Aileen Wuornos: The Damsel of Death

aileen wuornos a person with the hands up

Who Was Aileen Wuornos?

Serial killer Aileen Wuornos was convicted for murdering six men in Florida in 1989 and 1990. Wuornos had exhibited unusual sexual behavior as a child before leaving home as a teen and had multiple brushes with the law by the 1980s, when she made a living as a sex worker on Florida’s highways. Her killing spree started around late November 1989 and earned her the nickname “Damsel of Death.” After being arrested in January 1991, she confessed to seven murders before receiving death sentences in the six cases brought against her. Although her sanity was questioned, Wuornos was executed by lethal injection in October 2002 at age 46. In addition to documentaries, books, and an opera, her story was depicted in the 2003 movie Monster, starring Charlize Theron, and more recently, 2021’s Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman.

Jump to:

  • Who Was Aileen Wuornos?
  • Quick Facts
  • Young Aileen Wuornos
  • Ex-Husband Lewis Fell
  • Girlfriend Tyria Moore
  • Murder Victims
  • Arrest, Trial, and Conviction
  • Death and Last Words
  • Movie and Television Portrayals

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Aileen Carol WuornosBORN: February 29, 1956DIED: October 9, 2002BIRTHPLACE: Rochester, MichiganSPOUSE: Lewis Fell (1976)CHILD: 1 sonASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Pisces

Young Aileen Wuornos

Aileen Wuornos was born as Aileen Carol Pittman on February 29, 1956, in Rochester, Michigan. Her parents, Diane Wuornos and Leo Pittman, divorced before her birth. After Diane, a teen mother, abandoned Aileen and her older brother, Keith, Diane’s parents legally adopted the two young children. Aileen never knew her biological father, who was eventually imprisoned for child rape and died by suicide while in custody.

Aileen grew up in nearby Troy, Michigan, with her adoptive parents, Keith, and two older adoptive siblings (her biological aunt and uncle). A fire scarred her face when she was a young girl. She developed an explosive temper and found it difficult to make friends.

Around age 10, Wuornos learned that her parents were actually her biological grandparents. (Media reports later drew comparisons between Wuornos and serial killer Ted Bundy, who was also raised believing his grandparents were his parents for several years.) This knowledge added more tension to an unhappy household; her grandfather Lauri was a harsh disciplinarian who once had Wuornos watch him drown a kitten. Wuornos later stated she was physically and sexually abused by her grandfather and had sexual relations with her brother during childhood.

As an 11-year-old, Wuornos was offering sexual favors to boys she knew if they paid her or gave her cigarettes, resulting in the derogatory nickname “cigarette pig.” Sex work further isolated Wuornos from her peers.

Wuornos ran away from home on multiple occasions and eventually was sent to juvenile detention. At 14, Lauri sent a pregnant Aileen to a Detroit home for unwed mothers. She told her family the pregnancy was the result of rape but later offered different explanations. She gave birth to a boy in March 1971; her infant son was given up for adoption.

After giving birth, Wuornos dropped out of school and bounced between juvenile detention, the Wuornos house, and sleeping in the woods or abandoned cars. Her grandmother Britta, who had struggled with alcoholism, died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 7, 1971. By this point, Lauri refused to care for his 15-year-old granddaughter any longer.

Less than five years later, in March 1976, Lauri died by suicide, according to Sue Russell’s book Lethal Intent; Aileen didn’t attend the funeral. By that time, she had hitchhiked across the country while continuing to engage in sex work.

Ex-Husband Lewis Fell

In Florida, she met wealthy yachtsman Lewis Gratz Fell. The 20-year-old Wuornos and Fell, who was about five decades her senior, got married in May 1976.

The union was short-lived: Fell left Wuornos within a month. He stated she had “a violent and ungovernable temper” and had beaten him with his cane. Wuornos asserted he had been the one to attack her. The two officially divorced on July 19, 1976.

That same month, her brother, Keith, died from cancer.

Girlfriend Tyria Moore

Wuornos was arrested during the mid-1970s for assault, disturbing the peace, and disorderly conduct. In the early 1980s, she served time for armed robbery after drunkenly attempting to rob a convenience store while, according to Peter Vronsky’s book Female Serial Killers, wearing a bikini. Wuornos’ record of criminality also included forged checks, resisting arrest, theft, and drunk driving. Some crimes were attributed to fake names Wuornos had a habit of using.

In June 1986, Wuornos, now calling herself “Lee,” met 24-year-old Tyria Moore at a gay bar in Daytona, Florida. The two started an intense 4.5-year relationship and began living together. While Moore held jobs as a housekeeper or maid, Wuornos engaged in sex work along Florida highways. A possessive Wuornos didn’t like it when her partner went to work or interacted with others. They frequently moved to various motels, apartments, and mobile home communities in Dayton and elsewhere in Florida.

It was during their involvement that Wuornos’ criminal activity took a murderous turn. Caught up in the investigation, Moore eventually turned against her girlfriend by helping the authorities.

