Today we are finally covering the woman that many have dubbed the “First Female Serial Killer in America”. While this statement is inaccurate and in fact cannot be measured as the term “serial killer” was not even coined until the 1970s, we can say that Aileen was the first notorious female serial killer in American history. Most of this was due to the fact that Aileen’s case came to light just as the country was riding a wave of high profile serial killers. The 1980s saw a peak in serial killings before advancements in forensic and investigative sciences changed the landscape for mass murderers. Killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez, Gary Ray Bowels, and the duo Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole all were active during this time period. It is estimated that more than 200 serial killers were active during the decade, and of these only a very few were women. Such a small pool made it easy for someone like Aileen to stand out as a star.
Born on Leap Day in 1956 Aileen entered the world with the odds stacked against her. Aileen’s father Leo viciously beat her mother Diane when she was pregnant with Aileen. This caused the young mother to flee to her parents home, though it was not a much healthier environment. Before the baby was even born, Leo was arrested and imprisoned, eventually committed suicide in prison after being convicted of child molestation. Diane struggled with addiction and eventually abandoned baby Lee – Aileen’s nickname. Causing the Wourno’s grandparents to step in and soon they adopted both Aileen and her brother Keith.
However, it seems the mother Diane had inherited her alcoholism as both her parents were also raging alcoholics. Aileen’s grandparents were physically abusive and she later described numerous beatings with a leather strap on her bare buttocks. Often, the young child was required to lay face down, naked and spread eagle on the bed for her whippings. Aileen would also claim her grandfather raped her. While we do not want to ever discredit a victim, it is important to note that Aileen often changed and retracted her stories. Including the one about her grandfather, even long after he was gone and she was no longer connected to her family. Still, neighbors did testify to hearing screams coming from the Wuornos home on multiple occasions.
Whatever the truth of the situation, it is certain that there was serious abuse happening and being ignored. By age 11, Aileen was forced to trade sexual favors for food and survival and by age 14 she was pregnant. Aileen later related she was raped by an accomplice of her grandfather, it is also possible her grandfather was the actual father. The young girl was sent away to a home for unwed mothers and forced to deliver the baby and then give it up for adoption. When she returned a few months later she lost her grandmother to liver failure and was shortly thereafter kicked out of the house by her grandfather. By the age of 15, Aileen was completely on her own, living in the woods, with sex work as her only means of earning an income. Only a few hundred yards away was her grandfather’s house and an entire community that ignored a forest full of abandoned and unwanted teens.
Over the next few years Aileen dropped out of school and wandered across her home state of Michigan. She and her fellow young vagabond friends were mischievous and wild, as one would expect from unsupervised teenagers. At 18 Aileen saw her first arrest when she was hauled in for disorderly conduct, driving while under the influence, and shooting a gun from a moving vehicle. But Wuornos ditched out on her hearing and headed as far south as possible. By 1976, at the age of 20, she resurfaced in Florida when the local society papers ran the story of her engagement. That year Lee married wealthy yacht club president Lewis Fell who was 49 years her senior. At nearly 70 years old, Fell no doubt thought he had scored a lucky break with the 20 year old woman.
Aileen certainly knew she had landed a sweet deal considering her past hardships. But the romance was not to last as Lee couldn’t keep out of trouble. She had a violent temper and it is very likely she also suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. The first signs of trouble in paradise came within weeks of the wedding when Aileen beat Lewis with his own cane because he “only doled out $30 at a time”. But her anger wasn’t only directed at her husband, the young bride got into multiple alterations at the local bar and even spent a few weeks in jail for assault. By the time she was released, Lewis Fell had filed a restraining order against Aileen and requested an annulment of their marriage. Lee didn’t stick around to see how things would pan out and returned to Michigan in July of that same year. She was promptly arrested within a matter of days after throwing a cue ball at a bartender’s head.
