In The Wizard of Lies, Robert De Niro portrays Bernie Madoff, who is infamous for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history. At the end of the film, De Niro asks, “Do you think I’m a sociopath?”
Many people say yes. Some say no. But we can all agree on one thing. Alleged sociopaths are fascinating to watch.
The following video is about five people with sociopathic tendencies. All of these people rose to the top of their industry, conning tens of thousands of people along the way. And most of them would do it again.
What Makes Someone a Sociopath?
The word “sociopath” is often used when referring to a person who has antisocial personality disorder (ASPD.) Sociopathy or ASPD isn’t easy to spot, and as you’ll see, often goes undiagnosed. Sociopaths tend to be more “subtle” than the stereotypical psychopath.
The sociopaths mentioned in the above video may have made big headlines when they were charged with crimes, but the crimes typically consist of white-collar offenses (fraud, embezzlement, etc.)
You can actually take my Sociopath vs Psychopath test for free! I designed it with the help of a few textbooks and it’s quite accurate. In fact, you can even answer it for other people and find out if your friends are sociopaths.
Psychologists believe that a person is genetically predisposed to psychopathy, but environmental factors cause sociopathy. According to Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, one in 25 people are sociopaths.
How do you know you have a sociopath in your midst? Here are some common traits:
Lack of conscience
When people hear stories of massive fraud, they tend to ask themselves, “How could a person do this, knowing that people were going to get hurt?”
The answer is that the sociopath typically doesn’t care if others get hurt, so long as they are benefitted. Sociopaths lack a conscience or empathy toward others. They are not motivated by a sense of right or wrong. So what are they motivated by? Control. A sociopath wants control over others, and they will do whatever it takes to get it.
Sociopaths don’t maintain control using violence or physical force. Often, they just turn on the charm. A lot of sociopaths get away with fraud and other schemes for a long time due to their charismatic personalities. People will let a lot of behavior slide because a person is charming, convincing, or appears to be the smartest person in the room.
Easy to agitate
Charismatic personalities get many sociopaths what they want. But when a sociopath can’t get their way, get out of their way. Sociopaths are easy to agitate. It doesn’t take much for charm and charisma to be replaced by anger and agitation. If a sociopath doesn’t get what they want using charisma, they will do it using fear.
These tendencies often get sociopaths far in life. As you’ll see in this list of famous sociopaths, it takes a big investigation, a whistleblower, or a significant break for a sociopath’s schemes to be exposed.
But remember, not all sociopaths end up infamous. Not all of them have millions of dollars or end up on the cover of a magazine. One in 25 people are sociopaths.
And while I cannot diagnose anyone with antisocial personality disorder, it’s pretty safe to say that the schemes and behavior of the following point to sociopathy.
Famous Sociopaths in History List
Each of the following people are (or will be) portrayed in a film or documentary that you can find on Netflix, HBO, or Hulu. They are often charming, wild, and convincing. They give viewers a lot to talk about. Would you have bought tickets to the Fyre Festival? Is Joe Exotic more of a villain than Doc Antle or Carole Baskin? Did they do the things they do because they are truly evil – or just got in over their heads? Do you think they are a sociopath?
Note: while some of the people on this list have been arrested for murder (or the killing of animals,) the second half of this list contains sociopaths who aren’t killers.
There are quite a few people featured in Tiger King that may be considered sociopaths, but I’ll focus on the main star of the Netflix series. The six-part documentary gets more shocking with each episode. It’s hard to keep track of the crimes and schemes committed by Joe and other names in the big cat world.
Joe allegedly used drugs to manipulate his multiple husbands. He conned his own parents, asking them to sign documents that would put assets and money in their name so Joe could avoid legal troubles. Ultimately, he was arrested for killing multiple tigers at his zoo and for hiring someone to kill Carole Baskin, a “rival” who was trying to get his zoo shut down.
But Joe wasn’t just trying to live a peaceful life among his tigers and exotic wildlife. He attempted to run for governor. He wanted to be a reality TV star and a celebrity. Joe didn’t get to see that level of fame until he was sentenced to jail. Although he has expressed some remorse for his actions, he is attempting to receive a pardon from the president.
Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard
The lives of Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard have been nothing short of shocking from beginning to end. Detailed in documentaries like Mommie Dead and Dearest and Hulu’s dramatized The Act, Dee Dee and Gypsy’s mother-daughter relationship is still being examined by psychologists today. Dee Dee, later said to have Munchausen syndrome by proxy, spent most of Gypsy’s life convincing her (and others) that Gypsy was disabled and had a long list of medical conditions. Gypsy was confined to a wheelchair, for example, even though she could walk.
