More than twenty years after the story broke, America's fascination with cannibal sex killer Jeffrey Dahmer lingers on. In The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, a new documentary on the case playing tonight and tomorrow at the Sie FilmCenter for the Denver Film Society's Watching Hour, three of the people closest to the case help shed light on the enigmatic killer. His unsuspecting next-door neighbor and the medical examiner who dissected the crime scene offer two diverse looks at the case, but the most compelling narrative in the film comes from Pat Kennedy, the former homicide detective who worked for weeks with Dahmer to get a full confession.
We recently caught up with Kennedy to talk about the film, what it was like to get into Dahmer's head and how the case changed his life and his views on police procedure.
NSFW Warning: This interview is both explicit and disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
See also: - Best of: Denver's best film program: The Watching Hour - Vincent Groves may have slain 24 women: Colorado's most prolific serial killer? - Boulder writer Matt Samet chronicles his benzo hell in Death Grip
Westword: How did you come to be involved in the film?
Pat Kennedy: I won this award for my dissertation [and] I got a big write-up in the UW Milwaukee magazine. My picture was in it and it talked all about Jeffrey Dahmer. [Writer-director] Chris Thompson saw that, because he went to the same college, and he wrote me a letter --- a handwritten letter. He said he was thinking about making a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer. I had been asked by other people to be involved in [projects] about Jeffrey Dahmer. I've turned them all down because it seemed like they were going to be like slasher, exploitative type films or books. I didn't want to be a part of that because I still see relatives of the victims, I still see people who were with Jeffrey Dahmer that he didn't kill, plus I'm a Catholic. I didn't want to make money off the death of seventeen people. As a matter of fact, my contract with the movie, all that money goes to a charitable organization I still work with for the police athletic league for inner city Milwaukee. That was another reason I decided to do it, to try to help stop something like this from happening again.
I talked to my wife and said, "I think I'm going to work with this kid," then I called him and met with him and after I saw him, he's just a very bright, decent good guy. I talked to him for about four hours before I decided I would work with him.
The dissertation was about Dahmer?
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The dissertation came about from, basically, the Jeffrey Dahmer incident, the part where the coppers took the Asian kid back [to Dahmer]. It made me think about, what was the problem there? How did the cops make this horrible mistake? Basically it came down to, in my opinion, training. The police train in a very Anglo-Saxon Protestant way, regardless of the cops being white, black, yellow, red, brown, men or women. When they train this way, they begin to get something I call the "Police Complex," which is a tendency toward stereotype thinking, basically. But moreover, it's the equating with the certain type of individual you deal with on a daily basis with the entire group or ethnicity or nation or religion.
For those unfamiliar with the case, can you explain the incident you're referring to?
These two police officers, who were in their late twenties, early thirties, came upon this naked Asian male who was obviously intoxicated and speaking in Laotian. [They were] surrounded by people of color from that neighborhood; when they had to make a decision as to which way to go, they did not know anyone from that neighborhood, even though that was their squad area. They did not have a personal relationship with anyone there. So when Jeffrey Dahmer saw the commotion and walked into that crowd of 20 to 25 people, and made his plausible explanation that this was his lover who gets drunk all the time and runs out of the house, and invited those coppers back and showed them the Polaroids he took of this young man posing naked and smiling, showed them his clothing on the end of the couch and gave them a fake name, the cops did not go any further, like they should have. Back in the day, we would have arrested that kid just on general principles for drunk and disorderly -- running around naked out and being drunk.
What happened, in the end, when they had to make the decision on who to believe, who to listen to, whose story seemed more culpable to them, who did they believe? They believed the other white guy, who looked just like them, a guy who could speak the language of white, Anglo-Saxon males. A guy who knew how to talk to authority. A guy who was educated, from the white, upper-middle class. And because of that, they obviously made a hell of a mistake, because after they left that kid was killed.
That kind of set me on a whole new path to try to figure out how did this happen with police? That's what sent me back to graduate school to go on and get my graduate degrees. My dissertation was all about that. I got to study the Milwaukee Police Recruit Academy and their training. I actually developed my own pedagogy for training police, which I'm still -- one of the reasons I went back to get my Ph.D. was to affect policy, because no one gives a shit or listens to you if you don't have some credentials behind you. I'm still actively involved in this type of training throughout Milwaukee, with police. I'm doing another one at a technical college in a couple of weeks with future police recruit officers. This case, not only did I end up getting divorced and leaving the police department, but it just changed the whole direction of my life. It was kind of a life-changing experience for me.
Have you kept up with other coverage of the story at all over the years? If you're flipping through the channels and see a special on Dahmer, will you stop and watch it?
No. I don't watch them, but I'm aware because I live in America. I keep up with media. But how many damn TV shows are about serial killers? There are more movies about serial killers and TV shows about serial killers than there are actual serial killers, it seems like.
I think there's this fascination about it. The thing that most people are fascinated about regarding Jeffrey Dahmer is that he was unlike other serial killers in that, to my knowledge, he's still the only serial killer that not only has admitted to what he did, but told me why he did it and how he did it. This is fascinating, because you can see not only the true sickness of the guy but also the weird psychology.
Can you explain that a bit more?
In a way, his progression kind of made sense to me. He started out cutting up animals. His father, who was a Ph.D. chemist, thought he had a child prodigy, and instead of telling him, "Hey, what the hell are you doing with these dead animals?" actually helped him learn how to cut them up and use different chemicals to clean the bones and helped him build a little graveyard for his dead, cut up animals. Then, as he became sexually aroused in his early teens, somehow, according to Jeffrey Dahmer, he started envisioning the insides of these dead animals as he was getting sexually aroused. And somehow it just became part of his psyche, that whenever he thought about sex, he thought about the insides of animals and then that transferred to the insides of the men he was with.
