With only the most gut-wrenching soul-searching could anyone ever feel any modicum of sympathy for a serial killer. Their acts appall; their anarchy frightens civilized society. Aileen Wuornos, the homeless Florida prostitute and murderer of seven men, may perhaps be the only serial killer who might, however, merit a degree of compassion. The “Melbourne Hitchhiker”, as she was dubbed by the press before her discovery, may not have been a monster so much as she was a broken human being.
Born This Way?
Serial killers are not born that way. There is no genetic predisposition for the periodic taking of human life. It is not written in the DNA.
Physical factors, such as brain damage or mental illness, certainly may play a role in whether or not a particular person becomes a serial killer. Environment can play an important part, too. Albert DeSalvo, the man convicted of being the Boston Strangler in the mid 1960s, was sold into slavery as a child by his father to a Maine farmer. Serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was born to a prostitute. His upbringing included his mother dressing him as a girl until almost puberty and indiscriminately bringing johns home, having sex with them in front of the boy.
However, environment alone cannot account for the creation of all serial killers. Not all people from poverty or the product of bad parenting become serial killers. Some (such as Edmund Kemper, Ted Bundy, and Kenneth Bianchi) came from suburban middle-class backgrounds. However, if one takes a hard look at the majority of serial killers one finds most do come from underprivileged or abusive backgrounds.
Finally, there is a certain “X factor” that also applies, though. Until that variable is known, serial killers and their compulsions will never be understood.
Birth of a Serial Killer
A morally and financially bankrupt environment awaited Aileen Carol Pittman when she arrived in the world in a Leap Year on February 29, 1956.
Pittman, convicted of rape and the attempted murder of a seven-year-old girl, was in prison when Aileen came along in 1956. Her mother, now a wiser 17-year-old, filed for divorce from him in December 1955. Aileen never met Pittman. He was a true and committed sociopath, however, and he had started early. He had doting grandparents, and after the grandfather died of throat cancer, the grandmother spoiled him even more. In his teens he beat her and abused her. Another favored pastime (one in which many serial killers indulged) was torturing animals. A preferred activity was to tie the tails of two cats together and sling the hapless felines over a clothesline. He stood enthralled as the swinging cats clawed and fought each other trying to escape. Pittman was a true criminal at heart, and he was in and out of prison most of his life. He was a sexual predator, and his crimes involved children. That ended when he hung himself in a cell in January 1969. Claims were made alleging he was schizophrenic – it is more likely he was merely a dyed-in-the-wool sociopath and nothing more.
Diane Wuornos was completely unfit as a parent, and as she reached her 21st year she decided having two children was too much for her to handle. In January 1960, she dumped both Keith Pittman and his baby sister Aileen with her parents, Lauri (Diane’s father) and Britta Wuornos. They still had other children of their own at home, but they legally adopted Keith and Aileen on March 18, 1960. Diane disappeared and was never again a part of her children’s lives.
Revelations & Descent
Aileen and Keith always believed they were the children of Lauri and Britta Wuornos, and the grandparents never tried to disabuse them of that notion. How Aileen found out (when she was 12) that the pair she lived with were really her grandparents is unknown, but find out she did. Any child, one would have to believe, would feel terrible at having been abandoned by a biological parent. So, too, Aileen’s sense of self was destroyed by this revelation.
In the working-class world of Rochester, Michigan (a few miles northeast of Pontiac), where Aileen was born, teenage unwed mothers weren’t uncommon. Now, living with her grandparents in similar working-class surroundings in Troy, Michigan (part of the Detroit metro area), she wandered off life’s path. Unloved at home (Lauri was an abusive alcoholic), her closest friend was her brother Keith. She spent as much time away from the Wuornos house as possible. She hung out in a nearby wooded area with other disaffected and delinquent kids (one of whom, a girl named Dawn Botkins, would stay a lifelong “friend” of sorts).
Sexually, Aileen matured early enough that by the age of eleven she was engaging in sex-for-pay (apparently mostly masturbation or fellatio) with the neighborhood boys. Her take on the subject was simple: since she was going to be sexually active anyway she may as well profit. Her reputation as a part-time prostitute was clear among her peer group. She tricked for cigarettes, whatever juvenile drugs of choice were available, and sometimes for food.
