Jeffrey Dahmer certainly went down in history.
As usual, for a few short days, the Tabloid newspapers had the edge. The regular news media filed stories daily - the Tabs' worked on a weekly deadline. With a story moving this fast there was no time to look back. The body count was growing each day as police pieced together Dahmer's ten-year rampage - with the bones and flesh that remained.
Terrified Traci Edwards was nearly the twelfth victim. Only he escaped a hideous death at the hands of the cannibal killer Dahmer, who confessed to the mutilation-murders of at least eleven men and boys. Traci was held prisoner in Dahmer's apartment of horrors - an apartment littered with human skulls and body parts. Finally after hours at the knife-edge of death, he fled half-stripped, bleeding and handcuffed into the street, where he flagged down a passing police car.
When freelance reporter Denny Johnson was assigned to the Dahmer story the tabloid M.O. ran true to its peculiar form. Johnson was thinking front page, not tomorrow and local, but next week and national. To perform this magic Denny would prospect for any small nugget the gold-rush-media-frenzy had overlooked the first day. That nugget which would still be news seven days later. News even to the media that covered the story from the start.
The first day after the story rocked the world, the Journal ran a small page one article on Traci Edwards and his escape - here was Johnson's nugget. The account of Traci's getaway was short and shallow. It was dwarfed by the huge headlines and photos of Dahmer's arrest and victims' IDs. Other reporters pursued grim body counts, grieving relatives and daily news conferences. There was no information about Traci's experience inside the apartment with the murderer - no inside story. Denny's assignment was to find the one that got away.
It would be a week before the media would turn back its collective attention to Edwards. By then Traci was on a plane home to Texas and, ultimately, jail. Johnson had them scooped.
The Journal article mentioned that Traci Edwards lived in the same neighborhood that the bodies were discovered. Denny headed to a saloon in the vicinity. He ordered a bottle of beer and lit a Marlboro. He made small talk about the murders with the bartender and a few of the lunchtime customers from the block. He didn't learn too much new until a man in uniform at the end of the bar, piped in his two cents worth - the needed information. "I know where the guy lives," said the postman on a break. And, after a few well-placed beers, the mailman agreed to deliver Denny to Edwards's apartment.
The neighborhood was declining ethnic. Bungalows mixed with apartment buildings and the occasional two-flat wood frame house. Traci lived in one of these, a brown two-story in need of repair. Paint was chipped, wood was peeling, and a few broken windows were visible from the street. Paint flaked from the railing as they climbed the deteriorated front stairs of the house and the postman pointed out Edwards's name on the rusty mailbox. He said with a slight slur, "Edwards lives upstairs. Good luck. I deliver your magazines each week to every old lady on my route. We'll be looking forward to your story." He winked. "I usually read them before I deliver them."
Edwards didn't answer when Denny rang his door bell. A quick search up the back stairs of the house and a peek through the rear windows indicated that no one was home in his apartment. The downstairs' neighbor confirmed he hadn't seen Traci in awhile.
Denny parked his rental car out in front of the house, switched the ignition to accessories, tuned the radio to the local news channel - and waited. Sitting the stakeout isn't romantic, it's cruddy. Every time a metro cop passed him by, they eyed him suspiciously. They knew who lived there and they knew Johnson was a reporter. He just looked like one. Denny was hot and hungry. There was no bathroom available, and he was running out of cigarettes. The bad characters in the neighborhood knew he was there in ten minutes. They figured he was a cop. Hours later, Traci still wasn't home. He was obviously lying low somewhere else. But by that time, Denny was familiar with everybody in the neighborhood, hooking, selling drugs, or beating their wives. He noticed over time a middle-aged fellow carrying a bucket who seemed to be the janitor at the building across the street. Denny approached him with a $50 bill outstretched.
Denny wondered aloud if many reporters had been in the neighborhood. He himself had seen very little action that day around Edwards's apartment. "Not hardly any reporters today," the janitor said, "but you know that yesterday they was all over the place like maggots for dinner at Jeffrey Dahmer's." He laughed; it was a nasty sound.
Johnson grinned. The black humor mill was already to work. "Do you know if any of the reporters talked to Traci," asked Denny.
"No. The little creep was doing his best Houdini," said the janitor. "What about that fifty?"
"Do you know Traci well?" asked Denny.
"What about that fifty?" said the janitor again, wiping the sweat from his face with his arm. Denny handed the $50 over and the man snatched it away and stuck it in his Levis. He wet his lips - the pump had been primed. "I'm the maintenance engineer for this here building," the man said using his thumb to point out the fact. "I been working here a long time. I got plenty of stories. Seen some crazy shit around here."
"I'm sure you'd make a good book," said Denny, "but right now I need to know where I can find Traci Edwards."
Denny promised to quote him. And another $50 bill to match if he could get to Edwards - and let him know that he would pay $1,000 for his exclusive story. He gave the janitor his phone number and went back to his hotel. Three hours later his phone rang. Cash money gets everybody talking.
Traci agreed to meet the next morning at Denny's hotel; he wanted all the money up front. Denny told him it would be $500 when he showed up, the remainder when the interview was over. Traci reluctantly agreed. He was anxious to tell his story, as long as he was well-paid.
Denny contacted his office and by dawn the next day a photographer from Chicago was on the scene. He and Denny made their plan in the early morning light over room service coffee. The story would be a first-person account of Traci's experience. The photog would shoot candid photos of Edwards. At 10:15 a.m. everything was ready.
Traci was about 5'5" but sturdily built - a real fireplug. Denny guessed he might tip the scales at 160 pounds. When he showed up that morning at the hotel he was wearing a white t-shirt, pants, Nikes, and a blue "Georgetown" sweatshirt with matching baseball cap. He told Denny that he was 22, and an army brat. He arrived with another young man whom he introduced as his friend Jeremy. Breakfast, packs of Kool cigarettes and pots of coffee were perks Traci demanded for his story. On the other side of the room, the photographer discretely snapped images of the scene with a telephoto lens.
Edwards was well-mannered and surprisingly articulate. They sat around the coffee table in the living room of the spacious suite the paper had provided for the interview. The table was littered with coffee cups, half-full ashtrays, the daily papers and a tape recorder. Another table nearby held the spent, spotless breakfast plates that Traci and Jeremy had cleaned with their fingers and the last bit of toast. In one corner of the room a large color TV, muted, was tuned to CNN.
Denny's tape recorder was running. He handed Traci five crisp $100 bills. "Just start from the beginning," said Denny. "Tell us all you can remember, and then we'll ask a few questions to clear anything up later."
Thank you for reading!
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