The Florida Highway Killer
“You killed seven people in one year.” “Oh well!”
“But you killed seven men.” “Yeah, sure did.”
I referenced female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in a previous blog post (Are Some People Born Evil). This is her story.
Aileen Carol Wuornos was born in 1956 to teenage parents. She never met her father – he was incarcerated for sex crimes against children and later hung himself while in prison. When Aileen was 4 years old, her mother abandoned her and her six year old brother at their grandparents house. Aileen never saw her mother again.
This new arrangement further built upon the trauma already in Aileen’s life. Her grandfather was physically, verbally, and sexually abusive; her grandmother was an alcoholic and did nothing to stop the abuse. By the age 11, she became sexually active both with her older brother and with boys at school and around the neighborhood in exchange for money, food, drugs, and cigarettes. At 14, her grandfather allowed a friend of his to sexually assault Aileen and she became pregnant. The baby was given up for adoption and Aileen was kicked out of her grandparents home and forced to sleep in the nearby woods.
The Light Goes Out
By the age of 15, Wuornos, homeless and desperate, was regularly engaging in prostitution to get by. Unsurprisingly, Wuornos soon began engaging in other forms of criminality. At 18, she was arrested for DUI, disorderly conduct, and discharging a firearm from a moving vehicle. “Failure to appear” was added to her rap sheet when she skipped town for Florida. There she met and briefly married a 69 year old wealthy yacht club president. Nine weeks later, he had the marriage annulled and filed a restraining order against Wuornos after she attacked him with his own cane while demanding money.
From 1976-1986, Wuornos racked up several other criminal offenses: assault, disturbing the peace, drunk driving, armed robbery, attempting to pass forged checks, car theft, resisting arrest, and obstruction of justice. For these crimes, she was arrested on multiple occasions – and often found in possession of various stolen firearms. She served several short jail sentences as well.
“Like Bonnie and Clyde”
IN 1986, Wuornos, now 30 years old, met Tyria Moore, a 24 year old hotel maid. They entered a relationship and began living together. Moore quit her job at the hotel and allowed Wuornos to support them via her prostitution. The pair had a few scrapes with the law, but nothing that landed them in jail. Wuornos once commented that they were “like Bonnie and Clyde” and suggested that one day a book would be written about them. By late 1989, heavy alcohol use had cause Wuornos to gain a great deal of weight resulting in fewer interactions with her male customers.
Wuornos and Moore, strapped for cash, were often forced to sleep outside or in barns. Wuornos devised a plan to solve their money problem: she would pose as a hitchhiker. Once an unsuspecting man picked her up, she would reveal that she was a prostitute in need of money and talk the men into driving to a remote location. There she would use a .22 caliber handgun to murder her victims, steal their cash and valuables, dump the body, and lastly steal the victim’s vehicle.
A Year of Murder
Her first victim was a 51 year old electronics store owner whom she killed on November 30, 1989. Wuornos would later claim that she acted in self defense after the man became violent. His abandoned vehicle was found 2 days later, and his body 2 weeks after that. He had been shot 3 times in the chest and his body wrapped in a carpet.
Somewhere between May 5 and May 19, 1990 Wuornos killed a second man: a 47 year old construction worker and heavy equipment operator. His body was discovered on June first, shot six times with a .22 caliber pistol. A short time later, his abandoned truck was found, the license plate missing.
In the meantime, Wuornos killed again: a 40 year old rodeo worker shot nine times on May 31, 1990. His body was discovered a week later wrapped in a blanket. Witnesses reported two women driving a car that matched the description of the one belonging to the deceased man. Wuornos was also seen pawning his gun. Detectives began to investigate a possible link between the killings and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations was brought into the loop.
On July 4, 1990, emergency services received a call about a car crash in a neighborhood near Orange Springs, Florida. Two women exited the vehicle and told a witness not to call the police. They reentered their smashed vehicle and attempted to drive away, but only made it a short ways down the road. The women abandoned the car and set off on foot. A responding firefighter talked to the women who angrily refused his help. Deputies arrived at the scene and discovered blood inside the car and the license plate missing. Bloody prints from the women were collected from the interior of the car. A VIN records search matched the car to a 65 year old man who had been reported missing on June 22nd. This would be Wuornos’ only victim whose body was never recovered.
On either July 30 or 31, 1990, Wuornos killed again: a 50 year old salesman. His employer discovered that one of their drivers had not completed his final deliveries. They searched for him until 2:00 a.m. and finally reported him missing. The salesman’s truck was located 2 hours later by Marion county deputies. Five days later and 8 miles away, some picnickers discovered his body. He had been shot twice with a 22. caliber handgun – once in the chest, and once in the back. He was positively identified when his wife recognized his wedding ring.
