The Story Of Lionel Dahmer, The Loving Father Of Jeffrey Dahmer Who Had No Idea He Was Raising A Serial Killer

Published April 18, 2023
Updated March 8, 2024

After Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted of murdering 17 people, Lionel Dahmer was plagued by guilt about where it all went wrong and how he may have helped set his son down a dark path.

Lionel Dahmer

Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty ImagesLionel Dahmer and his second wife, Shari, during Jeffrey Dahmer’s 1992 murder trial.

Behind every serial killer, there’s the family that raised them. For Jeffrey Dahmer — who gruesomely killed 17 young men and boys between 1978 and 1991 — that family was his father, Lionel Dahmer, and his mother, Joyce.

Of Jeffrey’s two parents, Lionel has spoken out the most about his infamous son. He wrote a book, A Father’s Story, and has granted multiple interviews. Lionel has also acknowledged that he missed “red flags” about his son, and has openly speculated about what made Jeffrey into a killer.

So who is Lionel Dahmer? What was his relationship like with Jeffrey? And how did he react to the revelation that his son was a serial killer?

Who Is Lionel Dahmer?

Born on July 29, 1936, in West Allis, Wisconsin, Lionel Dahmer spent most of his life in peaceful obscurity. He was a chemist by trade and later returned to school to get a master’s degree and a Ph.D.

Along the way, he also met and married Joyce Flint, with whom he’d have two sons, Jeffrey, born in 1960, and David, born in 1966. Though Lionel was absent for much of Jeffrey’s childhood while pursuing his doctorate degree, he made a concerted effort to bond with his firstborn son.

Lionel Dahmer With His Sons

TwitterLionel Dahmer with his two sons, Jeffrey, right, and David, left.

The father and son bonded over an odd activity: bleaching animal bones from rodents they found dead under their house. For Lionel, it was nothing more than scientific curiosity. But for Jeffrey Dahmer, the dead animals seem to have left a lasting impression.

Indeed, Lionel and Joyce had no idea that Jeffrey made a habit of collecting roadkill. As they later told Larry King during a CNN interview, Jeffrey never told them that he spent his days looking for dead animals when he was between 12 and 14. To them, he just seemed like a shy little boy.

“The only signs I saw was shyness and reluctance to engage in social interactions, that sort of thing. But really no overt signs of any kind,” Lionel Dahmer explained during an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1994.

That said, Lionel and Joyce had their own problems to worry about. Their relationship devolved during Jeffrey’s childhood, leading to a divorce in 1978 so bitter that each accused the other of “extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty.” According to neighbors, police were frequently called to the house.

A month before their divorce was granted, Jeffrey Dahmer killed his first victim, Steven Hicks, at his family’s home in Bath Township, Ohio.

Jeffrey Dahmer’s Murder Spree And Arrest

Over the next 13 years, Jeffrey Dahmer would kill 16 more people. His victims were young, between the ages of 14 and 33, most gay, and most minorities. Jeffrey frequently met them at bars or nightclubs and often lured them to his apartment by promising to pay them for nude photos.

Jeffrey Dahmer During His Murder Trial

Curt Borgwardt/Sygma/Sygma via Getty ImagesJeffrey Dahmer was later sentenced to over 900 years in prison for his series of gruesome murders.

But Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t just kill his victims. He also had sex with their corpses, dismembered some, and cannibalized others. In a handful of cases, Jeffrey also experimented with pouring hydrochloric acid into holes he’d drilled in their heads. He hoped it would render them unable to fight back.

Though Lionel Dahmer had no idea what his son was doing, he did seem to sense that something was deeply wrong with Jeffrey. After Jeffrey was arrested in 1989 for second-degree sexual assault, Lionel wrote the judge in the case and begged him to intervene.

“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,” Lionel Dahmer 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.”

The “last chance” was missed. Jeffrey continued to kill. But in 1991, his murder spree came to an abrupt end when a would-be victim, Tracy Edwards, managed to escape and notify the police.

How Lionel Dahmer Continued To Support His Son

Lionel Dahmer heard about his son’s crimes for the first time after Jeffrey’s arrest. As he wrote in A Father’s Story, Lionel met the news with shock and disbelief.

“I wasn’t told what these other mothers and fathers were told, that their sons were dead at the hands of a murderer,” Lionel later recounted in his book. “Instead, I was told that my son was the one who had murdered their sons.”

But he made the decision to stand by his murderous son.

“We’ve gotten very close since his … arrest,” Lionel Dahmer told Oprah Winfrey in 1994. “I still love my son. I’ll always stick by him — I always have.”

Lionel Dahmer Watching The Trial

Curt Borgwardt/Sygma/Sygma via Getty ImagesLionel Dahmer watching his son’s trial. He later said that he became “very close” with Jeffrey following his arrest.

He stood by his son’s side during his trial, during which Jeffrey was sentenced to 15 life sentences, and continued to visit Jeffrey while he was behind bars. Meanwhile, Lionel Dahmer tried to figure out what had gone so wrong in Jeffrey’s childhood that it turned him into a killer.

Lionel Dahmer Grapples With The Knowledge That He Raised A Killer

After Jeffrey’s conviction, Lionel Dahmer tried to apply the scientific method to his son’s life and crimes. “I considered all kinds of things,” he told Oprah Winfrey. “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?”

Lionel Dahmer Outside The Prison

Steve Kagan/Getty ImagesLionel Dahmer outside the Columbia Correctional Institute. He visited Jeffrey once a month and called him every week.

He mused over a number of different possibilities. Jeffrey had had a painful hernia operation at the age of 4 that seemed to change his personality. Then again, Joyce Dahmer had had a difficult pregnancy and had been prescribed different medications while pregnant with Jeffrey. And Lionel himself had been an absent and emotionally distant father — could that have been it?

Or maybe, he mused, it was something genetic, a ticking time bomb deep in Jeffrey’s DNA that he or his wife had unknowingly passed onto their children.

“As a scientist, [I] wonder if [the] potential for great evil … resides deep in the blood that some of us … may pass on to our children at birth,” Lionel wrote in A Father’s Story.

Where Is Lionel Dahmer Today?

Despite the unanswered questions, Lionel Dahmer continued to support his son. Women’s Health reports that Lionel called Jeffrey every week, and visited him once a month. And when Jeffrey was killed by a fellow inmate in 1994, Lionel deeply mourned his death.

“When I find out that Jeff was murdered, it was just devastating,” he said, according to TODAY. “It affected me very gravely.”

Since then, Lionel Dahmer has largely stayed out of the spotlight. Aside from battling with his ex-wife over Jeffrey’s remains, which he wanted to be cremated and she wanted to be studied (Lionel won), Lionel has kept to himself.

He apparently was not contacted about the 2022 Netflix show about his son’s crimes, and has offered no public statements about it. As far as anyone knows, Lionel Dahmer is still alive and living in Ohio. Whether he ever untangled the mystery of his son’s life is unknown, but one thing is for sure — Jeffrey Dahmer’s father never disowned him or his infamous name.

After reading about Lionel Dahmer, see how the glasses Jeffrey Dahmer wore in prison went up for sale for $150,000. Or, discover the gruesome crimes of the so-called “British Jeffrey Dahmer” Dennis Nilsen.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.