Creature-Feature: America’s First Female Serial Killer

creature-feature. Noun. (plural creature features) (idiomatic, film, humorous) A horror film in which one or more monsters plays a prominent role. “Godzilla” is one of the classic creature features.

Instead of featuring a classic movie monster, this series will highlight society’s “monsters,” those bad people we consider to be beyond human. Are they evil or are they surviving white supremacy? Is it blood thirst or is it a narrative that upholds the patriarchy? Are they really the monsters we think they are?

Join me once a month for new segments of Creature-Feature.

On February 29, 1956, a 16 year old girl named Diane gave birth to her husband Leo’s baby, a beautiful blonde-haired girl named Lee. Lee had an older brother, Keith, and the three of them lived together with Diane’s parents, Lauri and Britta, after Diane and Leo divorced.

When Lee was just four years old, her mother abandoned her and Keith, and so her grandparents adopted them. At some point before this their father Leo had been convicted of sex crimes against children and was serving time. This essentially rendered them orphans. Leo actually made the children orphans when he killed himself in prison in 1969.

Lauri and Britta raised Lee and Keith like they were their own children, providing them with a roof over their head, but little else. Lauri, the children’s grandfather, started sexually abusing Lee at a very early age, and likely Keith as well (it was rumored that Lauri had raped Diane and that Lee was actually his biological child). Britta, their grandmother, was an alcoholic, and both she and Lauri physically abused the children. Keith copied the sexual behavior he observed and started sexually abusing Lee in exchange for giving her food or money.

This inter-generational grooming behavior taught Lee to trade sex for the things she needed, and at age nine she was giving boys and men in the neighborhood blowjobs for cigarettes. Many of her male peers lost their virginity to her, although none wanted to be seen with her. Lee was popular in private and reviled in public.

When Lee was 13 she became pregnant with Keith’s baby, and was sent away to give birth and put the baby up for adoption. Within months of returning home Britta died, and Lauri had his grandchildren removed and made wards of the state.

At 14 Lee ran away from foster care, began living in the woods at the end of her street, and started hooking (Lee’s preferred term for sex work) at the gas station next door.

She shared a fort in the woods for two years with the other ostracized member of their community, a cross-dressing man who had been outed. After her second brutal winter in the woods, Lee decided to move to Daytona Beach, Florida and start her life over hooking along highway 175.

At age 20 she met a 69 year old yacht club President named Lewis Gratz Fell and they were soon married. However only weeks afterwards Lewis filed a restraining order against Lee claiming she assaulted him. Lee defended herself saying he refused to give her any money unless she complied sexually, but the restraining order was granted and they were soon divorced.

For the next decade or so Lee survived by hooking and committing crimes like shoplifting and forging checks. She was arrested multiple times.

In June 1986, Lee was questioned by police for her involvement in an alleged robbery of one of her male customers, putting her on their radar as a sex worker. Lee continued hooking with the understanding that the police were aware of what she was doing, not necessarily permitting her activities, but actively overlooking them.

At the time she was making large amounts of money “hand over fist” and kept her business to just her regulars. Lee describes those times as really enjoyable. She was often friends with her regulars and they would spend time together discussing philosophy or politics.

Shortly after this arrest Lee met a woman named Tyria “Ty” Moore and the two fell in love, beginning a four year relationship. They moved in together and Lee hooked to support them. During the Iran-Iraq war though she began losing her regulars to various overseas training, and had to resort to seeing strangers if she wanted to make the same amount of money.

Ty had expensive taste and liked to drink, party, and stay at nice places. Lee was down to making only about $150 a week after losing her regulars, and Ty was unhappy with the amount. She demanded that Lee bring in closer to $7k a week, essentially acting as her pimp or trafficker. In order to make that amount, Ty suggested that Lee see strangers again, and Lee complied, desperate to please her even though she knew she would be putting herself in danger. Before leaving to wander the highway each night, Lee tucked her .22 pistol into her bag for protection.

The first man to assault her during this period was a man named Richard Mallory.

CW: the next few paragraphs describe an extremely graphic scene of rape and sodomy.

Richard wrapped a cord around her neck and threatened to kill her and “fuck her body like he had done to other sluts.” He asked her if she “wanted to die” and when she shook her head no he made her lay down on the car seat and he began to violently rape her anally. Lee complied, sobbing and bleeding, hoping that he would just finish and let her go. He did not, instead pulling out of her only to pour alcohol directly into her torn rectum, vagina, and then into her nostrils. He then threatened her saying he was leaving her eyes for his “grand finale” and put the alcohol on the dashboard. He laughed at her efforts to fight back and told her that it turned him on when the women he was with were in pain and crying. He encouraged her to keep sobbing.

