Posts Tagged ‘Jeffrey Dahmer’

The Ballad of Jeffrey Dahmer, Part IV

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

This Is Out of Control

(the last of four parts)

On February 18, 1992, the New York Times ran an article about the sentence passed on Jeffrey Dahmer. I might not have paid it much mind if not for the photo beside it depicting a woman being subdued by court officers. The caption gave her name as Rita Isbell.

It’s one of those rare photos of a real-time event which, thanks to some stroke of luck or the sheer number of shutter closures rattled off in the passage of a few seconds, produces an image almost classical in its composition. There’s something transcendent — (OK, I’ll say it) even mythic — in the story it suggests. Her expression of rage and frustration, fatigue and resignation as she looks toward the camera lens. The triad of generic white men who frame her figure as they hold her back. The bold letters of her tee shirt stretched taught against her breasts. This isn’t just some angry woman. This is the face of a woman who is railing against an epic injustice. This is Milwaukee’s version of Judith or Medea.

I clipped that article and kept it all these years. And I still get lost in that image, yellowed and brittle as it is. In that woman’s face the story of Jeffrey Dahmer suddenly took on a meaning beyond all the hype and sensational details of his crimes.

Rita Isbell, New York Times, February 18, 1992

That image from the end of our story was what led me to uncover its beginning. And by the chance nature of blog postings — the last to go up being the first most readers will see — you might be uncovering this story in the same backwards progression.

In the last three posts, we’ve covered the basics of what Jeffrey Dahmer did. We’ve looked at the response — or lack of response — from the community, the police and the justice system of Milwaukee. We’ve touched on the evidence of deep-rooted racism and homophobia in the city, their likely role in retarding any reasonable investigation of the disappearance of 15 men from its gay bars, and the insistence of the authorities that race and homosexuality were not issues open for discussion.

Finally, we looked at the public responses of the families when at last they were given a chance to speak at the sentencing hearing. Of course, they were allowed only limited time under very controlled conditions in which to express themselves; they had hanging over them the judge’s threat of clearing the courtroom in the event of any inappropriate words or actions. But even under such formal restraints, what we heard from the family members was odd. After everything they’d been through, almost everyone who spoke made a point of thanking the system for removing Dahmer from the community, rather than asking why it took so long to do so.

Every gesture in that hearing seemed carefully choreographed to demonstrate that the system had worked like a well-oiled machine. Dahmer was found to be competent and guilty of his crimes. The city of Milwaukee and its agents were free of any responsibility for what happened. And now the system was about to remove this rogue and unique element from the community; it was about to bring justice and resolution to the people it serves. In this piece of public theater, everyone performed his scripted role. There was no mention of frustration from the families, not even from people who later expressed those very sentiments to the press. Everyone behaved.

Everyone except Rita Isbell.

Rita Isbell starts talking before she gets near the podium. She doesn’t even pause to acknowledge — much less heed — the judge’s condescending admonishment. She’s mad. She expresses her anger directly at Dahmer. [Maybe I'm just projecting here, but] her manner suggests to me that she’s had enough of the whole affair; that she’s just as angry at the court, its rules and restrictions and, perhaps, at all the other speakers who have said little about what’s gone on over the years their loved ones have been missing. With her cardigan open just enough to reveal the big, bold lettering on her tee shirt — 100% BLACK — she blows in like a storm and says at least some of what no one else had been able to say.

It’s a glorious fuck you moment.

When she gets to Dahmer’s name, she blanks. It’s as if whatever is keeping her behavior in check won’t let her make that direct connection with the man who has come to represent all the fear and anger, the injustice and disregard of the last few years. She just calls him “Satan.”

Then suddenly that wall inside her — the one keeping her apart from the deepest well of her anger — gives way. She finds Dahmer’s name. And in naming him, in giving her own shape and focus to all of her feelings, she takes control of the situation. All hell breaks loose.

Angry that he’s lost control of the affair, the judge storms off and orders a recess. Five court officers descend on Isbell and subdue her. If only the Milwaukee police force had been half as aggressive in pursuing Dahmer, her brother might still be alive today.

I wonder what happened to Rita Isbell after the officers escorted her from the courtroom. I wonder if the other family members — shocked and weeping after her outburst — ever thanked her for expressing what they seemed unable to get out on their own. I wonder if anyone came up to her in the days and years since that afternoon and told her that she was the only hero in this whole long and very sad story.

I don’t expect anyone is going to build a monument on her behalf. But, for what it’s worth, this is mine. And that’s where this long series of posts has been leading. Thank you, Rita Isbell, wherever you are.

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.

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.