'It's the Victims Who Matter': What I Learned from Covering Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991

Years ago, I stood in front of a serial killer's front door and prepared to report his chilling story — but what really mattered were the innocent people he harmed

Suspected serial killer Jeffrey L. Dahmer enters the courtroom of judge Jeffrey A. Wagner 06 August 1991. Dahmer has been charged with eight additional counts of first-degree murder, bringing the number of homicides he is charged with to 12. The judge increased Dahmer's bail to five million dollars. He was sentenced to fifteen consecutive life terms or a total of 957 years in prison. Dahmer was killed by a fellow prisoner, Christopher Scarver, 28 November 1994 at Columbia Correctional Institution, Portage, Wisconsin.
Jeffrey Dahmer. Photo: EUGENE GARCIA/AFP via Getty

The morning after Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested by police in Milwaukee in the summer of 1991, I parked my car outside his apartment building and began knocking on doors. A reporter on assignment, I was there to get the story of the young man down the hall, who outwardly appeared unassuming but was behind one of the most horrific killing sprees in U.S. history.

On a later visit, I remember standing outside Dahmer's apartment, where police discovered the decapitated, dismembered remains of 11 victims. I felt terrified, and morbidly fascinated, by the unimaginable acts that would be recreated decades later in Netflix's hit series DahmerMonster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. But that day, I learned the true impact of the sociopath's actions — as well as what really matters when reporting on crime.

On the front lawn of the Oxford Apartments, I met the family members of a missing 14-year-old boy, Konerak Sinthasomphone, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Laos with his family. They had heard about Dahmer's arrest on the news and rushed to the scene, frantic for answers. A neighborhood resident stepped forward, saying he had heard rumors about a naked boy running down the alley after midnight with a white man chasing after him. Police had arrived on the scene, the neighbor said, and escorted the man and the boy back to Dahmer's apartment building. The boy subsequently became one of Dahmer's victims, his family had learned.

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In that chilling moment, their worst fears about what had happened to Sinthasomphone were confirmed, and the faces of his family members filled with pain and fury that I will never forget. Their story needed to be told.

In the next few days, I also interviewed two men who met Dahmer at bars in Milwaukee and went home with him — both recalled the apartment's rotten smell and erotic photos on the walls — but escaped with their lives after Dahmer became aggressive.

Like most of his victims, both men were gay and people of color. They described Dahmer as a familiar face in the bars and clubs where people of color and LGBTQ individuals congregated.

After his arrest, it became obvious that Dahmer intentionally preyed on Black and Brown people because their communities are historically underserved by law enforcement and unheard by the rest of society. Despite pleas for help to the police from victims' friends and family, and missing persons fliers posted all over town, a real-life monster got away with outrageous murders until a would-be victim finally led police to Dahmer's door.

If only these voices had been heard earlier, the saga of America's most depraved serial offender might have been somewhat less tragic. As a reporter covering the case, and today as PEOPLE's senior editor covering crime, I have learned a lesson: It's the victims who matter.

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