Jeffery Dahmer: Twenty years later

The lot where Dahmer once lived now stands empty. Photo by Elise Krivit (elise.krivit@marquette.edu)

Twenty years ago, Nirvana was topping the charts, George H.W. Bush was president and Marquette, a member for the Great Midwest Conference, had lost to a 19th ranked Cincinnati basketball team. Eckstein Hall, Cudahy Hall, Zilber Hall, the Raynor Library, the Al McGuire Center and the Dental School didn’t exist, and Wisconsin Avenue was devoid of its decorative pillars and fencing.

Clearly, much has changed. But as history has proven, the effects of the past can leave scars visible far into the future.

For the city of Milwaukee, Jeffrey Dahmer is one of those scars. The mass murderer was found guilty of 15 counts of murder in February 1992— though he had actually committed at least 17 — and was sentenced to 957 years in prison.

His presence can still be felt in the shadows in the neighborhood where he committed his crimes — a neighborhood only a few blocks away from Marquette.

But time moves on. Dahmer is dead and Milwaukee is still alive. And in the twenty years following the trial, the city and the university have moved on.

Troubled Beginnings

Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer was born in West Allis on May 21, 1960. He moved with his family to Ohio at an early age only to return to his hometown to live with his grandmother in 1982. In 1990, he moved into unit 213 of the Oxford Apartments at 924 N. 25th Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

During his childhood, Dahmer was considered quiet and withdrawn. He often spent time alone, dissecting the corpses of dead animals, and by his high school years had developed alcoholism. At the age of 18, he committed his first murder: 19-year old Stephen Hicks, a hitchhiker whom Dahmer invited home for some drinks, bludgeoned to death with a 10 lb. dumbbell and buried in the Dahmer family’s backyard. Later, Dahmer would say he killed Hicks simply because he did not want to see the other man go.

Dahmer dropped out of Ohio State University after one quarter due to his alcoholism and was forced by his father to join the Army. After only two years into his six-year commitment, Dahmer was discharged, once again due to his drinking problem.

The erratic behavior only increased upon Dahmer’s return to Wisconsin. In 1982 and 1986, he was arrested for indecent exposure, the second time for masturbating in front of two young boys. Before moving out, his grandmother had begun to notice odd smells coming from the basement and had found a handgun under his bed.

By 1987, Dahmer had begun the long string of murders that would only end with his final arrest in 1991. In those four years, he murdered 16 young men and boys, all without attracting any real suspicion. He worked a regular job at the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory, and, despite the odd sounds and smells that came from his apartment, he was able to prevent anyone from discovering the gruesome evidence of his crimes.

The murders followed a predictable pattern. Dahmer would lure his victims — ages ranging from 14 to 33 — back to his apartment after meeting and socializing with them, often by enticing them with money for posing in pictures. After drugging them with spiked drinks, the victims were killed, usually by strangling.

With the victims either unable to respond or dead, Dahmer performed gruesome experiments on their bodies. In an attempt to permanently remove their consciousness, Dahmer drilled holes into their heads and injected hydrochloric acid, a process that inevitably killed the subject. Other methods involved drugs and the removal of parts of the brain. As Ed de St. Aubin, professor of psychology at Marquette, explained, Dahmer was driven by an intense desire for sexual control.

“His goal was to create comatose individuals,” de St. Aubin said. “He wanted to have complete sex slaves basically. He tried various things to take somebody’s consciousness away and to keep them physically alive.”

Dahmer dismembered his victims and dissolved them in acid in order to more easily dispose of their bodies and had installed a fake security system into his home to discourage potential robbers from finding his numerous “trophies,” the dismembered and preserved remains of his victims, including a human head he kept in his refrigerator.

However, the masquerade of seeming normalcy could not last, and on two occurrences the horrors of unit 213 were revealed to the outside world.