Wuronos’ 6th victim was a 56 year old retired Air Force Major, former Alabama chief of police, and child services investigator. September 11, 1990 was his last day of work. He never arrived home. The following day, authorities discovered his body, shot six times. Towards the end of the month, his abandoned car was located. The police still had no solid leads.
On or about November 19, 1990, Wuornos killed her last known victim: a 62 year old trucker, security guard, and reserve police officer. His body was discovered in Dixie County on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Five days later, his car was located on the opposite side of the state in Brevard County.
The Damsel of Death
With few leads, one investigator from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office proposed a theory about the serial killer. Due to the string of murders, drivers had stopped picking up hitchhikers, yet the murders continued, leading the investigator to surmise that the killer must be someone not typically viewed as a threat – a woman. Soon he began to suspect that the women seen walking away from the 4th victim’s crashed car were in fact responsible for all 7 murders. Newspapers and news outlets blasted Wuornos and Moore’s sketches across the state.
Tips began to pour in. Several pawn shops turned up items stolen from the victims. Thumb prints left on the receipts pointed to several women: “Susan Blahovec,” “Lee Blahovec,” “Cammie Marsh Green,” and “Lori Grody” – who all turned out to be aliases for Wuornos. Police were able to follow the trail of aliases to various rental properties and hotels, giving investigators a map of Wuornos’ movements. The crime lab finally made the most important match: the bloody handprint left in Victim #4’s car belonged to Wuornos.
End of the Line
With all the evidence pointing to Wuornos, the joint-taskforce began searching in earnest. On January 8, 1991, Wuornos was spotted in Port Orange, FL. But she was alone. Unbeknownst to investigators, Wuornos and Moore had a falling out and Moore was 1000 miles away in Pennsylvania. Wuornos was approached by undercover officers who bought her drinks and then tailed for the next 24 hours, hoping Moore would rejoin her.
Finally the decision was made to take Wuornos alone. She was lured out of the now-famous Last Resort Bar by one of the undercover officers who offered to let her shower at his hotel. She and the undercover officer (in an attempt to maintain his cover) were both promptly arrested. Nothing was said of why they were arrested, but Wuornos immediately fingered her drinking buddy as a cop. Without Moore or a murder weapon, police booked her on an outstanding warrant.
The following day, Moore was located at her sister’s house in Pennsylvania and offered immunity if she could get Wuornos to confess. Through a series of recorded phone calls, Moore was able to coax Wuornos into confessing to keep Moore, her long-time lover, safe from prosecution. Wuornos made a number of conflicting statements during the course of the calls: she claimed her victims had sexually assaulted her and she shot them in self-defense; she later said that she robbed the men and then killed them so there would be no witnesses; and finally she claimed to have killed because she was angry that the men did not want to have sex with her. Moore also told the police where Wuornos had ditched her gun, and it was recovered: a 22. caliber revolver that matched each of the murders.
Trial and Beyond
With a confession and a murder weapon, along with the fingerprint evidence, this was more than enough to take Wournos to trial. On January 14, 1992, Wuornos was sentenced to death for the murder of her first victim. Over the next year, Wuornos pled guilty or no contest to 5 more murders. Since the body of her 4th victim had never been found, she was not charged with this murder. In total, she received six death sentences. On October 9, 2002, at 46 years of age, Aileen Wuornos was executed by lethal injection.
Of all the serial killers I’ve studied, Wuornos’ story is perhaps the most sympathetic. Not that I excuse her criminality or think she shouldn’t have been punished. It’s just that her childhood story is one of the most tragic I’ve ever encountered. I believe she was responsible for her actions, yet at the same time, her entire life was trauma-filled to the extreme. No child should ever have to endure the things she did: parental abandonment, physical abuse, sexual assault by a family member, sexual assault resulting in pregnancy, and being kicked out of their adoptive home — all before entering high school. It’s heartbreaking to say the least.
Wuornos fits the classic profile of a sociopath. She likely suffered from reactive attachment disorder, where a child does not develop a healthy bond with their primary care giver and is then unable to properly bond with others. She was diagnosed by court psychiatrists with both borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. In fact, she exhibited all 7 of the APD traits: repeated deceitfulness, repeated run-ins with the law, impulsivity, irresponsibility, aggressiveness, reckless disregard for the safety of others, and lack of empathy and remorse. It only takes 3 of the 7 to receive a APD diagnosis – Wuornos displayed all 7. It’s also been suggested she may have suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. She also displayed signs of paranoia. One of her attorneys described her as “the most disturbed individual I’ve ever represented.”
