18 Hours with Jeffrey Dahmer: All the Milwaukee Cannibal needed was someone to talk to

As Jeffrey Dahmer sat in his orange jumpsuit and contemplated the trial that was about to be brought before him at the Milwaukee Circuit County Court, he would think about the crimes he had committed, the boys he had killed, the men he had sodomised, the organs he had eaten. He would question how he had got to this point in his life. The man to talk him through his heinous crimes would be Dr Park Dietz, one of the United States’ most prominent and accomplished forensic psychiatrists who was working for the prosecution team in Dahmer’s case.

Dr Dietz wanted to look into the mind of a sexually deviant Dahmer and see the world from his perspective. Doing so would allow him to determine if he was insane or not. Dr Dietz sat with Jeffrey Dahmer for 18 hours and talked to him in a “non-judgemental” environment about everything from his love of films, such as The Exorcist III and Star Wars – Return of the Jedi, to his thoughts on the taste of blood and how he ate the biceps of his victims with potatoes. Dr Dietz knew exactly what questions to ask to fully determine the kind of person Dahmer really was.

It would be easy for a jury to perceive him as insane, but when Dahmer stood trial for his murders, Dietz argued that Dahmer was actually completely sane and in control of his actions, that he took steps to avoid detection and displayed some form of self control as he invited his victims home with him. Very few people really knew Dahmer, but Dietz’s analysis helped put the killer behind bars. Real Crime spoke to Dr Dietz from his office in California, where he now runs his own forensic consultancy firm in Newport Beach. Dr Dietz told us what it’s like to converse with one of the world’s most infamous serial killers and the mentality that allowed Jeffrey Dahmer to lure dozens of gay men back to his lair to satisfy his turbulent sexual urges.

Dr Park Dietz

You are an expert in crimes of sex and violence, why are these areas so interesting to you?

Sex and violence are interesting to almost everyone, if the content of popular media is any guide. For me, violent and sexual crimes are of professional interest because they were the neglected forms of preventable human injury at the outset of my career. In medical school I already knew I was interested in doing something with crime. I felt social criminology was the way to go. I was very rebellious against my family – everyone was in medicine. I came across a book about medicine solving crime. To me this was a tremendous awakening of what I could spend the rest of my life doing.

What was your first impression of Jeffrey Dahmer when you sat down with him?

That he was shy. He objected to me having a video camera pointed at him as he hadn’t had chance to shower and he was having a bad hair day, so he would make me point the camera at the wall. I remember the first thing he said to me was, “Nice watch.”

What was Jeffrey Dahmer like to sit with and talk to? Was he an interesting and engaging individual or was he rather reserved?

Initially he was quite reserved, but part of what I do is to meet such people in a completely non-judgemental environment, and when he saw that I was going to listen to him, he became very open, not just because of my approach, but because his defence team had said nice things about me. He saw it as an opportunity to understand how he had got that way. From that point on it became two reserved people trying to understand a person and solve a puzzle.

Do you think that Dahmer could have stopped what he was doing?

Yes, up until he couldn’t dispose of the corpses fast enough, he could have. I saw a difference between the early offences and the late offences, especially between murder number two and murder number 13. But there came a time when he was drinking so much, and he’d got so behind in disposing of the bodies, and he was getting complaints from his landlord, that he threw caution to the wind and really became sloppy.

His very first crime was very impulsive: his mother had left the area to move to California with the youngest child and his father had moved into a hotel. He killed someone without great planning, but in his first murder it was about not knowing how to get a lover. It then became a pattern. It became less important to stop. Had there been internet at that time and had he had access to it he could have found a boyfriend that way.

Dahmer's 1991 mugshot
Dahmer’s 1991 mugshot

How did he pick up his victims? What methods did he use to lure them? What would he say?

He went about trying to find companionship and romance by offering money to whoever was left. He was getting the dregs of the gay community. He was a nice looking man but if he had better social skills he could have done much better for himself. After his second murder he started going to bath houses. When someone showed interest in him, he would put a drug into their drink and that then gave him exactly what he was lacking, the ability to keep someone with him. That way he could lie with the warm bodies of men. It was his ideal situation but then he got caught drugging them, because one guy had woken up and he was banned from the bath houses. While he was at these bath houses, he didn’t kill anyone. He started going into the towns and just waited for someone to approach him or to see who was left at the end of the night. He did it to boost his self-confidence.

So did he lack confidence?

