Monthly Archives: March 2012

Dr. Scott Bonn Writes to Serial Killers

Dr. Scott Bonn,Doc Bonn

Detailed, hand-written letters recounting the gruesome killings of more than 16 people arrive in two stark-white envelopes at Scott Bonn’s Manhattan apartment once a month.

Bonn, a sociology professor at Drew University, is pen pals with Dennis Rader and David Berkowitz, two notorious serial killers. Both men will die in prison for the crimes they committed.

“I’ll admit I’m both repelled and fascinated at the same time by serial killers,” said Bonn, 55.

Bonn corresponds with the serial killers as research for a book on the media and the public’s fascination with serial killers.

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If Tim Tebow was wearing a hoodie like Trayvon Martin would he have been shot?

Doc Bonn,Dr. Scott Bonn

If Tim Tebow was wearing a hoodie like Trayvon Martin would he have been shot?

We live in a politically correct society in which we do not discuss race.  Should someone be rude enough to bring up the topic, we are told that race no longer matters.  Tell that to the parents of Tayvon Martin.

Although the police investigation is ongoing, it seems likely that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed for merely walking and eating Skittles while being Black.  The fact that he was stalked by his killer, George Zimmerman, for allegedly looking suspicious–that is, for being a young black male wearing a hoodie in a white neighborhood–is documented in Zimmerman’s telephone call to the police.

As a criminologist I can say with certainty that there is probable cause to arrest George Zimmerman now.  A charge of voluntary manslaughter or perhaps even second degree murder (the intent to kill without premeditation) seems reasonable given the evidence.  Nevertheless, Zimmerman remains free.

My question: Would beloved white, cultural icon and football hero Tim Tebow have been shot if he, rather than Trayvon Martin, had been spotted wearing a hoodie the night that Zimmerman ended Trayvon’s life?  Does race still matter?  Please tell me your thoughts on this important topic.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter.

Doc Bonn Explains: The Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath

Dr. Scott Bonn,Doc Bonn,Psychopaths

The study of criminal behavior includes an examination of mental disorders that can contribute to deviant behavior. Sociopathy and psychopathy are terms used in psychology and criminology to refer to two separate groups of people with antisocial personality traits.  Significantly, these conditions are not classified as mental illnesses and they are not official diagnostic terms.  In the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) both sociopathy and psychopathy are listed under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). Many psychiatrists and criminologists use the terms interchangeably. I believe there are important distinctions between them, including their causes or etiology.

Sociopathy and psychopathy share many traits, which is the main source of confusion for differentiating them in psychology and criminology. Traits that sociopaths and psychopaths share include:

  • A disregard for laws and social mores
  • A disregard for the rights of others
  • A failure to feel remorse or guilt
  • A tendency to display violent behavior and emotional outbursts

Although there is no consensus among professionals on exactly what differentiates sociopaths from psychopaths, among those who believe each is a separate disorder, there is a list of significant differences. First, sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. Second, they are likely to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place. Some sociopaths form attachments to an individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general. In the eyes of others, sociopaths appear clearly disturbed. Any crimes committed by a sociopath tend to be disorganized and spontaneous. Miguel Rivera (“Charlie Chop-off”) is a classic example of a sociopathic and disorganized serial killer, as is Jack the Ripper.

Psychopaths, on the other hand, often have charming and disarming personalities.  They are manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to other unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.  An example of such an individual is the serial killer Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) who had a family, career, civic life and avoided detection for 30 years.

When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan out every detail and often have contingency plans in place. Because of the marked difference between the method of crimes committed by sociopaths and psychopaths, the distinction between these disorders is perhaps even more important to criminology than it is to psychology.  That is because psychopathic criminals, unlike sociopathic criminals, commit highly organized crimes often after meticulous planning.  Ted Bundy is a classic example of the psychopathic and organized serial killer.

It is also appears that the etiology of psychopathy and sociopathy is quite different.  It is likely that psychopathy is the result of “nature” (genetics) while sociopathy is the result of “nurture” (environment).  According to the late David Lykken, a behavioral geneticist known for his studies on twins, psychopathy is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more the product of childhood traumas and abuse.

