Secrets of a Serial Killer

Along the decaying Walker's Point strip in Milwaukee, the gay bars line up like tarts in the night, identical red neon signs extending their OPEN invitation to the restless in pursuit of easy comfort or casual sex. One night last summer a blond six-footer in jeans and a black nylon net shirt stood in Club 219 sizing up his prospects. "Hi. I'm Jeff. I like the way you dance," he said to a muscular black model. A loser's come-on. But it was the hour of inner beauty in Club 219, that last-chance moment near closing when the lights go up and standards plummet. The model bought it, and the two men wound up in the blond man's apartment. It was hot that night. The model thought he could smell mildew. And when he looked into the bedroom he saw a mattress stained with dried blood and a knife with a blue plastic handle. He looked into the blond's eyes. His skin crawled. "Boom. Boom," he now recalls. "I knew and he knew I knew some thing was wrong." Precisely. To go home with this stranger could cost you your life.

As it happens, the eyes of Jeffrey Dahmer-hazel, placid, almost vacant—project no sinister gleam. If anything, he looks more like a spacey nerd than a serial killer. But murder is his muse. There is no question about the basic facts in the Dahmer case: at least 15 dismembered bodies; the head in the fridge and heart in the freezer; the blue barrel of acid for leftovers. Dahmer has confessed this to the police. In a Milwaukee courtroom this week, he will sit down, screened from spectators by a wall of bulletproof glass eight feet high, while his defense attorney tries to explain him. The details would chill de Sade: the way he killed Ernest Miller, removing the flesh from his bones and bleaching his skeleton; the time he took Matt Turner home after a Gay Pride parade, drugged him with sleeping pills, strangled him and threw his body into the blue barrel; the occasion he had sex with Oliver Lacy's corpse. "He talks about killing people just as if it's like pouring a glass of water," says Deputy Chief Robert Due of the West Allis Police Department in suburban Milwaukee. "He shows no emotion whatsoever."

The larger question behind the trial is whether society has adequate ways of handling people like Dahmer, Charles Manson or Son of Sam once they are caught. Dahmer has entered a guilty plea. The problem for judge and jury in Milwaukee will be to determine his sanity, whether he goes to jail or to a mental hospital and whether he might one day go free. At first glance, it is hard to see how anyone could be more crazy. As John V. Liccione, chief psychologist for the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, puts it, "What do you think about a person who kills people and has sex with their dead bodies and eats some of them-do you think he's nuts?" But psychologists and lawyers are wildly at odds over the mind and culpability of serial killers. What Freud would explain, Blackstone would punish. "You don't have to have the Jack Nicholson look when he goes smashing down the door with an ax," explains Martin Kohler, a prominent criminal lawyer in Milwaukee. "It doesn't have to be that dramatic."

"Drama" isn't the right word for the secret life of Jeffrey Dahmer, or for his trial; "horror show" is more like it. In court this week, the TV cameras will be there right alongside the deputy sheriffs with their semiautomatic weapons and the bomb-sniffing dog, poking into everything. It's as if Jack the Ripper were going on trial before the whole world. Prosecutor E. Michael McCann worries that the coverage will provide lessons on drugging and butchery to would-be sadists and give nightmares to children. "I don't think the nation is well served," he says. But now that "Silence of the Lambs" has made serial murder the grist for a best seller, hit movie and home video, there will be no looking away. And if Hannibal the Cannibal offered mass entertainment, perhaps Jeffrey Dahmer will provide a therapeutic shock to those who wallow so deeply in the pornography of violence in books, movies and on TV that they blur the distinction between let's pretend and the real thing.

Dahmer didn't always get his man. At least five of his potential victims escaped to tell their stories to friends or the police. To reconstruct the life of a serial killer, NEWSWEEK reporters interviewed three of these witnesses, along with psychologists and legal experts on multiple murder. What emerged was the profile of a criminal soul in relentless torment, languid one moment, frantic the next-but always deadly.

