Entertainment Weekly (Feb. 15, 2013) says a new Dahmer documentary "is for hardcore Dahmer obsessives only." I met plenty of those people while covering the trial hoopla over two decades ago.
By JIM ROMENESKO
Published in Milwaukee Magazine in 1993
The young woman has oversize glasses and dark flowing hair in need of a good combing. Her name is Angela Zettel and she once was, ironically enough, a hairdresser. Now the 28-year-old woman is unemployed and infatuated with the man regarded as the city's most evil. She carries a dog-eared copy of "The Milwaukee Murders," one of the books written so far about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. (Many others are expected.) Zettel sent him a Christmas card last year and asked how he was doing and told him to take care. She never heard back from Dahmer, but that doesn't disappoint her. She's still determined to catch his eye during the proceedings.
The woman gets up early every morning, dresses plainly (bulky sweaters seem to be her look for the trial) and tries to be the first in line. Reporters pick her out of the crowd of "Dahmer worshipers," as the families of the victims refer to the regular spectators, and interview her for their stories. She's the perfect symbol of the strangeness of this trial -- a woman obsessed with this gay man who was obsessed with killing boys and young men.
Reporters pry delicious quotes out of her with little effort. And when the three weeks of proceedings are over, one of them -- a hired gun for the Star tabloid -- gets her to say she has "love fantasies" for the killer. By this time, though, nobody's shocked by the remark. After weeks of testimony about showering with corpses, freeze-drying humans and other outrageous acts, Zettel's lust for the killer is just another vignette in a panoramic sideshow of oddities.
It's the first week of February and jury selection has begun. Nearly 450 press passes have been distributed to about 100 media outlets from around the world -- from Spain to England to Akron, Ohio. There aren't many stories coming out of the jury selection process and that's disappointing for the editors and producers chomping at the bit to sell papers and win Nielsen points with Dahmer's atrocities. Desperate for tidbits, the media types interview other media types to fill their air time and news holes. They talk about what it's like to be in the same room with the serial killer and just a handful of others during the voir dire (jury selection) process.
Reporters share tales and chortle over the prospective jurors and their excuses for getting out of the duty. They talk of the woman dubbed "the Bird Lady." She raises birds, she tells the judge and attorneys, and her birds would die if she sat on the jury. They snicker at the thought of this sweet, simple woman being chosen to sit for weeks and listen to the horrendous details of Dahmer's doings. But she's struck from the list of potential jurors and relieved of the task.
By the dozens they wait on benches outside of the fifth-floor courtroom or simply loiter in the halls. They want to get a look at the celebrity killer, to be a part of this strange history. Those who have to be here call these people "the ghouls" or the "Dahmer worshipers." But some of them are students on field trips; one is a woman from a Texas county who is going to give seminars on investigating serial killers.
On some days, the hallway outside of Circuit Judge Laurence Gram's room of justice looks like registration at a prep school, filled with freshly scrubbed and wide-eyed J. Crew-clad youths. Other times it seems like the entrance to a punk rock club, with more black leather and tattoos per square foot than has been seen since the Milwaukee trial of punk rocker Wendy O. Williams a decade ago.
"I watch it every day, all day," says an 18-year-old Germantown girl. "I go to the neighbor's because my TV doesn't come in."
But a few -- setting their expectations too high -- are disappointed by the show. Steve Skelton, a 19-year-old, tells reporters after seeing a three-dimensional Jeffrey Dahmer: "It's just kind of amazing that he was nobody special. I figured there'd be some big aura or something like that, but he just kind of walked in and sat down and nothing really happened."
Two deputy sheriffs sit at a table and check bags and briefcases as spectators pass through the weapons detector outside of Gram's courtroom. On the best day, 504 people pass through the checkpoint: on the slowest day, just 133. Several Dahmer books -- so far four have been published and a fifth is due out soon -- are confiscated and held while their owners sit in court. Judge Gram doesn't want overzealous spectators flashing their book covers before a jury and causing a mistrial. So the books are stacked up on a windowsill behind the deputies.
"For the more glamorous days -- like sentencing and the verdict -- you'd get a more street-type person or radical element," observes Sheriff's Lieutenant James F. Klopp.
Early on, spectators abide by a first-come, first-served rule, but it quickly becomes apparent that the system isn't working. "After we recognized a problem with the people skipping in line and we had some complaints, we did start handing out numbers, just as if you were in the delicatessen," says Klopp.
