Aileen Carol Wuornos (February 29, 1956 – October 9, 2002) was a serial killer who killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990. Wuornos claimed that her victims had either raped or attempted to rape her while she was working as a prostitute, and that all of the homicides were committed in self-defense. She was convicted and sentenced to death for six of the murders and was executed by the State of Florida by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.
Wuornos was born Aileen Carol Pittman in Rochester, Michigan, on February 29, 1956. Her mother, Diane Wuornos (born 1939), was 15 years old when she married Aileen’s father, Leo Dale Pittman, on June 3, 1954. Less than two years later, and two months before Aileen was born, Diane filed for divorce. Aileen’s older brother Keith was born in March 1955.
Wuornos never met her father, Leo Pittman; he was incarcerated at the time of her birth. A schizophrenic who was later convicted of sex crimes against children, Pittman eventually hanged himself in prison in 1969. In January 1960, when Aileen was almost four years old, Diane abandoned her children, leaving them with their maternal grandparents, Lauri and Britta Wuornos, who legally adopted Keith and Aileen on March 18, 1960.
At age 9, Wuornos engaged in sexual activities in school in exchange for cigarettes, drugs, and food. She had also engaged in sexual activities with her brother. Wuornos claimed that her alcoholic grandfather had sexually assaulted and beaten her when she was a child, before beating her, he would force her to strip out of her clothes. In 1970, at age 13, she became pregnant, having been raped by a friend of her grandfather’s. Wuornos gave birth at a home for unwed mothers, and the child was placed for adoption. A few months after her baby was born, Wuornos dropped out of school at about the time that her grandmother died of liver failure, When she was 15, her grandfather threw her out of the house, and she began supporting herself as a prostitute and living in the woods near her old home.
Early criminal career
On May 27, 1974, Wuornos was arrested in Jefferson County, Colorado, for driving under the influence (DUI), disorderly conduct, and firing a .22-caliber pistol from a moving vehicle. She was later charged with failure to appear.
In 1976, Wuornos hitchhiked to Florida, where she met 69-year-old yacht club president Lewis Gratz Fell. They married that same year, and the announcement of their nuptials was printed in the local newspaper’s society pages. However, Wuornos continually involved herself in confrontations at their local bar and eventually went to jail for assault. She also hit Fell with his own cane, leading him to get a restraining order against her. She returned to Michigan where, on July 14, 1976, she was arrested in Antrim County, Michigan and charged with assault and disturbing the peace for throwing a cue ball at a bartender’s head. On July 17, her brother Keith died of esophageal cancer and Wuornos received $10,000 from his life insurance. Wuornos and Fell annulled their marriage on July 21 after only nine weeks.
On May 20, 1981, Wuornos was arrested in Edgewater, Florida, for the armed robbery of a convenience store, where she stole $35 and two packs of cigarettes. She was sentenced to prison on May 4, 1982 and released on June 30, 1983. On May 1, 1984, Wuornos was arrested for attempting to pass forged checks at a bank in Key West. On November 30, 1985, she was named as a suspect in the theft of a revolver and ammunition in Pasco County.
On January 4, 1986, Wuornos was arrested in Miami and charged with car theft, resisting arrest, and obstruction of justice for providing identification bearing her aunt’s name. Miami police officers found a .38-caliber revolver and a box of ammunition in the stolen car. On June 2, 1986, Volusia County, Florida, deputy sheriffs detained Wuornos for questioning after a male companion accused her of pulling a gun, in his car, and demanding $200. Wuornos was found to be carrying spare ammunition, and a .22 pistol was discovered under the passenger seat she had occupied.
Around this time, Wuornos met Tyria Moore, a hotel maid, at a Daytona gay bar. They moved in together, and Wuornos supported them with her prostitution earnings. On July 4, 1987, Daytona Beach police detained Wuornos and Moore at a bar for questioning regarding an incident in which they were accused of assault and battery with a beer bottle. On March 12, 1988, Wuornos accused a Daytona Beach bus driver of assault. She claimed that he pushed her off the bus following a confrontation. Moore was listed as a witness to the incident.