Gypsy was certainly abused by her mother for most of her life, but she wasn’t the only victim of Dee Dee’s manipulative tendencies. Documentaries share stories of Dee Dee’s kleptomania and even accuse her of trying to poison loved ones. After Gypsy was born, the charming pair were given awards, donations, and even a home before the pair’s story turned fatal. Gypsy met Nicolas Godejohn on an online dating site and later asked him to kill her mother. He did, and the pair were both sentenced to prison.
Experts say that although Gypsy received a lesser sentence than Godejohn, her motives continue to be questioned. What does this story say about nature vs. nurture? About the effects of abuse, neglect, and other trauma on sociopathic tendencies? Stories like this are certainly one that lead to more questions than answers.
John Wayne Gacy
A lot of people are scared of clowns, but very few people were scared of John Wayne Gacy when he was just a neighborhood clown. Gacy was charming and respected throughout the Chicago area. What neighbors didn’t always know was that Gacy had moved to Chicago after being arrested as a sex offender.
John Wayne Gacy is known nowadays as one of the most notorious serial killers in modern history! Despite pleas to investigate Gacy back in 1975, he was not arrested for murder until 1978. In just a few short years, Gacy had murdered over 30 young men and boys, burying most of the bodies under his home.
Gacy’s arrest in 1978 marks ten years after Gacy had been arrested for sex crimes. Before his conviction, he had undergone psychiatric evaluation and been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Experts had advised that therapy would do little to help his sociopathic tendencies, although he was competent enough to testify and attend his own trials.
When you discuss people with antisocial personality disorder, it’s not long before someone throws Ted Bundy into the mix. Ted Bundy is one of the most notorious serial killers in America. Not only was “serial killer” not a common term around the time he committed most of his murders, but he was also known for being charming. Every documentary you watch or book you read on Ted Bundy will mention how charming he was. Women even attended his trials as admirers, and he was married after he was sentenced to life in prison. When he told his story to a biographer, however, he claimed that he did not know how to make genuine friends or have genuine relationships.
Bundy is most known for murdering and sexually assaulting dozens of young women in over seven different states. From 1974 to 1978, Bundy claimed at least 30 victims, although crime experts claim that the true number will never truly be known. At least a dozen other murders could be connected to Ted Bundy, but many of these remain open cases. Bundy was executed in 1989.
Diane Downs may not be the subject of a Showtime documentary or an Emmy-winning TV show, but she is known as being a sociopath. In 1983, she arrived in an emergency room hospital with her three young children. She claimed that they had been car-jacked. All three children were shot, with one dead. Downs herself was shot as well, but in the arm.
While prosecutors initially looked for the man who Downs said allegedly carjacked the car, Downs began to give interviews to the press. Things weren’t adding up. Her demeanor at the hospital, oddly calm for someone who had just been shot and watched one of her children die, also didn’t add up. When prosecutors began to investigate the case further, they found that Downs had actually been the perpetrator all along. She had been having an affair with a man who did not want children – and the shooting was an attempt to win him over. By the time that she was set to take the stand, Downs had become pregnant. Her condition did not elicit any sympathy from the jury – she was sentenced to life in prison.
Downs is still in prison today. She managed to escape and flee to another inmate’s husband’s home, but was shortly found and returned to a facility with higher security. Her daughter, who was born after Downs’ trial, eventually tried to contact her in prison after learning who she was. After reading disturbing messages from her, Downs’ daughter decided to cut off all contact. She shared her story on television and now works as a behavioral health coordinator for children.
Famous Sociopaths Who Aren’t Killers
If you haven’t watched the Fyre Festival documentary on Hulu, you probably watched the one on Netflix. The Fyre Festival was such a disaster that many viewers sat down to watch two full-length documentaries on the subject – and they still wanted more.
Fyre Festival was created by Billy McFarland, a fraudster with a history of seedy business ventures. Before the creation of Fyre Festival, McFarland started a business called Magnises. The card-based membership charged $250 a year to gain special access to VIP parties, concerts, and other events. Magnises turned out to be a scam, and rarely delivered the promises it made to members.
Fyre Festival’s promises included luxury accommodations, private planes, and the chance to party with the world’s most famous influencers. Tickets sold fast – attendees spent thousands of dollars for tickets to the event. (Some spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.) McFarland raised over $26 million from investors. To say that Fyre Festival didn’t deliver is an understatement. The festival was cancelled only after reports came out about the dismal accommodations and lack of food or infrastructure on the island where it was held. Festival goers sued for over $100 million in a class-action lawsuit.
McFarland was charged with wire fraud in 2017. In 2018, he was charged with even more counts of wire fraud after conducting another scheme selling fraudulent tickets to VIP events. He is currently in federal prison.
