The True Story Of Serial Killer Aileen Wuornos

In 1991, a 35-year-old illegal sex worker from Michigan shattered a long-held myth about serial murder when she confessed to killing seven men in Florida over the course of a year. For decades, the gruesome crimes of such repeat killers as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and David Berkowitz seemed to establish a basic profile of the serial killer as white, often motivated by sexual dysfunction, and exclusively male. Aileen Carol Wuornos proved that serial murder is an equal-opportunity terror.

Labeled "America's first female serial killer" by a press motivated by sensationalism and exploitation, Wuornos was unique in the annals of crime. Famed FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler, the man credited with coining the term "serial killer" as well as establishing the patterns found in serial murder, described Wuornos as an anomaly in his extensive research. "Only one female has been arrested and accused as a serial killer — Aileen Wuornos in Florida," Ressler writes in his 1992 book Whoever Fights Monsters. "Women do commit multiple murders, of course, but they tend to do so in a spree, and not sequentially as is the pattern with [men]."

One aspect of Wuornos' life, however, was all too typical among her male counterparts. Like Henry Lee Lucas, Charles Manson, and Richard Ramirez, she witnessed and experienced unimaginable abuse and violence in childhood. Ultimately, she slipped through every societal safety net and turned to crime out of desperation and to murder out of sheer anger. This is the horrifying, true story of Aileen Wuornos.

Aileen Wuornos' parents were young and troubled

Aileen Carol Wuornos, known as Lee to her friends, was born on February 29, 1956, in Rochester, Michigan. As detailed in Lethal Intent by Sue Russell, Wuornos spent the first decade of her life believing that her grandparents, Lauri and Britta Wuornos, were her birth parents. In truth, Aileen and her brother Keith were the children of Lauri and Britta's daughter Diane. In 1953, Diane, then just 14, married 17-year-old Leo Pittman. Ten months later, their first child, a boy they named Keith, was born.

The marriage was marked with abuse and jealousy. Pittman, bent on controlling his young wife's life, forbade Diane from leaving home while he worked a variety of jobs, ranging from gardening to making chrome car bumpers. Pittman was also a petty thief who graduated to more serious crimes. Arrested for auto theft, Pittman was given the choice between jail time and enlisting in the Army. He left for basic training in 1955. With Pittman away, Diane, already pregnant with Aileen, filed for divorce.

When Aileen was two, Diane Wuornos abandoned her children, leaving them in the care of friends. Lauri and Britta Wuornos soon adopted Aileen and Keith and rarely spoke of Diane, considering her the family's shame. After several rebuffed attempts at rejoining her family, Diane Wuornos would remarry and have two more children.

Leo Pittman, who never had any contact with his daughter, returned to crime after his stint in the Army. A convicted sex offender, he committed suicide in prison.

Aileen Wuornos' childhood was horrific

According to author Sue Russell, Lauri and Britta Wuornos exuded an appearance of decency and propriety in their suburban community of Troy, Michigan. The son of Finnish immigrants, auto-worker Lauri Wuornos was a firm and formal disciplinarian — a typical trait of 1950s fathers. His wife, Britta, was a loving mother to children Lori and Barry, who would later romanticize their childhoods as idyllic.

However, life for Aileen and Keith in their grandparents' home was anything but ideal. For Aileen in particular, it was a nightmare. Lauri Wuornos was a hard drinker who held his children's lives, especially those of his daughters, in an iron grip. As if to take out his anger with what he regarded as daughter Diane's rebellion, Lauri made young Aileen the focus of his rage. Aileen suffered frequent beatings from her grandfather. As detailed in On a Killing Day by Dolores Kennedy, an infraction as small as forgetting to call Lauri "sir" resulted in violent lashings with a belt. Aileen would also claim and later deny that her grandfather sexually abused her.

An outcast among her peers, Aileen was trading sex for pocket change and cigarettes by age 12. At 14, Aileen Wuornos became pregnant. Although never positively identified, it has been alleged that the father was a friend of Lauri Wuornos. Expelled from the family home, Aileen gave birth in a home for unwed mothers in Detroit, and the child was put up for adoption.