1. Richard Mallory, age 51, November 30, 1989, Electronics store owner in Clearwater, Florida. Wuornos’ first victim was a convicted rapist whom she claimed to have killed in self-defense. Two days later, a Volusia County, Florida, Deputy Sheriff found Mallory’s abandoned vehicle. On December 13, Mallory’s body was found several miles away in a wooded area; he had been shot several times, two bullets to the left lung were found to have been the cause of death. It was on this murder that Wuornos would initially be condemned.
2. David Spears, age 43, Construction worker in Winter Garden, Florida. On June 1, 1990, his nude body was found along Highway 19 in Citrus County, Florida. He had been shot six times.
3. Charles Carskaddon, age 40, May 31, 1990, Part-time rodeo worker. On June 6, 1990, his body was found in Pasco County, Florida. He had been shot nine times with a small-caliber weapon.
4. Peter Siems, age 65, In June 1990, Siems left Jupiter, Florida, for New Jersey. On July 4, 1990, his car was found in Orange Springs, Florida. Moore and Wuornos were seen abandoning the car, and Wuornos’ palm print was found on the interior door handle. His body was never found.
5. Troy Burress, age 50, Sausage salesman from Ocala, Florida. On July 31, 1990, he was reported missing. On August 4, 1990, his body was found in a wooded area along State Road 19 in Marion County, Florida. He had been shot twice.
6. Charles “Dick” Humphreys, age 56, September 11, 1990, Retired U.S. Air Force Major, former State Child Abuse Investigator, and former Chief of Police. On September 12, 1990, his body was found in Marion County, Florida. He was fully clothed and had been shot six times in the head and torso. His car was found in Suwannee County, Florida.
7. Walter Jeno Antonio, age 62, Police Reservist. On November 19, 1990, Antonio’s nearly nude body was found near a remote logging road in Dixie County, Florida. He had been shot four times. Five days later, his car was found in Brevard County, Florida.
Apprehension and sentencing
On July 4, 1990, Wuornos and Moore abandoned Peter Siems’s car after they were involved in an accident. Witnesses who had seen the women driving the victims’ cars provided police with their names and descriptions, resulting in a media campaign to locate them. Police also found some of the victims’ belongings in pawnshops and retrieved fingerprints matching those found in the victims’ cars. Wuornos had a criminal justice record in Florida, and her fingerprints were on file.
On January 9, 1991, Wuornos was arrested on an outstanding warrant at The Last Resort, a biker bar in Volusia County. Police located Wuornos’ former lover Tyria Moore the next day in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She agreed to elicit a confession from Wuornos in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Moore returned with police to Florida, where she was put up in a motel. Under police guidance, Moore made numerous telephone calls to Wuornos, pleading for help in clearing her name. Three days later, on January 16, 1991, Wuornos confessed to the murders. She claimed the men had tried to rape her and she killed them in self-defense.
On January 14, 1992, Wuornos went to trial for the murder of Richard Mallory, although previous convictions are normally inadmissible in criminal trials, under Florida’s Williams Rule the prosecution was allowed to introduce evidence related to her other crimes to show a pattern of illegal activity. On January 27, 1992, Wuornos was convicted of Richard Mallory’s murder with help from Moore’s testimony. At her sentencing, psychiatrists for the defense testified that Wuornos was mentally unstable and had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Four days later, she was sentenced to death.
On March 31, 1992, Wuornos pleaded no contest to the murders of Dick Humphreys, Troy Burress, and David Spears, saying she wanted to “get right with God”. In her statement to the court, she stated, “I wanted to confess to you that Richard Mallory did violently rape me as I’ve told you, but these others did not. They only began to start to.” On May 15, 1992, Wuornos was given three more death sentences.