Watching interviews with McFarland, even after he was charged, are unsettling. He appears to show little remorse for the fraud, even while admitting that they were not prepared to set up such a small festival in little time. He refuses to admit that he lied to investors or festival goers, although documents sent to investors offer a different story.
Billy McFarland scammed thousands of people. But Anna Sorokin may have scammed Billy McFarland.
The headquarters of Magnises contained a loft where Anna Delvey, a German heiress who was quickly becoming a top Manhattan socialite, would stay for a few days. But Anna didn’t just stay for a few days. She stayed for four months, until the Magnises headquarters moved to a different location.
And Anna Delvey wasn’t really named Anna Delvey. She wasn’t German, and she wasn’t an heiress, either. She was a Russian immigrant who went to great lengths to create a fake persona that ultimately landed her in jail.
From 2013-2017, Anna lived in New York hotels, wearing Balenciaga and attending the city’s biggest parties. Everywhere she went, she would leave $100 tips in cash. She planned on opening up a private club, and used false bank statements and documents that actually worked – until things came crashing down.
In 2017, she was charged on six counts of grand larceny. She allegedly stole $275,000 from potential business partners and hotels. She was found guilty on a handful of the charges and is now in prison for a 4-12 year sentence.
Netflix and HBO are currently both developing series on Sorokin’s life and crimes. Her former friend has published a book on her experiences with Anna. The author, Rachel Williams, has made claims that Anna was a sociopath. In interviews after her arrest, Anna has claimed that she was not sorry for what she had done.
In 2013, Theranos was valued at $10 billion. The company was producing blood tests that would revolutionize the healthcare industry. With just a few drops of blood and a few minutes, you would know if you were positive or negative for a long list of diseases. Safeway invested hundreds of millions of dollars to have the devices put in their stores. Walgreens started testing the blood tests out in their stores.
Theranos was started by Elizabeth Holmes at the age of 19. Holmes had dropped out of Stanford to start the company. At its peak, Holmes had former Secretaries of State sitting on the Theranos board. Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos invested in Theranos. She was on top of the world.
There was just one problem: the blood tests didn’t work. For the 15 years that Theranos was in business, the tests couldn’t live up to the claims made by Holmes. The $10 billion company was built on lies.
In 2018, Holmes and her business partner were charged with multiple counts of wire fraud. She is currently on trial.
Like McFarland, Holmes didn’t stop scheming when she was indicted by a federal jury. In 2018, reports came out that she was talking to investors to start a new business. That same year, James Carreyrou published a book on Theranos called Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. Carreyrou has been quoted saying that he believes Holmes has sociopathic tendencies.
Before Billy McFarland and Elizabeth Holmes was Bernie Madoff. The “accomplishments” of the two former business owners appear minuscule compared to Madoff. Over the period of at least two decades, Madoff conducted one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history. He defrauded people out of tens of billions of dollars. That’s right – tens of billions.
In 2009, Madoff pleaded guilty to a long list of white-collar charges, including money laundering, fraud, and false filings with the SEC. He was sentenced to a whopping 150 years in prison. Victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme are still waiting to recover their losses. So far, $2.7 billion worth of funds have been sent out to victims. In early 2020, he applied for early release due to terminal illness. His application was denied.
Richard Scott Smith
Online dating can be nerve-wracking, especially if you’ve seen documentaries like Love Fraud. The four-part series follows a group of women looking to seek revenge on Richard Scott Smith. Smith, who has gone under many aliases, had a process for meeting women online and charming them. Within weeks, he would exchange “I love you”s with the women. Within months, he would ask them to marry and forge their bank accounts together. And always, he left without a trace, stealing thousands (even hundreds of thousands) from all of his victims.
Despite multiple felony charges against him and the multiple complaints from his former wives, Richard Scott Smith is still out on the loose and allegedly, scamming more women out of their money. When he was last arrested, he allegedly did not know how many times he had even been married. As his former wives met up with each other and exchanged stories, they had realized that he had even borrowed details from their lives to make up lies about his own. Talk about someone with sociopathic tendencies!
A Note About Sociopaths
You may see arguments that Madoff (or other people on this list) are not sociopaths. Many people believe the answer is yes. Some say no – he’s just a crook that managed to get away with one of the biggest schemes in history.
Sociopathy is not a diagnosis on its own. Even if it was, psychiatrists can’t diagnose someone from afar. Donald Trump has been accused of being a sociopath by many, including his former ghostwriter.
What I can say is that people with the characteristics of a sociopath should be avoided. A person without a conscience or empathy is usually not one to be trusted. Someone who wants ultimate control or power – especially if it comes at the expense of others – is someone to avoid. Know the signs of a sociopath to prevent falling into a trap.