Aileen, when she was an adult, claimed her alcoholic grandfather Lauri had sexually assaulted and beaten her as a child. She claimed he made her strip naked before any beatings, and either bent her over a table or had her lie, spread-eagled and face down, on a bed. Another allegation arose later in her life that she and her brother Keith had sex as well, but this appears to be baseless, part of the lurid legend of Aileen Wuornos.
Not surprisingly, in 1970, the 14-year-old Aileen turned up pregnant. She never told Lauri who the father was but she claimed she had been raped by a man in the neighborhood (once, she alleged it was a male friend of Lauri’s). Lauri and Britta were deeply ashamed, and they packed her off to a home for unwed mothers. She gave birth to a boy there in 1971 – Lauri had already arranged for it to be adopted out. Aileen never saw the baby after his birth.
Within a few months of giving birth Aileen dropped out of school. Her grandmother died of liver failure at about the same time. [Diane Wuornos claimed later she believed Lauri killed Britta. There is no basis for this allegation except for Lauri’s inaction when Britta began convulsing. The night of her death Lauri delayed calling an ambulance because he didn’t have the money to pay for it. Also, one of Lauri’s and Britta’s other daughters tried to place blame squarely on Keith and Aileen. This daughter said Aileen’s pregnancy and Keith’s constant troublemaking had caused Britta to drink more heavily. The plain truth is the woman was an alcoholic and died an alcoholic’s death.]. Lauri, in the wake of Britta’s death, had enough of Aileen’s truancy and undisciplined behavior; he told her to leave his home and never come back. She was fifteen. Lauri later killed himself.
Aileen prostituted in the area and lived in the woods near her grandfather’s home. Friends sometimes checked on her and brought her a few things occasionally. Finally, she decided she had to go somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t Troy, Michigan.
With absolutely no marketable skills or hope of any kind for a meaningful life, Aileen Wuornos stuck out her thumb. She traded fellatio and intercourse for rides (sometimes for food) and finally
She kept a low profile and bummed around, hitchhiking and crashing where she could (many times in barns or woods). By 1976 she had made it to sunny Florida. At least there, if she had to rough it, she wouldn’t freeze to death. Through her prostitution efforts, she met an elderly man named Lewis Gratz Fell that year. He was 69 and the president of a yacht club. Aileen, certainly, saw the allure in such a man – not too demanding on her, well-off enough to meet material needs, etc. Apparently, he felt kindly toward her; he asked her to marry him. They wed in mid 1976.
Aileen slummed around afterward, engaging in short-term relationships with abusive men. She prostituted for ready cash, forged checks, and even committed an armed robbery. In 1981, she was distraught when she concluded her current boyfriend was preparing to separate from her. Aileen Wuornos, completely starved for affection almost her entire life, felt she could not go on living without this man, so she decided to kill herself.
Aileen could not settle down, though. On May 1, 1984, she was arrested after trying to pass forged checks at a Key West bank. On November 30, 1985, she was hauled in as a suspect for the theft of a revolver and ammunition in Pasco County. She was picked up in Miami on January 4, 1986. This time it was for grand theft auto. Added to that were charges of resisting arrest (she did not go quietly) and obstruction (she gave the police a false name). Police found a .38–caliber pistol and a box of ammo in the stolen vehicle.
Her revolving door with the authorities kept spinning, and she was picked up again on June 2, 1986, this time in Volusia County, Florida (Daytona Beach area). She was accused by a male “companion” of having pulled a gun on him and demanding $200 while in his car. Police discovered a .22-caliber pistol underneath the passenger’s seat where Aileen had been sitting. They found spare bullets for the gun in her pockets.
At the age of 30, Aileen’s best years were behind her. She already wore the haggard look of a worn-out prostitute. She carried the paranoia of the drug user as well. Men had not treated her kindly and occasionally she had turned to women for comfort, assuming they would not abuse her or otherwise cheat her.