Aileen Wuornos left home for the streets at 15

Following the birth of her child, 15-year-old Aileen Wuornos was allowed, if not accepted, back into her family's home. The pregnancy had embittered an already volatile Aileen. "After that, she always said, 'All men are out to use women,'" Wuornos' sister Lori Grody told the press at the time of her murder trial. "She said she hated men. She was very angry."

Resigned to life in a loveless home, Aileen Wuornos initially complied with her grandparents' rules, but lingering resentment soon drove her away again. Having returned to high school, Wuornos dropped out after a few months. Soon after, she wound up in a juvenile detention center. As detailed in Lethal Intent, Wuornos' sister Lori suspected that her time in the reformatory would only make Aileen's behavior worse. While detained, Wuornos became adept at the game of pool. Later in life, Wuornos' skills with a cue would serve her well as a shrewd pool hustler.

After her stint in juvenile hall, Aileen again returned to the Wuornos home, but after several attempts at running away, her grandfather forbade her to return. Homeless, Aileen Wuornos turned to illegal sex work and theft to support herself. Sleeping in the woods or in abandoned cars by night, she spent her days hitchhiking, drinking, and using drugs. "She was unloved, unwanted, and always in the way, and I think it gave her one hell of a chip on her shoulder," neighbor Jean Kear told author Sue Russell.

Aileen Wuornos turned to crime to survive

By the age of 18, Aileen Wuornos had graduated from truancy, petty theft, and shoplifting to burglary and more serious crimes with greater consequences. As detailed by Michael Reynolds in his 2004 book Dead Ends, Wuornos' adult rap sheet outlined the life of a violent troublemaker on her way to becoming a career criminal.

In 1974, Wuornos was picked up by the police in Jefferson County, Colorado. Using the alias Sandra Beatrice Kretsch, Wuornos was charged with disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, and, in a bit of ominous foreshadowing, firing a .22-caliber pistol from the window of a moving vehicle. Two years later, she was arrested by Antrim County, Michigan, police for simple assault and disturbing the peace. At that time, she was also wanted for consuming alcohol in a vehicle and driving without a license.

On May 20, 1981, Aileen Wuornos was arrested for the armed robbery of a convenience store in Edgewater, Florida. That crime landed her in a Florida prison for a year. Nevertheless, Wuornos was back to her criminal ways by 1984, when she was arrested for passing forged checks. Arrests for grand theft auto, illegal weapons possession, weapons theft, and multiple instances of assault and battery marked Wuornos' police record throughout the 1980s. Wuornos would attempt to use a number of aliases to cover her tracks. Also known as Susan Blahovec, Lee Blahovec, and Cammie Greene, Wuornos even resorted to co-opting her sister Lori Grody's identity.

Aileen Wuornos' tragic love affair with Tyria Moore

Aileen Wuornos had a string of failed and abusive relationships with men, and they had only served to reinforce her hate of the opposite sex. A marriage to a wealthy man three times her age ended after a month. Wuornos claimed he beat her with a cane. Her life as a hitchhiking illegal sex worker had hardened her. To Wuornos, men were only good for the quick cash she needed to survive.

In the spring of 1986, Wuornos at last found the love she had spent a lifetime looking for when she met Tyria Jolene Moore at the Zodiac Bar in South Daytona. As documented in Michael Reynolds' Dead Ends, Moore was a regular at the Zodiac. A native of Cadiz, Ohio, Moore had fled her small, conservative hometown in search of more gay-friendly environs in Florida at 26.

Wuornos and Moore hit it off immediately. From their first meeting, they were inseparable. With Moore's encouragement, Wuornos increased her illegal sex work to keep the pair in a rough but comparatively comfortable lifestyle of long-stay hotel rooms, booze, and drugs. "It was love beyond imaginable," Wuornos would state at her trial. "Earthly words cannot describe how I felt about Tyria." Nevertheless, at some point in their three-year relationship, the couple had exhausted any remaining spark of romance. By the end, they had become little more than hard-living traveling companions. It would be Moore's testimony in exchange for immunity from prosecution that would send Aileen Wuornos to the death chamber.