Stories about the serial killer who wouldn't hurt a fly have become pulp cliches; true to form, Dahmer appeared outwardly harmless to most people until the night he was caught. Forty-eight hours before his arrest, he was cruising Club 219 in Walker's Point. About 20 minutes before closing, a young African-American named A. (he won't give his full name because he's afraid of reprisals if he admits his bisexuality) stepped out of the hot white lights on the dance floor. He found himself looking at Dahmer, who was drunk but also shaved, combed, flattering. Dahmer said he was an electrician from Chicago, sick of being lonely. A. brushed off the advance twice. Dahmer persisted, offering $100 for some conversation, no sex. Imploring, he said, "You're the nicest guy I've met in Milwaukee." Finally A. agreed to a 3 a.m. rendezvous in a parking lot outside the Oxford Apartments. He arrived to find the stranger puffing a cigarette and drinking a beer. "Oh, I'm so glad you came," Dahmer told him. "Most people never come."

They went up the back stairs to apartment 213, a tidy place fitted out with a couch and lava lamp in the living room. A small white deep freezer was in the kitchen, a bottle of Pine Sol disinfectant nearby. A. had a neatly trimmed mustache. Mistaking him for a Latino, Dahmer said he had a nude photo of a well-endowed Puerto Rican in his bedroom, but he wasn't ready to show him that yet. They talked for an hour about heartaches: Dahmer's ailing grandmother, the death of A.'s mother. When A. moved to leave, Dahmer's voice grew panicky. He headed for the bedroom, mumbling that he was going to get some cash. Suspicious, A. looked over Dahmer's shoulder, switched on the light and saw the bloodstained bed and the knife. He managed to stay calm: "I played up to him. I put my arm around him and said, 'Now show me that Puerto Rican man.' It was a do anything-to-keep-your-life situation."

They returned to the living room, where A. played for time. Dahmer asked him to take off all his clothes and to lie across his body. He rubbed A.'s back, murmuring that his skin was "like butter." When A. tried to get up, Dahmer tightened his embrace. "He was no longer the polite person I had met," A. remembers. He screamed, pounded on the door, stamped on Dahmer's bare foot and broke free. He got one last glimpse of a serial killer in defeat, his arms akimbo, his face dejected. The following day, after a similar adventure with another pickup, Dahmer was arrested. A. saw his picture on the news. He says he called Crimeline Anonymous and the district attorney's office to tell his story but not his name. Then he counted his blessings. "Just because you go into someone's house and trust him doesn't mean you deserve to lose your life," he says. "He was coming on as a friend and a nice guy. You could hear this man crying for help—that was my weakness."

No two serial killersare alike, but Dahmer fits the typical silhouette: a white male, smart or even quite intelligent; a kid from a broken home; often a childhood victim of sexual abuse. "They have low esteem and a lifelong sense of loneliness," says Eric W. Hickey, a criminologist and author of "Serial Murderers and Their Victims." Dahmer was born in Milwaukee in 1960. His father was a chemist. His parents quarreled and eventually divorced. In later years a probation officer entered in Dahmer's records, "Father states [Dahmer] had been sexually abused by a neighbor boy at the age of eight." As a child he was a loner, a poor student. He sneaked into a yearbook picture of the highschool honor society. Catching the trick, an editor erased him from the photo, blotting him from grace with a smudge of ink. A furious Jeff Nobody was born.

The fantasist graduated into a petty criminal. He joined the Army and served a hitch in Germany, only to be discharged for heavy drinking. Back in Milwaukee, working the night shift at the Ambrosia Chocolate Co., Dahmer received a year's probation in 1986 for exposing himself to two boys. Under "client needs and problems," his corrections form noted "sexual behavior, emotional behavior, alcohol, financial." At Club 219 he made friends with a onetime Lutheran minister. "He talked openly about why he shouldn't be gay, that there was something wrong with it," the confidant recalls. He told a corrections officer he was thinking of killing himself, saying it was "just a matter of time."

Instead Dahmer directed his self-hatred outward. Like other serial killers, he dropped a clue to what made him tick in the way he selected his victims. Many serial killers tend to murder types of people they have a grudge against or people who have something in common with them. Most of the men Dahmer killed were dark-skinned gays. At the chocolate factory, people who worked with him remember that he constantly muttered about "niggers." Yet interracial serial killers are rare. Dahmer may have developed his modus operandi because he thought minorities were weaker, or perhaps because he thought racism could work in his favor. He selected "more disposable" victims, Hickey says, speculating that if Dahmer had been murdering whites, "the killings would probably have gotten police attention much earlier." The notion is ugly, but at one point a neighbor saw one of Dahmer's victims, Konerak Sinthasomphone, a 14-year-old from Laos, running naked down an alley. She called the police. The investigating officers, thinking it was only a gay lovers' spat, returned the boy to Dahmer, who killed and dismembered him.