Based on this model, sociopaths are capable of empathy or emotional connection with others but only to specific individuals, such as a family member or friend, and only in specific contexts.  Psychopaths, on the other hand, are simply incapable of empathy and are unable to form real emotional bonds with anyone.  It is the ability of psychopaths to effectively mimic empathy and emotional connection that make them particularly dangerous, unassuming and often highly successful criminals.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter.

Doc Bonn Confidential: I Dislike My White-man Privileges


Those of us who are white and male in the U.S. are born with significantly more chips to play the poker game of life.  Although our white, male status is a biological reality, the unearned benefits that our race and gender identity provides us are a social construction, that is—they are perks of a white patriarchal society.  Given that white men generally dominate the halls of power and influence in the U.S., our unearned privileges are generally taken for granted and remain invisible to us.

As a white, male sociologist, however, I have been trained to recognize and to be aware of the fact that I receive certain unearned privileges.  These “white-man privileges” range from the relatively insignificant, such as preferential access to taxis, to the profoundly significant, such as preferential access to social clubs, peer networks and unadvertised job openings.  These various privileges accumulate and bear interest over a lifetime much like an annuity or compound interest on an investment.

The old adage that who you know is more important than what you know is not just a common cliché it is a powerful social reality.  For example, the fact that the upper tier of Fortune 500 companies is dominated by white men is not an accident.  Such men are mentored to the top by other white men.  Sociologists call this process “homosocial reproduction.”  Stated differently, birds of a feather flock together.  This flocking of white men at country clubs and in barrooms and boardrooms virtually ensures that their dominance of corporate America is perpetuated from generation to generation.

It is important to emphasize that gender (male) and race (white) are not the only factors which determine quality of life in the U.S.  Certainly, education, skill, attitude and effort do matter in determining one’s life chance opportunities.  Using myself as an example, I am educated, somewhat talented, dedicated and reliable—all attributes that are valued in the U.S. labor market—in addition to the fact that I am a white man.  So, to a certain extent, I influence my destiny through factors within my control such as effort and attitude.  Yet, overwhelming empirical evidence such as salary statistics by race and by gender demonstrate that I have distinct advantages based solely on my biological makeup.  This is not fair but it is an undeniable social reality.

As a sociologist and humanist, I find white patriarchy disturbing despite the fact that I often benefit from it.  Call it white-man guilt.  Perhaps, if I was oblivious to my unearned advantages and adopted an attitude of entitlement, then I could reduce my angst and not feel guilty when I receive special treatment.  Fortunately, however, despite the discomfort it may cause me, I am able to see the patterns of inequality that exist along racial and gender lines and how I benefit from them. Moreover, if I fail to recognize it when I receive an unearned white-man bonus, even something as seemingly minor as special attention from a salesperson in a department store, my Asian-American girlfriend is happy to point it out to me.  I love that about her.  For only by recognizing inequality when it occurs, pointing it out, and then discussing it freely and openly, do we have a chance of bringing about meaningful social change and passing out the poker chips of life in a more equitable fashion.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter.


Doc Bonn disagrees with new Suffolk homicide chief: Just one Long Island serial killer

- The new head of the Suffolk County police homicide unit says he believes that more than one killer is responsible for the 10 bodies found near Long Island’s Gilgo Beach, reports CBS New York.  Jack Fitzpatrick, who took over the squad on March 1, told Newsday that he has been looking over the evidence in the unsolved homicides and believes it is very unlikely that one person committed all 10 murders.


Doc Bonn disagrees with new Suffolk homicide chief: Just one Long Island serial killer

Listen to Doc Bonn and Brent Hatley discussing Serial Killers, including the Long Island Serial Killer on Hunting the Beast:

CLICK HERE to listen

The following by David Lohr is respectfully reprinted from Huffington Post :

