph Gabrish that Konerak was his nineteen-year-old lover who had drank a little too much which resulted in an argument between the two. After a bit of contemplation, the officers returned Konerak to Dahmer’s custody and considered it just a conflict between two homosexual lovers (Yusof).
However, law enforcement had no idea that they would find one of the most gruesome scenes at that same location only two short months later. Tracey Edwards approached a Milwaukee police vehicle on July 22nd, 1991, hand-cuffed, drugged, and frightened, claiming to have escaped from Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment (Montaldo). Arriving at his apartment a few moments later, the calm demeaned Dahmer tried to convince the officers that it was only a misunderstanding between him and Edwards. The officers, almost believing him, just narrowly returned Tracey to Dahmer, but, spotting Polaroid photos of bodies in various states of dismemberment, the shocked officers placed him under arrest instead (“Cannibal”). According to The History Channel Website, authorities found a house of horrors within the walls of the one-bedroom apartment: two human heads in the freezer and refrigerator, a fifty-seven-gallon drum of human torsos, limbs, and other various parts decomposing in acid, evidence of cannibalism, and much, much more.
A sight that startled, sickened, and scarred those investigating it for the rest of their lives. Later, Police Chief Philip Arreola of the Milwaukee Police Department and Mayor John O. Norquist launched an internal investigation, firing officers Balcerzak and Gabrish for failing to perform their police duties properly (in the case of Konerak Sinthasomphone), keeping officer Porubcan under close observation (Yusof). Standing trial in early 1992, of the courtroom’s one hundred seats, thirty four of them were reserved for Dahmer’s victims’ mourning family members, twenty three seats for reporters, and the remaining forty three seats were open to the public while Dahmer was separated from the rest of the gallery by an eight-foot barrier, constructed out of bullet resistant glass and steel (Bardsley). It definitely was not the “normal” courtroom setting that most legal systems were accustomed to. Partaking in the legal drama was Judge Laurence C. Gram, Jr., District Attorney Michael McGain, and defense lawyer Gerald Boyle who had defended Dahmer on prior occasions of his offenses (Bardsley).
The Majority of the testimony was based on Dahmer’s one hundred and sixty-page confession where he acknowledged that he knew his actions were wrong, coming at a great expense, but, at the same time, was still uncertain of why he did them (Montaldo; “Confession”). While Boyle stressed that the gruesome nature of his client’s crimes was part of a strategy that only an absolute lunatic were capable of committing, the prosecution labeled Dahmer as “cold-bloodedly sane” and reasonably frightened of being discovered as he went to great length to avoid detection for so many years (Yusof). There was no question that he was aware of the consequences of his actions. According to the article “Jeffery Dahmer’s Confession”, Dahmer agreed to help the police in any way he possibly could to identify his victims in order to make restitution for the victims’ families.
On January 30th, 1992, according to Montaldo’s article “Profile of Serial Killer Jeffrey Dahmer”, Jeffrey Dahmer pleaded guilty by reason of insanity before Judge Laurence C. Gram, Jr. However, as he was found sane enough to stand trial, Dahmer then pleaded not guilty despite the fact that he had already confessed to seventeen murders (Yusof). On February 15th, 1992, after deliberating for over five hours, the jurors found Dahmer fully responsible for his actions and guilty of first-degree intentional homicide on fifteen of the seventeen accounts (“Childhood”). According to “Jeffrey Dahmer Case File”, after his sentencing, Dahmer begged to be executed. After the horror he caused, hundreds of others would have been pleased with thtis outcome, as well. However, as Wisconsin had abolished capital punishment years prior to Dahmer’s case, he was instead sentenced to fifteen life sentences (a minimum of 936 years) without parole which he would serve at the Columbian Correctional Institute in Portage, Wisconsin (Newton 48; “Profile of Serial Killer”).
At first, Dahmer was separated from the general population for his own safety, but, despite the many threats against his life, he refused protective custody (“Profile of Serial Killer”; Newton 48). Later, Dahmer probably should have reconsidered this decision. According to the Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, the first attempt on Dahmer’s life was on July 3rd, 1994, when another inmate tried to slash his throat while he was praying in the prison chapel. Although this attempt failed and he walked away with only minor scratches, the story would not be the same for the next. On November 28th, 1994, only six months later, while Dahmer was cleaning a bathroom near the prison gym, twenty five-year-old inmate Christopher Scarver acquired an iron exercise bar and attacked Dahmer, crushing his skull and killing him (Newton 48).
At first, according to Newton’s Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, it was believed that Scarver murdered Dahmer for racial purposes as he, along with the majority of Dahmer’s victims, was African American. However, later, it was proven that this notion was untrue. Scarver was deranged, believing he was on a mission from God and performing his “Father’s” orders (Newton 48). Jeffrey Dahmer was an extremely, if not the most, notorious serial killer who conducted his misconducts in the United States. Not only did he rape, murder, and dismember his multiple victims, but he also admitted to sampling cannibalism.
From experimenting on small animals as a child to doing the same to humans as an adult, some believe that his intense fear of loneliness, derived from his parents’ divorce, drove him to commit these atrocious crimes, while others simply view him as a cold-blooded monster with the intention of destroying lives. Thanks to Wisconsin’s legal system, along with determined police assistance, the clever, resourceful, and calm demeaned Jeffrey Dahmer who had floated through life, undetected for so many years, was incarcerated, removed from a position where he could do additional harm to society.
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