John Douglas, investigative chief at the FBI's National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime, points out that serial killers are obsessed with manipulation and domination. They like to "use a ruse or a con," he says. In the summer of 1987, Dahmer walked into Club Milwaukee, a popular bathhouse, and plunked down $10 to join for six months, Members, as many as 100 at a time, would gather in the weight room, the TV lounge, the steam room or the showers, where they could strike up conversations, have sex on the spot or retreat to one of 38 private rooms. According to Bradley Babush, the manager back then, Dahmer preferred to rent a $7 room. He offered drinks to his pickups. Four or five of them later complained that they felt sick. When a visitor from Madison stumbled and passed out on leaving the bathhouse, Babush revoked Dahmer's membership. "He took the news OK," Babush remembers. There were other places.

Among them was The Phoenix, a rough-trade bar in Walker's Point. Bobby Duane Simpson, 27, met Dahmer the in February 1988. They struck up a conversation, then decided to take a bus out to West Allis, where Dahmer was living with his grandmother. Once at the house they tiptoed through the front door into the living room. Dahmer whispered that his grandmother was sleeping. "We kissed one time," Simpson recalls. Then Dahmer went into the kitchen to make some Irish coffee. Simpson took two sips and passed out. He woke up in the basement, groggy and confused. Dahmer, now nude, was standing over him. After Simpson managed to get away, he saw it was 11 a.m.: he had been unconscious for hours. He didn't report the episode to the police. But the next day, when he told the story at The Phoenix, the man on the next bar stool looked at him and said, "He drugged you, too?"

Dahmer does not seem to have been a creature of explosive impulses. "He knew what he was doing, and he knew it was wrong," says Dr. David Abrahamsen, a psychiatrist who has advised courts on the psychology of killers as diverse as Nathan Leopold, Lee Harvey Oswald and David Berkowitz, a.k.a. Son of Sam. At a bar in the spring of 1988, Dahmer met Ronald Flowers, who offered Dahmer a ride home. But outside, Flowers's car wouldn't start. Dahmer didn't have a driver's license. He suggested that they hop a cab to West Allis, pick up a car and give Flowers a jump-start. At the house, he made two cups of coffee. Flowers drank his, passed out and woke up in the hospital next morning. He filed a complaint with the local police, saying that Dahmer had drugged him and stolen $240 from his wallet. When tests failed to show enough drugs in the victim's system to make a case stick—Halcion, the sleeping pill Dahmer often used, dissipates quickly—the police dropped the matter.

Flowers and Simpson escaped just as Dahmer was escalating from experiments to his first kills. During 1988, according to the criminal complaint against him, he murdered three men in West Allis. In January, he met James Doxtator, 14, a Native American, at a bus stop and asked him to pose in the nude for photos. Once home, Dahmer had sex with the boy, drugged him, strangled him and dismembered him, smashing his bones with a sledgehammer. In early March he picked up Richard Guerrero, 23, a Hispanic, at a gay bar, had oral sex with him, drugged him, butchered him. Later that month he strangled Anthony Sears, 24. The indictment says Dahmer "kept Sears's head, boiled it to remove the skin" and then painted the skull. The killing field was his grandmother's basement.

Then he was caught. In the spring of 1989, arrested for molesting a 13-year-old boy, he wound up in a one-year work-release program at the Milwaukee Community Correctional Center. By day, he faded into the woodwork. "He was someone who came in, did his time and got out," says Jerry Wentzel, chief of security, who found him a "regular" guy. But just after his work-release term ended, Dahmer strangled Raymond Smith, 32, and dismembered Edward Smith, 27. "Once you've committed murder number one, murder number two is just a little bit easier and three and four and five and so on down the line," says Robert de Vito, chairman of psychiatry at Chicago's Loyola University and an expert on serial killers. No one noticed—he left no traces.

