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How Aileen Wuornos Went From Sex Worker To 'America's First Female Serial Killer'
In 1991, Wuornos confessed to killing the seven men.
Branded “The Damsel of Death” and the “Highway Hooker,” Aileen Wuornos was accused of killing seven men between 1989 and 1990 while she hitchhiked around Florida. After her arrest in 1991, Wuornos quickly gained notoriety as “America’s first female serial killer.”
In “Snapped Notorious: Aileen Wuornos," Oxygen dives deep into the deadly sex worker’s life, which was marred by abuse and abandonment.
Aileen Carol Pittman was born on February 29, 1956 in Rochester, New York. Her mother, Diane Wuornos, was only 16 years old, while her father, Leo Pittman, was a 19-year-old handyman, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The pair split prior to Aileen's birth and she never met her father, who committed suicide in prison in 1976 while serving time for the rape of a 7-year-old girl, the newspaper reported.
Though Diane tried to make ends meet as a single mother, she eventually abandoned a then-6-month-old Aileen and her older brother Keith, leaving them with a babysitter and never returning. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Diane told police she simply "couldn't cope."
"The whole family came to me and, in turn, one at a time, begged me to give [Aileen and Keith] to my parents," she said, "which was probably the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life."
What Happened To Aileen Wuornos As A Child?
Wuornos said her grandfather was an abusive alcoholic, and she later admitted to having a “brief sexual relationship with her brother,” according to the Los Angeles Times. At the age of 14, she said that a family friend raped her, resulting in the birth of her first child, a son whom her grandfather forced her to give up for adoption, according to an appeal filed in 1994. By 15, she was kicked out of the family home and forced to live in the woods, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
"She had the worst life of anyone I have ever met," said Dawn Botkins, who stayed in touch with Wuornos until her execution in 2002. "When I first heard [of Aileen's murder charges] it didn't shock me. If you had only been there and seen how terribly she was treated all her life, it only makes sense."
Regarding her education, Wuornos exhibited an IQ of 81, in “the low dull-normal range,” during junior high, the appeal stated. To remedy her behavioral issues, she was given tranquilizers. Eventually, she left school in the 10th grade — around the same time her grandmother died from a liver disorder — becoming a sex worker and hitchhiking across the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reported.
In May 1974, Wuornos was arrested in Colorado for driving under the influence, disorderly conduct and firing a .22-caliber pistol from a moving vehicle. She was later charged with failure to appear when she skipped town before her trial.
In 1976, Wuornos moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. That same year, her father committed suicide and her brother died of cancer. Desperate for stability, Wuornos married a wealthy retiree and yacht club president, 69-year-old Lewis Gratz Fell. Their marriage, however, didn’t last long.
Fell filed a restraining order against his young bride, claiming she beat him with his cane — an accusation she levied at him, too. After only nine weeks together, Fell had the marriage annulled.
She attempted suicide for the first time in 1978, shooting herself in the stomach.
Having failed in her attempt to take her own life, Wuornos continued to make her money through sex work and occasional small-time crimes, using false aliases to evade police, the Tampa Bay Times reported. In 1981, Wuornos was arrested yet again, having robbed a convenience store of $33. She served a year in a Florida prison.
After her release, Wuornos was charged with a slew of crimes, including forgery, car theft, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice. Her transient lifestyle continued for years until 1986, when she met Tyria Moore at a lesbian bar in Daytona Beach, according to the Los Angeles Times. The attraction was immediate, and the couple quickly moved in together, living in various motel rooms across the state. Wuornos took care of Moore financially and made most of the couple’s money through sex work.
Why Did Aileen Wuornos Start Killing?
On December 1, 1989, an intoxicated Wuornos allegedly confesses to Moore that she shot and killed a man early that morning, according to court documents. That day, a deputy discovers an abandoned vehicle belonging to Richard Mallory, a 52-year-old electronics shop owner. On December 13, his body is found under a piece carpet several miles away in a wooded area. He was shot to death.
According to an appeal, Wuornos said that she thought Mallory was going to rape her, so she shot him multiple times. However, she later stated that he raped her, after which she though he might try to kill her. She said a fight for her gun, which was in her purse, ensued and she got the upper hand.
Wuornos' killing spree continues over the course of the next several months.
On June 1, 1990, officers discovered the nude body of 43-year-old construction worker David Spears. He had been shot six times. Spears’ truck was found close by.
On June 6, 1990, the body of Charles Carskaddon, a 40-year-old truck driver and part-time rodeo bull rider, was discovered in the woods. He had been shot nine times. Carskaddon’s car was found at a different location.