Long Island Serial Killer Is Seasonal Visitor, Expert Scott Bonn Contends

Summer on Long Island brings out crowds of sun catchers to the famous beaches that line its south shore. Could one of those seasonal visitors be the infamous serial killer who is responsible for the death of nearly a dozen people, many of them believed to be prostitutes? Police in New York have spent the last 14 months trying to determine who is responsible for the murders of nearly a dozen individuals whose remains have been found discarded on Long Island beaches. While opinions vary as to whether a single serial killer is responsible, The Huffington Post spoke with an expert who believes it is possible that a seasonal serial slayer is to blame — someone who has committed crimes between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when the beaches are filled. “I believe that there is one killer that is haunting Long Island, and I believe there is a really good chance he is a seasonal visitor,” said Dr. Scott A. Bonn, a serial killer expert and assistant professor of sociology at Drew University. “[The killer] is intimately familiar with the area and comfortable with it. I think there is a very good chance that he grew up in the area,” Bonn added. Eleven sets of human remains have been found on Long Island beaches from as early as 1996, with a majority of the discoveries having come since Dec. 2010. Of the 11, only five have been identified. Those victims were missing female prostitutes who were reported missing between Memorial Day and Labor Days over the years:

    • Jessica Taylor, 20, of Manhattan, was reported missing in July 2003. Her partial remains were discovered that same month. Additional remains belonging to Taylor were found in March 2011.
    • Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25, of Norwhich, Conn., was reported missing in July 2007. Her remains were found in December 2010.
    • Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of the Bronx, was reported missing in July 2009. Her remains were found in December 2010.
    • Megan Waterman, 22, of Scarborough, Maine, was reported missing in June 2010. Her remains were found in December 2010.
    • Amber Costello, 27, of North Babylon, was reported missing in September 2010. Her remains were found in December 2010.
    • Jane Doe 1, partial remains found in November 2000. Additional remains discovered in April 2011.
    • Jane Doe 2, a toddler found in April 2011.
    • Jane Doe 3, mother of toddler, remains found in April 2011.
    • Jane Doe 4, partial remains found in 1996. Additional remains found in April 2011.
    • John Doe 1, remains of an adult male, wearing women’s clothing, found in April 2011.

The most recent remains were discovered last week on the eastern end of Long Island. Authorities estimate the unidentified victim had been at the location for about five years. The remains of another woman, Shannan Gilbert, 24, of Jersey City, were found in December 2011. Despite similarities to the other cases, police believe Gilbert accidentally drowned. While some experts have speculated that the toddler and the male victim are not connected to any of the other slayings — they do not appear to fit a particular MO — Bonn said he has a simple explanation for why they should be included. “It’s not uncommon for prostitutes to take a child along. There’s no prostitute daycare I am aware of,” Bonn explained. In regard to the male victim’s remains, Bonn said, “This person was cross-dressed. Think about it. Let’s say the serial killer picked up this [individual], not knowing this was a man. When he found out, he bashed the victim’s head in, which is contrary to how the other victims were killed, which appears to be strangulation.” Bonn also believes Gilbert is likely linked to the other victims. “[Authorities] seem to dismiss Gilbert as one of the victims, and that does not make sense to me,” Bonn said. “Unless there is evidence we don’t know about, it seems too eerily similar to dismiss.” If the cases are all connected — several of the victims were disposed of in burlap sacks or wrapped in plastic — the responsible individual has been using Long Island beaches as his dumping ground since at least 1996. While authorities still don’t know if a single serial killer is responsible or whether multiple murderers are using the island for a dumping ground, it is hard to ignore the fact that the identified victims all disappeared between Memorial Day and Labor Day. A clue to the killer’s lifestyle? Bonn believes so. “There is an obvious seasonal aspect of this that warrants consideration,” Bonn said. “This is a vacation area. [The killer] may be a seasonal visitor. He could also be a Manhattan resident who has a summer home.” If the serial killer is a seasonal visitor, Bonn said there are likely additional victims elsewhere. “As somebody who studies serial killers, I can tell you their urges do not come seasonal,” Bonn said. “The FBI should be looking at similar patterns elsewhere.” If a single serial killer is responsible, the methodology of past killers suggests he is likely following the case very closely in the media and is basking in the attention, Bonn reasons. But sooner or later that attention will no longer suffice. Once that happens, he will likely strike again. “This guy is meticulous, sadistic and smart. I suspect he’s probably a professional — extremely charming and disarming,” Bonn said. “He’s not going to stop, and the nature of the victims’ lifestyle (the fact that prostitutes often go unreported when they are missing) makes them the ideal prey. For all we know, he may have another dumping ground already.”