However big a mess Aileen Wuornos was, her choice in a lover and friend was not a wise one. Tyria Jolene Moore was a motel maid working in Daytona Beach, Florida. She was also a lesbian. She was from Cadiz, Ohio (the hometown of screen legend Clark Gable), and her formative years were unremarkable. Her father was a carpenter and brick-layer who worked steadily. She had one sister and three brothers. As a teen she attended a vocational school where she was a merely average student. Being an out-of-the-closet lesbian in such a small-minded community, however, was not for her, so she left Ohio for Florida.
Tyria Moore was instantly recognizable to Aileen Wuornos as a lesbian – she was the complete stereotype the public carried in its head of what lesbians look like. She had the close-cropped hair, wore men’s clothing, was very masculine in her demeanor, and overweight. Aileen and she met in a Daytona lesbian bar called Zodiac in 1986. They became friends. At 24, Tyria was a few years younger than “Lee” as she came to call her, but a harmonious chord was struck between the two.
The two lived nomadically. Aileen had convinced Tyria to quit her job, and they moved from motel to motel, sometimes sleeping outdoors, trying to live on Aileen’s prostitution earnings. Her looks had never been much but her rough life in recent years (in and out of jail, heavy bouts of drinking and drugging) meant she could not attract much in the way of johns. She hitchhiked up and down US Highway 1, the asphalt lifeline between Daytona and Melbourne, Florida (on the Atlantic Coast roughly 60 miles east of Disney World in Orlando). She picked up her johns on the road, serviced them in their cars (usually in a turn-out or highway rest area), and then got dropped off for the next opportunity to pass.
Tyria and Aileen were content with each other for awhile, but money strains (and the way Aileen made her money) bothered Tyria. Aileen many times could not provide, and they were forced to skip out on motel bills, sleeping in barns or in the woods. They stayed together as a couple for four years (Tyria reported that toward the end of the relationship she and Aileen “were more like sisters than lovers”).
Tyria and Aileen were not settled completely into the domesticity of living together. They scrapped, and in a Daytona Beach bar in July 1987 both women were held for questioning after an assault complaint had been leveled. Allegedly, both Aileen and Tyria had battered someone with a beer bottle. Aileen, in March 1988, accused a Daytona Beach bus driver of assaulting her. She claimed the driver had pushed her physically off a bus after a verbal confrontation with her. For this matter, Tyria was her witness to the incident.
Murder Most Pedestrian
Aileen believed Tyria would leave her if she could not continue to provide for her (Aileen called Tyria her “wife”). On November 30, 1989, fate played a deadly hand in guiding Aileen Wuornos straight to the death chamber.
Typically, Aileen was out roaming the highways looking for a john that night. She was disheveled, unwashed, and rough-looking, and yet she could still get someone to stop on occasion. The john who stopped was 51-year-old Richard Mallory. He was an electronics store owner in Clearwater, Florida. He was also a convicted rapist who’d done a serious hitch in prison in Maryland. On December 1, 1989, police found Mallory’s abandoned vehicle tucked into a copse. His body was found a few miles away in a wooded area on December 13. Although he had been shot multiple times, a coroner determined it was the two slugs in his left lung that had killed him.
There were no leads at the time. Suddenly, up and down the Atlantic strip, over the next year, six more bodies of men were found. All had been shot. The word “overkill” applied to the victims. Although one man had only been shot twice, at least two of the victims had been shot to the point of emptying the gun. One man had been shot nine times; the killer had emptied the piece, reloaded, and continued firing.
In the wake of the first murder (of Mallory), Aileen was suddenly flush with a few hundred dollars in cash. Tyria did not express suspicion then, but the two went on a partying spree. Over time, Aileen would disappear and suddenly turn up later with wads of cash or a car that was clearly not hers. Tyria, though suspecting something, elected to remain silent on the matter (she later claimed that although she thought Aileen was killing men and robbing them, she felt afraid to confront her for fear Aileen would kill her as well).
Police were baffled about the mysterious murders, and the search for the equally mysterious “Melbourne Hitchhiker” was on. Based on scanty details and circumstances police reluctantly concluded they might be looking for a woman. Considering the out-of-the-way places where bodies and abandoned cars were found they also concluded this woman might be working a strip of highway as a prostitute (common in Florida).