Deputies eye each spectator as they pass. A young black man wearing a baseball cap tipped to the right is admonished as he passes the inspection table. "You wear your hat the correct way in this building," the deputy barks. The startled youth -- his cap supposedly positioned in a manner that indicates gang membership -- quickly adjusts his headwear and walks into court.
In the courtroom, a punk-rocker type -- dressed in black leather garb -- sits scribbling in his notepad as Dr. Park Dietz, the prosecution's star witness, calmly recites the various atrocities that the serial killer recounted while on the couch.
The 28-year-old man, Lance Lencioni, a musician in a band called Macabre, made the trek with his mother, Judy, 48, from River Forest, Illinois. His intention is to do research for his band's next album.
Macabre has been around for eight years and has recorded some 30 songs about serial killers, all packaged in albums with names like "Gloom" and "Grim Reality." One of his group's next efforts is going to be an all-Dahmer LP called "What's That Smell?"
"We got to the courthouse at 6 in the morning," he says. "We were 20 and 21 in line." Once in the courtroom, Lencioni begins scribbling notes. Song lyrics swirl in his head. The psychiatrist begins talking about Dahmer's efforts to freeze-dry his victims and the musician quickens his writing pace.
During a break, he and mom freshen up at the Ramada Inn on West Michigan Street, where they're staying, then drive to the Oxford Apartments to inspect the scene of the crimes.
"I was right under his window and everything," says Lencioni, sounding somewhat more excited than a nearly 30-year-old man should be about an experience of that sort.
Dahmer sits emotionless at the defense table. Spectators crane their necks to see if he winches or nods or blinks at any of the spectacular testimony. He doesn't. Angela Zettel keeps her eyes on the object of her affection. "I keep looking at him and trying to get him to look at me but he hasn't so far," she tells a reporter.
Zettel has chased celebrities before -- she went through the line for Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee in real life) of "Twin Peaks" three times at Grand Avenue, and would have gone through another time if security hadn't taken her away after she requested to touch the actress -- but Dahmer tops them all. "I don't think it would ever be possible to get married to him, but I would really like to meet him," she says, trying to be realistic about any relationship she might develop with the killer.
Reporters labor to find colorful ways to describe Dahmer and his bland demeanor at the defense table. The Washington Post writes it this way: "Dahmer sits there in the courtroom listening to the shrinks. He is a lethargic blond with a necrotic vacancy you could ignore in favor of pretending he was handsome if he were the only person between you and spending the night alone, and you were drunk enough."
Even when psychologist Judith Becker recounts his lonely and sometimes tragic childhood, Dahmer doesn't show a moist eye. But Becker's anecdotes of the killer's pathetic youth seem to move the audience. She tells of how Dahmer, as a young boy, found a snake and took it to his garage to keep as a pet. The snake, though, wound itself around the spokes of Dahmer's bike and once he went for a ride, the new-found pet was killed. Becker says Dahmer wondered why, of all places, the snake had to go into the spokes and lose its life. A wave of sympathy for the boy Dahmer seems to pass over the spectator section.
"There were some moments when you honestly felt that he was a pathetic figure and you could sort of separate him from his crimes and say, 'How sad,' " says Anne E. Schwartz, who wrote the soon-to-be-published book on the serial killer ("The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough") and did trial analysis for WISN-TV. But when Schwartz dares to go on the air and say that, she gets "an earful" from the victims' relatives.
The audience is snapped out of any sympathetic mindset when the psychologist goes on to tell how young Jeffrey encouraged a childhood friend to put his hand in a hornet's nest. There are only ladybugs in there, Dahmer assured the boy. The friend did what he was told by Dahmer and, of course. was stung. The anecdote prompts Channel 12 reporter Angle Moreschi to let out the loudest guffaw of the courtroom.
Even the families of the victims who pack the spectator seats seemed moved by Dahmer's childhood memories, as told by the psychologist. Their sympathy isn't for the killer, though, but for his parents. At day's end, many of them walk up to the Dahmers and talk briefly. As they leave, some of the victims' relatives grab Mr. and Mrs. Dahmer and hug.
The scene reminds one of a child's sidewalk Kool-Aid stand: A young woman sits behind a card table on the second floor of the Milwaukee County Safety Building, just outside of the media center. She sells copies of Jeffrey Dahmer's 179-page confession -- all neatly arranged like books being peddled at a rummage sale -- for $10. Sales are steady, the young entrepreneur says.
