"He was smart, but he just wanted to slide by," added Michael Masters of New York's Long Island. "He was just goofy. He always had that look about him, that sinisterness. He was on a steady decline in life. He was on a losing skid and didn't know how to pick himself up."
After the Army discharge, Dahmer worked at a sandwich shop in Florida and slept on the beach. He returned to Ohio, then went to live with his grandmother in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis.
Some scrapes with the law hinted at an anger seething inside: an arrest for public drunkenness Oct. 7, 1981, in Ohio; disturbing the peace by dropping his pants in front of a crowd in Wisconsin on Aug. 7, 1982; lewd and lascivious behavior in Milwaukee on Sept. 8, 1986.
A 1988 allegation that he drugged an Illinois man and tried to take his money was dropped for lack of evidence by West Allis police.
During his stay at his grandmother's, Dahmer said he killed three times before he moved into a one-bedroom flat in a tough Milwaukee neighborhood.
Meanwhile, he was hired in 1985 as a laborer on the graveyard shift at the Ambrosia Chocolate Co. for $8.75 an hour.
In 1989, he was convicted of fondling a 13-year-old boy he had lured with the promise of $50 if the boy posed for pictures. His five-year sentence was suspended, and he served 10 months in a work-release program that allowed him to keep his night job at the chocolate factory.
Dahmer told police the killings resumed when his time in the work-release program was up.
Then, last July 14, he was fired from his job for chronic absenteeism.
On July 22, a handcuffed man escaped from his apartment and alerted police; they found the remains of 11 bodies Dahmer admitted dismembering, including four heads in a refrigerator and freezer plus seven acid-washed skulls.
In all, Dahmer admitted strangling and butchering 17 males over a 13-year period. He told police he had sex with four of the corpses, and he saved the heart of one victim "to eat later."
This is the life trail left behind by Jeffrey Dahmer--a trail that experts hope will lead them to some understanding of why he did what he did.
David Silber, a psychologist at George Washington University, pointed to the animal remains Dahmer collected as a youth. "His behavior didn't change. The objects changed," Silber said.
"This is a person that is very deficient in some ways. His character probably wasn't very strong to begin with, and it got beaten down by ways in which he was treated throughout life," the psychologist said.
"If there's anything monstrous about him, it's the monstrous lack of connection to all things we think of as being human--guilt, remorse, worry, feelings that would stop him from hurting, killing, torturing," he said.
Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist from Newport Beach, Calif., said that of the serial killers he studied, 58% strangled their victims.
"It's a very personal, intimate means. One can actually feel the victim expire, see them go into convulsions and hear the last efforts to breathe," said Dietz, a consultant to the FBI.
Dietz also said serial killers are apt to photograph their work, make a journal and keep trophies--either body parts or articles of clothing.
"In absolute contrast to the stereotype, they are the most controlled, calculated, cunning offenders," Dietz said. "What's so hard for people to understand is that their level of desire and need to do it is the same as the ordinary man's desire to have ordinary sexual relations."
An FBI report completed in the 1970s notes that serial killers almost always are white males, loners from troubled homes who are smart but underachieving. There often is physical, sexual or psychological abuse as a child. As adolescents, they show cruelty to animals about 46% of the time.
An essential feature is being sexually aroused by their bloody handiwork. The victims are merely objects--"These were sexual props, not people," Dietz said.
And killing does give them pleasure. "They keep souvenirs to remember their fondest moments," said James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University and co-author of "Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace."
No one is discounting sexual perversity as a factor in the Dahmer murders. But police also blame the profound loneliness that has afflicted Dahmer for a very long time. He was quoted by a detective as saying that he believed the body parts would keep him company.
"He killed them so they wouldn't leave," an investigator said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He didn't want anybody else to leave him."
Martha Schmidt, a sociology professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, knew Dahmer in high school, before the killing started. He was the first victim, she suggests; had he been saved, there would have been no others.
"He was tortured and lost at a very early age," she said. "His behavior was always on the edge. He seemed to cry out for help, but nobody paid any attention to him at all."