On November 28, 1994, Jeffrey Dahmer — aka “The Milwaukee Cannibal” — departed his cell in Wisconsin’s Columbia Correctional Institute for his work detail cleaning a bathroom next to the prison’s gym.
As Dahmer attended to his duties, Chrisopher Scarver, a fellow inmate doing life for a 1990 murder, savagely beat the notorious serial killer about the face and head with a smuggled-in iron bar. Scarver also repeatedly slammed Dahmer’s skull against a wall. Guards rushed the barely alive Dahmer to a local hospital, where he died an hour after arriving.
After the attack, Scarver said, “God told me to do it.” Dahmer’s notorious spate of sexual torture murders involving mutilation and cannibalism — particularly targeting gay men of color — disgusted Scarver. In that, he was hardly alone.
Scarver further alleged that Dahmer boasted and joked of his crimes in jail, even shaping his food like human limbs and pretending ketchup was blood. As a result, hatred of Dahmer boiled hot behind bars. Scarver even claimed prison authorities allowed the two men to be together unsupervised, knowing what would be the likely outcome.
Some view the vigilante execution of Jeffrey Dahmer as righteous jailhouse justice. Others reiterate that this was still just another brutal murder, endemic of the system’s failings.
Either way, Dahmer’s demise coincided with a profound technological change that largely transformed the means and the manner he had used to stalk and ensnare victims: homosexual cruising and pick-up spots in public places.
From around 1987 to his capture in 1991, Dahmer frequented gay bars, adult bookstores, bathhouses, and sex clubs in Milwaukee and nearby Chicago to hook up with sex partners. As we horribly found out, many patrons who accompanied Dahmer back to his apartment never made it out alive, let alone in one piece.
Dahmer and his ilk are psychopathic killers. The sexuality of such murderers in no way whatsoever moves them in that direction. The specific circumstances of pre-Internet cruising culture did, however, provide Dahmer and others before him with unfortunately fertile hunting grounds.
Just consider the clandestine nature of the gay cruising scene in the 1970s and ’80s, as well as how its participants were often intoxicated and may well have lived in fear of public shaming. Given those factors, a fully realized picture of serial assailants who picked gay cruisers to be victims is likely not possible.
The first such set of killings to be written about publicly struck New York in January 1973. Over the course of three weeks, a still unknown murderer stabbed six men in the West Village and Brooklyn Heights. Each victim had regularly visited BDSM-themed “leather bars,” which the New York Times described in its coverage as “cater[ing] to homosexuals in leather jackets and dungarees.”
Four years later, the “bag murders” plagued New York. Six male victims were chopped into pieces and deposited into black plastic bags that were dumped in the Hudson River. Subsequently, the bags washed ashore in lower Manhattan and New Jersey.
Police used distinguishing marks on the remains such as clothing and tattoos to conclude that the victims, while never positively identified on an individual basis, shared the consistent trait of being homosexual.
Then, in what appeared to be an unrelated incident, Paul Bateson, a Greenwich Village X-ray technician, picked up film critic Addison Verrill in a gay bar in 1977. Following sex in Verrill’s apartment, Bateson beat the critic in the head with a skillet and ended his life with a knife to the heart.
After being sentenced to 20 years in 1979, Bateson reportedly boasted that he was the “bag murderer” and provided convincing details. Bateson got out of jail in 2004, and he remains the case’s prime suspect. Lack of sufficient evidence and positive victim IDs keep him free.
As noted, these were just the cases that made the public record. In 1970, New York Times reporter Gerald Walker wrote Cruising, a novel about an NYPD detective who goes undercover in the leather-bar scene to pursue a serial killer. Although a work of fiction, Cruising emerged from and tapped into active fears among New York’s gay residents.
Inspired, then, by the “bag murders,” Hollywood filmmaker William Friedkin famously adapted the book for the screen in the 1980 cult classic of the same name starring Al Pacino. In a freak coincidence, Paul Bateson had previously appeared as a medical assistant in Friedkin’s best known film, The Exorcist (1973).
Throughout the eighties, HIV-AIDS decimated gay populations worldwide. Cruising and anonymous sex took on an unprecedented dimension of danger. Gay communities banded together, fought for medical research and legal rights, and adapted to the new reality.
While sex itself could be — and was — made safer, it nonetheless remains impossible to predict the presence of a monster like Bateson or Dahmer. Come the 21st century, technology would again reshape the slaying field.
Social media and online apps now seem to dominate the way by which individuals hook up with one another for dating, romance, and/or casual sex — gay, straight, or whatever. But this new technological convenience comes with its own new causes for concern.
Just this month, a UK court convicted London chef Stephen Port, 41, of multiple rapes and murders. Port used the gay hookup app Grindr to lure young men to his apartment where he drugged them with GHB and sexually assaulted them. He also killed four of his victims, then dismembered their bodies and dumped the parts around a nearby graveyard.
Grindr and other apps such as Jack’d have figured similarly in unrelated tragedies, such as a Sussex teen fatally stabbing a 52-year-old government tax advisor in the man’s home, the execution-style shooting of two men in Seattle, a Philadelphia man getting beaten to death in an alley, and three youths in Michigan choking an elderly resident to death inside his senior-living complex.
Considering such circumstances, Scotland Yard Chief Constable Jane Sawyers stated that such services should warn users to “get to know the person, not the profile” and that the companies should be “signposting [potentially dangerous] people to police.”
Sawyers took criticism for her comments. Ian Howley, CEO of the gay men’s health charity GMFA, responded: “It’s unrealistic to ask users to meet in a public place – a lot of these meet-ups happen on the spur of the moment. [Sawyer] needs to talk to agencies dealing with this on a day-to-day basis to find out the realities of what it is like to be a gay man using apps in the 21st century.”
Having authorities stay on top of such technologies for the safety of users can only be deemed a good idea. After all, the modern equivalents of Jeffrey Dahmer are most assuredly already doing so.
Main photo: Jeffrey Dahmer mug shot [Milwaukee Police Department]