The following decade was spent in and out of jail for one petty crime after another. She drifted up and down I-95 using sex work as her main source of income. It was during this time that she lost her brother Keith to cancer, he was her last connection to her home and family. After receiving the $10,000 life insurance policy he left her, she spent most of it on a new car that she promptly wrecked. By 1986 Aileen was 30 years old and coming off of yet another arrest. This time she was charged in Miami for car theft and resisting arrest. Hitting one of the lowest points in her life, Aileen would later say she contemplated suicide the day before her life change. But instead of ending it all, Lee headed into a lesbian bar in Daytona Beach Florida ironically called Zodiac – like the infamous Zodiac Killer. There she met the one person she may have ever loved, Tyria Moore.
Moore was from a small town in Ohio and allegedly fled to Florida because it was too hard to be an out lesbian in Ohio. Yet even though she wound up hundreds of miles away from home, Ty continued to remain close to her middle class, suburban family. Its unclear if they knew that she was gay but it also does not seem like the family ever expressed issue with the fact when Ty’s orientation was later put on national display. However, the family might have had concern with their daughter’s new love interest. Six years Ty’s senior and an evident temper, Aileen certainly didn’t make friends easy. And she was immediately jealous of Tyria’s closeness with her family, a point of contention that remained throughout the entire 4+ year relationship. Still, the two women seemed to adore each other and lived together in one hotel room after another as they continued Aileen’s drifter existence.
According to Ty’s later testimony, she claims she never liked the fact that Lee was a sex worker. However, Moore quit her job as a hotel maid soon after the two became lovers and leaned on Aileen for support. Over the next three years they relied heavily on Lee’s work to keep them afloat. In 1989, when Aileen began to show up with expensive new gifts, Ty simply enjoyed them. Deliberately choosing not to question how a street hustler was suddenly showing up with wads of cash and new cars after a single night of work. Even after Aileen admitted she had killed a man, Ty requested not to know any further details. And when Aileen suddenly had enough money to rent the new apartment they had been eyeing, Moore happily moved into their new home. Perhaps she feared for her life or perhaps she believed Aileen had really killed the man in self defense. But for the final 12 months of their relationship, Tyria Moore looked the other way as her partner went on a killing spree that took the life of seven men.
In the popular movie Monster, based upon the life of Aileen Wuornos and starring Charlize Theron, Lee is brutally raped by a prospective client. She manages to free herself from the ropes binding her hands and pulls her pistol just in time to kill her assailant. The scene certainly paints the picture of a simple sex worker defending herself in the face of grave danger and thus sparking a desire for revenge against all the men who had wronged her in her life. While it is easy to fill sympathy for the incredibly unfair hand that was dealt Aileen, some of this sypmathy has spilled over into a cult like following of the sex worker. She is viewed as a hero and an icon whose spree was justified because of the wrongs in her life. However, it is important to remember that most serial killers have been dealt unfair hands and yet their violence against the innocent was not dismissed or justified.
On November 30, 1989, Aileen took her first known victim when she shot Richard Mallory several times in the chest. This is perhaps the most controversial killing of the seven as Mallory was already a convicted rapist and the one person Aileen always maintained had in fact raped her. It is this gruesome scene that is played out in the movie Monster, though the aftermath played out very differently between the film and real life. In Monster, Aileen returns to her lover – a fictional character that was very loosely based on Ty Moore – and tells her partner she was forced to kill a man before breaking down into hysterics. Yet in real life, Moore would later testify that Aileen cooly mentioned the murder over a couple of beers and a movie. Never adding that she had been raped or beaten and never showing remorse for her actions. Some have speculated that Ty was pressured to give such a cold hearted presentation of Lee, but Moore has never retracted or walked back her statement.
Whether it was culmination of the trauma of her life and the event or simply that first taste of the rush of murder, Aileen was off and running. Over one full year she murdered six more men, always using a gun as her preferred weapon and typically shooting the victims several times. Sometimes the bodies were found naked and other times they were found fully clothed. In the sixth of the seven victims, Aileen shot former police chief Dick Humphreys execution style in the back of the head. Humphreys was fully clothed when he was killed and Aileen filled his body with bullets just for good measure. It is likely the trauma that had been inflicted on Aileen by officers came through in the most brutal of her murders. Why Lee was in Humphreys car we cannot be sure, but as she always used sex work as her way into the vehicles it is likely that was the reason why the former chief picked her up.