So why do I think Wuornos killed? I believe there’s a good chance that her first murder was, or at least began as self defense. The man she killed had a prior conviction for violent sexual assault and had been held in a maximum security prison for sex offenders. After this close-call, however, it’s possible that Wuornos saw each of her subsequent victims as similar threats – even if they posed no real danger to her. This theory ties into her paranoia and reactive attachment disorder. Throughout her incarceration, she maintained she killed in self defense, only briefly changing her story to plead guilty because she wanted to die. Contradictory to this theory is that at least 5 of her victims had gunshot wounds in their back and were shot from a distance.
Wuornos has also been described as the classic model for a predatory serial killer. Serial killers murder for a variety of reasons – one of which is a perceived duty to rid the world of evil people. Due to the abuse she endured growing up, most often from male figures, it’s possible that she perceived the men she killed as “bad people” – that she was killing them before they hurt her or someone else.
Another common motive for serial killers that perhaps motivated Wuornos was narcissism. With abuse comes a sense of powerlessness. And perhaps Wuornos killed to gain a sense of power over men that she had never experienced prior in her life.
Regardless of the reason she killed, Wuornos remained remorseless and unrepentant until the day she died. In her final jailhouse interview the day before her execution, a reporter said, “You killed seven people in one year.” Her response was, “Oh well!” The reporter pressed: “But you killed seven men,” to which she replied, “Yeah, sure did.”
Though Tyria Moore has since maintained a low profile, she is still a topic of much discussion — and contempt by many. Moore claimed she only knew about Wuornos’ first murder. She also claimed that she disapproved of Wuornos’ prostitution and tried to talk her into quitting.
I personally find these statements unconvincing and fallacious. Moore quit her job as a hotel maid to leech off of Wuornos’ income as a prostitute. She claimed to have very little knowledge of the murders, yet I find it impossible that Moore wouldn’t have suspected foul play as Wuornos returned six more times with stolen handguns, cars, and other items taken from her victims. Moore claimed she believed these items, including cars, were payment for “services” rendered.
They travelled together, lived together, and I believe likely committed at least 1 murder together: the missing 4th victim, Mr. Peter Siems. His body was never recovered, a deviation from the other 6 victims – which would perhaps indicate that Moore helped Wuornos dispose of the body. Also Moore was seen with Wuornos inside Mr. Siems car shortly after his disappearance – and the car was recovered with blood inside. Moore was likely a willing accomplice, accessory to murder, and escaped justice with the offer of immunity.
One of the oddest characters in Wuornos’ story is that of a woman named Arlene Pralle, who after seeing Wuornos’ picture in the newspaper, began visiting Wuornos and eventually adopted her – despite being only 6 years older. Pralle claimed that she just wanted to show Wuornos the motherly love she’d never had as a child, and also attempted to convert her to what strikes me as a fringe version of Christianity.
I believe all of this was one big exploitive lie – which really upsets me as a Christian pastor. Though shrouded in “Jesus-y” overtures, Pralle’s “friendship” with Wuornos seemed to be motivated entirely by hopes of financial gain. Pralle charged reporters for interviews – sometimes demanding thousands of dollars for access to Wuornos. Pralle, whose horse breeder business was struggling, was of course the beneficiary of these large sums of money. I also read that before Wuornos was executed, 15 movie producers were lined up to capitalize on her story. Additionally, several police officers were disciplined for negotiating movie rights about their investigations into Wuornos. There seems to be some evidence that Pralle was instrumental in convincing Wuornos to end her appeals, hastening her execution – and allowing Pralle to finalize a movie production deal. It all strikes me as very disgusting and decidedly unChristian.
First Female Serial Killer?
Wuornos is widely referred to as either “America’s First Female Serial Killer” or even “The First Female Serial Killer in the World.” I’m truly baffled by these descriptions – because a simple online search reveals that not to be true. I’ve seen some say that she was the first “predatory” female serial killer. But even that isn’t true: Belle Gunness comes to mind. I’ve seen others say Wuornos was the first “sexual” female serial killer, but I’m not convinced sex was a part of Wuornos’ motive. Again, I’ve not seen an explanation for these labels that makes sense. I mostly chalk it up to media hype and an attempt to sensationalize the crime spree – though famed FBI profile Robert Ressler considered Wuornos at the time to be the sole example of a female serial murderer who killed in sequential fashion instead of in sprees.
In Her Own Words
I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.
I have hate crawling through my system.
To me, this world is nothing but evil, and my own evil just happened to come out.
I robbed them, and killed them as cold as ice, and I would do it again,
I know I would kill another person because I’ve hated humans for a long time.
I didn’t do anything as wrong as they said. I did the right thing.
– Aileen Wuornos