The abandoned car of Victim # 4, Pete Siems (age 65, missing in June 1990) was found by police on July 4, 1990. [His body, however, was never found.]. A quick canvass of the area netted information that two women (descriptions given to police) had been seen ditching the car. On the driver’s side door was a partial palm print. It took little time to match the print to those on file with Aileen Carol Wuornos.
Police flooded the media with the story and the sketches. Pawn shops were searched and items of Siems’ were found to have been hocked. The police quickly matched their partial palm print from the car door to the prints found on these pawned items.
For Thanksgiving 1990, Tyria left Aileen in Florida while she went to visit some family members in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She stayed north for a longer time than planned, mostly to get away from Aileen. She knew beyond any doubt that Aileen was a killer (she had ridden in a dead man’s stolen car more than once herself), and she was complicit in covering up the crimes even if she did not directly take part.
The police wanted to talk to Aileen Wuornos as they came to believe she was certainly a person of interest in the deaths on the highways. Aileen, who had no idea she was wanted yet, was not easy to find. She missed Tyria, but she struggled along in her typical dysfunctional way. Her itinerant status meant she could be anywhere. One of her favorite haunts was a biker bar called The Last Resort. Even among this group of bottom-feeders and outcasts, Aileen Wuornos was a pariah. The bikers who hung out there over time began to shun her – she would get drunk and pick fights, and was generally not welcomed.
She was drinking in The Last Resort on January 9, 1991, when police finally caught up with her.
They worked on her enough to learn of her relationship with Tyria Moore and Aileen’s protective feelings about her lesbian “wife”. She still claimed innocence of any murders. Police really had nothing more than her palm print on a car door and her prints on some pawned goods. At best, they could nail her for auto theft or stealing. They wanted her to confess to the killings. She wouldn’t do it.
Considering what they knew of her relationship with Tyria police rightfully concluded that Tyria was probably complicit in the murders (at least with respect to disposing of property). They told Aileen they would find Tyria and charge her with murder, too.
When Tyria was located in Pennsylvania she was brought back to Florida and threatened with criminal charges. But there was a deal to be made – if Tyria could elicit a confession from Aileen and testify against her, then she would be granted immunity from prosecution. She agreed to the terms readily enough. Through a series of coached telephone calls between Aileen Wuornos and Tyria Moore, Aileen made it abundantly clear she was a killer. She also made it clear that she did not want Tyria blamed or charged with anything. She gave a full and detailed confession to police three days later on January 16.
The only murder of genuine interest of the seven is the first one. Aileen claimed Richard Mallory had brutally raped her, and she had shot him in self-defense. She also claimed the other six men had threatened her and tried to rape her, too, so she shot them in self-defense (she later withdrew this allegation). The reality came to hash out differently.
Mallory really was a rapist. Considering she had already confessed, her testimony about events leading up to Mallory’s murder was graphic; the best she could hope for was some mitigation. She was a spectacularly bad witness on her own behalf, however. She was volatile, and alternately teary and hostile on the stand. Her language was not tempered, and she swore. She related she had been picked up by Mallory for one kind of sex, but then he wanted something different. In the end he vaginally raped her and then used a tire iron to rape her anally. The level of detail and her emotional upset over retelling this in court tends toward her story’s having the ring of truth. Mallory raped her, and then she killed him. Although not self-defense (since the threat to her was over), it was certainly justifiable.
Mallory was the only murder of which she was actively convicted on January 27, 1992 (she had entered a “not guilty” plea). Of the other six men, she pled “no contest” or “guilty” to five of them (Pete Siems, with no body recovered, was not entertained).
Death of a Serial Killer
Much ink was spilled on Aileen Wuornos in the wake of her conviction for the murder of Richard Mallory. She was sentenced to death. After years on Death Row, she finally tired of the appeals’ process and requested to be executed as soon as possible. Perhaps to insure her agony of incarceration would end, she included this in her petition:
“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.”
Florida Governor Jeb Bush approved her request to no longer delay her execution. In a last interview the day before her death she railed against society, claiming she’d been unfairly treated and illegally incarcerated because she was innocent. She was plainly agitated and made reference to a “sonic pressure” in her head, but this was perceived as a final bid to be declared incompetent (incompetent people cannot be executed).