Once he put the Milwaukee Correctional Center behind him, he slipped back into the subterranean life of Walker's Point. On Thursday nights he went to The Triangle, where $3 bought all the beer you could drink. At Partners, he talked computer software with Tom Neuman, a technician he met at the bar. One time Neuman drove with him all the way to Chicago without getting him off the subject of computers. Out behind This Is It, he shared a joint with a retired Milwaukee schoolteacher, telling him that if he wanted more to come home with him. "You could take his hit," the teacher recalls. "He wasn't your typical, fat, sloppy white guy."

With victims plentiful, the police sluggish and no one in the gay community sending up an alarm over a murder wave, Dahmer, like other serial killers, may have grown smug. He let more of his victims get away. The summer before his arrest, a black hustler named L. (the young man also withheld his name to protect himself) says Dahmer promised to pay him $200 for a late-night photo session. Once at home, Dahmer put on gay videos, took out a Polaroid camera and photographed L. in the nude. "He put a bandanna on my mouth so I wouldn't scream," L. remembers. Then he hit him on the neck with a hammer. After three hours of violent horseplay, Dahmer turned his captive loose, saying, "If I talked, he would kill my family." L. called the police, who visited the apartment but missed Dahmer. "They let it go," he says. Some believe Dahmer might have been signaling he wanted to call it quits. But experts like the FBI's Douglas don't think a slip adds up to a cry for help. "There's no desire to get caught," he says. "They enjoy it, they're proud of it, and they're not sorry."

Whatever the case, Dahmer's body count soared: 10 men between September 1990 and July 1991. On July 22, he apparently tried again with Tracy Edwards, who broke away trailing a handcuff. This time the police got it right and arrested Dahmer. Since then the prisoner has been docilely biding his time in the Milwaukee County jail, reading newspapers and the Bible. Douglas estimates that there are perhaps 50 other serial killers still at large in the United States. With law agencies overworked and understaffed, detecting, tracking and busting these murderers has become more difficult than ever. Studying the turf, Hickey says, "There are other Dahmers out there. And they are busy." A scary thought. But as the Dahmer case showed, unless a lot of people including the police get scared and angry, a serial killer can stay on the prowl for a long and very bloody time.

Despite the bestial nature of his crimes, Jeffrey Dahmer may have a hard time convincing a jury that he is criminally insane. When Dahmer decided to plead guilty but insane, the thrust of the case changed from culpability to responsibility. "Under the law, the question is not whether he is strange or has perverted, bizarre motivations," says John Jeffries, professor of law at the University of Virginia. "The question is whether he understood what he was doing, whether he knew the difference between right and wrong. "

The insanity defense is one of the most maddening areas of the law—an isthmus where legality, morality and medicine vie for dominance. Ultimately, the Dahmer case is "going to be a battle of psychiatrists," says Martin Kohler, chair of the Milwaukee Bar Association's criminal division. Dahmer's attorneys must prove that he was suffering from some form of mental illness, possibly psychotic delusions. But demonstrating mental disease won't be sufficient: Dahmer needs to show not only that he was ill at the time of the crimes but that he lacked the capacity to understand the wrongfulness of his actions or to "conform his conduct" to the law. His ability to lie to police only hours before he murdered 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone may be enough to convince jurors he was a calculating killer.

Rooted in Biblical notions of justice, the insanity defense has existed in some form since the Middle Ages. Most states, however, base their laws on the 1843 McNaughtan case, a landmark British decision that established that guilt implies the ability to distinguish right from wrong. By the '70s many states—including Wisconsin—had broadened their tests of insanity to include the "control standard," i.e., could the criminal have stopped himself? Public outrage after John Hinckley was found insane in 1982 led a number of states, as well as Congress, to tighten their insanity statutes. One result: many courts have shifted the burden of proof, so that the defense must now demonstrate insanity.

Public perceptions to the contrary, the insanity plea is relatively rare; lawyers consider it the defense of last resort. Only 10 percent of serial and mass killers (and one in 100 felony defendants) claim insanity—two thirds of them unsuccessfully. If Dahmer does win an insanity verdict, it is likely to trigger the sort of outcry that followed other high-profile cases, from McNaughtan to Hinckley. Critics of the insanity defense have long argued for its abolition, some on the ground that it is unduly lenient, others because it obliges jurors to rule on matters beyond their competency. Yet as Yale law professor Abraham Goldstein says, the defense "is an important part of the morality play involved in criminal law." Few felons actually "get off " thanks to the insanity defense. Used judiciously, it remains a hallmark of a civilized society. ;