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Sue's Journey: The Writing of Lethal Intent

Would the eyes of Aileen ‘Lee’ Carol Wuornos Pralle, accused serial killer, be a window to her soul? I’d waited 9 long months to see for myself the woman apparently destined to be the first female ever to fit the FBI’s official criteria for a serial killer. Back on December 5, 1991, I finally got my chance.

Lee almost sashayed, pale but smiling, into a Florida courtroom, pausing to toss a jaunty wave at the one friendly face in the gallery. (Not mine. That of her adoptive mother.)

Her wrists remained shackled during the hearing which ultimately determined that the panting press would get their hands on her truly chilling videotaped confession. In it, she almost casually told detectives how she’d shot to death 7 men on the Florida highways.

She wore a grey cardigan pulled over her regulation jail-issue orange jumpsuit, her thin mousey hair yanked up in a scrawny ponytail. She didn’t look much like a killer.

Then again, who does?

Propelled by a deep, widely-felt fascination with what could possibly make a woman kill and kill again (women are nurturers and lifegivers, right?), I was researching her life for a book.

Lee broke the mold of women who killed multiple times. Historically, they were black widows who bumped off husbands or lovers. Or professional caregivers who murdered those in their care: babies, young children or the elderly and infirm. Poison was often the weapon of choice.

Wuornos had apparently, in male serial killer fashion, pumped bullets into total strangers. Her victims were men she picked up seemingly in random fashion, either by tossing out a damsel in distress routine (saying her car had broken down) or offering sex. The dead men cannot tell. She robbed them and left them to rot in out of the way spots. She was an enigma.

And her eyes seemed important. Arlene Pralle, a married, born-again Christian, horse farmer adopted 36-year old Lee just months after first corresponding with her. She’d been so moved by Lee’s eyes staring out of a newspaper she wanted to reach out and hug her. She described her as warm and compassionate, saying, "I knew in my heart she wasn’t a serial killer."

Billy and Cindy Copeland, who’d lived in a neighbouring trailer to Lee and her lesbian lover, Tyria Moore, liked Lee but always believed she was dangerous. Billy said Lee had "death row eyes."

They couldn’t both be right. A victim who couldn’t hurt a fly. Or a cold-blooded killer. Which was it?

Wuornos’ actual culpability was hardly in question since she confessed soon after being arrested in January ‘91 on an old gun charge. She confessed because the police enlisted the services of her ex-lover (and one-time fellow suspect), Tyria Moore. Ty, in a series of taped phone calls, coerced Lee, who still loved her, into spilling the beans to save her own skin.

When Ty, a short, hefty redhead with a truckdriver’s gait, took the witness stand to testify against Lee, Lee snuffled into a hanky. She was devastated by the sight of her lost love—not to mention the knowledge that Ty had sold her out. Ty stared straight ahead.

The two women had finally been identified months after witnesses saw them leave a car wreck: the car belonged to missing 65-year old missionary, Peter Siems. (Lee confessed to killing him, but has been unable to remember where she left his body.)

Ty was not in Florida for at least one of the murders and although she had dead men’s belongings in her possession when police found her in Pennsylvania, they believed her claim not to have been involved with any of the murders and she was not charged with any crime. (It didn’t hurt that she helped them hook Wuornos.)

Among the men Lee admitted to killing. Child welfare worker Dick Humphreys, a 56-year old ex-police chief who’d celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary the day before his death. 50-year old sausage salesman and much-loved granddad, Troy Burress. 40-year old Charles Carskaddon, who was en route to visit his fiancee when Lee put 9 bullets into him, pausing to reload.

Who were the victims? The 7 dead men, of course. But Lee claimed to have shot her attackers only in self-defense. Was she a victim, too? Perhaps, but she was also guilty. 12 jurors made that determination when in January ‘92, they handed down the first of her 6 death sentences.

Getting inside Lee’s head was a necessary but unpleasant emotional rollercoaster. On my repeated trips to Troy, Michigan where she was born on Leap Year’s Day, 1956, empathy reigned. She’d been on a doomed path since birth. She was abandoned by her mother, Diane, not once but twice in what doctors say are the first crucial couple of years of life.

She never knew her father, but she had his genes. An unsavoury convicted child molester who was once declared insane, he ultimately hanged himself in prison.

