Glenda Cleveland was Jeffrey Dahmer’s neighbor, and the serial killer could have been stopped two months earlier if police had listened to her.
“Are you sure?” she kept asking police on the phone when they insisted that a dazed and naked boy trying to escape from Dahmer was actually an adult involved in a lovers’ spat with him.
We know now, of course, that he was 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, and that he was about to become Dahmer’s next homicide victim. Cleveland’s daughter, Sandra Smith, and niece, Nicole Childress, had spotted the boy fleeing from Dahmer in the alley on May 27, 1991. They were rebuffed by police at the scene, but they told Cleveland who then called police numerous times.
She became a symbol of good at a time of so much bad in Milwaukee.
Cleveland died on Dec. 24 at the age of 56. In a touch of irony, it was Milwaukee police officers acting on a citizen tip who entered Cleveland’s apartment and discovered her body on the floor. Neighbors had become concerned after not seeing her for a few days.
The medical examiner’s office ruled it was a natural death caused by heart disease and high blood pressure. Smith blames the cigarette habit her mother could not kick.
You might think Cleveland would have quickly moved away from the neighborhood of 25th and Kilbourn after Dahmer’s horrors were uncovered after his arrest in July of 1991. “Why don't you move away from that house on haunted hill?” one of her brothers sometimes teased. “I’m not going anywhere,” she would fire back.
She stayed on 25th St. until 2009, her daughter said, and had lived alone since then in an apartment less than a mile away.
Cleveland described countless times how she called the police that fateful night, how she finally reached an officer connected with the incident, and how she asked him repeatedly if the male with Dahmer was a child in peril. She called back a few days later after seeing Konerak’s photo in a newspaper article about his disappearance. No one got back to her. She tried again. Same result. She even tried calling the FBI, but got nowhere. Five of Dahmer’s 17 murders, including Konerak, came after Cleveland tried to alert police.
One of nine children, Cleveland was raised on a farm by parents who stressed the importance of telling the truth and stepping up when someone needs help. “I don't see any excuse for people not caring for other people,” she said.
After Dahmer was finally arrested, the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to town and met with Cleveland. “Police chose the word of a killer over an innocent woman,” he said then. The fact that Dahmer was white and Cleveland was black was not lost on outraged African Americans.
Cleveland was honored formally by the Common Council and the County Board. Mayor John Norquist called her a model citizen. She received awards from local women’s groups and even the Milwaukee Police Department. Some of the plaques were still hanging on the wall of her immaculate apartment two decades later, her daughter said.
Cleveland’s data entry job was eliminated several years ago, and she had not worked since then. She helped care for Smith’s nine children. Smith, who was Cleveland’s only child, is now a nurse living on Milwaukee’s south side.
At least for a while, Cleveland also stayed in touch with the Sinthasomphone family and attended one of the son’s weddings.
Occasionally people on the street still recognized Cleveland from her days in the news. Smith said she and her mother didn’t talk much anymore about their encounter with Dahmer.
“I try not to think about it because it should have been different,” Smith said. “A lot of things could have been prevented. I try not to dwell on that.”