How Systemic Racism Fueled Jeffrey Dahmer’s Killing Spree

Arthur Tam sees himself in the victims of the infamous serial killer.

I am painfully aware that I fit a stereotype.

I’m a 5’6, 118-pound, hairless Asian man who speaks with a high-pitched voice—a classic Asian twink. I fit a happy spot for sex tourists because I’m of age, but look barely legal. At bars and on apps, a disproportionate number of men who approach me are white, significantly older, and expect me to be instantly attracted to them.

They assume, subconsciously or not, a certain kind of privilege handed down to them from the colonial powers of the past.

In the United States, white guys most often stick to dating white guys. But the narrative of an older, dominant white man with sovereignty over a subservient gay POC is a pervasive and problematic stereotype. When I dine with an older white gay friend, people think we’re dating. What’s more, they assume that he’s paying, and that I’m a refugee from some war-torn country. (Hell, they probably think we’ll conclude our meal by re-enacting a scene from Miss Saigon.)

The painful self-awareness that comes with this attention wears on me. He is the powerful one. He is the one in control.

On the outside, I am unscathed. Prejudices that originated centuries before I was born amount to mere microaggressions. I’m lucky that the racism I encounter has never escalated to anything life-threatening.

But, consider the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 people (at least), most of them young men of color. Dahmer didn’t just kill his victims, though— he dismembered them, defiled them, and in some cases, ate them.

My Friend Dahmer/ Ibid Filmworks

On Friday My Friend Dahmer, a biopic about Dahmer’s teen years, hits theaters. The specter of his gruesome visage (eerily recreated by former Disney star Ross Lynch in the film) reminded me of the unfathomable circumstances surrounding one of his victims: Konerak Sinthasomphone, a 14-year-old Laotian immigrant.

Here’s the thing about Sinthasomphone—he escaped. An Asian boy in the grasp of a white sadistic killer got away. And was then returned to that monster on a silver platter by two white police officers.

On May 27, 1991, Sinthasomphone managed to escape Dahmer’s Milwaukee apartment. Naked, drugged, and bleeding from his rectum, he ran into Sandra Smith, Nicole Childress and Tina Spivey—three African-American women who knew something was wrong. Dahmer, chasing after him, tried convincing them all was normal: He, a 31-year-old man, was just having a run-of-the-mill domestic dispute with the terrified Sinthasomphone, whom he claimed was his 19-year-old boyfriend.

EUGENE GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Unconvinced, the women prevented Dahmer from taking the boy. Smith’s mother, Glenda Cleveland, even called the police. But, when Milwaukee police officers John Balcerzak and Joseph Gabrish arrived on the scene, they ordered them to stand down. An ounce of effort and a basic background check would have revealed that Sinthasomphone was underage and that Dahmer was a registered sex offender with convictions in 1982, 1986, and 1989.

Instead they threatened the women and ordered them to leave the scene, taking Sinthasomphone into custody and later took him back to Dahmer’s apartment. While there, Dahmer proceeded to show the officers sexually-compromising photos of Sinthasomphone to prove they were lovers. Ignoring the strange rotting smell, Balcerzak and Gabrish shrugged and left the pair there.

They didn’t check Sinthasomphone’s ID and see he was a child. They didn’t check Dahmer’s ID and see he was a registered sex offender convicted of molesting Sinthasomphone’s older brother. Instead Balcerzak and Gabrish let him go. Dahmer killed Sinthasomphone that very day—and four more men in the coming months.

Milwaukee County Police Dep't

It wasn’t incompetence that put that child back into the arms of a monster, it was racism. “The police chose the word of a killer over an innocent woman,” Jesse Jackson said at the time.”

Balcerzak laughed as he radioed back to the station: “The intoxicated Asian naked male was returned to his sober boyfriend,” he reported. “My partner is going to get deloused at the station.”

But Gabrish later insisted to The New York Times, “We’re trained to be observant and spot things. There was just nothing that stood out, or we would have seen it.”

“I’ve been doing this for a while, and usually if something stands out, you’ll spot it,” he added. “There just wasn’t anything there.” Gabrish, then a patrolman for seven years, said he “believed there was a caring relationship” between Dahmer and Sinthasomphone and he felt no reason to intervene.

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If Sinthasomphone had been white, I doubt they would have seen the relationship as “caring.” A naked, bleeding white boy running terrified on the street would have been a huge red flag for anyone. But when an older white man is with a younger Asian boy, an unequal power dynamic is not only plausible, but expected. Dahmer did all the talking that night. Sinthasomphone spoke fluent English, but drugged and with a hole drilled in his head, he was unable to communicate his situation to authorities. But Balcerzak and Gabrish didn’t need to hear from him to draw their conclusions.

The infuriating part of the Jeffrey Dahmer narrative isn’t just the unchecked mental illness and sexual repression, but the gross negligence—the arrogance—of police officers blinded by racism, both personal and institutional. They didn’t believe the witnesses because they were women and they were black, they didn’t care about Sinthasomphone because he was Asian, and they didn’t suspect Dahmer because he was white. And they washed their hands of the whole thing because it was just a gay “lover’s spat.”

There are multiple monsters to this story: the cannibal serial killer, the men that let him get away, and the systemic bigotry that continues to pervade the American criminal justice system.

What happened to Sinthasomphone and the pain it caused his family is not isolated. I am vigilant about who I meet and where, because the demographic I tend to attract is one the police overlook as personable, harmless and reassuring—incapable of such gruesome acts. When guys like Jeffrey Dahmer are caught, it’s seen as anomaly, unlike the racial profiling that persists against African Americans.

But I fit a profile, too. A profile of victims often overlooked by the police—something Dahmer leveraged to stay under the radar for far too long.

The signs of his growing monstrousness were there—multiple arrests for exposing himself to children, getting caught drugging and raping almost a dozen men at a Milwaukee bathhouse. When Jeffrey Dahmer was finally caught, he glibly confessed his crimes and expounded at length on his blood-soaked fantasies. But authority figures like Balcerzak and Gabrish hide the ugliness of their racism, misogyny, and homophobia behind their badges.

After the case garnered national publicity, Balcerzak and Gabrish were fired from the Milwaukee Police Department. But they appealed, and a judge allowed them to be reinstated: Balcerzak eventually became the president of the Milwaukee Police Association and Gabrish was made a police chief in Trenton, Wisconsin. And as the headlines tell us again and again, not much has changed; police officers can get seemingly get away with anything.

How can men like me expect to feel protected if men like Balcerzak and Gabrish can’t see what’s right in front of them? “There was just nothing that stood out.”

For people like me, the lesson is that when mad dogs bare their teeth, sometimes our protectors pull their leashes tight and sometimes they just let go.

Arthur Tam is a Hong Kong-based journalist and former editor at Time Out Hong Kong.