Yes, Jeffrey Dahmer believed that he needed certain things to be confident. For example, he thought it would make him more confident if he could have a certain black leather chair and ten skulls alongside a long table and two skeletons. If he could do that he could have the kind of confidence that Darth Vader had and the confidence to be able to go out and talk to other men.

If he had that in his life, would he then stop killing?

He had no desire to kill people. It wasn’t actually about the killing for him. He didn’t want to kill. He was an alcoholic and in order to kill and dismember his victims he had to drink to lower his inhibitions.

Did he have a ‘type’?

Yes, he didn’t care about race but he had to have big biceps and he couldn’t be fat. Plenty of people have asked me why I wasn’t scared sitting across from Jeffrey Dahmer while he was unmanned and wore no handcuffs, and I tell them, “That’s easy, I wasn’t his type.”

The fact that Jeffrey Dahmer was a normal-looking, somewhat attractive individual made him all the scarier, why is that?

We all harbour a secret wish: that we can see monsters and run away from them. But how would we recognise them if our eyes deceive us? I think this is the origin of stories about werewolves and vampires: when villagers would find a body mutilated, it had to have been done by a supernatural beast. A man couldn’t have done this, even when there were human footprints in the snow it had to be a man beast because a human couldn’t do that.

Dahmer's apartment
Dahmer’s apartment

What, if anything, was the most shocking part of Dahmer’s mindset?

I can’t say anything was shocking other than the lack of guidance from other people who could have set him on a better path. He never had a friend he could run these ideas by. He didn’t even have a close sibling he could talk to. He didn’t play on teams and I’m sure he must have felt excluded.
Had Dahmer had a friend to talk to, then they could have shown him alternative pathways to meet these guys he was looking for. Alternatively, he could have gone to a big city where there was more of a choice of gay lovers. He went to the library to study zombies and he went to the library to study everything except how to find a mate. He could have found a lover with similar interests but that, apparently, did not occur to him.

What gave Jeffrey Dahmer the idea to perform lobotomies on his victims?

He was looking for a way to keep his victims alive but docile. What he would have liked most was to have a compliant person who liked exactly what he liked and nothing more, but he didn’t fathom that there were such people, so he felt he had to create such a being.

The problem that he had with keeping his victims drugged was how to feed them and how to share a life with someone who is in a permanently comatose state. He’s not there 24 hours a day, so he needed someone that he wasn’t just keeping drugged. From that he had this idea of making himself a zombie.

How did he feel when his experiments failed and his victims died?

He felt bad and thought it was a waste. I’m not sure he grasped it as tragic, but he certainly saw it as a waste. That is why he tried to preserve them. He found the dismemberment revolting he had to get himself drunk to do it.

Milkwaukee police removed human body parts from Dahmer's apartment in July 1991.
Milkwaukee police removed human body parts from Dahmer’s apartment in July 1991.

Why did Jeffrey Dahmer enjoy contorting and dismembering the corpses of his victims to photograph?

When he was in high school, he went on a field trip with his class to the natural history museum, I forget which city. He recalled seeing something there that I once saw when I went on a trip to a natural history museum: a corpse in the anatomical position. It had been cut one inch at a time from head to torso and you can see the organs sliced open. It fascinated him so much that he stood there staring at it, he literally got lost from the group he was so engrossed in it. He found it erotic and it was the glistening of the organs that he liked and was aroused by. This is known as splanchnophilia – a pattern of erotic arousal to the visual imagery of the glistening surface of organs. A number of common fetishes with which men find ‘glistening’ erotic are silk, nylon and latex. All of these are glistening. I don’t know if it has something to do with the labia of the female baboon when she’s searching for a mate but I think it comes from evolution and the animal kingdom.

It wasn’t contorting his victims that aroused Jeffrey Dahmer, it was what was inside them. When he would point the men out in the pictures, he would always be most fond of the ones where the men were alive.

How did he feel about being caught and the fact that he was most likely going to go to prison for life?

He felt it was inevitable because the bodies were stacking up at this stage and he was taking more time off work to dispose of them. But in the end he sort of gave up. He felt it was good that he had been stopped. He was ashamed.

Do you think a jury could find him insane today or would he still be regarded as a sane but dangerous individual?

The law hasn’t changed and he would still be found responsible despite his problems. ‘Sane’ in law means responsible, not stable, and even his own experts said that he knew what he was doing – he had the mental capacity to know the requirements of the law. If there was an irresistible impulse, it was an impulse to fondle or hug or lay with a lover. He had the same impulses as normal people. In respect to the sex, there was some, but it was what would be classed as ‘sexually deviant’. He also used a condom, which is better control of one’s impulses than most teenage guys.

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