Warning Signs About Jeffrey Dahmer Everyone Ignored Until It Was Too Late

The following article includes graphic descriptions of violence, sexual assault, and necrophilia.

The Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer brutally murdered 17 young men over the course of 13 years, from 1978 until his eventual capture in 1991. At his trial, the world learned of the indescribable depravity of the killings and the mutilation and dismemberment of the victim's bodies. Dahmer retained body parts as mementoes of his crimes, necrophilia, and acts of cannibalism. As the world looked on in disbelief, Dahmer was sentenced to 16 life terms in 1992 and was expected to spend the rest of his natural life in prison with no possibility of parole. Two years later, he was murdered by a fellow inmate.

Despite the animalistic urges that underpinned Dahmer's appalling crimes, he was reportedly a young man of high intelligence — his IQ is reported as being at least 122, while some claim it was as high as 145. However, the Milwaukee Cannibal also had obvious emotional issues. Some are believed to have been the result of a tumultuous home life characterized by what commentators have described as a neglectful childhood. He also reportedly found his parents' divorce especially traumatic. But many people survive difficult childhoods and go on to live regular law-abiding lives. Could anything about Dahmer have helped to shed light on his mental condition before he was too late? Here were the warning signs that everyone overlooked.

His early interest in dead animals

For many familiar with the case, one of the more egregious aspects of the Jeffrey Dahmer murders are the crimes that he perpetrated against his victims post-mortem. At his trial, horrified jurors heard the grisly details that police officers uncovered on first investigating the killer's home at the behest of a handcuffed man who had escaped his clutches. The near-victim raised the alarm about a "weird guy" who allegedly took him home and tried to drug him.

Dahmer's victims were generally gay men he approached in bars and public spaces, offering sex or money. After drugging and murdering them, he would dismember their bodies and retain body parts, including skulls and genitalia. Dahmer attempted to preserve many of these objects and had several body parts in his home when the police arrived, including a human head in the refrigerator. He later admitted that he planned to make a shrine with the body parts and envisioned using the skulls as candle holders.

Dahmer's predilection for dead body parts went all the way back to his childhood, when he first became fascinated with collecting roadkill and other dead animals. From a young age, he would preserve animal bones and insect carcasses with acid and formaldehyde. He picked up the techniques from his father, who was a biologist and believed his son was developing a healthy interest in science.

He was withdrawn and lonely

Jeffrey Dahmer's childhood was characterized by loneliness. He reportedly developed a withdrawn and antisocial personality from the age of 4, when his formerly bright and playful nature had to contend with serious invasive surgery on a double hernia. This moment has been identified as a turning point for the young Dahmer.

His interest in necrophilia grew more malign as he entered his teenage years, during which time he became even more withdrawn and began drinking heavily. By the time he was 18, his drinking led him to drop out of university, after which he joined the Army and was stationed in Germany. By then, he had already killed his first victim — a hitchhiker named Steven Hicks. Dahmer's later disturbing testimony about the murder reflected his sense of isolation at the time. He had taken Hicks back to his parents' house to drink, and he admitted that he couldn't bear to see Hicks leave, so he strangled him to death with a barbell.

Murders at his grandma's place

For many years of his adult life, Jeffrey Dahmer lived with his paternal grandmother, Catherine, at her home in West Allis, Wisconsin. Dahmer moved in with her in his early 20s at the behest of his father and stepmother after being incarcerated in Akron Correctional Facility on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Dahmer had recently been discharged from the army as a result of his drinking problem, and it was thought that life with Catherine would offer him the stability he needed to get back on his feet and find some direction. 

And Catherine and Dahmer got on. "I guess she's what you could call a perfect grandmother," he later claimed. "Very kind, goes to church every Sunday, easy to get along with, very supportive, loving, just a very sweet lady" (per "The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer" by Brian Masters). Dahmer lived with his grandmother for six years before she grew impatient with him on account of his alcoholism and told him to leave. Little did Catherine know, however, that Dahmer murdered and mutilated multiple men in her house. He would dismember his victims in his grandmother's basement while she was at church, and though Catherine reportedly used to complain of a stench coming from below, she never investigated it.

Exhibitionism and sexual crimes

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Jeffrey Dahmer case is that he was far from entirely off the radar when it came to being identified as a sexual criminal. In 1982, he was arrested for publicly urinating in front of a crowd of 25 people including women and children at the Wisconsin State Fair. Brian Masters claims that though the incident was recorded only as disorderly conduct — it is to be assumed that Dahmer was drunk — it was the first of many such examples of "exhibitionism" from the killer as he grew more strident in indulging his compulsions. By 1986 he was charged with "lewd and lascivious behavior" and indecent exposure after being caught publicly masturbating in front of two 12-year-old boys. 

In September 1989, a year after moving out of his grandmother's house and into his own apartment, the serial killer was arrested once more. This time, he was charged with sexual exploitation and second-degree sexual assault after bringing a 13-year-old boy back to his apartment, telling the boy he wanted to take naked photos of him. Still, it was another two years until his murders were brought to light.

Dahmer's escaped victim was returned to him

In the final years of his brutal killing spree, Jeffrey Dahmer was living alone in his apartment and free to indulge his horrifying urges with little oversight from family members. He lured multiple young men to his home and experimented with dismemberment and the preservation of body parts. It was during this time that Dahmer came closest to detection, when one of his victims, a 14-year-old boy, was found walking the streets near Dahmer's home, naked and delirious. 

The boy had been drugged, but police officers who responded to a complaint from one of Dahmer's neighbors failed to perceive that what had befallen him was non-consensual, nor did they realize that the victim was a minor. Instead, they characterized the scene as a domestic incident and returned the boy to Dahmer, who later killed him with an injection of hydrochloric acid to the brain. Had the police taken more than a cursory glance around the killer's home, they would have discovered multiple human remains that would have alerted them to his true nature. Instead, he remained free to kill again.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).