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Did ‘jailhouse religion’ save Jeffrey Dahmer?

In 1994, one of America’s most notorious serial killers was attacked and killed while cleaning a prison bathroom.

Few mourned the gruesome end for Jeffrey Dahmer, who strangled and dismembered 17 boys and men and cannibalized some of them.

“Most people wanted Jeffrey Dahmer to fry,” Episcopal theologian Kendall Harmon said after Dahmer’s Nov. 28, 1994, slaying at a Madison, Wis., prison.

Jeffrey Dahmer

Jeffrey Dahmer

“Now that he’s dead, they’re celebrating, and they’re absolutely sure he will burn in hell, because that’s what happens to people like him,” Harmon, whose doctoral work at Oxford University covered 20 centuries of teachings about hell, told Scripps Howard News Service religion columnist Terry Mattingly.

But did Dahmer go to hell?

Or is there a chance that we’ll see him — brother Dahmer, that is — in heaven?

How you answer may depend on whether you believe God can work miracles in hearts and minds — even behind bars — or if you brush aside prison ministry (the subject of a Page 1 story in The Christian Chronicle’s August print edition) as “jailhouse religion.”

When Dahmer died, I was a staff writer for The Oklahoman. I’ll never forget talking that day with Curt Booth, a member of the Crescent Church of Christ in Oklahoma, about his role in Dahmer’s conversion.

“I know Jeffrey was ready,” Booth told me. “Today, all the angels in heaven are rejoicing because Jeffrey has come home.”

Booth said he had no doubt about the sincerity of Dahmer’s conversion.

Front page of The Oklahoman on Nov. 29, 1994.

Front page of The Oklahoman on Nov. 29, 1994.

“On the great resurrection day, I’m expecting to see him right along there with Abraham, David, Isaac, James, John and all the saints that have lived right up to the modern day,” Booth said.

Booth usually ministered to inmates at prisons closer to home. But in April 1994, he caught a glimpse of Dahmer on television. Dahmer mentioned that he wished he could “find a little peace,” Booth said.

The Oklahoma church member sensed what he considered the hurt in Dahmer’s voice and eyes. Booth said he thought: “I know somebody who can give you that peace. His name is Jesus Christ.”

Booth sent Dahmer a Bible correspondence course teaching the steps to salvation. Dahmer mailed the answers back and thanked Booth for the course.

“But I still have one problem,” Dahmer wrote. “This prison does not have a baptismal tank and Mr. Burkum the prison chaplain is not sure if he can find someone to bring a tank in and baptize me? I’ve taken all the other steps.”

Booth contacted Roy Ratcliff, minister of the Madison Church of Christ in Wisconsin. Ratcliff set up weekly Bible lessons with Dahmer and baptized him on May 10, 1994. Ratcliff later shared that Dahmer told him he had been fearful of the minister’s visit.

“He dreaded that I might say, ‘No, you’re too evil. You’re too sinful. I can’t baptize someone like you,’” Ratcliff said.

Booth said he contacted other preachers besides Ratcliff, “but they were kind of scared to go in.”

Related: Forgiving Carla’s killers

Booth himself served more than four years in a Kansas prison for what he called “thievery.”

Behind bars, he studied the Bible. However, he did not obey the Gospel until years later.

After prison, he drank, abused drugs and ended up in a ditch after a drunken night hunting raccoons. When a doctor told him in 1987 that his life was almost over, he remembered all the promises he had made to God in prison and began to contemplate his eternal salvation.

Booth called his nephew, a preacher named Phil Sanders, and asked what to do. Booth, his wife, Jenny, and three others studied with Sanders. All five were baptized in a pond behind Booth’s house.

“An amazing change took place in Curt,” Sanders, a speaker for the “In Search of the Lord’s Way” television ministry in Edmond, Okla., wrote in a tribute after his uncle’s 2005 death.

After his baptism, Booth led more than 1,000 inmates to Christ, including Dahmer.
Upon hearing of Dahmer’s conversion, David Hartman, a member of the Wilshire Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, wrote to congratulate him.

Related: A baptism, then a murder confession

Dahmer sent Hartman $5 worth of stamps, asking him to mail him 25 copies of a Bible correspondence course for distribution to other inmates. In one letter, Dahmer mentioned being attacked in July 1994, months before he was killed.

“I don’t know if you heard, but last Sunday I was attacked while in the chapel,” Dahmer wrote. “Some guy tried to cut my throat open with a razor but didn’t succeed. The razor broke, and my neck was only slightly scratched. I believe that it was only the protective grace of our Great Lord & Savior Jesus Christ that saved me from serious injury or death!”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Inside Story

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