In June 1992, Wuornos pleaded guilty to the murder of Charles Carskaddon; in November 1992, she received her fifth death sentence. The defense made efforts during the trial to introduce evidence that Mallory had been tried for intent to commit rape in Maryland and that he had been committed to a maximum security correctional facility in Maryland that provided remediation to sexual offenders. Records obtained from that institution reflected that, from 1958 to 1962, Mallory was committed for treatment and observation resulting from a criminal charge of assault with intent to rape and received an over-all eight years of treatment from the facility. In 1961, “it was observed of Mr. Mallory that he possessed strong sociopathic trends”. The judge refused to allow this to be admitted in court as evidence and denied Wuornos’ request for a retrial.
In February 1993, Wuornos pleaded guilty to the murder of Walter Jeno Antonio and was sentenced to death again. No charges were brought against her for the murder of Peter Siems, as his body was never found. In all, she received six death sentences.
Wuornos told several inconsistent stories about the killings. She claimed initially that all seven men had raped her while she was working as a prostitute but later recanted the claim of self-defense. During an interview with filmmaker Nick Broomfield, when she thought the cameras were off, she told him that it was, in fact, self-defense, but she could not stand being on death row where she had been for 10 years at that point, and wanted to die.
She was incarcerated in the Florida Department of Corrections Broward Correctional Institution death row for women, before being executed at the Florida State Prison.
Wuornos’ appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied in 1996. In 2001, she announced that she would not issue any further appeals against her death sentence. She petitioned the Florida Supreme Court for the right to fire her legal counsel and stop all appeals, saying, “I killed those men, robbed them as cold as ice. And I’d do it again, too. There’s no chance in keeping me alive or anything, because I’d kill again. I have hate crawling through my system…I am so sick of hearing this ‘she’s crazy’ stuff. I’ve been evaluated so many times. I’m competent, sane, and I’m trying to tell the truth. I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.” A defense attorney argued that she was in no state for them to honor such a request.
Florida Governor Jeb Bush instructed three psychiatrists to give Wuornos a 15-minute interview. The test for competency requires the psychiatrist to be convinced that the condemned understand that they will die and for which crimes they are being executed. All three psychiatrists in Wuornos’ case judged her mentally fit to be executed.
Wuornos later started accusing the prison matrons of abusing her. She accused them of tainting her food, spitting on it, serving her potatoes cooked in dirt, and her food arriving with urine. She also claimed overhearing conversations about “trying to get me so pushed over the brink by them I’d wind up committing suicide before the execution” and “wishing to rape me before execution”. She also complained of strip searches, being handcuffed so tightly that her wrists bruised any time she left her cell, door kicking, frequent window checks by matrons, low water pressure, mildew on her mattress and “cat calling … in distaste and a pure hatred towards me”. Wuornos threatened to boycott showers and food trays when specific officers were on duty. “In the meantime, my stomach’s growling away and I’m taking showers through the sink of my cell.”
Her attorney stated that “Ms. Wuornos really just wants to have proper treatment, humane treatment until the day she’s executed.”, and “She believes what she’s written”.
During the final stages of the appeal process she gave a series of interviews to Broomfield. In her final interview shortly before her death she claimed that, at BCI (Broward Correctional Institution), her mind was being tortured and her head crushed by “sonic pressure”, as well as food poisonings and other abuses that she claimed would get worse each time she complained, to make her appear crazy and/or attempt to drive her crazy. She stated she was prepared to leave, ‘The Angels and Jesus Christ would be there’. She described her impending death as “being taken away to meet God and Jesus and the angels and whatever is beyond the beyond”. Wuornos said to Broomfield in the interview, “You sabotaged my ass! Society, and the cops, and the system! A raped woman got executed, and was used for books and movies and shit!” Her final words in the on-camera interview were “Thanks a lot, society, for railroading my ass.” Broomfield later met Dawn Botkins, a childhood friend of Wuornos’, who told him, “She’s sorry, Nick. She didn’t give you the finger. She gave the media the finger, and then the attorneys the finger. And she knew if she said much more, it could make a difference on her execution tomorrow, so she just decided not to.”