Assuming that she was going to die, Lee spit in his face and as he was wiping it away she reached for her pistol and started shooting. Lee managed to shoot and kill him, and then left his body in the woods for police to find. Before meeting Lee, Richard had served an eight year sentence for attempted rape in the state of Maryland.

Dick Humphreys, a child abuse investigator and retired detective, was the second man to assault Lee. As soon as she realized what was happening she immediately reached for her pistol and shot him, killing him as he “just started” to rape her.

The third man was Troy Burress, and Lee shot and killed him immediately as he began to rape her.

David Spears was the fourth man to assault Lee and as he began the rape she shot and killed him.

The fifth man was Walter Gino Antonio. Walter tried to use a fake police badge to scare Lee into having sex with him and he became angry when she questioned his credentials. Walter kept demanding sex and so Lee grabbed her pistol for protection, causing Walter to try and wrestle the gun out of her hands. They were drunk and Walter was shot twice. He threatened her once more so she shot him two more times, finally leaving him dead in the woods.

Charles Carskaddon was the sixth man to assault Lee, and she shot and killed him as he attempted to rape her.

These sexual assaults and subsequent killings happened over the course of a year, and in January 1991 Lee turned herself in to the police. The FBI had labeled the alleged perpetrator “America’s First Female Serial Killer” and offered an award for her capture. Enticed, Ty betrayed Lee and reported her to the police, became their informant, manipulated a taped confession from Lee by feigning suicidal ideation, and convinced her to turn herself in for the sake of their “love and life together.”

Lee was arrested and eventually charged with seven murders, but one case was thrown out when no body was found.

After her arrest, and the extreme publicity of her case, Lee, an adult woman, was adopted by a 44-year-old born-again Christian woman named Arlene Pralle. “I felt fulfilled, a sense of completeness and confirmation that what I was doing was correct,” Arlene says. “And I knew that others didn’t know her like I do.”

Lee’s official name at the time of her death was Aileen Wuornos Pralle.

After twice attempting suicide, Pralle became a born-again Christian in 1981. While looking at Wuornos’ picture in a local newspaper, Pralle said, she peered deep into her eyes “and God prompted me to do something.” She sent the accused a letter. “I don’t care if you’re guilty or innocent,” she wrote, “but I want to be your friend” (Source: Mike Clary, A Mother’s Love: Aileen Carol Wuornos has claimed to be that rarest of predators, a female serial killer. Horse breeder Arlene Pralle is the born-again Christian who adopted her after seeing her photo in the local newspaper).

In 1991, at some point before Lee’s first trial had even begun, her ex Ty, and the police she worked with, sold their life rights to a movie producer in order to film Overkill, a movie portraying Lee as a serial killer. The movie came out in 1992.

Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reports, there were many others who attempted to profit off her story before, during, and after her trial:

Wuornos and her story have set off a frenzy among filmmakers, writers, television tabloid shows and assorted hucksters, all trying to cash in on what is perhaps an unprecedented saga of a highway femme fatale. In fact, the scramble for the rights to the Lee Wuornos story has become a story in itself.

Republic Pictures once had a deal with three police officers who investigated the case, CBS Entertainment execs read a script, and at least half a dozen production companies at one time were in the chase for the rights to what could be one of the most sensational true-crime dramas in years.

The judge in Lee’s first trial allowed the evidence of the five other dead men to be entered into record on the grounds that it proved her motive as a serial killer. She had not been to trial for any of the other charges yet.

Lee did not stand trial again after her first one. She pleaded no contest to the murders of Dick Humphreys, Troy Burress, and David Spears, saying she wanted to “get right with God.”

In a rambling statement to the court she said, “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 [before I killed them].”

After being found guilty she turned to Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgeway, flipped him off, and hissed, “I hope your wife and children get raped in the ass!”

Lee was ultimately convicted of the murder of six different men and was given six separate death sentences.

After sentencing, Lee accused her new mother Arlene of pressuring her into pleading no contest, saying that Arlene actually wanted her to get the death sentence. Lee claimed that Arlene told her the court would be lenient on her if she followed what God wanted. Shortly after this Lee and Arlene fell out and eventually stopped speaking. Lee additionally accused Arlene of adopting her for financial gain.

[I]n the videotaped confession, Wuornos, asked by a police officer why she killed, says, “They crossed the line. They were gonna rape me, kill me, strangle me” (Source: Mike Clary, A Mother’s Love: Aileen Carol Wuornos has claimed to be that rarest of predators, a female serial killer. Horse breeder Arlene Pralle is the born-again Christian who adopted her after seeing her photo in the local newspaper).

Lee had confessed to the killings with the defense that she was saving herself from harm. She maintained that defense on and off until 2002 when she completely changed her story and claimed that she was indeed the cold-blooded serial killer that everyone had accused her of being. She confessed fully, saying she had been lying the whole time and then she terminated all appeals of her death sentence.

