Just after he graduated from high school, in June 1978, he picked up a hitchhiker named Steven Hicks, took him home to his parents’ house, where they drank beer and had sex. When Hicks tried to leave, Dahmer killed him with a blow to the head with a barbell. He dismembered the corpse of his first victim, packed the remains in plastic bags and buried them in the woods behind the house. It would be another nine years before he took his second victim.
At the same time of his first killing, his alcohol consumption became uncontrolled and, in January 1979, when Dahmer dropped out of Ohio State University after only one term, due to drunkenness, his recently remarried father insisted that he enlist in the Army, and he was posted to Germany.
This drinking problem persisted, until two years later the Army discharged him for alcoholism. It is not believed that he took any more victims whilst in the Armed Forces, and he returned home to Ohio following his discharge, where he exhumed Hicks’ decomposing remains, pulverised them with a hammer, and scattered the pieces even more widely in the woods.
An arrest in October 1981 for disorderly conduct prompted his father to send Dahmer to live with his grandmother in Wisconsin, but the alcohol problems persisted. His next arrest occurred some years later, in September 1986, for masturbating in front of two young boys, for which he received a one-year probationary sentence.
In September 1987 he took his second victim, Steven Toumi, whom he met in a gay bar. They checked into a hotel room, drank heavily and, next morning, Dahmer claims to have found Toumi dead beside him. He bought a large suitcase to transport Toumi’s corpse to his grandmother’s basement, where he had sex with, and masturbated on it, before dismembering it and disposing of the remains in the rubbish.
He developed a pattern of murder that was to persist for the duration of his thirteen year killing spree: he sought out mostly African-American men at gay meeting places, lured them home to his grandmother’s basement with promises of money or sex, where he would ply them with alcohol laced with drugs, strangle them, have sex with the corpse or masturbate on it, then dismember the corpses and dispose of them, usually keeping their genitals or skulls as souvenirs. He often took photos of each victim at various stages of the murder process, so he could recollect each act afterwards and relive the experience. This re-enactment included assembling the skulls and masturbating in front of them, to achieve gratification.
His grandmother eventually tired of the late nights and drunkenness, although she had no knowledge of the other activities, and she forced him to move out in September 1988, but not before he had killed another two victims on the premises.
At this point he had an extremely lucky escape: an encounter with a thirteen-year-old Laotian boy resulted in charges of sexual exploitation, and second-degree sexual assault, being laid against Dahmer. He pleaded guilty, claiming that the boy had appeared much older and, whilst he awaited sentencing, he moved back in temporarily with his grandmother, where he again put her basement to gruesome use; in February 1989 an aspiring African-American model, named Anthony Sears, was lured, drugged, strangled, sodomised, photographed, dismembered and disposed of.
In May 1989, at his trial for child molestation, Dahmer was the model of contrition, arguing eloquently, in his own defence, about how he had seen the error of his ways, and that his arrest marked a turning point in his life. His defence counsel argued that he needed treatment, not incarceration and, astonishingly, the judge agreed, handing down a five year probationary sentence, with one year prison sentence on “day release”, under which he continued to work at his job, but returned to the prison at night. He was released after ten months, despite Dahmer’s father having written to the judge urging that Dahmer be held until he had received appropriate treatment. He spent three months with his grandmother on his release, where he does not appear to have added to his body count, before moving into his own apartment in May 1990.
During the fifteen months that followed, up to the time of his capture, Dahmer’s victim count accelerated; twelve more lives were taken using his modus operandi. Necrophilia is generally associated with issues of exercising control over victims. He developed these rituals as he progressed, experimenting with chemical means of disposal, and he also consumed the flesh of his victims. He attempted crude lobotomies, drilling into victim’s skulls whilst they were still alive, injecting them with Muriatic acid to see whether he could extend his control to the living. Most of these victims died instantly, but he claimed that one victim had survived for a number of days in a zombie-like state, with limited motor function.
He was careful to select victims on the fringes of society, who were often itinerant or borderline criminal, making their disappearances less noticeable, and his likelihood of capture that much less. There have been claims that he was racially motivated, as most of his victims were African-American, but it is equally likely that they were just typical of the poor neighbourhood in which Dahmer lived.
This racial motive did, however, figure largely in the case of his thirteenth victim, a 14-year-old Laotian boy who was, coincidentally, the younger brother of the boy he had been convicted of molesting three years earlier.
On 26 May 1991, Dahmer’s African-American neighbour, Sandra Smith, called the police to report that a young Asian boy was running naked in the street. When the police arrived, the boy was incoherent, and they accepted the word of Dahmer, a white man in a largely poor African-American community, that the boy was his 19-year-old lover who had had too much to drink, over the protestations of Smith and her daughter, who could clearly see that the boy was terrified of Dahmer. Smith’s subsequent enquiries, through the local authorities, were also not taken seriously.
The police escorted Dahmer and the boy home and, clearly not wishing to become embroiled in a homosexual domestic disturbance, they had a cursory look around and then left, at which point Dahmer strangled the boy and proceeded with his usual rituals. Had they conducted even a basic search, they would have found the body of his twelfth victim decomposing in the bedroom, and enough photographic evidence to arrest Dahmer immediately.
Dahmer’s luck finally ran out on 22 July 1991, when two Milwaukee police officers picked up Tracy Edwards, a young African-American, who was wandering the streets with a handcuff dangling from his wrist. They decided to follow up his claims that a “weird dude” had drugged and restrained him, and arrived at Dahmer’s apartment, where he calmly offered to get the keys for the handcuffs.
Edwards claimed that the knife Dahmer had threatened him with was in the bedroom and, when the officer went in to corroborate the story, he noticed photographs of dismembered bodies lying around, which included one of a head in the fridge. He shouted to his colleague to restrain Dahmer, who fought back fiercely, but was nevertheless subdued. A subsequent search revealed the head in the fridge, as well as three more in the freezer, and a catalogue of other horrors, including preserved skulls, jars containing genitalia, and an extensive gallery of macabre photographs.