In the first episode of Netflix’s Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, the notorious serial killer’s father, Lionel Dahmer (Richard Jenkins) gets called to a police station. At first, he thought his son was the murder victim, but the research chemist was soon brought to tears when he learned the gruesome details of the 17 killings Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters) committed between 1978 and 1991 that included multiple rapes and dismemberments. Despite his initial shock, Lionel, who is now 86 years old, later realized his son had exhibited troubling behaviors that he might have overlooked.
Prior to Jeffrey’s July 1991 arrest — upon police officers’ discovery of several severed heads, skeletal remains, and dismembered body parts in his Milwaukee apartment — he had already been convicted of second-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to 10 months in prison. However, as viewers saw in Netflix’s true-crime dramatization, Judge William Gardner offered him a second chance. Before Jeffrey was released from prison in 1990, Lionel wrote the judge a letter asking him not to release his son, believing he needed more mental health treatments that he didn’t receive while behind bars.
“I have reservations regarding Jeff’s chances when he hits the streets. I have experienced an extremely frustrating time trying to urge initiation of some type of treatment,” the father explained. “I sincerely hope that you might intervene in some way to help my son, who I love very much and for whom I want a better life. I do feel, though, that this may be our last chance to initiate something lasting and that you can hold the key.”
As the public is now well aware, Jeffrey was released from prison and went on to commit several more horrific murders. After the serial killer was finally apprehended and convicted of multiple murders in February 1992, a judge handed down 15 consecutive life sentences. In an Oprah Winfrey Show interview two years later, Lionel, who’s also father to a younger son named David, revealed that he visited Jeffrey monthly at the Wisconsin prison where he was housed, and they spoke on the phone at least once a week.
“We’ve gotten very close since his . . . arrest,” he explained to Winfrey in 1994. “I still love my son. I’ll always stick by him; I always have.”
Elsewhere in the interview, he also opened up about his attempts to rationalize his son’s brutal actions. “I considered all kinds of things. Was it environmental; genetic? Was it, perhaps, medications that were taken at the time of — you know, in the first trimester? Was it the effect of, you know, the popular subject now, media violence?” he said.
Those are also questions that Lionel pondered in his March 1994 memoir, A Father’s Story. Describing Jeffrey as a “normal boy” who was “extremely shy” during his childhood, he elaborated on his son’s deviant behavior as a young teen, while promoting the book on CNN’s Larry King Live that year. “We found out that he had been collecting, at the age of 12 to 14, you know when your hormones are raging, puberty, he was collecting dead animals — roadkills — riding around the rural roads and collecting them in bags,” he told King, alongside his wife, Jeffrey’s stepmother Shari Dahmer (played by Molly Ringwald in the Netflix series). “His mother didn’t know. I didn’t know, and apparently, none of his playmates knew.”
After releasing A Father’s Story, which he said that he wrote to help other parents recognize early warning signs, two of the victims’ families sued Lionel for invasion of privacy. The March 1994 lawsuit reportedly cited a Wisconsin privacy law that requires authors and artists working for a profit to get written consent from the families before using the names or likenesses of crime victims or their relatives, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The ruling does not appear to have ever been announced to the public, however.
Then, in late November 1994, Christopher Scarver, a fellow inmate at Wisconsin’s Columbia Correctional Institution bludgeoned Jeffrey to death. Afterward, Lionel and his ex-wife Joyce Flint (played by Penelope Ann Miller), argued over what to do with their son’s remains. Whereas Jeffrey’s mother, who has since passed away, wanted to donate his brain for research purposes, Lionel insisted that his entire body be cremated, per their son’s wishes. In December 1995, a judge ultimately ruled that Jeffrey’s brain, which had been preserved in formaldehyde since his autopsy, would be cremated.
Since then, Lionel has largely stayed out of the spotlight, but most recently, he reemerged in 2020 for an interview in the Investigation Discovery series, Jeffrey Dahmer: Mind of a Monster. During the sitdown, the father of two reflected on his elder son’s death. “When I find out that Jeff was murdered, it was just devastating,” Lionel said. “It affected me very gravely.”
As of September 2022, 86-year-old Lionel is living in Seville, Ohio, with his wife Shari. However, he’s yet to publicly comment on Netflix’s take on his and Jeffrey’s complex relationship.