Diane’s alcoholic parents adopted Aileen and her brother Keith, raising them as their own along with Diane’s siblings, Lori and Barry. The grandfather had a fearsome temper and abused Aileen and Keith verbally. There were beatings, too, but the extent of them was contested by Lori and Barry. There was voluntary incest with Keith (just 11 months her senior), who died of cancer at 21. Aileen briefly alleged sexual abuse by her grandfather, then promptly withdrew the accusation.

I was and am convinced she was sexually abused somewhere because I learned that by 11 she was selling her body to boys in neighbouring towns for 35 cents cigarette money, earning herself the nickname ‘cigarette pig’. There was an old man nearby who paid her for sex. And after she got pregnant at fourteen, she sometimes named him as the baby’s father. Sometimes she said she was raped.

Lee’s son was adopted at birth and is out there somewhere, blissfully ignorant of his serial killer mum.

In Michigan, the picture of Lee, the misfit, fleshed out. She’d had an isolated, virtually friendless childhood not aided by terrible, uncontrollable temper tantrums. Her grandparents were unwilling or unable to reach out to her, and a school counsellor’s urgent warning that she needed help fell on deaf ears.

In her teens she was a slave to drugs and alcohol. She shoplifted and repeatedly ran away from home and from the juvenile halls to which she was duly sent.

Talking to the boys (now men, of course) whom she deflowered while an adolescent, Aileen’s pain became almost palpable to me.

Florida, where she moved in the late ‘70’s, held a very different emotional journey, not least because it housed most of the families devastated by Lee’s year-long killing spree. Nice people whom she’d robbed of their loved ones, then rubbed salt in the wounds by maligning the men’s characters.

Tracing her footsteps, I uncovered a trail of increasingly antisocial behaviour. Most disturbing were clues that Lee had long ago set her heart on having a book written about her life. She was determined to do things no other woman had done before.

Ty’s friend Cammie Green, with whom Ty and Lee lived when they embarked on their 4-year lesbian affair, told me she believed Lee had planned the whole affair.

Meanwhile Lee, ensconced in jail, revealed herself to be unappealingly remorseless, demanding and money hungry. She wanted to be paid for press interviews and watched her clippings like a hawk. "A killing day," she said, was just about the same as any other day.And she grandly reprimanded warders who didn’t afford her the deference she felt she deserved, saying: "Don’t you know who I am? I’m Aileen Wuornos of television."

Her victims, she unendearingly claimed, got what they deserved. Their families had better understand that. By then, I knew most of those men through their families. It was impossible not to be enraged by her.

By the time she came to trial for the murder of 51-year old VCR and TV repair shop owner Richard Mallory, Lee’s confession’s references to self-defense had blossomed.

After her arrest, she’d told detectives Mallory was "gonna try to anal screw", and that he "started getting violent with me, so we’re fighting a little bit and I had my purse right on the passenger floor."

In that bag was her loaded .22 revolver. Once she began shooting, she killed. If she hadn’t, the men would have come after her and identified her. At times, she said she deserved to die.

At her trial, her description of her encounter with Richard Mallory had become one of brutal rape and sodomy, involving wrists tied to his car steering wheel and rubbing alcohol squirted into her brutalised body orifices. This new version was gripping but unconvincing, full of contradictions. And psychological experts testified she knew right from wrong.

Naturally, the prosecution made much of the fact that if she had been attacked thus, wouldn’t she at least have gone home and told Ty?

Instead, as Ty testified, Lee casually announced she’d killed a man that day. She came home with some of his belongings, sat on the floor, drank beer, seemed okay, and made no mention of any brutality.

Mallory, the defense inferred, was into porn, strip joints and hookers. An ex-girlfriend had said in a police interview that Mallory told her he’d spent time in an institution for attacking a woman, but the jury didn’t hear that. It seemed, the defense couldn’t substantiate her claims.

But as Lee sat on death row in Broward Correctional Facility with death sentences over her head and another penalty hearing looming, a TV news show uncovered the fact that Richard Mallory did indeed have a record for a crime he committed as a juvenile. On that alone, many speculated that Wuornos might get a new trial for his murder. It didn’t happen.

After years of hearings, in 2001 she asked to drop all further appeals and to proceed to execution. She also finally admitted that none of the killings was in self-defense—she killed in cold blood.

Sue Russell , October 2002
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