Then, because he really couldn't make a real emotional connection, he started to drug people so he could just have his way with them sexually. He was essentially a very selfish, self-absorbed hedonistic guy. Initially he just started at the gay baths, until he got kicked out because some people woke up and said, "Hey, this guy fucking drugged me or something." Then he started bringing them home, and the one guy that his grandma caught him with, he started seeing he couldn't drug them and let them go because he was going to get caught. That's when he decided -- he had already killed that first kid by accident, back in Bath, thirteen years before he moved to Milwaukee -- that's when he started killing again. His first victim here was an accident, he woke up and the guy was dead, his face and chest were all beat in. Jeff said his arms were all black and blue and sore and he said, "I must have blacked out and beat the guy to death. We were drunk, the last thing I remember is we were in bed together." That was the one he had to put in a suitcase to get out of there. Then he decided he was just going to give in to this stuff.
At first he said that cutting up the bodies was just necessary to get rid of them. Then later on he started feeling it was a shame to get rid of the body, after all the work to get the guy to come back, then drug the guy and make love to him while he was drugged, then to kill them and make love to the body for two or three days until the body started to rot and he would cut them open and cut them apart to get rid of them. Then he started enjoying the actual cutting open of the body and he'd stick his dick in the viscera. He started saving the heads. A lot of time he said he'd pull out the heads. We found seven heads in the refrigerator. He'd pull them out, talk to them, stick his dick in their mouth. We found a couple of penises he would suck on. He said he would do this to try to satisfy himself, so he wouldn't have to keep going out and kill people.
That's what I asked him, after he'd killed four or five people, I asked him, "Jeff, why didn't you just get a boyfriend? Why the fuck did you have to kill everyone?" But he was such a pathetic guy, I actually started to kind of feel sorry for him. He just couldn't make a human connection with anyone. He told me, "Everyone would leave, Pat." People would want to come and fuck him, but they wouldn't want to stay with him. So by killing them, he kept them. Then he started experimenting with eating them. He started with the bicep. he ate some thigh. He ate some heart. He ate some liver. Then he told me, "I know it sounds weird, Pat, but by eating them, I got them to become part of me and they never left me." He told me he only ate the ones he found the most beautiful. He only killed and kept parts of the one he thought were the perfect specimen of a man.
He had a lot of lovers. There's lovers walking around that I see sometime in Milwaukee, that I know got fucked by Jeffrey Dahmer, but he didn't kill them. because he only killed the ones that he thought were really, truly the most beautiful. I know that sounds sick, but in a way it kind of made sense to me.
What was the strangest part of getting into his head?
The oddest part of dealing with him was, for six weeks I was with him eight to ten hours a day. I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with him. I'd bring the paper in every day. He'd get letters from women with pictures, that said they loved him and wanted to marry him. We'd talk about all this shit. When we weren't talking about his deeds, just talking about regular things, I saw a regular guy. A product of upper middle class, someone who had been given all the resources and benefits that anybody could want in this country. A guy who had a strong command of the English language, who knew how to talk to authority figures. He could be charming.
Overall, you could say he was tolerant and not racist at all. The people in the neighborhood he lived all thought he was a pretty decent white guy. You could see he had real love for his mom and dad and grandpa and brother. The night that I interrogated him, it took me about three and half hours before he started to crack, and when he started crying and saying, "How will I explain this to my family? What will they think about me?" you could see he had a lot of really normal emotions that any normal person would have.
When you would look at Jeffrey Dahmer, into his blue eyes, you didn't see the fucking devil, you know what I'm saying? You saw -- at least I saw -- a pathetic human being who was so hedonistically selfish that all he could think about was the pursuit of his own sexual pleasures.
When you talked to him, you did not get the impression you were talking to a nut, you know what I'm saying? I believe this is one of the reasons why he was so good at luring people back to his apartment. Let's not forget, nobody was dragged back there. Everyone went willingly.
That doesn't seem to be the public perception people have. It sounds like he's a more complex figure than people give him credit for.
Oh, like all of us! You're right. At these Q&As, people will ask me, "You had to sit there and look into the eyes of complete evil, what was it like?" And they're always disappointed when I tell them, "Hey, I did see rage in him. I did see anger. I did see where he could go to the other side." But to sit and talk with him, you just didn't feel like you were talking to the devil. You felt like you were talking to a pathetic human being.
So what's next? Are you done with Dahmer now?
From the movie, I got so many questions that were all real personal questions, to me, so I talked to Chris, the producer, young guy, brilliant guy, he convinced me I might have a book here. So over the last thirteen months I kinda wrote a book that starts on the day I get called to Dahmer's apartment and find the head in the refrigerator and it chronicles the next several months, including the six weeks I spend with him, interviewing and interrogating him to get all seventeen people identified, then several weeks later when I shake his hand and he goes off to jail. It was kind of a personal story about what the case was like for me and what happened to me during the time of this case. Besides the movie, I finished the book and I'm kind of shopping it around right now to a couple of publishers to see if any of them might be interested.
How's that going? Any interest yet?
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I met some editors and publishers that I've kind of given the book to, to look at, because the only one who's really read it is my wife, and of course she's biased [laughs]. It's the first I've ever wrote anything, so I wanted someone who writes, who knows what they're talking about to say, "Hey Pat, you've got something here" or "It sucks, do something else." I needed something honest. There's a couple of publishers that are looking at it, but no offers so far. I waited twenty years to write the damn book, so I don't feel like I have to push the damn thing right away, so I'm kind of waiting.