She was the tenth woman in the US executed since the capital punishment ban was lifted in 1976. She was the second woman ever executed in Florida. She was cremated and her ashes were sent to her Michigan childhood friend (Dawn Botkins) who scattered them around a tree in her memory.
Aileen & Nancy
Nancy Spungen (1958-1978) was only known to the public infamously for one thing: being murdered by her boyfriend, Sid Vicious. Nancy was a groupie and a hanger-on during punk’s development in the mid 1970s. She followed local bands in New York City, then went to England hoping to snag Jerry Nolan (formerly of the New York Dolls, America’s premier punk band in the early 1970s). She hung around with Johnny Thunders (ex-New York Dolls guitarist) and his new band, The Heartbreakers. She met the Sex Pistols early in their career, and setting her sights on singer Johnny Rotten (as boyfriend material) found quickly he was not interested in her at all. Rotten’s best friend (and the Pistols’ new bass player), Sid Vicious, was her next target, and Sid fell for her. She had been introduced to heroin thanks to The Heartbreakers, and she, in turn, led the extremely naïve Sid Vicious into the junkie’s nightmare. In late 1978, Sid stabbed her to death in a New York City hotel room. A few months later, out on bail and pending trial for her murder, Sid died of a heroin overdose in February 1979 (the fatal dose was supplied to him by his mother).
Nancy’s downward spiral, however, really began at birth. Her mother, Deborah Spungen, wrote a biography about Nancy in 1983 called And I Don’t Want to Live this Life. Deborah said in her book that Nancy had been born with cyanosis. This is a condition called “blue baby”, and it means the newborn was sufficiently deprived of oxygen at birth to cause the skin to turn bluish. Nancy’s umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck when she was born. Doctors spent many minutes reviving her, and although they reassured Deborah Spungen and her husband she had no brain damage, there was apparently something wrong with her. She was beyond colicky as a baby, screaming non-stop for hours. In the late 1950s, medical science probably did not consider the consequences of certain treatments, and Deborah was given liquid barbiturates to give the baby to quiet her down.
As Nancy grew up, she was flighty, volatile, and given to outbursts of anger and temper. She had difficulty in school and could not concentrate for long periods. She was a true problem child, running away from home, having sex early, doing drugs and drinking, and partying with the likes of Aerosmith and the New York Dolls’ contingent. She also expressed a desire to die often enough that people worried she might commit suicide.
Aileen Wuornos and Nancy Spungen were not only contemporaries in time they were probably psychic twins. Johnny Rotten, in his book No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs, described Nancy as a vile and horrible human being. He not only disliked her personality she was physically filthy. He recorded some of her more bizarre behaviors. Once, when Rotten really wanted to upset a group of posh people who had invited him to a party, he also invited Sid and Nancy. When Nancy showed up, she was so filthy her bare legs were caked with a layer of dirt; Rotten reported she had urine stains tracking down through the dirt on her legs. He said at that moment he had been very proud of her.
Nancy prostituted a bit in England before meeting Sid (and probably during breaks while the Pistols toured and she couldn’t go). She was unpopular with the punk crowd who perceived her as a spoiled American hippie and a poser.
Nancy Spungen never became a serial killer. Maybe she never would have become one since she was self-medicating with smack (and whatever else she could get her hands on). The simple truth, though, is Nancy Spungen and Aileen Wuornos exhibited all the same behaviors. Deborah Spungen at least provided a clue about why Nancy behaved the way she did. Maybe, if it were known, perhaps Aileen Wuornos had that touch of brain damage from cyanosis at her birth. Maybe her mother, the 15-year-old Diane, drank a lot of alcohol, and Aileen was a product of fetal alcohol syndrome. Maybe Leo Pittman, an abusive man, beat Diane Pittman while she was pregnant causing fetal damage.
Aileen Wuornos was perhaps one of the most psychically and emotionally broken women in the history of crime. While it is hard to muster compassion for such a person, it is somehow curious to wonder what might have happened if she had been raised properly or had gotten the mental health treatment she so obviously needed. It is too late to find out what specifically “made” her a serial killer, but it is almost certain there was a mysterious “X factor” at work on the damaged and deadly Aileen Wuornos.