However, in an interview with Nick Broomfield caught off camera, Lee admitted to changing her story in order to be put to death more quickly. She told him how the guards were torturing her, tainting her food, and threatening her with sexual violence. She said that she would rather just be dead than put up with the continued abuse.

Any efforts to complain just made the abuse worsen, and she was certain they were trying to drive her insane.

On October 9, 2002, a 46-year-old woman named Aileen “Lee” Wuornos Pralle was put to death by lethal injection, the 10th woman in the United States to be executed.

Her last words 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.”

So is Lee evil? Is she really a monster? Well, regardless of the fact that I do not believe in the concept of evil, for one, I think Lee was the victim of some tragic circumstances and was forced to kill in order to survive. I do not think she is a blood-thirsty murderer.

I am not alone in this idea. Back when Lee was still on death row, many feminist groups took up her cause and advocated for her as a victim of rape, domestic violence, child abuse, and systemic violence.

[S]ex workers, lesbians, feminists, sexual assault survivors, and those whose identities intersect these experiences have been quietly looking to Wuornos as a cult hero and feminist icon for some time. “Today marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Aileen Wuornos, a beautifully humane woman who will forever hold a place in my heart for her strength and courage in living through the horrific life cards she’d been dealt and that were completely out of her control,” read a post on the now-defunct blog Feminist Rag in 2013…

“It’s really easy for society to paint women and other oppressed people as villains when they react in unhinged ways that are often violent, but it’s important to look at how capitalism, cis heterosexist patriarchy, and misogyny really put her in many of the positions she was in that made her murder,” [Dani] Love, [an outspoken advocate for black women’s liberation and sex workers’ rights known online as @BlackSapphic,] said. “She was a victim of so many structural oppressions. Sex workers in her field lack protection, which allows violence to happen. Sex workers cannot go to the police for help because they are directly connected to the oppression of so many marginalized groups who often are sex workers: women, black and other people of color, LGBT people.”

Two, not only was Lee marginalized and vulnerable mentally and physically, she was also targeted by many friends and family who claimed to love her. Ty, her ex lover, trafficked Lee to strangers and held their relationship over her head in order to get her to comply. You can see this dynamic play out when Ty betrays her by going to the police and then calls her to try and coerce a confession out of her. This tactic works because of the abusive dynamic involved between them; Lee thought she was sacrificing herself to save Ty when in reality Ty was just setting her up.

Ty sold her life rights to Hollywood, and Lee’s adopted mother Arlene did interviews for thousands of dollars. Lee’s attorney was wildly unqualified and used his place next to her to try and launch his folk music career. She had no one and was essentially sacrificed to the system.

Three, until close to the end, Lee was always adamant that she was not a serial killer and that she did not plan her kills in advance. Many experts agreed with her at the time:

“I don’t buy it for a second,” said Seattle, Wash., forensic researcher Alexander Schauss, referring to the serial killer label. “She’s not like Ted Bundy, who thinks his crime out ahead of time, who has a specific place he goes to to do the violence, then molests them, then disposes of them. “This is different,” said Schauss, who has studied scores of killers at his institute in an effort to understand their motives and perhaps prevent such crimes in the future. “There’s a tremendous element of randomness in her behavior.”

Stanford University psychiatry professor Donald Lunde, co-author of Murder and Madness and a frequent expert witness, said Wuornos sounds more like a multiple killer than a serial killer. While it may seem like an unnecessary distinction, it is an important one: A multiple killer doesn’t necessarily kill for sport like his or her close cousin, the serial killer.

So, how did Wuornos get pegged as a “serial killer?” It came up months before she was ever a suspect, when police were crafting a profile of the person responsible for the slayings. Elements of the crimes — for instance, that all the bodies were found in rural areas — suggested a man-hunter might have been out there. Other elements did not. But once Wuornos made a videotaped statement about the killings last Jan. 16, some investigators in the case began using the words “serial killer.” Before long, the term was appearing in headlines about Wuornos from here to Germany.

If Wuornos were a serial killer in the classic sense, experts say, she would have killed more men.

The narrative that she was America’s first female serial killer essentially sealed her fate. The judge was influenced by the media hype and he allowed evidence of her supposed serial killing before it was even legally determined that she was a killer. The jury was easily swayed.

So, no, I do not think Aileen Wuornos was a monster. I think she was a woman abused all of her life, I think she was betrayed by lovers, mothers, and men, I think the system used and abused her, and I think she was forced to defend herself against rape.

Aileen Wuornos was not America’s first female serial killer, she was just another abused woman further victimized by the system.

Main sources: the documentaries Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer made by Nick Broomfield.

advocate for victim/survivors of violence || writing for They Matter & published in An Injustice!, COSY, The Collector, Equality Includes You, CrimeBeat, & more

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