Glenda Cleveland, whose role in the Jeffrey Dahmer saga was given new attention in the Netflix 10-part miniseries “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” stayed in her apartment on 25th Street until 2009, then moved just a couple blocks away before dying in 2011. She did not live in the same building as Dahmer, as the miniseries portrays, but lived in an adjacent building. This obituary was written by Jim Stingl in 2011.
Glenda Cleveland was Jeffrey Dahmer’s neighbor, and the serial killer could have been stopped two months earlier if police had only listened to her.
God knows she tried. “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 our city. She got involved. She tried to help. She spoke a life-or-death truth and was ignored. Then she handled the crush of media attention with patience and dignity.
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“I just want to get back to normal,” she told one of the many reporters who called and showed up at her home next door to the Oxford Apartments where Dahmer lived.
Her privacy returned eventually. Two decades later, Glenda Cleveland’s death on Dec. 24 passed with little notice. She was 56. There was no funeral, though a memorial service is planned for spring when family and friends can more easily travel here from Cleveland’s birth state of Mississippi and other places.
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 at 32nd and Wisconsin.
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 told a reporter in 1991.
Her brother, Thomas Smith, a retired brewery worker living in Milwaukee, remembers watching a TV news report about Cleveland with his co-workers. “I would tell them, ‘That’s my baby sister,'” he 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 here.
Cleveland was formally honored 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.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 2011 obituary for Glenda Cleveland, who alerted police about Dahmer