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The Secrets Of Apt. 213

Few crimes measure the human capacity for depravity as starkly as serial sex murders. They are crimes gone beyond imaginable limits, into a realm of darkly enacted fantasy. Taking their cues from some deranged interior script, serial killers have flayed and cooked their victims, made suits of their skin, preserved body parts as masturbatory mementos--and kept gruesome photographic records of their handiwork. One murderer is said to have kept a collection of young boys' penises in a cigar box. Another, who served as a model for both the homicidal motel keeper in "Psycho" and the predatory "Buffalo Bill" in "The Silence of the Lambs," fitted the skin of a female victim over a dressmaker's dummy, apparently to evoke his late, beloved mother. "Every time you think it's the most bizarre thing you've heard," says Dr. Par Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who works with the FBI's behavioral science unit, "something worse happens."

What police began uncovering at the Oxford Apartments, in a down-at-heels section of Milwaukee, last week seemed neither more nor less appalling than most such wholesale killings. But there was a grisly similarity in the details. In Apartment 213, where one intended victim had led officers after he managed to escape, they made a horrifying inventory that included four male torsos stuffed into a barrel; two heads in a refrigerator, two in a freezer and seven others boiled clean; and some severed genitalia in a kettle. Charged so far with four counts of intentional homicide was the apartment's occupant, Jeffrey Dahmer, a withdrawn, secretive 31-year-old laborer who worked until recently in a chocolate factory--to add one more bizarre touch. In the uninflected language of an affidavit, police say Dahmer confessed that after picking up his victims at bars or shopping malls and luring them to his apartment to be photographed, he would drug them, "usually strangle them" and then "dismember the bodies, often boiling the heads to remove flesh so he could retain the skulls." Police say he told them he killed 17 men in all.

While locals gathered to gawk at the apartment building, the police themselves were under siege. Speaking to reporters at a Friday afternoon press conference, an obviously distressed Chief Philip Arreola confirmed a report that his officers had had "contact" two months ago with both Dahmer and one of the identified victims, a 14-year-old Laotian youth named Konerak Sinthasomphone. Dahmer is still on probation for molesting Sinthasomphone's older brother, for which he served 10 months in jail in 1988-89.

Last May police responded to a call from two neighborhood women who said they saw the younger boy running naked in the street, "bleeding from the anal area." When the police arrived, said one of the women, Sandra Smith, Dahmer was trying to drag the boy back to the apartment. "They told us to get lost" and dismissed the incident as "a boyfriend-girlfriend thing--a lovers' fight," said Smith. "But I know a little boy when I see one." The disclosure brought a flood of criticisms that the police were being lax because the building's occupants are mainly black or Hispanic. "There's no doubt that I'm taken aback by this information," Arreola acknowledged, saying he had suspended the three officers involved pending an investigation.

Tenants had also complained to the apartment manager of foul odors in the building, saying they had been smelling "rotting meat" for as much as a year. At times they heard the sounds of struggle coming from Dahmer's apartment. But no one guessed the meaning of the emanations. "It wasn't like people were saying, 'Somebody's dead in the building'," says Randy Jones, a resident. To Jones, although Dahmer was the only white male in the building, he seemed an unremarkable neighbor--"like the average Joe."

If Dahmer is guilty of the crimes he confessed to, that description would not be off the mark. Psychiatrists say one of the surprising--and truly frightening--things about such offenders is how "ordinary" they appear, which is why they are often so hard to apprehend. The classic serial killer, Ted Bundy, came from an unexceptional background, with no arrest record. "It's one of the reasons they can get close to their victims," says David Silber, a George Washington University psychologist who has worked with the Washington, D.C., police and the U.S. Secret Service. "They often blend in so well. Usually community caution increases, people get very frightened, yet the murders go on."

Behind their ordinariness, doctors and criminologists say, many serial killers harbor a shrewd intelligence. In the late 1970s John Douglas and Robert Ressler, criminal psychologists at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., began putting together computerized profiles of serial murderers, interviewing such notorious members of the breed as David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the "Son of Sam." While they found no "typical" killers, they concluded that the majority were deeply angry and came from troubled homes where they were physically or sexually abused. Over the years, it's become clear that most offenders are white males, but there are no real theories as to why that is so.

Most experts now agree that serial killers suffer from severe personality defects but are not apt to have such mental disorders as schizophrenia. "In contrast to the popular stereotype," says Dietz, who with two colleagues did a study of sadistic sexual offenders, "most of them did not choose victims who resembled one another, and there's no evidence of a particular trauma that they repeatedly re-enact." Nor, says Dietz, do they appear to be out of control. "These people are the most controlled people you can imagine." They seldom lose touch with reality, yet they can have an unrealistic sense that they won't be caught. There is a kind of denial, which might explain how Dahmer could continue to go about his business in spite of the suspicious smells and noises he was generating. Reid Meloy, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, says that comes "from a narcissistic sense that 'I'm special, and in spite of these rotting bodies around me, I'm not going to be identified'." But the sense of invincibility can lead to their capture.

