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Serial Killers: A Conversation with Saint Leo’s Joseph Cillo, JD

Posted by Greg Lindberg on Aug 15, 2018 9:59:37 AM

Dr. Joseph Cillo is a retired trial attorney and Saint Leo University criminal justice professor who has spent lots of time studying serial killers and mass murderers.Dr. Joseph Cillo wants every single student who takes his classes to walk away with confidence and the ability to pursue a rewarding career upon graduation. The Saint Leo University assistant professor within the Department of Criminal Justice uses a number of unique strategies within some innovative courses to accomplish this goal.

A native of Milwaukee, Wisc., the University of Miami history graduate attended the University of Paris and then pursued a law degree at California Western Law School in San Diego.

The retired trial attorney now resides in Dade City, Fla. and teaches several courses at Saint Leo. He began teaching at the university in 2012 after a four-year stint at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa.

“I want students and everyone to just call me Cillo, kind of like Madonna or Prince,” he says.

Following his days in the halls of justice, he worked for Telcom Inc., an early prepaid cellular phone service doing public utility licensing. He then spent time at Inex, a background research firm, before entering the world of higher education.

Studying Serial Killers

While some might find the subject to be a little morbid, Cillo has found himself fascinated by serial killers and what causes them to carry out their heinous acts. A few years ago, he developed a course based entirely around this topic.

“Every year, the registration for this class opens at midnight, and it’s full by 8 a.m. that morning,” he says.

He says that there are biological, sociological and/or psychological issues at play within these unusual individuals. Plus, most carry out their murders only with their hands.

“Serial killers all have the same number of chromosomes as the rest of us,” he says. “It’s the genes that allow us to be different.”

According to Cillo, roughly 90 percent of serial killers are white males, while the remaining percentage represents people of color and females. 

“A serial killer is a hunter. They will either target a certain type of person, or they’ll go to a certain type of place and target certain individuals within that specific area.”

He adds that they kill for control and/or sexual gratification.

“The victims’ fear increases the gratification they get,” he explains. “It’s not as satisfying for them if no fear or pain are present.”

They also collect “trophies” from their victims, such as jewelry or hair.

On another front, spree killers murder victims in short succession, and there is generally no connection among the characteristics of these individuals. These murderers kill with weapons like guns or vehicles. As for mass murderers, they kill large numbers of individuals over periods of time.

From what Cillo has learned, most serial killers are in family relationships or have been in the past. They typically are not outcasts as some may think.

Specific cases students study in the class include those involving Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacey, Jeffery Dahmer and Timothy McVeigh.

The Influence of SCOTUS

Thanks to his legal background, Cillo is also well-versed on the U.S. Supreme Court and teaches a course on this as well.

“Supreme Court justices are influenced by several things –the Constitution, laws, ethics, morals, society as a whole, the economy and what they have for breakfast,” he explains.

He believes it’s imperative for everyone to be aware of the tremendous influence of this high court.

“It’s so important that Americans understand how the Supreme Court works because SCOTUS can make rule that decisions made by the president and legislature that were originally appropriate are actually unconstitutional. They can make terminal decisions that can last generations.”

An Unforgettable Teaching Style

If you’re used to sitting in a large lecture hall and listening to a professor talk about different topics each class period, registering for one of Cillo’s courses will be a whole new experience for you.

“I never sit down during my classes,” he says. “I’m constantly up and going around the classroom. I will even stand on top of desks at times. I use the Socratic method, and each student checks off his or her name from a roster as they come in. I make sure to know every student’s first name.”

There are some significant reasons behind this approach.

“I want students to become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he says. “In this world where everyone is competing for jobs and other things, there will be times when you are in uncomfortable situations, and you have to know how to handle yourself. That’s why in my classes, you will learn how to think critically and outside the box. You can’t say you don’t have an opinion. I always say there are no wrong answers when we’re discussing different topics.”

In his office, he has a round table with four chairs because he wants students to come in, sit down and talk to each other about their classes. A sign hanging in his office reads “Live your future now.”

“I like to call college a learning amusement park,” he says. “We’re all in this together, and you have to enjoy it.”

In the course on serial killers, there is no textbook as he only provides open source material. Discussions are a major aspect of this class as well.

“I will have three students come up and sit in front of the class, and then they have to talk in first person as if they are a serial killer and have just committed several murders. The students also keep a diary as if they are documenting their murders.”

He knows his educational style can take some time to get used to, but he’s confident it pays off in the end.

“Some students think I’m tough, but at the end of the semester, most will say that I’m fair and that my class was the best learning experience that they’ve ever had.”

In addition to undergraduate courses, Cillo also teaches within Saint Leo’s master’s and doctoral programs in criminal justice.

“I take some of what we cover in the graduate courses and try to incorporate this into the undergrad courses,” he says. “This gives students an edge when they’re going out and looking for a job.”

Plus, he serves as the faculty mentor for the university’s Sigma Lambda fraternity.

Showing His Lion Pride

Cillo is so passionate about Saint Leo because of how unique the university is positioned compared to other institutions.

“Our students receive an education that is simply unavailable at brand name schools. The dynamic that exists between students and faculty here is unmatched because of our small class sizes and the practical skills we look to impart on our students.”

He loves seeing how students change from the first day of class to after they collect their diplomas.

“I consider it a privilege to teach at Saint Leo. I get an opportunity to influence our next generation. It’s leaders rather than followers who we’re creating here.”

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