The Ballad of Jeffrey Dahmer, Part III

The Families’ Turn to Speak

(part three of four)

In the years leading up to Jeffrey Dahmer’s arrest, the Milwaukee Police Department did little to locate the gay men reported missing.

The Victims' Families at the TrialBut how well did the system function after Dahmer’s arrest? How well did it manage its job of pursuing justice for his victims and their families? Well, that would depend on how we understand the legal system’s duties in general and what a “just” outcome would be for this matter in particular.

There was never a need to prove that Dahmer committed the murders. He confessed to them all. In fact, he confessed to more murders than he was able to provide evidence to support.

Dahmer had originally entered a plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. His confessions made it difficult to support that plea and his lawyers later changed the plea to guilty. But they still asked the court to recognize his insanity as a mitigating factor.

That placed the technical task before the court to decide whether or not Dahmer was competent when he committed the murders. If it found him competent according to the terms of Wisconsin’s statutes, his sentence would be to a penal institution. If, on the other hand, it found him to be suffering from a mental disease, the court would sentence him to a psychiatric hospital until such time as his caretakers decided he was well.

The jury found Dahmer to be competent and guilty on all 15 counts for which the state of Wisconsin tried him.

That fulfilled the technical need for a verdict. And this verdict provided some emotional benefits, too. By finding Dahmer to be guilty, rather than sick, the system had identified the person responsible for the atrocities and dealt him the maximum punishment Wisconsin law allowed. As both attorneys — and Dahmer, himself — insisted, the case was never about race; it was never about homosexuality. It was only about this depraved man; and now he was about to be removed from society for the rest of his life. Everything that had been wrong was about to be set right.

Inez Thomas, Mother of David ThomasIt’s not uncommon for victims of violent crimes or their survivors to speak before the court and to express their feelings about the sentence the judge is about to pronounce. For the families of Dahmer’s victims, this would be the first time they’d have a voice in the matter.

During the years they searched for their missing loved ones, the police had frustrated them at every turn. For the two weeks of the trial, they’d listened to the judge, the attorneys, the police and the expert witnesses recount gruesome details of how each man had died. Now — finally — they would have a voice; they’d get to speak to the court, to the public and to Dahmer, himself.

Some family members spoke directly to the matter of Dahmer’s sentence, asking the judge to make sure he never walked free again. Others used their time to express their deep grief over their losses and their anger at Dahmer for what he’d done. But almost everyone who spoke expressed gratitude to the court, the jury and to the legal system for their success in bringing the matter to justice.

Donald Bradehoft is the brother of Dahmer’s last victim, Joseph Bradehoft. After the ordeals of first losing his brother and then listening to the court proceedings and details of the murder, the poor man is near the breaking point. But he still manages to summon the strength and courage to get up before the court and make a public statement.

His fragmented sentences sound like non-sequiturs; his thoughts seem scattered and unfocused. It’s clearly all he can do to hold back his sobbing until he steps down from the podium. But despite the disjointed style of his delivery, we understand clearly the sense he wants to convey.

Joseph Bradehoft

Donald Bradehoft isn’t speaking non-sequiturs as much as code. We recognize what he wants to say because we recognize each of the references he makes. His delivery may not be eloquent, but he hits on all the right message points to make when we need to assert that we’re playing by the rules, that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. He’s applauding the system to demonstrate that he’s on the inside, not the outside.

The business of oppression is tricky. Its job is to keep in check the rabble on which the system depends because that same rabble could bring down the whole house of cards if it were ever to turn. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the mechanism of oppression is that it doesn’t function well on its own. It’s a surprisingly delicate little thing. It needs careful nurturing and a safe, suitable environment in order to thrive. And because of its delicacy, forces outside of the rabble are only moderately successful in using it to keep the masses in check.

The mechanism of oppression only works really well once those people at the bottom of the heap have taken it inside themselves. Safe and warm like a developing child, the dominant society’s transplanted hatred grows until it spreads and multiplies, infecting every part of our thinking. We take up the work of our oppressors and do a far better job of keeping ourselves in check than they ever could. We praise the system that opposes us, stay quiet about those things that make us different, and talk down our peers who take a stand against that system.

Remember that it’s Donald Bradehoft’s brother who was killed after 16 others had already disappeared and died. It was his brother who fell prey to Dahmer while the Milwaukee police were busy raiding a benefit for a project to combat anti-gay violence. And in his public distress, near the breaking point, this man falls back on impulses developed long ago. He thanks the DA, god and country: stand-ins for the very system that guaranteed his brother’s murder.

It’s as if the poor man just can’t take any more abuse. That string of disconnected references to the figureheads of the system is the equivalent of crying “uncle,” of holding up his hands to deflect the next blow he knows is about to hit. Something tells me that, as a child, Donald Bradehoft had only even odds that he’d get to school and back on a given day without being attacked by his classmates. And those of us who thought about those same odds when we left for school each morning know that protective reflex, too.

It’s like a political speech with all the specific details filtered out, leaving only the tonal elements that identify the speech as properly patriotic and community-spirited.