Normally, serial killers are highly organized, suggesting their crimes are carefully thought out to avoid detection. They do a lot of this planning in what psychologists call "rehearsal fantasies," sometimes over a period of weeks or months. One study concluded that vivid fantasies are a major driving force in serial homicide. " fantasy is a script--these people are sort of choreographing a script," says Robert Prentky, a forensic psychologist at the Boston University School of Medicine, who was a principal researcher in the study. "There are some whose fantasies are so detailed they include the specifics of what the victims should be wearing, and may even bring items with them to clothe the victim before or after the crime--a certain pair of shoes they want the victim to wear."

Much of the fantasizing is both sexual and sadistic. "The true sadist is enjoying the victims' suffering," says Dietz. In his study of 130 victims, he found 58 percent were killed by strangulation--the same method Dahmer reportedly used on most of his captives. Says Dietz: "We've known for a long time that strangulation is favored by those who meant the death to be intimate. It requires hands-on contact, and it's usually done face to face." There may also be the sick satisfaction of seeing the victim squirm.

Serial killers seem to like reading about their peers, in news reports and true-crime books. They may even copy one another, which might explain why so many dismember their victims. Another obvious reason is for concealment or disposal of the evidence. Some, however, don't quite dispose of them; instead, like "Psycho's" Norman Bates, they keep body parts for what Dietz calls "memento value." Mementos may help stimulate them sexually.

Many serial murderers are almost obsessed with control and dominance, possibly because they were brutally dominated in childhood. Characteristically they keep their victims captive for 24 hours or longer. They dehumanize their captives; nothing seems out of bounds or too gross. Like Hannibal "the Cannibal" in "The Silence of the Lambs," they may eat parts of their bodies. Dahmer is reported to have kept a human heart on a refrigerator shelf, as well as photographs of butchered torsos in his chest of drawers.

What pushes these sociopaths into the unthinkable? Psychiatrists are endlessly fascinated by the question. One conjecture is that the first killing may be an accident, in the midst of a sexual assault; then it becomes stimulating, and the realization that they can kill with impunity promotes more killings, more bizarre behavior. The playing out of sexual fantasy may also have a role: somehow the act is never as satisfying as the fantasy, and the killer keeps replaying it, hoping to get it right. Dietz says interest has lately turned to biological causes. "There is a heritable pattern we might call 'fearlessness' that underlies several kinds of chronic risk-taking behavior. It looks like the way one gets to be a psychopath is by having the right gene and the wrong parents." More likely, many researchers agree, the key lies in something the killers lack-the built-in ,'stop" mechanism, fear, revulsion, or conscience-that keeps most of us from acting out destructive fantasies. "They do act out more," says GWU's Silber. "There is a process by which the average person learns to keep violent impulses in cheek."

For all its lurid visibility, serial sexual murder remains one of the rarest of crimes. Some experts think it has shown an increase in the past two decades, although it still accounts for a small fraction of violent crimes. No doubt part of the terrible fascination they hold is because a single killer may account for scores of mutilated victims--and there is the likelihood of more to come. "We have turned them into celebrities," says criminologist James Alan Fox, coauthor of the 1985 book "Mass Murder." "We can be fascinated and don't really feel threatened personally... It's like a detective novel, and we're waiting for the last chapter." But in Milwaukee, as everywhere else these multiple murders have unfolded, the last chapter was ghastlier than fiction.

Serial killers have more in common than the gruesomeness of their crimes. They tend to be white men who attack st rangers.

Compared with men who committed a single sex murder, serial killers have higher rates of voyeurism, exhibitionism, transvestism and compulsive masturbation.

In one study of 30 serial killers, seven were involved in the food business, as cooks, bakers or owners. Experts have no explanation.

Slightly more than half the serial murders committed by men involved some mutilation of the victims.

After conviction, one quarter of the serial killers were sentenced to life in prison, one fifth have been executed and an additional 14 percent are on death row.

SOURCE: PRENTKY, BURGESS, ET AL., AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY (JULY 1989); DR. PARK DIETZ; HICKEY, SERIAL MURDERERS AND THEIR VICTIMS

There are relatively few serial killers in our midst. While their capacity for brutality is horrifying, their notoriety tends to be short-lived. Among those on the list of America's Most Evil:

Starting in 1945, she poisoned four of her five husbands. Her motive: "I was searching for the perfect mate."

Beaten as a child, he became a rapist and a killer. Starting in June 1962, he left bows around many of his 13 victims' necks.

Working with his cousin Kenneth Bianchi, he raped, tortured and killed at least nine California women in 1977-88.

Heeding the commands of a delusional "voice," he stalked the lovers' lanes of New York City in 1976-77. With his .44, he killed six and wounded seven more.

He looked like the good-boy-next-door, but before he was executed in 1989 he admitted to brutally killing 28 women from Washington to Florida.

An amateur clown, his vocation was murder. During the 1970s he tortured and killed 33 boys and young men, burying most in the crawl space under his house.

A model for the film "Psycho," he became a killer after his mother died in 1945. He nailed her bedroom shut, then murdered two women and robbed graves, seeking skin and body parts.

A Texas electrician, he preyed on young boys often with the help of Elmer Wayne Henley. In all, he tortured and killed at least 27. In 1973 Henley shot Corll and led the police to the graves.

A notorious fiend of the 1920s and '30s, he molested children across the country and admitted killing several. He was best known as a cannibal, but his acts of sadomasochism riveted psychiatrists, too.