Related topics

Dahmer’s Other Victims: The Families of the Slain

February 1, 1992 GMT

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ Some wear their grief heavily, a leaden shawl of pain wrapped around their shoulders. Others wear it with the diamond-bright iciness of hatred.

But it is there in all of them, all these people whose loved ones were killed by Jeffrey Dahmer. They sit in court each day, smiling sometimes, joking sometimes, talking sometimes about their latest appearance on ″Donahue″ or ″Geraldo.″ There are times when you could almost imagine that it no longer hurts.

That, of course, would be wrong.

″I don’t know why people say ’Are you looking forward to getting this behind you?‴ Theresa Smith said one day last week after she had been asked just that. Her brother Eddie was strangled and dismembered by Dahmer.

″It’s never going to be behind us,″ she said. ″We’re going to have to live with it every day, sleep with it, eat with it.″

Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 people, all but one of them in a 3 1/2 -year burst of bloodletting in and around Milwaukee. Most of his victims were black or gay or both. Most of them had families that deeply cared about them.

Dahmer has pleaded guilty to 15 counts of murder and is on trial now to determine his sanity. Twenty seats in the courtroom have been reserved for members of the victims’ families, filled each day with people whose faces have become familiar to anyone who has followed the case.

They sit in a group, most wearing photographs of the loved one Dahmer killed. Some have had the photos made into large buttons; others simply pin color snapshots on their lapels. Stanley Miller sometimes comes to court wearing a white sweatshirt imprinted with the image of his nephew, Ernest Miller, whose family last saw him at church services in September 1990.

Police found Ernest Miller’s skeleton in Dahmer’s apartment. It had been bleached in acid. He was 23 years old.

It is senseless to talk about any good coming from such evil, stupid to talk about silver linings. But if there is any life-affirming aspect to the Jeffrey Dahmer affair, it is the way the victims’ families have reached out to each other and provided comfort in their grief.

It did not happen spontaneously. Shortly after the murders became known in July 1991, a non-profit agency called Career Youth Development Inc. sent counselors out to the victims’ families. In the months since, the agency and its director, Jeannetta Robinson, have worked closely with the families and invited them to the organization’s weekly support group meetings for people who have lost loved ones to violent crime. Soon, the families came to dominate the meetings.

″It was more than a challenge,″ Ms. Robinson said of those first days after Dahmer’s crimes became public. ″It was exhausting, because we literally worked 24 hours a day.″

But the work paid off.

″It has helped everyone a lot,″ said Shirley Hughes, a slender, dark woman who sits in court every day with her friends Catherine Lacy and Dorothy Straughter, who also lost sons to Dahmer. She is known for her religious devotion and kindly demeanor.

Anthony Hughes, who was deaf and could not speak, went dancing at a Milwaukee gay bar on May 24, 1991. Jeffrey Dahmer picked him up, took him home, drugged him, dismembered his body and kept his skull. He was 31 years old.

″When it first happened, I thought I would lose my mind,″ Miss Hughes recalled. Others said they feared that and more.

″It just literally tore her to pieces,″ said Elder Durain Hughes, a Pentacostal minister who is no relation to Miss Hughes. He is one of the counselors working with Jeannetta Robinson’s organization.

″Jeannetta and I, we speculated that this person may not make it,″ he said. ″I’ve never seen anybody so emotionally and spiritually wounded as Miss Hughes. She’s come a long ways. Now she has a perpetual desire to help other grieving families.″

The families of the Dahmer victims did not know each other before the tragedies. Most lived quiet lives well out of the public spotlight. That changed in a hurry.

Some have remained reclusive, but the courtroom regulars have become gregarious amongst themselves and savvy about how they present themselves to the outside world. They talk at length to reporters. They are seen regularly on television. They issue statements attacking the judicial system and the Milwaukee police. They have realized the power of accidental fame.

″I’ve always been interested in politics,″ said Theresa Smith. ″But now it’s definitely something that’s going to be reality as far as me and these families go. Because it was the system that helped contribute to their deaths.″

Eddie Smith was 27 years old when he met Jeffrey Dahmer at a Milwaukee gay bar. Dahmer took him home, had sex with him, drugged him, strangled him, dismembered him and disposed of his body in garbage bags. As Theresa Smith noted bitterly, there was no body for a funeral.

″Eddie was about 6′5,″ she recalled. ″Slim. Not skinny, but slim. And he was a very charismatic person. He walked into a room and you knew he was there. He wanted to be a model, and he danced. He danced at these gay bars. He loved to imitate women. Donna Summer - he loved to imitate her.″

She pulled out a sheaf of photographs from her wallet. Here was Eddie, slender and demure, wearing lipstick, earrings and a leather jacket under a denim vest. Here was Eddie wearing the Arab headwear that gave him the nickname, ″The Sheik.″ Here was Eddie posing in front of a wall covered with pictures of models. Here was Eddie in a picture he once sent to Princess Stephanie, whom he admired.

His sister said she used to worry about Eddie. ″I told him, ‘Just be careful, Eddie. They won’t like you out there.’ ... Eddie’s very sensitive, and I didn’t want people calling him names. You know, he’s my little brother.″

Theresa Smith is 34, works at a telemarketing job at night and attends court during the day. She is a large woman; her face and her eyes, especially, seem larger than life. She is angry and bitter and filled with pain. She sits in the courtroom with her sister, Caroline, and her close friend, Janie Hagan, the sister of victim Richard Guerrero.

She is angry at the police, angry at the justice system. She is angry at the judge, angry at the district attorney. She is angry at the glass wall that bisects the courtroom and separates her from Jeffrey Dahmer.

″Day after day, I see him sitting there with his little smug smile on his face, and I think, ‘He thinks he’s really accomplished something ... and he thinks he’ll get away with literally murder.’ ... But I don’t care if it’s him or Michael Jackson, he’s going to have his judgment day.″

Sitting in the courtroom, Theresa Smith thinks about what she’d like to say to Jeffrey Dahmer if she ever had the opportunity, what she’d ask him about her brother.

″I think three of the basic questions I’d ask him are: ‘Why did you do it?’ ‘What were Eddie’s last words?’ ’What was his last breath?‴