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Serial Killers 101

Joseph Cillo

There is a sign on Professor Joseph Cillo’s ’78 office door. It reads, “Why Do We Love Serial Killers?”

“The question is as profound as it is difficult to answer,” says Cillo, who is so fascinated with serial killers that he developed a course based entirely around the subject which he teaches within the Department of Criminal Justice at Saint Leo University, Florida.

Cillo’s fascination with serial killers grew from his time as a Los Angeles defense attorney, and he is now considered a foremost expert in this field. He recently completed a book on the “Son of Sam,” curating the content that well may find its way onto the small screen.

“Was David Berkowitz (aka Son of Sam) a serial killer?” asks Cillo. “I think not, as he doesn’t fit the profile of a serial killer. He didn’t hunt a specific type of person, nor did he hunt humans from a specific type of place, so was he more of a spree killer? Or was he simply a murderer?”

It is this kind of speculation that Cillo is interested in and challenges the minds of his students to discuss.

“My Serial Killers, Spree Killers, and Mass Murderers class is one of the most popular on campus,” says Cillo. “Every year, registration opens at midnight, and the class is full by 8 a.m. the following morning.”

Specific cases students study in class include Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway AKA the Green River Killer, Israel Keys, and Jeffrey Dahmer to name a few—But its Cillo’s teaching style that is unforgettable.

Throughout the semester students will address the entire class in the first person, as a serial killer. For example, Ted Bundy. The class then asks these students questions about Bundy’s behaviors, mindset, decisions, and other issues related to his life of killing.

“I am a professor of law, and I play golf,” says Cillo. “A serial killer could be a professor of law and kills humans. Just what is it that decides those choices? The students in my class are fascinated to delve into the minds of these personalities.”

Most students have described Cillo’s Serial Killers class as the best learning experience that they’ve ever had. Defining why this class is so unique, Saint Leo University student Noah Dembroski explained, “The interaction between us and the subject that we study is unlike any other class I’ve ever been in. We literally have serial killers in the front of the room, and we get to talk with them and get inside their minds. We don’t get that kind of real-world experience with any other class.”

Cillo teaches using a collaborative Socratic method, insisting that the students be involved. “I want my students to become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Cillo. “Presentations must be in the first person, and each student must keep a diary throughout the semester about the thoughts of a serial killer.”

Cillo is passionate about teaching and his interaction with his students—a passion that began years earlier at California Western.

He attributes two California Western faculty members as being hugely influential not only in his law career but also in how he approaches teaching his students.

“Dean Robert Castetter and Dr. Murray Galinson made lifelong impressions on me,” says Cillo. “I still carry those memories with me and always will. Because of my time at California Western and men such as these, I learned how to share my life wisdom passionately with my students.”