Does evil exist? Yes, but only in the eye of the beholder.

Doc Bonn,Dr. Scott Bonn

Evil is not a universal truth.  It is a socially constructed concept and it only exists in a particular time and place.  This perspective on evil, known as social constructionism, is rooted in the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant.  According to Kant, matter does not exist in its own right.  Instead, all matter is a product of the mind.  Because all objects are constructed of matter, all objects are thus mental creations.

Social constructionism emerged over the past forty years as a sociological theory of knowledge that considers how social phenomena develop in particular social contexts.  According to this perspective, all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common sense knowledge of everyday life, is actually constructed and reinforced through social interaction.  Social constructionists see reality as a dynamic and constantly contested process—that is, reality is reproduced by people acting on their knowledge and their socially constructed interpretations of it.

As a logical extension, social constructionism contends that social problems do not exist objectively like a mountain or a river.  Rather, they are constructed by the human mind, socially created or constituted by the definitional process.  Therefore, the objective existence of a harmful condition such as a disease does not, in and of itself, constitute a social problem.  From the social constructionist perspective, an objective condition does not constitute a social problem unless it is defined as such by the members of a society in a particular context.  Moreover, an objective condition does not even have to exist to be defined as a problem.  That is, if something is thought to exist and it elicits fear, then it is real despite the fact that it does not exist objectively.  The witch hunts in colonial New England are an example of a non-objective, socially constructed crisis.  From a constructionist perspective, what makes a condition a social problem is the degree of felt concern by a society about that condition, regardless of whether it actually exists or whether it is objectively harmful.

Significantly, an analysis of the social construction of evil provides an understanding of the processes and mechanisms by which those in power and authority in society can demonize a particular group and establish an evil identity for it in the public consciousness.  The word evil itself has a long linguistic history.  The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the original derivation of the word evil to the Goths of the 4th century A.D. who defined it as “exceeding due measure” or “overstepping proper limits.”  Webster’s College Dictionary defines evil as “morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked; harmful or injurious; due to actual or imputed bad conduct or character; evil quality, intention or conduct.”  I contend that the definitions of evil are all socially constructed and socially defined in particular contexts.  In other words, behaving evilly, producing evil and being evil are radically social processes which are defined in a given social context or time and place.

The definitions of evil are also tautological—that is, the definitions involve circular reasoning.  One may be labeled as evil because one does evil things, and if one does evil things, then one is evil.  This tautology is problematic because a circular argument cannot be tested or falsified.  As a result, the tautological definition of evil can be exploited by those who apply the label of evil to an individual or group.  How?  If the labelers’ arguments cannot be falsified, then their claims are not subject to meaningful debate or critique by skeptics.  Once a disvalued individual or group is socially defined as evil, those in power have the moral authority and even obligation to eliminate the evildoer(s) regardless of whether or not there is an objective threat to society. Therein lies the danger of the social construction of evil, because it certainly didn’t matter to those who were convicted of witchcraft in colonial New England that they were not actually witches.  They were sentenced to death and executed, nonetheless.  It is important that we remember this fact the next time we are told by authorities that a person or group is evil and must be eliminated.  When we act without proper inquiry, the consequences can be dire.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter.


Are you both intrigued and repelled by serial killers? You are not alone. Doc Bonn knows why.

Watch: An Interview with Richard Ramirez, The Nightstalker

Serial killers hold the fascination of the public, whether in news accounts of infamous real individuals such as Ted Bundy or in fictional depictions of serial killers in television shows such as CSI and Criminal Minds, and movies such as the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  Although they account for no more than 2% of the approximately 17,000 homicides in the U.S. each year, serial killers receive a disproportionately high volume of news media coverage due to the incredible savagery of their deeds.  In addition, wildly popular fictional characters such as Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter become cultural icons.