Watch Monster or Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman, two movies inspired by the life of Aileen Wuornos

Murder Victims

From late 1989 into the fall of 1990, Wuornos fatally shot seven middle-aged and older men near highways in north and central Florida.

Her first victim was Richard Mallory, a 51-year-old repair shop owner who was known to frequently hire sex workers. He was last seen on November 30, 1989. According to Moore’s testimony, the next day, Wuornos told Moore she had killed a man. On December 13, 1989, Mallory’s body was found at an illegal dumping site in the woods.

Five more dead men were discovered over subsequent months. The body of construction worker David Spears, 43, was found on June 1, 1990. Part-time rodeo worker Charles Carskaddon, 40, went missing on May 31, 1990; his remains were found on June 6. On August 4, 1990, five days after he was reported missing, salesman Troy Burress, 50, was found dead. Charles “Dick” Humphreys, 56, a child abuse investigator, was found on September 12, 1990. Walter Antonio, a trucker and reserve police officer who was in his 60s, was discovered on November 19, 1990.

Throughout this time, Wuornos often returned home with new possessions to pawn and cars that she had “borrowed.” She used a variety of aliases when she pawned items belonging to her victims, which made tracking her more difficult. But in July 1990, authorities examined the vehicle of Peter Siems, a 65-year-old missionary who’d gone missing the previous month. Witnesses described seeing Wuornos and Moore leave the car, and a print from the door handle was a match for Wuornos.

Arrest, Trial, and Conviction

a brick building has a large sign outside advertising the last resort bar, several large trees are in the background as well as a pay phone and parked cars

Aileen Wuornos was arrested at The Last Resort bar in Port Orange, Florida, on January 9, 1991.

Getty Images

In the fall of 1990, reports that authorities were looking for two women suspected of murder prompted Moore to flee Florida and leave Wuornos. On January 9, 1991, Wuornos was arrested at The Last Resort bar in Port Orange, Florida, on an outstanding charge. Soon afterward, police tracked down Moore in Pennsylvania; she made a deal to gather evidence against Wuornos in order to avoid prosecution.

In mid-January, Wuornos admitted to murder in a phone call with Moore, saying she’d committed her crimes because she was desperately in love and wanted them to stay together. After her phone confession to Moore, and against the advice of counsel, police videotaped Wuornos as she confessed to seven murders. The public was fascinated by the case, due in part to the lurid nature of the crimes and erroneous media descriptions of Wuornos as the country’s first female serial killer. She was dubbed “the Damsel of Death.” Among the people who reached out to Wuornos were an evangelical Christian couple, who went on to legally adopt her.

Wuornos was first prosecuted for Mallory’s murder. During the January 1992 trial, Wuornos asserted she had been raped and assaulted by Mallory, details that didn’t match her video confession. Although not revealed in court, Mallory had previously served time for attempting sexual assault. However, no other sex workers came forward to recount a previous violent encounter with Mallory.

A jury found Wuornos, then 35, guilty of first-degree murder and robbery on January 27, 1992. The judge gave Wuornos the death penalty on January 31. Two months later, Wuornos opted to plead no contest to the murders of Spears, Burress, and Humphreys. She then submitted separate guilty pleas for the murders of Carskaddon and Antonio. She received a death sentence for each plea. Siems’ body has not been recovered, and Wuornos wasn’t charged with his murder.

Wuornos initially maintained she had killed her victims in self-defense, though she later retracted these statements. Police believed she had killed men who’d either picked her up or had stopped to help her on the highway.

Death and Last Words

After a decade on death row, Wuornos decided to fire her appeals lawyers, who were working for a stay of execution. Although a court-appointed attorney argued that comments made by Wuornos suggested she was profoundly disconnected from reality, in April 2002, the Florida Supreme Court ruled she was able to fire her attorneys.

In early October 2002, Florida Governor Jeb Bush lifted a temporary stay of execution after three psychiatrists deemed Wuornos mentally competent to understand the death penalty and the reasons for its implementation.

Wuornos was executed by lethal injection on October 9, 2002, in Starke, Florida. She was 46 years old. Her reported 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 mothership and all. I’ll be back.”

Wuornos’ remains were cremated and scattered by a tree in Michigan.

Movie and Television Portrayals

In addition to books and the opera Wuornos, Wuornos’ story has been closely profiled in movies. British documentarian Nick Broomfield created two works: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer in 1993 and, a decade later, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which was co-directed by Joan Churchill.

Actor Charlize Theron, often known for a glamorous screen persona, underwent a major physical and emotional transformation to portray Wuornos in 2003’s Monster, written and directed by Patty Jenkins and co-starring Christina Ricci as Selby Wall, a character inspired by Tyria Moore. In a riveting performance that was grueling to watch and hailed by critic Roger Ebert as a cinematic milestone, Theron won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2004. However, Monster garnered some controversy over the accuracy and scope of its details.

Wuornos’ life continues to fascinate the creative industry, with actor Lily Rabe portraying Wournos in Season 5 of American Horror Story. The 2021 movie Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman was inspired by Wuornos’ ill-fated marriage to Lewis Fell.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *