And Justice for All
(part one of four)
It was almost 19 years ago that Jeffrey Dahmer grabbed the attention of every news service in the country when he confessed to an extended series of murders in the Milwaukee area. Newspapers, magazines and cable news channels broadcast every gruesome detail they could find about the killings. And every talking head had its own opinion about the psychology that drove his actions.
It’s hard to look away from something as horrible as this. And, like the car accident we crane our necks to see along the highway, the horror can distract us from that main path toward some useful understanding. With a distance of two decades between us and those murders, it might be easier now to get beyond the gruesome details and to see the bigger picture in which they took place. Let’s start with as sensation-free a run-down of what happened as I can muster.
On July 22, 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and confessed to the murders of 17 young men, beginning in the summer of 1978. The man who was to be his eighteenth victim had managed to escape Dahmer’s apartment and returned later with the police. There, they found photographs of dismembered bodies, as well as the remains of 11 of his victims in various containers around the apartment.
- Ten of the murders had occurred in the ten months just prior to his arrest.
- Of the 17 victims, 14 were men of color.
- Of the last 12 men Dahmer killed before his arrest, only the last was white.
Dahmer never denied committing the murders. In fact, he confessed to more murders than he was able to produce evidence to support, and he cooperated completely with the authorities in locating what remains could be found.
In the end, the state of Wisconsin tried Dahmer for 15 of the 17 murders to which he confessed. Despite his plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, the jury found him not to be suffering from a mental disease, as defined in the Wisconsin statutes, and guilty on all 15 counts. On February 17, the court sentenced Dahmer to imprisonment for 15 consecutive life terms (with an additional 10 years per count) for a total of 957 years.
He was later extradited to Ohio to stand trial for the murder of his first victim in 1978. He plead guilty to those charges.
The system seems to have worked. The murders were certainly horrible for the victims and their loved ones. But the city of Milwaukee used the legal methods the system provided to remove the perpetrator from the community. It protected the members of the community from further harm and provided them with a much needed sense of closure. Milwaukee’s citizens had a chance to grieve and, slowly, their society returned to its intended order.
But how could so many gay men disappear in so short a period of time — 10 in the last 10 months before Dahmer’s arrest — without that system or the community taking notice? Were both the authorities and the community unable to recognize consistent patterns of disappearance which might have led them to Dahmer? And if his last intended victim hadn’t escaped and led the police to Dahmer’s apartment, how many more young men would have died?
In the most fundamental ways, it looks like the system didn’t work at all.
When Carolyn Smith reported her brother Eddie missing in June, 1990, she told the investigating officer that he was gay. “You could see his whole attitude change,” she recalled. And when she followed up several months later, the Milwaukee Police Department couldn’t even locate his missing persons report.
After Janie Hagen reported her brother, Richard Guerrero missing, she called every few months to check on progress. On one such call, the police told her they’d closed his case because they thought Richard had been found.
“For three and a half years, we searched for my brother. We told the police we suspected something was wrong and they just let it slide. Because he was just another minority missing, they didn’t give a shit. This never should have happened if the police were doing their job.”1
Milwaukee is a city of almost a million people. If the police weren’t looking very hard for the missing men, other equally pressing matters must have been monopolizing their officers’ time.
On March 28, 1991, more than 30 of those officers in 13 squad cars and paddy wagons raided a Hot Buns contest at Club 219. They verbally abused patrons, roughed up drag queens and issued 13 citations for disorderly conduct.
On July 19, 1991 — three days before Dahmer’s arrest and the night of Joseph Bradehoft’s murder — the Milwaukee Police Department was raiding another gay bar, The Triangle. Coincidentally, the bar was hosting an event that evening to raise funds to combat hate crimes.1
Was this simply a matter of police incompetence? Or, as some family members suggest, were issues of race and sexual orientation affecting the effort the city put into locating the missing men?
In his opening remarks at trial, defense attorney, Gerald Boyle insisted “this is not a case about homosexuality … this was not racial.”
District Attorney, E. Michael McCann told jurors that, whether or not they approved of homosexuality, it was irrelevant to the case because gay sex is not a crime in the state of Wisconsin.
And during the sentencing hearing, Judge Laurence Gram, Jr., went a long way to explain the legalities of Dahmer’s insanity plea. He described the history of the term “paraphilia” in the statutes — the term used to describe sexual desire outside of society’s norms — and tries to place Dahmer’s sexual orientation in a legal context.
The judge can barely bring himself to say the word “homosexual.” He’s trying to explain that a change in society’s attitudes compelled the state to remove same-sex orientation from its definition of “sexual deviance.” But his manner is doing a better job of demonstrating how very repugnant the idea is to him personally.
Two white attorneys and a white judge performing before the families of victims who were predominantly men of color: African-American, Latino, or Asian-American. The three men making references to their families which help us to understand that they’re straight, while trying to dismiss the fact that these were sexual murders of gay men. And those two white elephants — race and homosexuality — seemed to be making the men in charge rather uncomfortable.
We’ll never know what was in Dahmer’s head. And there’s no point in arguing theories we can’t test: that he was homicidally racist; that he was so full of loathing for his own desires that he felt compelled to murder gay men he encountered. And anyway, the sociopathology of one man begins to pale next to a similar pathology at loose in an entire community.
If we can’t understand Dahmer as an individual, we might try to understand him as a kind of catalyst for a whole city’s low-level hatred of its lesser classes. Looking at him that way, he becomes a sort of distillation of the community’s feelings: concentrated and extreme, but recognizable in his essence.
The details of how most of Dahmer’s victims died are vague: our only source of information is Dahmer’s own recollections. But the demise of one victim is better documented. And his story can shed some light onto how the city of Milwaukee felt about the people involved.
More on that in the next post.
1Jamakaya,”Blood On Its Hands: Homophobia and Racism in Milwaukee.” NYQ, No. 16, February 16, 1992.