On Apr. 17, 1991, Konerak Sinthamsophone, a 14-year old Laotian-American boy, was found running naked and bleeding on 25th and State Street in an attempt to escape from Dahmer. Clearly intoxicated and unable to communicate, Sinthamsophone could not respond when Milwaukee police officers returned him to Dahmer against the protests of the women who had found him. Dahmer claimed the teenager was his 18-year old boyfriend and that the two were involved in some lover’s quarrel.

Tracy Edwards was much luckier. On July 22, 1991, Edwards escaped from Dahmer’s apartment after a struggle in which the latter had tried to handcuff him. After spotting a police car, Edwards led police officers to the Oxford Apartments, leading to the discovery of various mutilated corpses and Dahmer’s arrest.

Michael Krzewinski, a professor of sociology and former detective in the Milwaukee Police Department, investigated Dahmer’s apartment the morning after he was arrested. Although the bodies had been removed by the time he had arrived, he handled many of the tools and appliances used in Dahmer’s experiments, including his refrigerator.

“The smells were primarily gone (by the time I was there),” Krzewinski said. “You knew what had happened in that particular room, so it was kind of eerie for all of the detectives involved.”

By the time the police had finally caught up to Dahmer, de St. Aubin said Dahmer’s murders were becoming more evident, making his capture inevitable.

“The crimes he was committing and the nature of them became more dramatic, closer together and kind of stupid,” de St. Aubin said. “At the end, he had bodies in his apartment and in the dumpster of his apartment building. He was very easy to catch at that point, whereas early on it was very methodical, very thought out, and very well-paced. And then he just seemed to get more and more desperate and in need of increasing his activities.”

Proximity Problems

When the truth about Jeffrey Dahmer was revealed, the Marquette community was shocked. While none of Dahmer’s victims were Marquette students, the sheer proximity between campus and the murderer’s home drew attention. The Oxford apartments were only a half mile away from Mashuda Hall, and many of the locations associated with Dahmer would be familiar to students today. The Ambassador Hotel, near the intersection of 23rd and Wisconsin, was the site of the 1987 murder of Steven Tuomi. The Third Ward, whose bars and establishments Dahmer would regularly frequent, was where Dahmer met many of his victims before luring them back to his apartment to meet their violent ends.

Dahmer’s trial, held in the Milwaukee County Court House, quickly became a media circus as national and local media swarmed Milwaukee. Dan Patrinos, the media coordinator for the trial, described the story’s scale when it made news twenty years ago.

“It was a major story in Milwaukee and it certainly drew hundreds of reporters from around the world to the city,” Patrinos said. “It was front page with major headlines. Television had it and it was coming live out of the courtroom, so all of this had a major impact on Milwaukee in terms of the nature of the story and what was involved. It certainly had a major impact on the sensibilities of the city.”

However, the nature of the case made it difficult for the media to handle, said Daniel Blinka, a professor of law.

“I think in one sense that because Dahmer preyed on young men, the media didn’t quite know what to do with him,” Blinka said. “How does one write about Dahmer’s sexual impulses to kill young men and have sex with their dead bodies? How do you explain that to the general public?”

After the trial ended, the stigma Marquette received with being so close to the crime scene explained, in part, a period of decline for the university. In the fall of 1991, the university received 6,081 applications for undergraduate admissions. The next two years would see applications fall to 5,531 and 5,316, respectively.

According to Bill Thorn, a professor of journalism, the media’s coverage of the Dahmer trial brought unneeded attention to Marquette after one of the local newspapers identified his location as being in the Marquette area, rather than in the Avenues West neighborhood.

“The (Milwaukee) Journal kept identifying Dahmer as living in the Marquette area,” Thorn said. “The administration had meetings with the editorial board saying ‘He’s not anywhere near the boundaries of Marquette, why do you keep associating Marquette students with Dahmer? We get letters from parents worried that Dahmer is eating Marquette students.’”

