Glenda Cleveland, whose role in the Jeffrey Dahmer saga was highlighted in the Netflix 10-part miniseries “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” lived on 25th Street until 2009, then moved just a few blocks away before dying in 2011. She did not live in the same building as Dahmer, as depicted in the miniseries, but in an adjacent building. Jim Stingl wrote this obituary in 2011.
Glenda Cleveland was Jeffrey Dahmer’s next-door neighbor, and the serial killer could have been apprehended two months earlier if police had just listened to her.
She certainly tried. “Are you sure?” she kept asking police on the phone when they insisted that a dazed and naked boy fleeing Dahmer was actually an adult involved in a lovers’ feud with him.
Of course, we now know that he was 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone and that he was on his way to becoming Dahmer’s next homicide victim. On May 27, 1991, Cleveland’s daughter, Sandra Smith, and niece, Nicole Childress, saw the boy fleeing from Dahmer in the alley. They were turned down by police on the scene, but they informed Cleveland, who then called the police several times.
She became a symbol of good in our city at a time when there was so much bad. She became involved. She attempted to assist. She said a life-or-death truth and was completely ignored. She then handled the onslaught of media attention with grace and dignity.
“I just want to get back to normal,” she told one of the many reporters who called and showed up at her home, which was next door to Dahmer’s Oxford Apartments.
Her privacy was eventually restored. Glenda Cleveland’s death on December 24, 1992, went unnoticed two decades later. She was 56 years old. There was no funeral, but a memorial service is planned for the spring when family and friends from Cleveland’s birth state of Mississippi and other places can more easily travel here.
In an ironic twist, it was Milwaukee police officers acting on a tip that broke into Cleveland’s apartment and discovered her body on the floor. After not seeing her for a few days, neighbors became concerned. The medical examiner’s office determined that the death was due to heart disease and high blood pressure. Smith blames her mother’s inability to quit smoking.
You’d think that after Dahmer’s atrocities were revealed following his arrest in July 1991, Cleveland would have quickly moved away from the 25th and Kilbourn neighborhoods. “Why don’t you move away from that haunted hill house?” one of her brothers teased her. “I’m not going anywhere,” she’d respond.
She lived on 25th Street until 2009, according to her daughter, and then moved to an apartment near 32nd and Wisconsin.
Cleveland described how she called the police that fateful night, how she finally reached an officer involved in the incident, and how she repeatedly asked him if the male with Dahmer was a child in danger. After seeing Konerak’s photo in a newspaper article about his disappearance, she called back a few days later. Nobody responded to her. She tried once more. The same result. She even attempted to contact the FBI, but received no response. Five of Dahmer’s 17 murders, including Konerak, occurred after Cleveland attempted to notify authorities.
Cleveland was raised on a farm as one of nine children by parents who stressed the importance of telling the truth and stepping up when someone needs help. “I don’t see any reason why people shouldn’t care about other people,” she told a reporter in 1991.
Her brother, Thomas Smith, a retired brewer living in Milwaukee, recalls watching a Cleveland news report with his coworkers. “I’d tell them, ‘That’s my baby sister,'” he explained.
Following Dahmer’s arrest, Rev. Jesse Jackson visited town and met with Cleveland. “Police chose the word of a murderer over the word of an innocent woman,” he said later. The fact that Dahmer was white and Cleveland was black did not escape the notice of outraged African Americans in this town.
Cleveland was formally recognized by the Common Council and the County Board. Mayor John Norquist referred to her as a model citizen. She received recognition from local women’s organizations as well as the Milwaukee Police Department. Some of the plaques were still hanging on the wall of her mother’s immaculate apartment two decades later, according to her daughter.
Cleveland’s data entry job had been eliminated several years before, and she had not worked since. She assisted in the care of Smith’s nine children. Cleveland’s only child, Smith, is now a nurse on Milwaukee’s south side.
Cleveland also maintained contact with the Sinthasomphone family and attended one of their son’s weddings for a time.
People on the street occasionally recognized Cleveland from her days in the news. Smith stated that she and her mother had stopped talking about their encounter with Dahmer.
“I try not to think about it because things should have turned out differently,” Smith explained. “Many things could have been avoided. I try not to think about it too much.”