Everybody wants a souvenir from the trial; even a deputy sheriff, says one reporter, offers to buy her laminated green press pass ("Dahmer Trial 1992," it reads) for $50.
Nancy Glass, a star reporter tor the syndicated tabloid-TV show "Inside Edition," shows up at the courthouse in mid-trial and prompts at least one screaming match among the normally collegial press corps. Glass says she specializes in getting the "tough interviews" and has been working on Lionel and Shari Dahmer since last summer. One day she walks into the courtroom with the couple (and without proper media credentials) and sits next to them. Almost immediately, the TV reporter is verbally assaulted by other press members who believe that "Inside Edition" has paid the Dahmers for an interview. A woman from CNN is the most vocal.
The spat moves out into the hallway as deputies tell Glass that she needs a press tag to stay. She obligingly gets the pass, but never returns to the courtroom to face her hostile colleagues. Days after the episode, she's still mystified by the incident.
"I just couldn't understand why -- I would just say that a reporter from CNN got very overwrought, was literally yelling at me and I said to her, 'Why, I don't understand.' I can't even explain what happened because it was so strange."
Lionel and Shari Dahmer sit in the back row, the husband in the aisle seat. They often hold hands during the trial; Mrs. Dahmer, though, sometimes takes notes. For what? Who knows. One afternoon, the defendant's stepmother decides to do her nails and it's enough of a routine change that television cameras capture the "event."
The Dahmers try their best to avoid contact with the media and, surprisingly, the reporters oblige: Nobody hounds them for comment. "You could just see how pained his father felt about this," observes one reporter of Lionel Dahmer.
The killer's kin stay at a Waukesha County hotel and phone the Sheriffs Department each morning just before they leave. "Then we admit them to the Safety Building as much as possible out of the scrutiny of the media," explains a commanding officer.
The out-of-towners are struck by how Milwaukeeans are obsessed with this case. Joan Ullman, a New York-based freelance writer for Psychology Today, hears a lot about Dahmer. "From the time I left the airport to go to the Safety Building, that's what I would be hearing," says the writer, who has a master's degree in psychology and studied under a psychologist who examined nurse-killer Richard Speck. "All sorts of people everywhere said they had had contact with Jeffrey Dahmer -- like cab drivers who had driven him to a certain place."
Ullman gets the sense that Milwaukeeans -- though they talk incessantly about Dahmer -- are tired of him. But Mike Tonges, president of Image Video Teleproductions of Canton, Ohio, which provided the remote television facilities for the trial coverage, gets a different feeling. He hangs out after the court sessions at Major Goolsby's tavern, the Water Street Brewery, and Brew City Bar-B-Q -- seemingly the favorite spots of out-of-towners visiting for the trial -- and hears the talk.
"The feeling I got out of the whole thing was that they [the locals] wanted this thing to be -- I don't want to say stretched out -- but that it just made the winter season go faster and it was interesting conversation."
There's some excitement in the courthouse when Dahmer actually shows expression and, during a recess, gets up and hands a copy of the Weekly World News tabloid -- the issue featuring the killer's mug with the headline, "Milwaukee Cannibal Kills His Cellmate" -- to defense attorney Gerald Boyle's sister-in-law, Carol. On Dahmer's copy of the issue, however, a Milwaukee Journal nameplate has been placed over the Weekly World News logo. It isn't Dahmer, however, who did the droll cut-and-paste job that turned this tabloid howler into a Journal story.
A Sheriffs Department official says that "he [Dahmer] didn't make that --I asked him about it. He told me that he got it in the mail." (The official adds that Dahmer has received "significant amounts" of correspondence since his incarceration. "He remarked that he had intentions of possibly writing some people back.")
When the photograph of Dahmer holding the tabloid hits the wire services, the newsroom of the Weekly World News explodes. The newspaper that documents the many supposed births of multiple-headed babies and charts the movements of "Big Foot" finally gets the attention it believes it deserves.
The tabloid's managing editor, Sal Ivone, hangs the picture on his newsroom bulletin board in Lantana, Florida.
"We're very proud of the fact that we were called crazy by Jeffrey Dahmer," says Ivone. "It's kind of a fitting closure [to the case]."
Ivone is disappointed, though, that his paper's name is covered by the local paper's nameplate. What does it matter, though? The issue's only a moderate seller on the newsstand, at 800 000 copies or so, the editor says.
"Because we're doing bizarre tales every week, it doesn't stand out," Ivone says of the Dahmer cover, adding: "You understand, we do cannibalism every other week."
