On July 22, 1991, all eyes turned to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as grisly details began to emerge following the arrest of a 31-year-old mixer at the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory. Tracy Edwards, led police to The Oxford Apartments on the city’s North Side, where he claimed that Jeffrey Dahmer—the occupant of Apartment 213—had attempted to subdue and murder him with a butcher knife.
Though Dahmer was initially friendly toward the officers, a subsequent search of his apartment revealed it to be a real-life house of horrors; three human heads were discovered in the refrigerator along with boxes full of severed body parts and photographs of the mutilated bodies of some of Dahmer’s previous victims.
For police—including Detective Patrick Kennedy, a veteran of the city’s homicide department—it was an eerie case of déjà vu. Less than two months earlier, two officers had responded to a 911 call when 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone was discovered wandering the same neighborhood, dazed, nude, and bleeding. When Jeffrey Dahmer arrived on the scene, he explained that Konerak was his (of legal age) boyfriend who had stormed out of his apartment following a drunken argument. Though onlookers who recognized Konerak denied Dahmer’s story, police took the boy back to Apartment 213 and released him into Dahmer’s custody. Konerak—the younger brother of a boy Dahmer had molested three years earlier—was murdered the same night.
For the six weeks following Dahmer’s arrest, Detective Kennedy was at his side, listening intently as Dahmer offered up every last gory detail of his career as a serial killer, which began in the summer of 1978 and left 17 men dead. Today, 20 years after Dahmer’s trial, conviction and subsequent murder in prison, Kennedy is going back to the scene of the crime to share the details of his relationship with one of the world’s most notorious serial killers in Chris Thompson’s new documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, opening Friday, February 15th at New York’s IFC Center and via VOD nationwide.
Kennedy took us back in time to share his most vivid memories of that night, the interrogation that followed, and the ways in which he is trying to make a difference today.
Interview by Jennifer M. Wood (@j_m_wood)
It has been more than 20 years since Jeffrey Dahmer’s arrest. When you look back on that night, what’s the one thing that sticks out to you most about it?
Oh, wow. Well, for me it was the beginning of the end of my career in law enforcement. That night, I made a conscious decision to go and pursue my graduate degree; to get out of law enforcement and get into academia. My whole life has changed since then.
Was it the brutality or severity of these crimes that made you say, “enough’s enough?”
After 12 years of being a homicide detective, it was enough of that. The thing that really got me during Jeffrey's confession was when he got to the part where the two Milwaukee police officers, whom I knew personally, were fooled by him and took [Konerak Sinthasomphone] back to his apartment. It was a crushing blow for me, for them, and for the department. It gave the department a real black eye.
I started wondering: what was it about these two fine young warriors—whom I knew and who had put their lives on the line for the city of Milwaukee—that made them make such a terrible mistake that would lead to this? And my opinion is the thing that I like to call “the police complex.” In general terms it would be a tendency toward stereotyping, but moreover it is the equating of a particular type of individual with the general nationality or ethnicity of that person, which causes the police officers to become cynical and jaded.
"What I’m calling for is a more educated, more socially- and culturally-savvy police officer."
It also made me look at the training of most police officers, especially in the state of Wisconsin. The foundations are so White/Male/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant-centered that when these two officers—who were white males the same age as Jeffrey Dahmer—were in a mixed up situation where they had to decide who to believe and who not to believe, they chose to believe the person who looked like them, who talked like them, who made sense to them.
When the people who lived in that neighborhood—who happened to be people of color—actually knew what was really going on, they didn’t believe them. They didn’t trust them, even though that was their area; they were paid to patrol that area, yet they didn’t know anyone in that area. My belief is that if in fact one of those officers would have had a personal relationship with any of those people who were out there that night, this whole situation would have taken a different turn. So I started studying police education and training and that’s what I do now.
My whole tenor is that I’d like to affect policy change on law enforcement. I’d like them to change the training and the education of our police officers, at least in Wisconsin. We have to start with the educational foundations. If you look at Wisconsin right now, it’s so Anglo-Saxon-centered that even black police officers, brown police officers, red police officers and women police officers who go through this training are snared up in it too and behave the same way. We've found that just adding people of color and women to law enforcement does not change the relationship between the community and the police. There has to be fundamental change in how we train, educate, and supervise our police officers.
Have your findings been specific to Wisconsin or do the same problems exist on a national level?
I am not familiar with the Department of Justice procedures in other states, but I will say this: of the over 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, 80 percent of them are white males. So although America is a very different picture now, law enforcement is still the purview of white males. I’m not saying that you can’t be a white male, but you have to be a culturally-competent white male. You have to be a more savvy police officer—one who knows the social and cultural history of the situation you're in and the ramifications of your actions. So what I’m calling for is a more educated, more socially- and culturally-savvy police officer.
I would imagine that anyone you've ever met who is aware of your role in this case wants to interrogate you about every last detail. And it’s a case that has clearly changed your life. But are there times where it’s difficult to discuss or parts of the case that you’d rather forget?
