BENTON — A Chicago man who said he was seeking attention on a campus where he was bullied and harassed has been sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to making bomb threats in a self-declared “war” on Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Derrick Dawon Burns, 23, was sentenced Tuesday in federal court after admitting to sending a series of threatening letters to students, employees and campus police in 2012 and 2013 that invoked terrorism, bombs, rape, beheadings and al-Qaida while boasting of committing multiple murders in which students’ bodies were buried in mass graves or dumped in a campus lake. The FBI was also an intended recipient.
The former SIU criminology student faced up to 10 years in prison for each of the four felonies he pleaded guilty to in August 2015. U.S. District Judge Staci Yandle ordered Burns to serve the two-year prison terms for each count concurrently, meaning he could be released later this year with credit for time served since his fall 2014 arrest.
In a written apology read in court, Burns described how he resorted to “try to seek the attention I so longed for” in response to feelings of isolation and depression on a campus where he had few friends. Burns, who is black, said he was subject to taunts due to his race and sexual orientation. He did not elaborate.
“I felt lonely and unloved. I didn’t know where to turn, or run to,” he said. “So I began making myself known on campus.”
Burns was found competent to stand trial after a psychiatric exam. But Yandle acknowledged that there “obviously are some mental health issues that need to be addressed” while Burns is imprisoned.
“You got the attention,” she told him. “But what you also did is terrorize a campus and a community.”
The university responded to one threatening letter by evacuating its three high-rise dormitories in the middle of the night, displacing more than 2,000 students from each building.
Burns was caught after he anonymously called the FBI and campus police from his cellphone with tips about the letters, according to court records. The caller said that a man he knew only as “Big Russ” told him that he was behind the threats. His fingerprints were found on four of the seven threatening letters. One of the letters was placed in a campus mail box and the others found in mail sorting machines.
BY ALAN SCHER ZAGIER, Associated Press