While being taken from his cell to the courtroom each day, Dahmer says little to his escorts, if anything. In time, the deputies begin to carry on as if the prisoner is oblivious to their presence. But one day, with their charge close by in another room, a commanding officer remarks to a sergeant that Dahmer seemed to be adjusting to and accepting his notoriety. To the surprise of his handlers, a previously silent Dahmer shouts from the other room: "You're wrong. I'm not accepting anything."
The characters continue to find their way to the fifth floor. A 250-pound-plus woman who wears loud dresses and carries copies of the Star with her is dubbed "Divine," after the late heavyset transvestite star of John Waters movies. Another regular, a woman who wears big, round sunglasses even in the dimly lit hallways, is asked her name. She can't give it out, she says; the FBI and CIA are after her.
A young man with a shaved head who is interested in law (but mentions that he might join the Peace Corps, too) sits next to community activists Queen Hyler and Jeannetta Robinson. They apparently don't like the skinhead's looks and remark that they shouldn't have to wait in line with Dahmer worshipers like him. The young man is offended by the remarks and has words with the women. To the dismay of many in the spectators' seats who think the women unfairly peg the skinhead as a kook, deputies escort the man from the courtroom.
One day, Channel 4's Nancy Chandler decides she can't take it anymore. She complains to officials that Angela Zettel -- sitting near her in the courtroom -- has annoying body odor. Deputies escort the devoted Dahmer fan from her seat and ask her to take care of the problem. She does -- going to her home -- but returns promptly to continue staring at the man who gives her love fantasies.
Even as the trial goes into its third week, the diehard Dahmer junkies are still getting to the courthouse as early as 3:30 a.m. On the Saturday the verdict is read, the fifth-floor doors are locked to bar the spectators until deputies arrive. It doesn't work. though. The "core group" of regulars discover -- and keep the secret to the few members of their "club" -- that they can take the elevator to the sixth floor, which is open, and use a certain door to get down to the fifth floor.
Deputies -- who, for that day only, bring their golden retriever, Blitz, to sniff out possible bombs -- are surprised to get to Gram's courtroom to find the "Dahmer worshipers" ready to go.
During deliberations, reporters and broadcast crews kill time by scripting the perhaps inevitable movie about Dahmer. The consensus among the news people is that Kiefer Sutherland should play the killer, that George Wendt would make a great psychiatrist Frederick Berlin, and Carroll O'Connor should be defense attorney Gerald Boyle, while Robert DeNiro should be Dr. Park Dietz. Once they finish the scripting, some reporters come up with a "Dahmer endorsements list," a somewhat twisted concept that has Dahmer plugging the various products -- from fish tanks to spray paint to drill instruments -- that he used in his killing spree. The newshands are careful to keep their list of 30 or so products away from the victims' relatives, who move in and out of the press area.
The trial ends on Monday, February 17. For the first time in weeks, the hallways on the fifth floor of the Safety Building are quiet in daylight hours. Just a few people still loiter about, among them Angela Zettel. A few reporters mingle about, some with their own cameras and videocams, shooting personal shots of the historic courtroom. The CNN crew jokingly takes pictures of one of their members sitting in Dahmer's chair, trying to imitate the emotionless killer. They ask a bailiff if they can sit in Judge Gram's chair for a snapshot or two. They get permission and laugh as they strike the judge's familiar pose: leaning back and eyes closed.
While they carry out their high links, Angela Zettel is forlorn, seemingly disappointed that the event is over. She clutches her copy of "The Milwaukee Murders" and walks up to a deputy. She has to make one last try. Could I see Jeffrey Dahmer? she asks.
Deputies escort Dahmer from the Safety Building for the last time. Lt. Klopp gets the feeling of watching a condemned man depart. Klopp and his colleagues never got to know Dahmer well, but he never caused them any problems. His requests were always practical -- a glass of water or something to read -- and that was all the conversation the guards and their prisoner had. Klopp wondered how they'd handle their final dealing with Dahmer. What would they say? But on the way out, it's Dahmer who breaks the ice.
"What are you guys going to do for overtime now that I'm gone?" he asks. "He didn't smile or laugh, but he obviously meant it to be humor," says the lieutenant. The lawmen don't respond, but continue their walk to the car that will take Dahmer to prison.
Finally, the deputies turn their prisoner over to the state to be jailed. Saya Klopp: "His final words to us were, 'I guess I'll have to find something to do now.'"
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