Wuornos was brought into the death chamber on October 9, 2002. For Aileen Wuornos’ last meal, she requested a “single cup of black coffee,” not KFC as was once reported. Her last words before the execution were, “Yes, I would just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back, like Independence Day with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mother ship and all, I’ll be back, I’ll be back.” At 9:47 a.m. EDT, Aileen Wuornos died. She was the tenth woman in the United States to be executed since the Supreme Court lifted the ban on capital punishment in 1976, and the second woman ever executed in Florida.
Wuornos’ body was cremated, and her ashes were spread beneath a tree in her native Michigan by Dawn Botkins. Wuornos requested that Natalie Merchant’s song “Carnival” be played at her funeral. Merchant commented on this when asked why she permitted “Carnival” to be played during the credits of the documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer:
When director Nick Broomfield sent a working edit of the film, I was so disturbed by the subject matter that I couldn’t even watch it. Aileen Wuornos led a tortured, torturing life that is beyond my worst nightmares. It wasn’t until I was told that Aileen spent many hours listening to my album Tigerlily while on death row and requested “Carnival” be played at her funeral that I gave permission for the use of the song. It’s very odd to think of the places my music can go once it leaves my hands. If it gave her some solace, I have to be grateful.
Broomfield later speculated on Wuornos’ motive and state of mind:
I think this anger developed inside her. And she was working as a prostitute. I think she had a lot of awful encounters on the roads. And I think this anger just spilled out from inside her. And finally exploded. Into incredible violence. That was her way of surviving. I think Aileen really believed that she had killed in self-defense. I think someone who’s deeply psychotic can’t really tell the difference between something that is life threatening and something that is a minor disagreement, that you could say something that she didn’t agree with. She would get into a screaming black temper about it. And I think that’s what had caused these things to happen. And at the same time, when she wasn’t in those extreme moods, there was an incredible humanity to her.
FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler mentioned Wuornos only briefly in his autobiographical history of his 20 years with the FBI. Writing in 1992, he said he often does not discuss female serial killers because they tend to kill in sprees instead of in a sequential fashion. He noted Wuornos as the sole exception. Ressler, who allegedly coined the phrase serial killer to describe murderers seeking personal gratification, does not apply it to women killing in postpartum psychosis or to any murderer acting solely for financial gain, such as women who have killed a series of boarders or spouses. In 2002, journalist Sue Russell wrote a book about Wuornos called Lethal Intent.
In 2012 Lisa Kester and Daphne Gottlieb edited and published a collection of letters written over a ten-year span from Wuornos to her childhood friend Dawn Botkins. The book is titled: Dear Dawn: Aileen Wuornos in Her Own Words.
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield directed two documentaries about Wuornos:
1. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992)
2. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
Wuornos was the subject of episode “Death Row Prostitute: Aileen Wuornos” of the documentary TV series American Justice.
Wuornos was the subject of an episode of the documentary TV series Biography.
Wuornos was featured in the Deadly Women episode “Predators”.
The theatrical film Monster (2003) starred Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci. It tells Wuornos’ story from childhood until her first murder conviction. The film earned Theron the 2003 Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Aileen Wuornos.
The TV movie Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story (1992) starred Jean Smart and Park Overall.
An operatic adaptation of Wuornos’ life events premiered at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on June 22, 2001. Entitled Wuornos, the opera was written by composer/librettist Carla Lucero, conducted by Mary Chun, and produced by the Jon Sims Center for the Performing Arts.
The singer Jewel wrote a song about Aileen called “Nicotine Love,” the New York-based Metalcore band, It Dies Today, wrote a song “Sixth of June” referring to Aileen and the poet Doron Braunshtein dedicated a poem to her, called “Aileen Wuornos” that appears in his 2011 spoken word CD “The Obsessive Poet”.
The singer Diamanda Galás recorded a live cover of the Phil Ochs song “Iron Lady”, which she would often perform as a tribute to Wuornos.
The poem “Sugar Zero” by Rima Banerji is dedicated to Wuornos and appears in the 2005 Arsenal Pulp Press publication, “Red Light: Superheroes, Saints, and Sluts”.