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