A question of self-defense: Aileen Wuornos' first victim

Aileen Wuornos killed for the first time on November 30, 1989. As reported by Tampa's NBC affiliate WFLA, Wuornos' first victim was Richard Mallory, the 51-year-old owner of a Palm Harbor, Florida, TV repair business. Mallory, who had been confined to a prison mental institution for ten years for a 1957 sexual assault in Maryland, picked Wuornos up along I-4 near Daytona Beach.

According to Sue Russell, author of Lethal Intent, Wuornos and Mallory enjoyed some pleasant conversation and stopped for a six pack as they headed for Daytona Beach in Mallory's 1977 Cadillac. At some point, Wuornos admitted she was a sex worker and asked Mallory if he could help her make a little money. After discussing price, Mallory and Wuornos drove to a secluded, wooded area. Drawing a stolen, nine-shot .22-caliber pistol from her bag, Wuornos shot Mallory four times. After relieving Mallory of his ID and cash, she covered his lifeless body with a discarded piece of red carpet. Wuornos then drove Mallory's car home. She would tell her companion Tyria Moore that she had made a lot of money on the road and that "some guy" had loaned her his car.

The facts of what transpired between Wuornos and Mallory are unknown. Claiming that Mallory attempted to rape her, Wuornos stated that she fired in self-defense. Although she recanted and reaffirmed her self-defense plea several times, Mallory's past has left lingering doubts about the motive behind Wuornos' first murder.

A year of murder and misandry

Aileen Wuornos' next victim was David Spears, a 43-year-old construction worker. Spears' body was discovered June 1, 1990, in Citrus County, Florida. Wuornos fired six shots from her .22-caliber pistol into his torso. According to Dead Ends author Michael Reynolds, Spears' autopsy report revealed that two shots had been fired into his back, indicating he was attempting to escape.

The next to die was 40-year-old highway worker and rodeo rider Charles Carskaddon. Carskaddon, described in Lethal Intent as the kind of man who wouldn't hesitate to help a stranded motorist, ran afoul of Wuornos on his way to pick up his fiancée. Wuornos shot him nine times in the chest and stomach. The decomposing body of 50-year-old salesman Troy Burress was discovered next — two .22 slugs buried in his chest.

On September 12, 1990, authorities discovered the bullet-riddled body of Charles "Dick" Humphreys, 56, in Marion County, Florida. A retired Air Force major and former Alabama police chief, Humphreys was working as a child abuse investigator at the time of his death. Retired merchant marine Peter Siems' body was never found. He disappeared after leaving his home near Jupiter, Florida, for New Jersey. Siems' 1988 Sunbird was found in June 1990. Witnesses placed Aileen Wuornos and Tyria Moore near the vehicle before its discovery.

Wuornos' last known victim was 62-year-old Walter Antonio. Shot four times in the back and the back of the head, the location of Antonio's wounds helped upend Wuornos' claims of self-defense

Aileen Wuornos on the run

As detailed in Dead Ends by Michael Reynolds, Tyria Moore had grown uneasy with Aileen Wuornos' increasingly erratic behavior. The unusual stolen items Wuornos was bringing home for the couple to fence at area pawn shops unnerved her. Where were the electric razors, toolboxes, briefcases, guns, fishing gear, and watches coming from? Moore had her suspicions, but they were too horrible to contemplate. When they wrecked a stolen Pontiac Sunbird on a wooded road in Ocala, Florida, a panicked Wuornos had warned her to run because they were driving a "murdered man's car." It was only a matter of time before the law came down hard on Wuornos, and Moore wanted no part of it. She certainly wasn't going down as an accessory to murder. Finally, in November 1990, Moore told Wuornos she was leaving Florida to see her family in Ohio.