I love this world.
You guys did a wonderful job.
Bottom of my heart,
Thank to God,
I’ve got a lot of strength.
Thank you, all.
God bless America.

Like all of the family members who spoke that day, Donald Bradehoft focuses his hatred on Jeffrey Dahmer. And so he should: the man killed his brother. But he seems unable — or unwilling — to look beyond Dahmer’s primary role to the shared guilt of a community, police force and legal system that did nothing to prevent Joseph’s death. He’s near hysterics. But he’s still unable to get mad in a way that might change his relationship to that system that shares responsibility for what happened in Milwaukee.

It would take someone beyond  — or out of — control to mix things up a bit … next post.

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7 Responses to “The Ballad of Jeffrey Dahmer, Part III”

  1. sarah bradehoft says:

    This is my father your talking about

  2. admin says:

    He was very brave to get up in front of the world and share his grief. I hope the years since then have softened the sharpness of what must have been a horribly painful experience.

    Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  3. Cody says:

    hi, if Sarah Bradehoft sees this message, please contact me at
    corystuteville@yahoo.com

    thanks !

  4. Laura says:

    Hi,

    I just wanted to thank you for this wonderful insight.

    I was in my 20s when this all was discovered. I am from Milwaukee and at that time I was very much a regular at the gay bars. I could say where and what and how, but I just am trying not to make things too much more. I hope you understand.

    Your insights are spot-on. We have all, those of us with some sort of conscience, have wondered HOW Konerack Sinthasomphone was turned over back to Dahmer That will never leave us who remember know those women who reported seeing KS in the street did the right thing…and it was MPD that screwed up.

    I stumbled across your blog because I have an interest in The Steven Zelich case…which has many similarities regarding Dahmer and police incompetency or impotency to DO SOMETHING when someone complains about an officer’s behavior. Do not get me wrong…I do believe most people on the force are there for the right reasons, but…. Anyhoo, thank you.

    As a side note, I am friends with JH.., the sister of one of Dahmer’s victims. I cannot speak for her, but I do know there is no amount of anger and horror she went through. She was devastated. I know what I saw, and she fell apart…emotionally, she was absolutely outraged how MPD and the court system handled the case. She may have not said anything in court, but she said a lot to us, her friends, and she was very blown away (for good reason).

    Thank you,

    Laura

  5. admin says:

    Thank you for your comments. It’s especially interesting to hear from someone close to the Milwaukee community and who actually remembers all of these events from a local and personal perspective.

    I’m glad to hear that Janie Hagen has such a good friend. She was one of the family members whose comments in the press grabbed my attention for being so clear-headed and articulate. The calm tone of her comments in court, her lack of apparent anger, were in stark contrast with what she expressed in print. One has to wonder how the pressures of the moment – the TV cameras, the emotion of reliving the murders, the almost surreal insistence of the judge and attorneys that nothing went wrong in the investigation – worked to squelch any expression of anger.

    I hope you’ve both found some peace in the years since.

  6. Laura says:

    Janie has quite a temper regarding this issue. I do not know how she stayed so calm, but in real life? She is very outspoken. They may have prepped her beforehand. I am sorry, but I never asked. But I will say this much: she is not one to back down or refrain from speaking her mind. I know, first hand, she was devastated and angry. It was overwhelming for her. And everyone else also shared her anger.

    I never asked her why she did not go crazy when she had a chance to speak at sentencing. As you can imagine, it is a subject we just do not bring up. I suppose it was because she was told not to lose her temper.

    It devastated everyone. At the time, I was a regular at the gay bars. We all were blown away. Many of us ran into Dahmer and found him to be very nice and quite likable. I remember a female friend of mine saying that Mr. Dahmer walked her home because he wanted to make sure she got home safely. How do you know? You don’t. It was such a shock to everyone when the case broke because we were all like, “Huh? That nice Jeff guy? What?!?”

    Yes, I was here. I remember it vividly…as if it was yesterday. That is something you do not forget. And I was old enough (in my 20s) to kinda have some perspective as a gay woman in Milwaukee when this whole case broke. We, as a community, were devastated.

    Yes, thank you for your article. It was very well thought out and well written. I do not want to diminish the respect for ANY of Dahmer’s victims, but the truth behind Konerack Sinthasomphone is especially heartbreaking. That was just WRONG in many ways.

    Things have not changed much. I happened across your blog because I was researching the case regarding Steven Zelich, aka “suitcase murderer”. It almost is a carbon copy of the Dahmer case, except this time the victims were not part of the gay community, but practiced BDSM. There is a parallel here with police negligence/ignorance and I cannot stop seeing the parallels.

    Thank you for your insights regarding Dahmer. It is a tough subject, and I appreciate that your writing stayed away from “sensationalizing” and focused more on the facts (and I am super impressed that you even included footnotes). I am sick and tired of reading stories that are more interested in Dahmer than the victims and their families. This devastated an entire community and many families, and it is nice to finally see someone who thought about the victims, rather than the perpetrator.

  7. Laura says:

    JH is very well-educated and well-spoken. I do not know HOW she kept her hat on, but she did. The sorrow was clear, however, to those of us around her and her horrible situation.

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