“I was in a real bad place. I was pure evil,” writes Sean Vincent Gillis in a letter to another inmate. “No love, no compassion, no faith, no mercy, no hope. I’ve been there many times in the past ten years.”
Over the course of those ten years, Sean killed eight women in the Baton Rouge area, shocking local law enforcement with the depravity of his crimes. His victims were raped, strangled, stabbed, and mutilated—sometimes dismembered; sometimes partially eaten.
But to understand Sean, one has to look at his early years, which were complicated by an unhealthy relationship between his parents. His father's struggles “with drinking, with coping” and “serious mental problems” often led to destructive altercations—even one that nearly cost 12-month-old Sean's life. Following a stint in a Louisiana mental hospital, his father announced that he never wanted to see Yvonne—his wife—or Sean ever again. And that was that.
It wasn't an ideal start for a kid, but Yvonne insisted Sean was nothing but a happy, blue-eyed angel. But while his mother turned a blind eye to his flaws, his neighbors couldn't help but notice that “there was just something strange about him.” Prone to violent outbursts, Sean could be heard loudly banging on garbage cans late at night. By his late teens, he'd developed a taste for petty crime, booze, dead bodies, and internet pornography—an obsession that frequently interfered with his jobs.
Sean lived in his mother's home until she moved to Atlanta in 1992, leaving her son to his own devices. Despite worsening addictions, Sean found a caring wife in bartender Terri Lemoine, though even marital bliss couldn't keep him from committing his first murder. Ann Brian was 81-years-old when, after a failed rape attempt, Sean stabbed her 50 times. Seven other women would die at his hands over the next ten years—all ranging in race, but mostly middle-aged sex workers. When questioned about their deaths, Sean showed the hallmarks of the most deranged killers: He kept trophies, took photographs, and displayed a narcissistic glee when recounting the details of his crimes. He even viewed Derrick Todd Lee, another Baton Rouge serial killer, as his competition.
In April 2004, police traced tire tracks at a crime scene off Ben Hur Road—the resting place of 42-year-old Donna Bennett Johnston’s mutilated body—back to Sean. DNA evidence helped link him to two other murders, though Sean eventually admitted to five additional killings. His confessions also revealed his cannibalistic dabblings, leading some to draw comparisons to other flesh-eating killers. The following excerpt of Dismembered, Susan D. Mustafa's book on the case, dives deeper into the similarities and differences between Sean and Jeffrey Dahmer...
While the practice of cannibalism has sporadically been commonplace among many cultures of the world throughout history, cannibalism in America is practiced most often by serial killers who eat human flesh for a variety of reasons. Some killers are aroused by the thought of eating the meat of humans and experience a euphoric state while consuming flesh. Some receive sexual pleasure from this forbidden act, while it makes others feel powerful. And then there are those who want to possess their victims, to keep them with them forever, and eating them is a way to accomplish this. Other cannibals are simply curious.
For serial killer Albert Fish, who was put to death in the electric chair by the state of New York in 1936—his penalty for the murder of twelve-year-old Grace Budd—cannibalism was about the pleasure he gained from the experience. In a letter to the little girl’s parents, Fish wrote, I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me nine days to eat her entire body.
Edmund Kemper III, who is serving a life sentence in California after being convicted of eight counts of murder, explained in his confession that he had wanted to “possess” at least two of his victims. To that end, he cooked flesh from their legs in a macaroni casserole. Perhaps the most infamous of all cannibalistic serial killers was Jeffrey Dahmer, whose name still inspires a morbid fascination in most who hear it. Dahmer confessed to killing seventeen young men, between 1978 and 1991. When police entered his apartment, they found a head in the refrigerator, skulls in a closet, and various body parts of victims stored throughout Dahmer’s home.
Like Sean, Dahmer particularly enjoyed dismembering his victims, although he cut them into little pieces and boiled their heads. He had practiced dismemberment since he was a young boy by bringing home animals he’d found and cutting them up to see what their insides looked like. While there is no evidence that Sean cut up animals when he was younger, he did have a curiosity to see the insides of the women he dismembered, to feel them, and to have sex with their parts.
