SCMP Friday, July 27, 2001

In a serial killer's shadow


Carolyn Smith shares her life with a serial killer. Every day, her thoughts are consumed with reminders of Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee serial killer who murdered her brother, Eddie Smith, and at least 16 other men and boys. ''I had a lot of hatred in my heart, but I had to learn to forgive,'' Smith says. ''But I can't go out of my house. I'm too afraid. You can't escape this.''
A decade has passed since Milwaukee police on July 22, 1991, made an unimaginably gruesome discovery at Dahmer's fetid, one-bedroom apartment: skulls in cabinets, a human head in the refrigerator, human remains soaking in vats full of muriatic acid in the living room.
At the centre of it all, was an expressionless, sullen, 31-year-old former sweet-factory worker who would confess to 17 murders before the next day was over.
Dahmer picked up his male victims in gay bars, at shopping malls and at bus stops, had sex with them before or after he killed them, then dismembered them. He ate the flesh of at least one of his victims and drilled a hole in another's skull in an attempt to create a zombie sex slave.
The apartment building where he committed most of his crimes has since been razed. What is left is an eerily empty space surrounded by a chain-link fence and superstitious neighbours.
Dahmer was convicted in 1992 of 15 homicides in Wisconsin and pleaded guilty to one murder in Ohio. He was bludgeoned to death by fellow-inmate Christopher Scarver at Columbia Correctional Institu-tion in 1994, where he was serving multiple life prison terms. ''He was a victim waiting to happen in there,'' says his former defence attorney Gerry Boyle.
Now an unfortunate footnote in Milwaukee's history, the pain remains a decade after Dahmer's crimes were discovered.
Smith has become an activist with victims' rights groups, although she says paralysing agoraphobia often prevents her from stepping foot outside her home. A psychiatrist has diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She recalls how when her brother went missing, in 1990, she battled in vain to get the media to publish his photograph. ''Now it seems they put everyone on TV when they're missing,'' she says.
Former Milwaukee police officer Joe Gabrish also lives with his memories of the serial killer, although life has changed markedly for the 38-year-old. Gabrish was one of two officers who turned over a 14-year-old Laotian boy to Dahmer weeks before he was caught. The child was killed a few hours later.
The two officers were called to an alley near Dahmer's home where the naked boy was seen running by a neighbour, but they left when Dahmer convinced them it was only a lovers' quarrel.
Gabrish and his partner, John Balcer-zak, were fired by then-police chief Phillip Arreola, but a 1994 court victory won them reinstatement to the police force with back pay.
Arreola now works for the Department of Justice in Denver, and Balcerzak remains a Milwaukee policeman.
Gabrish returned to his job for three days before he realised he belonged at the small-town police department in nearby Grafton, where he had worked for the year prior to his reinstatement. At night he works in Grafton, and during the day he serves as the chief of police of tiny Trenton, Wisconsin.
''Things turned out better than I expected,'' Gabrish says. ''I didn't think I'd ever work in law enforcement again. That 16-minute call changed my life and affected me in every way. That one moment in time has changed everything.''
He no longer sits up at nights like he used to, but memories of the fateful decision haunt him every day. He replays it often, maintaining the decision was the only one he could have made. ''Even now, I go to a call and make a judgment,'' Gabrish says. ''I don't know what's going to happen three hours later. I have to realise we were scapegoats.''
The actions by Gabrish and Balcerzak galvanised Milwaukee's minority communities, including gays, Asians and blacks targetted by Dahmer. Terry Boughner, editor of the now-defunct Wisconsin Light, which served Milwaukee's gay community, says little has changed in the 10 years since the Dahmer case came to light. Dahmer admitted he was gay, and most of his victims were homosexual.
''It's one of those things you remember. It's there. It was horrible. Now, let's get on with things,'' Boughner says. ''In the final analysis, I hoped people would see that slinking around at midnight in dark bars was caused by society's predilection to treat us as second-rate.''
Karen Murphy-Smith, a leader in Milwaukee's black community, was prompted by the Dahmer case to establish her own police watchdog group. ''I think the Milwaukee police are more responsive to citizens since Dahmer,'' she says. ''The spotlight from the case has caused police officers to take a little more time with people on their assignments ?to feel their character before making a snap decision.''
The case also lives on for Dahmer's lawyer. Boyle says he took the case because ''I'm not a hero, but I'm not a coward''. He says he formed a relationship with Dahmer and, later on, with the families of many of his victims. ''I was defending Dahmer for the right reasons,'' Boyle says. ''I was very sensitive to their loss.''

He has not been able to forget his most famous client ?largely because the topic is raised frequently at parties, in the grocery store, even on the street. ''He was a pathetic creature,'' Boyle says of Dahmer. ''His loneliness was so desperate he went to horrible lengths to try to satisfy it.''

But Dahmer never felt remorse, Boyle says. ''At one time, he thought he was the devil,'' he adds. ''He made these people objects for his own masochistic pleasure. I wanted Dahmer studied so we could delve into what was going on with him since his adolescence. Since the age of 13 or 14, he spent every minute of every day thinking about doing this.''