Tony Hughes: Who was Jeffrey Dahmer’s deaf, non-vocal victim?

An illustration of Tony Hughes on a pink and orange ombre background

The latest Netflix true crime drama depicts the disturbing crimes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, but no detail has left viewers more heartbroken that the story of victim Tony Hughes.

The 10-episode series DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has received mixed responses, but its sixth episode – “Silenced” – has stood out as “the most heart-wrenching and wonderfully directed piece in the Dahmer Netflix series”.

The episode tells the story of Dahmer’s 12th victim, 31-year-old Tony Hughes, who was killed on 24 May 1991.

According to FBI records, Hughes was living in Madison, Wisconsin, at the time of his death. He was reported missing on 31 May 1991, but last seen by a friend at the Milwaukee gay bar Club 219 on the day he died, having returned to the city to visit his family.

The young, gay man lost his hearing permanently as a child, and according to local media reports following Dahmer’s arrest, he was able to lip read, and communicated through written notes and sign language.

On the day of his death, Hughes communicated with Dahmer through handwritten notes, and Dahmer offered the aspiring model money to return to his apartment and pose for photos.

Although there is little information on the series of events that took place once they arrived at Dahmer’s apartment, Hughes’ family later said that Hughes had met Dahmer before, and believed them to be friends.

However, Dahmer drugged Hughes, and drilled a hole into his skull, in one of several attempts to induce a “zombie-like state” and keep his victims subdued.

Hughes did not survive the horrific experiment, and was left on Dahmer’s bedroom floor for three days, before the killer, known as the “Milwaukee Cannibal”, dismembered him and preserved his skull.

In total, Dahmer claimed 17 victims, almost all of whom were Black, gay men.

He was finally arrested in July 1991 when Tracy Edwards managed to escape his apartment and notify police. Upon Dahmer’s arrest, Hughes’ skull and vertebrae were recovered from Dahmer’s apartment, and he was identified via dental records.

‘Two fingers and one thumb means “I love you” in sign language’

Ahead of Jeffrey Dahmer’s sentencing, Tony Hughes’ mother, Shirley Hughes, told the court in a victim impact statement: “I would like to say to Jeffrey Dahmer that he don’t know the pain, the hurt, the loss and the mental state that he put our family in, but I would just like to read a poem that a good friend of my son wrote.”

The poem, written from her son’s perspective in his final moments alive, read: “Why am I a victim in your cruel and rueful world?

“Although I can’t communicate with a loud voice, listen to me anyway. Try to have mercy on my moans. Look at the tears rolling down my face, see that each one is a cry for help, and realise they are a sign showing you that I want to live.

“Tell me just what it is that I’ve done to you, to make you such a monster, to make you such a maniac, to make you such a devil. My god, who are you? What are you? You have never shown me this side of you. I put my trust in you. I thought you were my friend until the end, yet I didn’t know you as well as I thought. I never thought the end would be this way.

“Is there anyone that can help me? Mom, dad, sister, brother, someone? Please help me. What’s happening to me?

“Everything seems to be slowing down. I’m confused, I’m drowsy. My coordination has been contaminated. My friend, what is it that you have given me? What is it that you’re doing to me? I’m helpless. Is it a thrill to you to know that I can’t fight you back? And that the hardest struggle in my life is fighting to keep my eyes open, with the hope of seeing the dawn of a new day?”

The poem later moved on to be from Hughes’ perspective, speaking to his mother after his death.

“Mom, I’m gone, my hope, my breath, my want to live have been taken away from me unwillingly and emotionally,” Shirley Hughes read to the court through tears.

“I know that there’s a dagger piercing your heart day and night because of this, but yet I’m not far away. When you get cold, I wrap my arms around you to warm you. If you get sad, I softly grab your heart and cheer you up. If you smile I’ll smile right along with you and when you’re happy, I’ll know it.”

Shirley Hughes, mother of Tony Hughes, signs "I love you" in ASL during her victim impact statement

Shirley Hughes, mother of Tony Hughes, signs “I love you” in ASL during her victim impact statement. (YouTube/ COURT TV)

Raising her hand to show the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “I love you”, she continued: “Two fingers and one thumb means ‘I love you’ in sign language… When you cry, take one tear drop and place it outside your window ledge and when I pass by, I’ll exchange it for one of mine.

“Two fingers and one thumb, mom.”

Dahmer was handed 16 life sentences, but just two years into his sentence, on 28 November 1994, he was murdered by a fellow inmate when he was beaten with a metal bar in the prison bathroom.

The Netflix drama chronicling Dahmer’s life, and the lives of some of his victims, has been criticised for several reasons since its release, including when Eric Perry, cousin to Dahmer victim Errol Lindsay who was killed in April 1991, said the show was “retraumatising” victims’ families. show was “retraumatising” victims’ families. 

The queer community also hit out at Netflix after the true crime series was given an LGBTQ+ tag on the streaming platform. Netflix later removed the tag.