So, why are serial killers so interesting?  Those of us who have been properly socialized to respect life and possess the normal range of emotions, including kindness, empathy, pity and remorse, cannot comprehend the workings of a mind that would compel one to abduct, torture, rape, kill, and sometimes mutilate or even eat another human being.  Serial killers elicit a morbid fascination from us that we also have for terrible calamities such as train wrecks and natural disasters.  Simply put, we are compelled to understand why serial killers do such horrible things to complete strangers.

Serial killers seem so purely predatory, cold-blooded and unremorseful that many of us cannot help but display a macabre interest in them. Their horrific crimes are so incomprehensible that we are driven to understand why they exist. In response to the public’s need to know, I am currently researching and writing a book on society’s guilty love affair with serial killers tentatively titled, “Monster Dearest: Our Fascination with Serial Killers and Why We Need Them.” This book examines the social processes through which serial killers often become morbid pop culture celebrities.  I seek to answer the following questions:

  • Why are so many people captivated by serial killers?
  • Do serial killers fulfill any social-psychological or moral needs of the public? If so, what are they?
  • What are the roles of the media, state officials and serial killers themselves in the social construction or creation of the killers’ public personas?
  • Are serial killers aware of the public’s fascination with them?  If so, how does it affect them?

In order to help answer these questions, I am conducting in-depth interviews with two infamous serial killers who are safely behind bars.  My ongoing discourse with these killers is riveting and enlightening.  Beyond gaining insights into the workings of their minds, I am also gaining powerful insights into society in general, including the public’s fascination with the dark side of humanity.  Ironically, and perhaps shockingly, my book proposes that serial killers, despite their horrible crimes, actually serve a function by helping to define evil and clarify moral boundaries in society—that is, by establishing the outer limits of what one human being is capable of doing to another.

Given the public’s preoccupation with the dark side of humanity, it seems quite natural that many people want to know why serial killers commit horrible acts against others, and it seems equally natural that the grizzly exploits of serial killers often become mass media spectacles.  I am interested to hear your thoughts on this topic.  Do you agree with my propositions?

Please submit your comments to me below or email a question to and follow me on Twitter @DocBonn



What do Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony have in common? Will Arias get away with murder?

Dr. Scott Bonn,Doc Bonn,Media Analyst,Criminologist


Jodi Arias, the young California woman accused of brutally killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, will face the death penalty when her case goes to trial later this year in Arizona.  Judge Sherry Stephens denied a defense motion in which Arias’ lawyers requested the death penalty be removed as a punishment option for her. The 31-year-old photographer is accused of shooting her former lover, Alexander, in the face, stabbing him 27 times, and slitting his throat. Certainly, the murder was an act of overkill by any analysis of the facts.

Similar to Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias is an attractive young woman with no prior criminal record who is accused of committing an unimaginable murder—in Anthony’s case, the killing of her own daughter.  Similar to Anthony, Arias faces the death penalty. And, eerily similar to Anthony, Arias exhibits sociopathic tendencies in both her demeanor and behavior. Specifically, she appears emotionless and detached when she describes her ex-boyfriend’s death. Claiming that Alexander’s death was an act of self-defense, Arias exhibits neither sadness nor remorse. In fact, her demeanor seems almost cold-blooded at times.

Assuming that Arias did act in self-defense, and is a rational, normal person, you would expect her to express some remorse for her lover’s death, if only for the grotesque and extreme nature of her actions that took his life. Instead, Arias manifests an almost smug persona, including a little smile, and she expresses no pity for Alexander, whatsoever.  Instead, she seems aloof and self-absorbed.  These are classis sociopathic tendencies, similar to those exhibited by Casey Anthony.

In order for the prosecution to be successful in its case against Arias, it must demonstrate that she killed Alexander after careful deliberation and with premeditation—the requirements of first-degree murder.  In order for her to receive the death penalty, the prosecution must also prove extreme and aggravating circumstances in the murder. Casey Anthony is free today precisely because the prosecution failed to prove that she killed her own daughter in such a manner.

First-degree murder with aggravating circumstances is a high-risk prosecution and it is very difficult to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  Is Jodi Arias innocent?  Will she be executed?  Or just like Casey Anthony, is she a sociopath who will get away with murder? Only time will tell in this fascinating case.

Follow criminologist and media expert, Dr. Scott Bonn @DocBonn on Twitter.




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