Well there’s no forgetting about it. If I want to recall the pictures that I’ve seen or the head that I saw in the refrigerator, it very easily comes back to my mind if I want it to—so I try not to do that. But since I’ve been retired it’s easier for me to be introspective about how I felt at the time. Police officers have blue humor; they’re very guarded and don’t like to admit that they may have fears. Putting space between that has allowed me to be more introspective; I can see how it did affect me. At the time I was 20 years younger and was at the top of my game as a homicide detective. In the six weeks that I spent interviewing Jeffrey every day, I poured all of my energy into it. A lot of things happened. I ended up getting divorced out of this deal, though I guess you would call this the straw that broke the camel’s back.
You’re right. I never thought about it like that, but since this film has come out, I was actually kind of shocked. Chris Thompson taped me for about six or seven hours... and I felt so comfortable with him that I did admit things to him that I had never admitted before or hadn’t really thought about before. I don’t want to say it was like a catharsis, because it wasn’t that deep. But I did find myself opening up to Chris about things that I’d only ever talked about with close, personal friends. And things I never would have admitted it to other police officers at the time because you would have been considered a pussy.
Did it take much convincing for you to agree to become involved with this project?
Oh, yeah. I had been asked for interviews with Geraldo an Oprah. There’s a guy who made a slasher movie and a guy who made a comic book and they had contacted me and offered me money. Inside Edition even offered me like $30,000 for a personal interview. But, number one, I didn't want to get fired from my job, especially as I had three kids to support. But number two, you could tell that they didn’t care about the issues of gender and class and race. They just wanted to exploit. And I didn’t want to be involved in exploiting 17 dead people.
I actually showed this film to one of my classes at UWM and, after the film, a student came up to me and she is actually the sister of one of Dahmer’s victims. I always put a caveat that people don’t have to stay if they’re squeamish. And she said, ‘No, I want to thank you for making the movie. It actually answered a lot of questions. And when it’s distributed, I’m going to try and convince my whole family to go see it because I think it will make them feel better about the whole thing."
The thing that struck me the most, from my own personal life, was that the more I talked to Jeff the more I realized how much each and every one of us keep to ourselves; how much we don’t know and will never know about other people—even those people that we love and know the most.
That’s really the highest compliment one could get.
I called Chris right away and told him, “You did a great job!” Because he was very concerned about some of the blowback. And I told him I didn’t think he was going to get any. He has made a very tender, delicate film about a very bizarre issue"
You mentioned before the officers who saw the boy with Dahmer and sent him back. Going back to that: What has always struck me in interviews with Dahmer is his demeanor, which is very calm and matter-of-fact. For lack of a better term, he just seems very "normal." Do you think that that, too, played a part in the officers believing him over his victim?
Right, right. To tell you the truth, later on when he went into accounts of what he did he did get into this staccato, almost monotone calm. And I think that’s because he decided to do that later on. But in the six weeks that I was with him—and especially the first night—I saw him cry, I saw him get angry, I saw rage. He was six-feet and 175 pounds of muscle; he was a powerful man. There were a couple of times in that little interrogation room where he got up in a rage to talk about what was happening. Normally when a suspect does that, I get up too so that I don’t get assaulted. But I decided purposely to let him roam a little bit.
Also, when we weren’t talking about his deeds, I had breakfast and lunch with him. I would bring him the newspaper and say, ‘Hey Jeff, look what they’re saying about you today.’ And some crazy women sent him pictures and letters saying they wanted to help with his defense. So I got to see him in normal times, when he was laughing and eating. I saw him cry when he worried about what his grandmother was going to think of him. I saw him as a human being.
People always say, “You looked into the eyes of evil!” But to tell you truth I never really felt like I did.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
To me, I’m hoping that the issues of race, gender and class that just bubble beneath the surface of Chris’ very intimate film will start these conversations. How is it, in 21st-century America, that this man could live within our community and commit these acts—even living next door—and people don’t know about it? The thing that struck me the most, from my own personal life, was that the more I talked to Jeff the more I realized how much each and every one of us keep to ourselves; how much we don’t know and will never know about other people—even those people that we love and know the most. It made me think, what are the things that I’ve kept private to myself that nobody knows about?
This was a very powerful feeling for Jeffrey Dahmer; he really relished that, for 13 years, he had this secret world that nobody knew about it. It empowered him. He told me that the more he got away with it, the more that he fooled authority figures, the bigger rush he got out of it. He really felt that he had created an alternate universe that he could dip into and come out of and nobody knew about it.
Looking back now, do you ever wish that you had been on vacation at the time this case unfolded?
No. I ended up getting a divorce, and it changed the direction of my whole life. But in general I’m pleased with my life. I tried to put it behind me but with the 20-year anniversary and this film it kind of came back up again. But I use it quite a bit in my academic field and it actually formed the basis of the dissertation for my PhD, so I’ve used it as something to pursue my academic change. The reason I went back to get my PhD is because I wanted to change police policy. And I knew I couldn’t do it without the credentials behind me. So that’s what I’m actively engaged in doing right now in Milwaukee.
Interview by Jennifer M. Wood (j_m_wood)
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