Netflix’s newest true crime series, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, is a dramatization of the life and crimes of one of America’s most notorious serial killers. From 1978 to 1991, Dahmer murdered 17 young boys and men before being arrested in 1992. The drama follows Dahmer, his victims and their families as well as the many preventable failures of the American justice system in stopping his crimes.
This is not the first adaptation or portrayal of Dahmer on-screen and this recent Netflix drama has received significant backlash for the production’s failure to approach still-living individuals affected by Dahmer’s crimes, among other issues. Family members of one of Dahmer’s victims have spoken out on social media about Netflix not consulting with them about the show, and about the drama’s depiction of events re-traumatizing them.
One of the lesser-known figures brought back to the spotlight is Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbor whose persistent efforts to stop him were reportedly ignored by police. Played by Niecy Nash in the Netflix adaptation, Cleveland was pivotal to the Dahmer case, however, there’s actually very little information regarding her story.
Who is Glenda Cleveland?
Cleveland was one of nine children, according to USA Today, and was raised on a farm by “parents who stressed the importance of telling the truth and stepping up when someone needs help.”
She worked in a data entry position in the city of Milwaukee while living with her 17-year-old daughter, Sandra Smith, according to USA Today.
Cleveland was not Dahmer’s next-door neighbor at the Oxford apartments. She lived in an adjacent building and in reality, Dahmer’s actual neighbor was another Black woman named Pamela Bass. After Dahmer was arrested she lived in the 25th Street apartment alone until 2009 before moving to an apartment less than a mile away, according to USA Today.
Bass was the one Dahmer would offer sandwiches, she told interviewers in The Jeffery Dahmer Files. In the show, however, it seems Bass was partially erased, and elements of her personality were apparently written into Cleveland’s character.
Cops ignored Glenda Cleveland, others in community
According to a 2020 interview with Cleveland’s niece Nicole Childress, in May of 1991 Childress and Smith, Cleveland’s daughter, stumbled upon a dazed and confused 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone trying to escape Dahmer’s apartment building.
Despite being heavily drugged and injured, Sinthasomphone was able to regain consciousness and wander onto the street for help.
When police arrived on the scene, they chalked up the incident to a lovers’ spat, despite pleas from the women to help Sinthasomphone. The police and Dahmer walked Sinthasomphone back to Dahmer’s apartment, where he was murdered shortly afterward.
“We tried to give the policemen our names, but he just told us to butt out,” Smith told the Associated Press at the time of Dahmer’s arrest. “I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want our names. I said, ‘What are you going to do about this? This is a boy.'”
Unlike in the Netflix adaption, Cleveland was not present when her daughter and niece found Sinthasomphone but, she made repeated attempts at calling the police only to be rebuffed. In a now infamous phone conversation, Cleveland can be heard inquiring to a police officer about investigating Dahmer.
Cleveland: “Yeah, uh, what happened? I mean my daughter and my niece witnessed what was going on. Was anything done about the situation? Do you need their names or information or anything from them?”
Officer: “No, not at all.”
Cleveland: “You don’t?”
Officer: “Nope. It was an intoxicated boyfriend of another boyfriend.”
Cleveland: “Well, how old was this child?”
Officer: “It wasn’t a child. It was an adult.”
Cleveland: “Are you sure?”
According to USA Today, after she discovered missing person signs for Konerak Sinthasomphone, Cleveland repeatedly called the police — even the FBI — but no one ever took her call. Dahmer killed five more victims after Cleveland attempted to alert the authorities.
Had police followed up on Cleveland’s suspicions, they would’ve found that Dahmer had been convicted of molesting Konerak Sinthasomphone’s older brother, Anouke, some years earlier.
What happened to the cops who spoke to Glenda Cleveland?
The officers that responded to Childress’ 9-1-1 call were John Balcerzak, Joseph Gabrish, and Richard Porubcan. After being convinced by Dahmer that he and Sinthasomphone were just having a domestic dispute, the three officers escorted the two back to Dahmer’s apartment. According to reports at the time, Gabrish noted a foul order coming from the apartment but thought it was just a bowel movement.
Later that night when Cleveland called, it was Balcerzak who responded. Balcerzak repeatedly rebuffed Cleveland’s concerns and assured her that Sinthasomphone was a legal adult and that the incident was “a boyfriend-boyfriend thing.”
After public outcry following Dahmer’s arrest, two of the officers, Balcerzak and Gabrish, were fired, according to a report from the Washington Post at the time. Porubcan was dismissed and put on probation due to “his relative inexperience and because he was less culpable in handling the incident,” the Post reported. Further, the report says that Balcerzak and Gabrish were let go due to “acts of omission” that included failure to not take the names of witnesses and failing to take an obviously incapacitated Sinthasomphone into protective custody.
In 1995, The city of Milwaukee agreed to pay a settlement of $ 850,000 to the family of Sinthasomphone, according to the Spokesman-Review. However, a year prior, the two officers that were fired appealed against their termination and were reinstated. According to Decider, both men were awarded back pay of $ 55,000 each and in 2005 Balcerzak was elected as president of the Milwaukee Police Association. Gabrish is currently retired have spent a couple of years as the interim police chief of the Grafton Police Department in Wisconsin.
What was the rest of Glenda Cleveland’s life like?
Following Dahmer’s arrest five months after Cleveland contacted the police, she was given formal honors by the Common Council and the County Board and celebrated by local women’s groups and even…the Milwaukee Police Department.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson came to visit and speak with her, telling the reporters at the time, “Police chose the word of a killer over an innocent woman.“
In spite of the attention, Cleveland just wanted to “get back to normal.” It was a statement she had repeated to many of the reporters that showed up at her door asking about Dahmer. She returned to her data entry position until her retirement and helped Smith take care of her nine children.
According to her obituary, Cleveland passed away on December 24, 2010, at the age of 56. Medical examiners ruled it a natural death caused by heart disease and high blood pressure.
Glenda Cleveland’s legacy is still evident.
“If anything, I would want people to know that Glenda Cleveland was special. That was a special woman,” Niecy Nash told Netflix in an interview. “To continue on and on and on in an effort to get someone to do something, she deserved way more than a little cheesy plaque in the bottom of a social hall somewhere…And I would want people to know that we all know or have been or will be a Glenda Cleveland in this life. That’s for sure.”