Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

ROBERT K. RESSLER: TAKING ON THE MONSTERS

On the Defense

In 1990, Ressler retired from the FBI to continue his career in criminology in another manner. He now directs Forensic Behavioral Services International, and he contributed to and co-authored several books, including Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives (1988), The Crime Classification Manual (1992), Whoever Fights Monsters (1992), Justice is Served (1994), and I have Lived in the Monster (1997). His specialties for consultation include:

  • Criminal personality profiling
  • Sexual assaults
  • Threat assessment
  • Crime scene analysis
  • Hostage negotiation}

He also continues to learn about killers. Although colleagues criticized him for it, soon after he retired, Ressler agreed to serve as a defense expert for the attorney representing serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. He believedand he was rightthat there was much to learn from getting that close to this infamous cannibal-killer so soon after his incarceration.

Robert Ressler (left) and Jeffrey Dahmer (Robert Ressler)
Robert Ressler (left) and Jeffrey Dahmer
(Robert Ressler)

Jeffrey Dahmer was an enigma. Living in an apartment in Milwaukee, he burst quite dramatically into public consciousness in July 1991 after a man named Tracy Edwards ran down the street with handcuffs on and told police that someone had tried to murder him. He led them back to apartment #213 and what unfolded afterward was an investigator's nightmare. The smell that hit the officers that evening indicated decomposition and a look inside revealed human heads, intestines, hearts, and kidneys stored in the freezer. But that wasn't all. Bones and rotting body parts lay around the place, along with complete skeletons. Snapshots showed mutilated bodies, and the discovery of chloroform, electric saws, a barrel of acid, and formaldehyde told the rest of the story. In all, investigators were able to find the remains of 11 different men. It took Dahmer's confession to add six more, and his first occurred when he was only 18 years old.

He was living alone in his family home when he felt the need for company. He found a hitchhiker named Steve Hicks and brought him back to the house. They got high together and when Hicks decided to leave, Dahmer smashed a barbell against the back of Hicks' head and then strangled him. "I didn't know how else to keep him there," he told Ressler during their nine-hour interview. He quickly discovered that he was aroused by the captivity of another human being, and then when he cut the body into pieces for disposal, he was excited all over again.

When he moved in with his grandmother, he planned to dig up the body of a young man who had recently died, but thwarted in that, he began again to pick up men to bring back. There he'd drug and strangle them, and then have sex with the corpse. After that, he dismembered them. One man he believed he'd beaten to death while intoxicated.

Then he got his own apartment and followed his compulsions with more regularity. In an effort to create "zombie-like" slaves, compliant and without intellect, he tried drilling holes into the heads of his unconscious victims and injecting acid or boiling water into their skulls. (One man actually walked mindlessly out the door but was soon retrieved.) He also tried to cut off the faces of his victims and keep masks, but was unable to preserve them correctly. While he was careless at times, so were the police, so he managed to get away with murder again and again until he was finally stopped.

When defense attorney Gerry Boyle asked for an expert opinion, Ressler made it clear that while he was free to work for either side on a given case, he would not take one on that made him uncomfortable. "The agreement I had with Gerry Boyle was that he was not trying to get Dahmer off the hook and released back into free society. The best that would happen was that Dahmer would spend the rest of his life in a mental institution. In fact, if he were cured there, Boyle was holding back some of the homicides where Dahmer could be considered sane, so that if he were freed, he would have to go back to court and be prosecuted for those other cases. It was a foolproof defense that served Dahmer's interests as a mentally ill person and at the same time served society's interests. So I went along with it because toward the end of his murders, I believed he was mentally ill, where he was not in the beginning. Over the course of his 17 homicides, he showed some decompensation of his mental state. He was organized at the beginning and became disorganized at the end. With that in mind, my task was to interview him at length and give Boyle a report. It was worth it for me just to learn more about this type of behavior."

Even as Ressler broadened his expertise domestically, he was also called into cases abroad, and one he remembers well involved a serial killer whose violence exceeded many of the more notorious murderers in the US.

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