Jeffrey Dahmer had multiple run-ins with the law before it was discovered that he'd murdered 17 men and committed horrific acts of cannibalism and necrophilia with their remains.
Jeffrey Dahmer's crimes are so nightmarish and disturbing, they've lived on in the public imagination for decades since his capture — inspiring movies, TV shows, and even a Katy Perry lyric. Eventually convicted in 1992, the so-called "Milwaukee Cannibal" murdered his victims, collected their body parts, and at times, had sex with the corpses or ate bits of their flesh. On one occasion, a victim of his had escaped — only for police to return the young man to his seemingly shy, polite killer.
Serial Killer Week, which runs from Saturday, April 10 to Sunday, April 18 on Oxygen, features all-new specials as well as past shows about the most fearsome and fascinating criminals of all time, including Dahmer. Before it begins, brush up on your Dahmer knowledge and learn more about the evidence that finally put him behind bars.
Jeffrey Dahmer's Troubled Childhood
Dahmer was born in Milwaukee on May 21, 1960 to affluent parents. He displayed unsettling behavior from an early age. Described as cripplingly shy, he collected bones of animals like cats, dogs, groundhogs, and others, then kept them in jars, as the Los Angeles Times reported in 1991. He sometimes preserved their bodies in formaldehyde and hunted the area for roadkill to keep.
His childhood wasn't easy, though. His parents had a rocky marriage — police were called to their home multiple times, and the couple finally split in 1978, according to the LA Times. His father later claimed a neighborhood kid in Bath Township, Ohio sexually abused Dahmer when he was a boy. And even before starting high school, fellow students said they noticed Dahmer drinking, the outlet reported.
While his peers remember him as a shy, odd loner, some noted he was also a bit of a prankster, who relished in faking seizures and other attention-grabbing outbursts. After high school, he went on to Ohio State University but soon dropped out. He then entered the Army, though was discharged in 1981 because of his excessive drinking, according to The Los Angeles Times.
But by that time, Dahmer wasn't just a college and military dropout — he was a murderer.
17 Young Men – Who Were Dahmer's Victims?
Dahmer eventually confessed to murdering 17 men between 1978 to 1991. His victims were mostly young and gay, and often men of color. His first victim, Steven Hicks, was a hitchhiker he picked up in the summer of 1978, shortly after Dahmer graduated high school. He brought Hicks to his home for a drink, and when Hicks tried to leave, Dahmer beat and strangled him.
After that, Dahmer didn't kill again for years — his next victim was killed after he'd left the Army. When he began murdering again, it was a spree. He lured men from shopping malls or bars to his home, sometimes promising beer or cash in exchange for sex or for them posing for nude photographs. When he first started killing, "home" was a residence he shared with his grandmother. Later on, he got his own apartment, where he could commit his vicious acts and keep his grotesque collections in private. He would then drug his victim's drinks, strangle them, then dismember their bodies with a chainsaw, The New York Times reported in 1991.
The body parts he didn't wish to keep were dissolved in acid and flushed down the toilet or thrown away, the Associated Press reported in 2002.
Dahmer kept the skulls and the bones, though — out of loneliness, he would later claim, according to the LA Times. He also admitted to having sex with some of the bodies and eating some parts of them; he even told police he fried one person's bicep in vegetable shortening and ate it, the New York Times reported.
Dahmer's Close Calls
Dahmer certainly wasn't a stranger to run-ins with the police. In 1988, he promised a 13-year-old Laotian boy $50 if he posed for photos — and the following year, was convicted of sexually assaulting the boy, the LA Times reported. However, he was only handed a five-year suspended sentence; he participated in a work-release program for 10 months so he could take a night job at a chocolate factory. But he kept killing during that period.
It was while on probation for that incident that Dahmer embarked on part of his murder spree. His caseworker was too overwhelmed and never visited him at home, so his collection of horrors was kept secret, TIME reported in 2016.
Tragically, one of Dahmer's victims almost managed to escape — but was soon returned to his tormentor's home by police. In May 1991, two women called the cops to report an injured, naked young boy running from Dahmer's apartment building, the AP reported in 1991. Upon him being returned, Dahmer convinced the cops the boy was his lover and they had simply been drunk and having a quarrel. The teen was actually an adult, he insisted.
Police accepted the explanation and left, not even noticing a dead body in the other room, according to the outlet. Dahmer then strangled 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone. It turned out that he was the brother of the adolescent Dahmer had previously been convicted of sexually assaulting, TIME reported.
A Horrific Crime Scene
In July 1991, another Dahmer victim managed to escape his home. Running down the streets in handcuffs, Tracy Edwards, 32, managed to convince police to take his claims of being attacked seriously, TIME reported.
They headed to Dahmer's apartment to get the keys to the handcuffs and searched for the knife with which Edwards had claimed Dahmer had threatened him. When they went to Dahmer's bedroom, they noticed their first red flag: In his open bedroom drawer, an officer saw Polaroids of naked, posed, dismembered bodies. There were around 80 of them.
A closer search of the apartment revealed absolute horror: a collection of severed heads, several bleached skulls, and a massive vat of acid, used for dissolving human flesh — which was found in the fridge. Hands and genitals were located, according to TIME.
The house was essentially a graveyard — the remains of 11 different victims were found on the premises at the time of his arrest. Homicide detective Patrick Henry described the scene in a 2013 interview with radio show "Rover’s Morning Glory."
“The word surreal is used quite a bit. But it really was surreal here. [...] When I looked into the refrigerator it was a clean and empty refrigerator except for an open box of Arm & Hammer soda in the back and this box in the middle containing this freshly severed, bloodless, human head," he said. "It was a black male with his eyes and mouth open with an expression of almost excitement or surprise.
"So when I saw it, I can say that I had been a police officer for many years and seen some horrendous things. [...] But I can tell you that the sight was so weird that everything in my whole being told me, ‘Man you need to get the hell out of here," he added.
With all of the bodies found in his home, Dahmer had little choice but confession. He discussed the murders with police for hours over cigarettes and coffee, admitting to ″filleting″ the flesh and boiling the skulls of his victims, according to a 1992 AP report. He saved the skulls of the victims he found handsome and admitted to masturbating over the bones as he fantasized about the murders, he told detectives.
″He became more relaxed as conversations went on,″ Detective Dennis Murphy said, according to the outlet. ″At the beginning there was no eye contact. Toward the end he would look at us and occasionally smile.″
Dahmer's Sentencing — And Death
In 1992, Dahmer was sentenced to 15 consecutive life terms in prison for his gruesome string of murders.
"I take all the blame for what I did," he said at the time, according to The Washington Post, adding, "I know society will never be able to forgive me."
He also claimed he had since turned to God and religion.
Dahmer didn't last long in prison, however — in November 1994, at the age of 34, he was bludgeoned to death by a fellow inmate, the New York Times reported at the time. His killer, Christopher Scarver, explained why he did it in a 2015 interview with the New York Post.
“He crossed the line with some people — prisoners, prison staff. Some people who are in prison are repentant — but he was not one of them," he insisted, claiming Dahmer would make his food look like bloody limbs to unnerve other prisoners.
For more on Dahmer and other serial killers, don't miss Serial Killer Week, which runs from Saturday April 10 to Sunday, April 11 on Oxygen.