Dahmer, too, liked having sex with his victims after they were dead; but for him, it involved only oral and anal sex. He is not known to have actually had intercourse with body parts he cut off, although he often masturbated over them. For Dahmer, though, it was about something more than fascination with the process. He wanted to keep his victims, remember them, love them. In his confession, he told Detective Dennis Murphy that he didn’t consider the skulls he kept to be trophies. He wanted to keep them because he felt the skulls represented the true essence of his victims. By keeping them, Dahmer stated, he felt like their lives weren’t a total loss.
The first incident of cannibalism occurred with Dahmer’s sixth victim, Raymond Smith, also known as “Cash D.” He picked up this twenty-two-year-old black male by offering him money for sex. They took a cab to his apartment, where Dahmer drugged, photographed, and killed Smith. He had oral sex with this victim before dismembering him. Dahmer ate his heart, later saying, “It tasted kind of spongy.”
Initially Dahmer only admitted to eating the flesh of one of his victims—victim number eight, Ernest Miller, whom he had met on the corner of Twenty-seventh Street and Wisconsin in Milwaukee. After picking him up with the promise of money, Dahmer took Miller back to his apartment and gave him a drink laced with sleeping pills. The two men had sex, and then Miller fell asleep. Dahmer cut his throat. He photographed his victim’s body before cutting it up, keeping his skull, biceps, and heart. He filleted Miller’s heart and put it in the freezer before stripping the flesh from his thigh. “His thigh muscle was so tough, I could hardly chew it,” he related to police. Dahmer went to the store and purchased meat tenderizer to use on Miller’s bicep. He told police that he fried it up in Crisco oil and consumed the bicep because “it was big and I wanted to try it. It tasted like beef or filet mignon.” He said he ate this victim because he really liked him.
“It tasted kind of spongy.”
He would later admit to eating parts of another man he met on Twenty-seventh Street, Oliver Lacy, his sixteenth victim. A model and bodybuilder, the twenty-four-year-old Lacy agreed to go with Dahmer to be photographed when Dahmer approached him on the street. After drugging, strangling, and raping this victim anally, Dahmer dismembered Lacy, putting his head in a box in the refrigerator and his heart in the freezer to be eaten later. He also kept Lacy’s right bicep, which he later cooked. “It tasted like filet mignon,” he told police, adding that he “used salt, pepper, and A.1. sauce on it.”
Dahmer explained that he had not wanted to talk about his cannibalistic acts in initial interviews because he did not feel that they were “appealing,” and he did not want the police to think less of him.
Unlike Sean, Dahmer was remorseful. He said that he preferred to have sex with his victims while they were alive, but if they wanted to leave and he couldn’t have them alive, he would have them dead. In his confession, he said, “It’s hard for me to believe that a human being could of done what I’ve done, but I know that I did it. I want you to understand,” he told the detectives, “that my questions regarding Satan and the Devil were not to diffuse guilt from me and blame the Devil for what I’ve done, because I realize what I’ve done is my guilt, but I have to question whether or not there is an evil force in the world and whether or not I have been influenced by it.”
When Sean Gillis told his story to police, he grinned, laughed, and joked as he relived the details of his murders and what had happened afterward. He seemed almost sheepish as he explained that he ate the nipples of some of his victims, shrugging his shoulders and grinning like he was a little boy who had been caught doing something naughty. Much of the time, his demeanor seemed rather boastful—that of a man proud of his accomplishments. He saw nothing wrong with having sex with women after they were dead, although he knew what he was doing was sick. He described to police several times, “the usual sick playing with her body,” but he said it as though it was nothing that would shock anyone. Not once did he say he was remorseful or sorry for his actions. He did not question outside evil forces. He relished the evil that lived inside him, was proud of it, and wanted to relive each moment through the telling of his macabre tale.
In letters written to another inmate, Tammie Purpera, who was a friend of his last victim, Donna Bennett Johnston, Sean wrote, I don’t know what my damage is. I don’t even know if there’s a name for it. Dr. Blanche, the prison shrink thinks I’m bi-polar. I’ve never heard of bi-polar people going this far into “never never land,” but he’s the doctor, not me. I really hated God for a long time. I think that’s what did it. But doctors cann’t [sic] even conceive such a spiritule [sic] reason or cause. I think that is the real cause.
In another letter to Tammie, Sean wrote, I have broken all ten commandments [sic] at one time or another. Have been consumed by all seven deadly sins. I turned my back on the Father twenty-six years ago. I do not know why he took from me the person whom I needed most at the time.