Change for the Better

In the aftermath of the Dahmer trial, Marquette began a neighborhood revitalization plan that involved a series of construction, destruction and renovation. In late 1992, construction began on the first $30 million Campus Town apartments as part of the greater Campus Circle project. Campus Circle, a non-profit founded by Marquette in December 1991, demolished about 30 dilapidated buildings in the area by April 1994 and had also worked on renovating other apartments, including one described in an Associated Press article as “a supermarket for drugs.”

Campus Circle was successful in convincing MPD to build a substation for Avenues West, and was able to remove businesses considered “seedy” from areas where it now held a lease. A series of campus beautification projects, including the creation of the decorative linings on Wisconsin Ave., were implemented to better define Marquette’s campus. According to Rana Altenburg, vice president for public affairs, Marquette had struggled to create an identity for itself in its urban environment.

“Twenty years ago, you could drive down Wells St. or Wisconsin Ave. and you weren’t completely sure where the university began and ended,” Altenburg said. “Over the years, especially in the past twenty years, the university has been much more intentional about really creating a sense of place in the community.”

The Dahmer case also led to reform within the Milwaukee Police Department. Because Dahmer’s victims were mostly members of minority groups, questions were raised regarding the police department’s treatment of traditionally underserved populations.

“How is it that over the years we didn’t know there were 15 or 16 people missing?” Blinka said. “Why is it at that time the gay community didn’t have enough trust in the Milwaukee Police Department to say ‘We think there is someone out there preying on members of our community?’”

Two of the officers who returned Sinthamsophone to Dahmer were suspended for their mishandling of the case but were later reinstated following a judge’s order, Krzewinski said, but he added that the case led the department to “wake up” to certain issues.

“Everybody (in MPD) was very shocked,” Krzewinski said. “While we do have crime in Milwaukee, we never had anything of this nature. It caused the police department to wake up to some degree to treating minorities and woke the police department up in regard to missing persons investigations.”

“It had a bad effect on Milwaukee, but a good effect on the police department because things began to change,” he added.

Memories Remain

Jeffrey Dahmer was killed on Nov. 28, 1994 after being beaten to death by fellow inmate Christopher Scarver at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wis. Scarver, who had been cleaning a prison bathroom with Dahmer and another inmate, struck Dahmer with a broom handle before smashing him against the walls and the floor, a Nov. 29, 1994 New York Times article reported. The other inmate was found in critical condition and died a few days later.

Today, the spot where the Oxford apartments once stood is an empty lot overgrown with grass. Developer Ogden Homes, who recently purchased the property from the city for $500, is forbidden from constructing any buildings on top of the land. As part of the deal, the city stipulated that the developer reserve the area for green space, although some of it may be used for parking spaces, TMJ4 News reported on July 18, 2011.

Despite Marquette’s campaign to revitalize the neighborhood, Altenburg says more work can still be done to help further strengthen the area surrounding campus.

“It would be great on the near west side to have more owner-occupied housing,” Altenburg said. “Owner-occupancy really helps to stabilize a neighborhood.”

While the expansion of Marquette’s Department of Public Safety’s patrol boundaries have helped to make the neighborhood safer, Altenburg added that the construction of single-family or duplex housing was needed to increase owner occupancy. The lack of certain amenities in the neighborhood, such as a full service grocery store, have also held back efforts to increase the area’s desirability.

And despite the initial bad publicity the university received for its location twenty years ago, it seems the correlation between Marquette and Dahmer has long since passed away. Last year, Marquette enrolled a freshman class of 2,084 students and had received over 22,000 applications for the class of 2016. According to Blinka, no “meaningful connection” between Dahmer and Marquette ever existed in the first place.

Still, it is too late to remove Dahmer from the history of Milwaukee. And although people grow older and memories fade, his story is one that will certainly remain forever embedded to the city’s name.

“I know when I travel to Europe people make mention of Jeffrey Dahmer,” Krzewinski said. “He put a black mark on the community for a long time and people remember that, they really do.”