On July 4, 1990, police found the abandoned car of Peter Siems, a 65-year-old missionary. Inside the vehicle, there were blood stains on the seats and door handles. His body was never located.
On August 4, 1990, Troy Burress, a 50-year-old sausage truck driver, was found dead by a group of people picnicing in the woods near a lake. The body was badly decomposed, but investigators were able to determine he had been shot twice. His truck was found a few miles away.
On September 12, 1990, two young boys riding their bikes come across the body of Charles Richard Humphreys, a 56-year-old child-abuse investigator. He had been shot six times. Several counties north, investigators found Humphreys’ car abandoned near a gas station.
On November 19, 1990, Walter Jeno Antonio was found dead near a remote logging road. The 62-year-old truck driver and member of the Reserve Police was found nearly nude, and he had been shot four times. Police found his car five days later in a different county.
All shootings are committed with a .22 caliber pistol, and all of the victims are robbed, according to The Chicago Tribune. The victims’ vehicles were also all found abandoned on or near a major traveled roadway.
How Was Aileen Wuornos Caught?
Several months after Mallory's murder, police had their first case in the break when a witness reported seeing two women walk away from the fourth victim, Peter Siems', car after crashing it. Composite sketches of the women were printed in various Florida newspapers and distributed across the country.
When Moore saw media reports that police were looking for two women in connection with a series of murders, she left Wuornos and returned to her hometown in Pennsylvania, according to court documents. Thanks to tips from the public, detectives were able to track Moore down, after which she began cooperating with them in their investigation. According to the Los Angeles Times, detectives rented a Daytona Beach hotel room for Moore, who dined on hamburgers and Budweiser, for four days. During this time, they recorded Moore's conversations with her ex in which she pleaded for details of the murders.
In one conversation, Wuornos promised Moore, "I will not let you be involved in the picture. You’re not the one. I am the one who did everything. I did it all myself."
Wuornos' defense would later write in their appeal that "law officers improperly tricked her into confessing and in doing so also violated her right to counsel." However, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Wuornos "freely waived her rights and confessed, contrary to advice of counsel both before and during the first confession and later."
On January 9, 1991, Wuornos was arrested at The Last Resort Bar on an outstanding 1986 warrant for weapons possession, reported The New York Times. She was held on that charge until being charged in connection with the murder of Richard Mallory, the first victim.
On January 16, 1991, Wuornos confessed to killing the seven men after Moore tells Wuornos that police are investigating her involvement.
When the trial began, Wuornos spoke to reporters outside the courthouse, insisting she killed in self-defense. But she wasn't optimistic that the trial would end in her favor, saying, "I'm never gonna get a fair trial, and they're gonna hang me. They're gonna electrocute me, give me life in prison, and I don't deserve it. I don't deserve life. It was just self-defense," the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Wuornos pleaded not guilty, claiming she acted in self-defense and that Mallory had violently raped her. Though Wuornos’ first trial is only for the murder of her first victim Mallory, a judge rules to allow in evidence from the six other murders.
On January 27, 1992, the jury found Wuornos guilty of first-degree murder. When the verdict was announced, Wuornos became visibly upset and shouted, “I was raped. I hope you get raped, scumbags of America.”
During the penalty phase, the defense's three experts and the State's expert psychologist testified that Wuornos had borderline personality disorder, according to an appeal. Nonetheless, the jury unanimously voted in favor of the death sentence on January 31, 1992.
Wuornos only stood trial for the killing of Mallory. She pleaded no contest to the five other murders, according to CNN. Though it was believed she was responsible for the death of Peter Siems, his body was never located and Wuornos was not charged in his death.
How Was Aileen Wuornos Put To Death?
While in prison from 1993 to 2002, Wuornos’ defense team worked to overturn her death sentences. They are repeatedly denied, according to The New York Times. In 2001, Wuornos fired her defense team, dropped all her appeals and asked to be put to death.
"There's no chance in keeping me alive or anything, because I'd kill again. I have hate crawling through my system," she said, according to CNN.
Her own defense team protested the execution, arguing that she was clearly not sane enough to make such a decision. Billy Nolas, one of her former lawyers, even called her "the most disturbed individual" he had ever represented, The Guardian reported.
What Were Aileen Wuornos' Last Words?
On October 9, 2002, Wuornos was executed by lethal injection almost a decade after her final conviction. At the time, Wuornos was only the 10th woman to be executed in the United States since 1976.
Wuornos declined her last meal and instead asked for a cup of coffee, according to CBS News. Her last words were: “I'd 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.”
(This story was originally published on March 19, 2018 and has been updated with more information.)