Sean went on to say: Together with your friend, seven other sweet, innocent sisters-in-Christ have died at my hands. Their names and faces will haunt me the rest of the days and nights of my life.
In yet another letter, he told Tammie: My sincerest condolences on the loss of your friend. I cannot express how beyond sorry I am for murdering Donna, Johnnie Mae, Lillian, Marilyn, Joyce, Hardee, Katherine and Ann. I will pay for your friend’s life and the others however the Most High and my peers see fit. I hate no one. I really don’t know what the hell is wrong with me. Sean ended this letter with: Please tell me more about Donna. I think I would have liked her.
While Sean did express some remorse to Tammie, it was obvious from his last statement that he simply wished to learn more about his victim, to have a way to relive his deeds while he was in prison. Tammie Purpera passed away soon after these letters were written, but not before turning them over to prison officials.
While Jeffrey Dahmer told police he felt evil and “thoroughly corrupted, body and soul, because of the horrible crimes I had committed against people,” Sean Gillis bragged about outwitting police and watching the news to plot his next move. Dahmer said that he tried to overcome his feelings of wanting to kill and dismember people, but that they would haunt him and overcome him. Sean never mentioned trying to overcome any of his feelings. Instead, he browsed the Internet looking for photographs of dead women he could use to gratify himself sexually. Eventually the hunger to have one of his own would become too strong, and he would roam the streets at night, always searching for the right one.
Dahmer was attracted to most of his victims, which is why he chose the seventeen men he killed. Sean, on the other hand, was not looking for someone to whom he was attracted. He always looked for women who were small, whom he could overpower easily. One major difference between the two killers was that Dahmer preferred men for his sexual pleasure, and Sean was homophobic due to the discovery of his father’s homosexuality when he was a teenager. Terri Lemoine had asked him on more than one occasion if he liked women, and he always emphatically insisted that he did. He didn’t explain that he only liked dead women, though.
These two serial killers did have similar backgrounds. Both were from families that were not necessarily poor, who lived in decent neighborhoods. Neither was physically, sexually, or emotionally abused. Dahmer’s mother once suffered a nervous breakdown and, according to Dahmer, had some psychiatric problems as well as postpartum depression after he was born. Sean’s father had a series of breakdowns and spent years in mental hospitals. Dahmer was eighteen when his parents divorced; Sean was a baby when his divorced. However, Sean was eighteen when he discovered his father had homosexual tendencies. Both men came to feel they had been abandoned by their mothers—Dahmer when his mother moved to Chippewa Falls and Sean when his mother moved to Atlanta. They both expressed feelings of being left alone.
Both men drank heavily, although Sean tried to hide his drinking from Terri. Dahmer said he drank to be able to live with all the horrible things he had done. Sean drank because he enjoyed it while smoking weed and partying with his friends. Sometimes, though, when he got the urge to kill, he would drink or smoke weed. That would cause him to go to sleep, and he would lose the urge for the time.
Dahmer kept skulls and body parts from his victims, while Sean did not. There is a simple explanation for this. Dahmer lived with his grandmother for part of the time he was killing and utilized her basement to hide bodies until he disposed of them. Then he moved into his own apartment, which gave him free reign to leave body parts lying around. Sean did not have that luxury. When he killed, he was always in a hurry and had to make the best of the time he had before Terri returned home. Although he did sometimes leave bodies in his trunk for a day or two, he could not risk Terri finding them. He had to dispose of the bodies before they decomposed. It’s not difficult to imagine what police would have discovered in his house, had he lived there by himself. Like Dahmer, Sean loved playing with his victims. Had he lived alone, there’s no doubt he would have devolved to the same levels of depravity that Dahmer had.
Dahmer stated that he tasted his first victim because he was curious, because his bicep was so big, and he wanted to try it. He also said that he wanted to keep his victims with him. Sean had no such feelings about his victims. He ate their nipples because he was curious, obsessed with dead bodies, and he wanted to feel the sexual arousal that came with the experience. Dahmer stated over and over that he liked his victims and only ate the ones he liked the most. Sean had no such motivation. As he told police and a reporter for The Advocate, “They were already dead to me.” Sean was simply cold and sick.
As he stated in one of his letters to Tammie, I was pure evil.
Want to keep reading? Download Dismembered, by Susan D. Mustafa, today.
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Featured photo of Sean Vincent Gillis: Alchetron