Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Aileen Wuornos: Killer Who Preyed on Truck Drivers

Why Aileen Wuornos Killed — and Died

By Sue Russell, author of Lethal Intent

Serial killer Aileen "Lee" Wuornos, who confessed to fatally shooting seven men along the Florida highways, received lethal injection in October 2002. In an odd twist to the story, despite her six death sentences, it was Lee's choice to end her life that day.

Her execution was carried out amid a hotbed of controversy about capital punishment in the U.S. with Illinois Governor Ryan at the forefront. Ryan declared a total moratorium on executions in his state after it released its 13th wrongly convicted prisoner. Florida Governor Jeb Bush also stayed some executions.

Actress Charlize Theron portrayed Wuornos in the 2003 movie Monster (Getty Images)
Actress Charlize Theron portrayed Wuornos in the 2003
movie Monster (Getty Images)

Lee put herself on a different track, however, by becoming that rarity, a "volunteer" for execution. Had she not, she would likely still be alive, languishing in her spartan six-foot-by-nine-foot cell. Barely seeing anyone but prison guards and starved for human touch, she had quite simply had enough.

Wanting to die was nothing new for Wuornos, who first voiced her wish to get on with the execution a decade earlier after her first guilty verdict. She wanted to get right with God, she said. Despite some wavering and her lawyers attempts to dissuade her, she stood firm in that resolve over the years. This despite her various appellate lawyers' best efforts to talk her out of it. Lee fought for and won the right to fire her counsel. Several psychiatrists also found she fully understood the ramifications of waiving her rights to all further appeals, so the way was clear for her death warrant.

For Gov. Bush, serial killer Aileen Wuornos' "volunteer" status was the deal-maker. He held off on signing other death warrants but signed and let the ink dry on Lee's.

Of course, Lee's crimes were never in doubt thanks to her confession, although some believe there are likely more victims we still don't know about. Where confusion reigned was in her motive. Predatorlike, she systematically shot to death and robbed strangers after she flagged them down while hitchhiking and once in their cars, offered sex.

After her arrest she was almost immediately labeled a "man-hating lesbian." The assumption about her sexuality was based on her four-year love relationship with Tyria Moore whom she called her wife. (Uncannily Tyria, with her strawberry red hair, freckled face and stocky build, eerily resembled Leo Pittman, the birth father Lee never met.)

Yet Lee is better described as bisexual. She had a couple of other girlfriends but also had sexual and romantic and emotional relationships with men. She chose to be with them, loved some, and instigated sex with men even when there was no payment involved. 

In 1981, she was so in love with one boyfriend — and so distraught when she believed their relationship was over — that she planned to kill herself, unable to imagine life without him. That day, she got drunk and bought a gun, but instead of turning it on herself, she held up a supermarket while dressed in a bikini. After serving 18 months of her three-year prison sentence, she went to live with yet another man, one of several prison penpals.

Lee often said she liked sex with men. And her sex life with Tyria waned enough for Tyria to complain to her best friend about it. Lee herself said that her "greater love" for Tyria "wasn't sexual."

The real driving force in Lee's life wasn't sex at all; it was a search for an emotional bond and love. Love that she'd never really had — from her abandoning mother, her emotionally and physically abusive grandfather or, it seems, from the grandmother who failed to protect her from him. Certainly not from the callous young males who had sex with her while she was an adolescent.

She was far more familiar with loss than with love, having lost her beloved brother Keith to cancer at age 21 and having her baby son taken away after she gave birth at age 15.

Lee found the deep emotional bond she desperately craved with Tyria. Her borderline personality disorder carried with it an overwhelming fear of abandonment.

I scrutinized closely the violent year during which Lee snuffed out seven lives while writing my book, Lethal Intent. At least six of the seven murder dates matched times when she felt under heightened threat of losing Tyria. That desperate fear might well have been the trigger to rob and kill — what some profilers call the precipitating factor.

In Lee's mind, to keep Ty, she needed money. Almost without exception, she killed men with several hundred dollars on them. With her rough, fading looks and prostitution clients harder to find, several hundred dollars was a lot of money to Lee.

Her habit was to return home smiling after a murder, waving her ill-gotten gains and promising Tyria that she could now pay the rent, buy the beer, pay for a trip to Seaworld, pay for them to party, pay for whatever. Later, Lee said that Tyria was greedy and mercenary. And the infusion of cash seemed, until the police net really tightened, to help keep Ty at her side. At least Lee believed it did, and that's what counts.

Tyria's sister was staying with her and Lee during one particularly bloody three week period when Lee murdered three men. The sisters were close, and Lee was rattled, desperately afraid that when the sister returned home to Ohio, Tyria would leave with her.

We don't know if Lee got a sexual thrill from taking lives male serial killer-style, although as a prostitute, her crimes outwardly had a sexual component (several victims were found naked). It was her killing of at least three strangers in different locations with a cooling-off period between murders that led to her being called the first female serial killer. As the first woman to fit the FBI guidelines in that regard, she broke the mould. (Female multiple murderers typically kill intimates, husbands and lovers, black widow-style for monetary gain, or babies or the weak and infirm.)

Certainly, Lee liked the power of holding a man's life in her hands. But she was also a robber who killed for practical reasons; she didn't want to leave behind any witnesses. She carried Windex with her gun in her "kill bag," ready to wipe away fingerprints and cover her tracks.

It's true that Lee hated men, but less acknowledged is that she hated people in general. Most people. She was deeply, uncontrollably angry. Inevitably, her outbursts of rage, ugly moods and volatile temperament drove away the very people she longed to draw close. Cammie Greene, an old friend of Tyria's whose ID Lee stole, put it this way: "She had a bad attitude. I'm sure a lot of men had hurt her but it was people in general."

Lee died as she lived, pretty much alone. Not only did Tyria betray her love by working with police to trap her into confessing to the murders, but she wouldn't look her in the eye during court appearances. At the end, Lee's adoptive mother, Arlene Pralle, the Christian woman who publicly befriended then adopted her after her arrest, was noticeably absent. Their relationship withstood much turmoil but eventually soured. Pralle didn't even know her daughter's execution date.

The only constant in Lee's life was her old school friend from Michigan, Dawn, with whom she slept in cars as a teenager. Lee's closest friend in her last years, Dawn was her committed pen pal and sometime visitor and spent some of Lee's last hours with her on death row.

Aileen Wuornos started her life without love and, save for Dawn's support, ended it the same way.

Lethal Intent by Sue Russell, published by Pinnacle Books, Nov. 2002. Available in stores, via Amazon.com.

 

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