Archive for the ‘History Lessons’ Category

The Ballad of Jeffrey Dahmer, Part III

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

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.

Since Dahmer had entered a plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, the technical task was to decide whether or not he was competent when he committed the murders. If found competent according to the terms of Wisconsin’s statutes, his sentence would be to a penal institution. If, on the other hand, he were found 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.

The Ballad of Jeffrey Dahmer, Part II

Friday, March 19th, 2010

To Serve and Protect

(part two of four)

For most of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims, the details around their disappearance and demise are sparse. Police records depend on the recollection of the only living witness, Dahmer himself. But in the case of one victim, there were more witnesses to the events leading up to the murder.

Memorial for Konerak SinthasomphoneOn the evening of May 27, 1991, two Milwaukee police officers responded to a call from two 17-year-old African-American women, Sandra Smith and Nicole Childress. The women had found a 14-year-old Laotian-American boy in the street. The boy, named Konerak Sinthasomphone, was apparently drugged and bleeding from the anus.

The officers arrived in time to find the women protecting the boy from 31-year-old Jeffrey Dahmer, who was insisting he be allowed to take the boy home with him. After sizing up the situation, the officers agreed to release the boy to Dahmer. The women protested, indicating the boy’s injury, and the officers threatened them with arrest.

The officers escorted Sinthasomphone back to Dahmer’s apartment. Despite what must have been a strong odor from the decaying body of Tony Hughes, whom Dahmer had killed three days earlier, they left the couple in the apartment. Dahmer later explained that he murdered the boy only moments after the police left.

We might want to explain the behavior of the police officers as gross negligence or simple incompetence. But because those two women had called 911, there were records of conversations between the police officers, their dispatcher, and the women involved.

May 27, 1991; 2:00 a.m

Dispatcher: “Milwaukee emergency. Operator 71.”

Nicole Childress: “OK. Hi. I am on 25th and State. And there’s this young man. He’s buck-naked and he has been beaten up. He is very bruised up. He can’t stand. He has no clothes on. He is really hurt. And I, you know, ain’t got no coat on. But I just seen him. He needs some help. . . .”

After investigating, an officer reported back to the dispatcher.

Officer: “The intoxicated Asian naked male [laughter in background] was returned to his sober boyfriend.” [more laughter]

An officer later reported that the assignment was completed and that the squad was ready for new duties.

Officer: “Ten-four. It will be a minute. My partner is going to get deloused at the station.” [laughter on the tape]

A short time later, Glenda Cleveland, the mother of one of the young women called the police to inquire about the incident. She was eventually connected to one of the investigating officers.

Cleveland: “Yeah, uh, what happened? I mean my daughter and my niece witnessed what was going on. Was anything done about the situation? Do you need their names or information or anything from them?”

Officer: “No, not at all.”

Cleveland: “You don’t?”

Officer: “Nope. It was an intoxicated boyfriend of another boyfriend.”

Cleveland: “Well, how old was this child?”

Officer: “It wasn’t a child. It was an adult.”

Cleveland: “Are you sure?”

Officer: “Yup.”

Cleveland: “Are you positive? Because this child doesn’t even speak English. My daughter had, you know, dealt with him before, seeing him on the street. You know, catching earthworms.”

Officer: Ma’am. Ma’am. I can’t make it any more clear. It’s all taken care of. He is with his boyfriend, in his boyfriend’s apartment, where he has his belongings also.”

Cleveland: “But what if he’s a child? Are you positive he is an adult?”

Officer: “Ma’am, like I explained to you, it’s all taken care of. It’s as positive as I can be. I can’t do anything about somebody’s sexual preference in life.”

Cleveland: “Well, no, I am not saying anything about that, but it appeared to have been a child. This is my concern.”

Officer: “No. No. He’s not.”

Cleveland: “He’s not a child?

Officer: “No, he’s not. OK? And it’s a boyfriend-boyfriend thing. And he’s got belongings at the house where he came from. He has very nice pictures of himself and his boyfriend and so forth.”

Cleveland: “OK, I am just, you know. It appeared to have been a child. That was my concern.”

Officer: “I understand. No, he is not. Nope.”

Cleveland: “Oh, OK. Thank you. Bye.”

“This could have all been prevented,” said Nicole Childress, one of the young women. “If they had listened that night, that little boy would still be alive and all the others wouldn’t be dead.”1

Mourners at Memorial Service for Konerak SinthasomphoneHad the police been paying even a little bit of attention to the scene before them, the stench in Dahmer’s apartment might have tipped them off that something was wrong. Had they bothered to call in the routine background check on Dahmer that procedure required, they would have learned that Dahmer had been convicted of molesting Konerak’s older brother some years earlier. Had they not been so amused by the apparent otherness of the situation, they might have saved the boy’s life as well as the lives of the four victims who followed Sinthasomphone.

Protesters in MilwaukeeIn response to a public outcry over the incident, the two officers were terminated from the Milwaukee Police force. After appealing, both officers were reinstated with back pay totaling over $100,000 and were named “Officers of the Year” by the Milwaukee Police Association for their “righteous battle to regain their jobs.”

Sergeant Dennis Forjan, president of the Milwaukee Police Supervisors Organization, said he and his fellow officers were “elated” by the decision to reinstate the officers. “There were many elected officials who were out there demanding the dismissal of these officers, primarily black officials,” he added.2

One of the officers, John Balcerzak, was elected President of the Milwaukee Police Association in May, 2005.

The family of Konerak Sinthasomphone later brought a civil suit against the City of Milwaukee, charging that it had violated his right to the equal protection of the law based on race, sex, and sexual orientation. (Sinthasomphone, Estate of, v. City of Milwaukee, 1995). The parties eventually reached a settlement of $850,000.

In the next post: the families get their day in court.


Sinthasomphone’s family later said that Konerak did speak English.

1“Black Men Tragic Victims of White Milwaukee Man’s Gruesome Murder Spree.” Jet, August 12, 1991.
2Joe Williams, Tom Held and Dan Parks, “Many Elated with Ruling on Fired Officers Apologies Due, Union Chief Says.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 28, 1994.