Meanwhile, the authorities were linking the seven murders. It was apparent that they were dealing with a serial killer or pair of serial killers, and, to their shock, they were likely women. Police sketches of the women dubbed the "angels of death" by the press appeared on local and national TV. Soon after, Volusia County police traced items belonging to murder victim Richard Mallory to a Central Florida pawn shop. The receipt for the stolen merchandise bore Wuornos' thumbprint. The hunt for the so-called "damsel of death" was on.

The confession of Aileen Wuornos

On January 9, 1991, Aileen Wuornos was arrested at a Port Orange biker bar called The Last Resort. Using an outstanding warrant for an earlier Colorado weapons charge, the police were forced to keep any mention of murder charges under wraps until they could find Tyria Moore. As detailed in Dead Ends, investigators from Florida located Moore in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Assured that she was not under arrest, Moore explained that Wuornos had told her about killing Richard Mallory. At first, she didn't believe Wuornos, but the incident with the wrecked, stolen car further aroused her suspicions about Wuornos' activities. Claiming that she feared for her life, Moore neglected to alert the authorities.

Back in Florida, investigators convinced Tyria Moore to help them get a confession from Wuornos. Moore would write a letter to Wuornos requesting that she call her at a nearby motel. On January 14, 1991, Wuornos phoned Moore from jail. Investigators would be present to secretly record the calls and coach Moore. After 11 tense and tearful conversations over three days, Moore was able to convince Wuornos to confess to the killings.

At 10:14 AM on January 16, 1991, Aileen Wuornos, true to her word to Tyria Moore, met with Sergeant Bruce Munster and arresting officer Larry Horzepa in an interrogation room at the Marion County jail. Taking a seat across from the officers, a smiling Wuornos stated, "Well, I came here to confess to murder."

Aileen Wuornos' trial and sentencing

Throughout her trial, Aileen Wuornos declared that each murder was an act of self-defense. Maintaining that the victims had solicited her for sex and then attempted to rape her, Wuornos claimed she shot her victims to preserve her life. The case, as presented by her defense attorneys, painted Wuornos as a troubled woman with borderline personality disorder and an IQ of 81. Despite their best efforts, the defense was unable to use Wuornos' mental state and capacity to save her from the death sentence. The prosecution constructed a portrait of a calculating, man-hating killer who, under the guise of being distressed and stranded, lured seven innocent men to their deaths.

As documented in Nick Broomfield's Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Wuornos' courtroom behavior and erratic, conspiratorial thinking helped sabotage her defense. Despite pleading guilty to three of the crimes and no contest to three others, a tactic that she may have assumed would save her from the death chamber, Wuornos received a total of six death sentences.

Aileen Wuornos' final days

As depicted in Nick Broomfield's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Aileen Wuornos' final days on Florida's death row were marked with paranoia. Wuornos professed her hate for men, the police, and the legal system while alternately maintaining and denying that she killed in self-defense. In her final interview, she stated that the police had allowed her to kill to "turn [her] into a serial killer" and that she was being tortured with "sonic waves." Still, she said she welcomed death as a conclusion to a torturous life.

On October 9, 2002, Wuornos' death sentence was at last carried out. Strapped to a T-shaped gurney as she awaited execution by lethal injection, Wuornos made her final statement: "I'd just like to say I'm sailing with the Rock, and I'll be back. Like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, just like the movie, big mother ship and all. I'll be back."

The media's fascination with Aileen Wuornos

The first woman profiled as a serial killer by the FBI, Aileen Wuornos was a source of constant fascination for the media. Until her execution, Wuornos angrily decried the exploitation of her story. Although she was given to flights of paranoid thinking, she was correct on this point. People were trying to get rich on her name. As documented by filmmaker Nick Broomfield, Tyria Moore, the arresting police officers, her lawyer, and Arleen Pralle, a self-proclaimed born again Christian who "adopted" Wuornos in prison, had attempted to sell her story to Hollywood or otherwise make a quick buck on their association with the case.

Wuornos is the subject of news articles, tabloid TV programs, books, documentaries, and a made-for-TV movie. In 2003, Aileen Wuornos' story was told in the dramatic film Monster, starring Charlize Theron. Theron's spot-on portrayal of Wuornos garnered her the 2004 Academy Award for Best Actress.