After initially telling Ty of her first murder, Aileen went silent about the rest. There was nearly a 6 month break between the murder of Richard Mallory and her second victim, David Spears, in May of 1990. It is possible that Ty had convinced herself that Aileen had simply killed in self defense as sex work can be a dangerous job. However, between the months of May and July, Aileen would kill 5 more men. Each time she showed up at home with large amounts of cash, a new gun, and a strange car that inevitably vanished after a few weeks. During this time Tyria’s suspicions mounted but she did not want to know the truth about Aileen’s actions. The spark in their relationship had fizzled and Ty says that by the end they were “more like sisters than lovers”. The final straw came at Thanksgiving, just days after Aileen had killed her seventh and final victim.
Back in July, Aileen and Ty had been out joyriding in one of the cars of Aileen’s victims when they got into an accident. With plenty of witnesses around, the police were promptly called and both Ty and Lee took off. Yet even though they had fled, a description of the women was given to the officers when they arrived. Shortly thereafter an investigation revealed the car belonged to a missing merchant named Richard Siem. That pattern fit that of two other men who’s cars randomly turned up a few days or weeks after their death. The sketch of the women confirmed for police that they were looking for a woman. In November, Ty saw the sketch of herself on television in conjunction with yet another mysterious murder. When Aileen showed up once again with a random car, Tyria planned an escape. She told Lee that she was going back home to visit family for thanksgiving and said goodbye to her lover. But Moore never returned, and just 6 weeks later Aileen was arrested in Florida on a previous warrant.
The day after Lee’s arrest, police tracked down Ty and pressured her into getting Aileen to confess to the murders. Moore agreed and called Lee, while under surveillance, and finally convinced her partner to confess to the crimes. On January 16, 1990, Aileen Wuornos confessed to the murder of seven men, claiming all were done in self defense when they attempted to rape her. But Tyria Moore’s testimony contradicted Aileen’s claim of self defense as she painted her ex-lover as a cool, unrepented killer. As the case progressed, Lee retracted and changed her story numerous times. In March of 1992, she told prosecutors she wanted to “Get right with God” and gave this statement to the court. “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”. Eventually Lee was charged with 6 counts of first degree murder as the body of Peter Siems was never found. She was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
Aileen’s decade plus in prison was met with much controversy and sensationalism. She accused the guards and matrons of harassing and abusing her even claiming they were poisoning her food. She was also exploited by several authors and producers who capitalized on her story and made millions, painting Aileen in whatever light was currently selling. Over the last 22 years her story, has been told and retold in countless books, movies, documentaries, and songs. And even as recently as 2019, rapper Cardi B recreated an iconic image of Aileen for her single Press. Though she was ridiculed and bullied in prison, Wuornos enjoyed widespread popularity from the outside. She was heralded as a feminist icon, the “First Feminist Serial Killer” and nicknamed “The Damsel of Death”. Sex workers still see her as an inspiring figure who got revenge on all the johns that take advantage or look down on the very women they pay for pleasure. Arguments for and against the justifications of Aileens crimes are still argued in classrooms and internet forums to this day.
But all her popularity couldn’t save her from execution, and after 10 years on death row, Aileen didn’t want to be saved. In her final interview, she privately told documentary producer Nick Broomfield that she really had killed those guys in self defense, but she didn’t want to live any longer. The truth is hard to know for several reasons. First, Aileen constantly changed her story and the evidence didn’t always match her version of events. But also, Aileen had shot a former Air Force Major and Chief of Police, Dick Humphrey, in the back of the head. Even if she really had done all those killings in self defense, there was no way the judicial system would ever let her get away with her actions. So, on October 9, 2002, Aileen Wuornos was executed by lethal injection. Her final words were this, “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.”
Your recommended resources are wide and varied. If you would like to read Aileen’s own words the book Dear Dawn: Aileen Wuornos in Her Own Words was compiled by Lisa Kester and Daphne Gottlieb and features dozens of letters that Lee wrote to her childhood friend. You can also read the original memoir of Aileen Monster or you can watch the movie Monster which is available to rent for $3 on Amazon. YouTube also has the free documentary Born to Kill – Aileen Wuornos. Or listen to the 2001 opera Wuornos or the band Superheave’s song, Poor Aileen. There are dozens of ways to continue learning and appreciating or obsessing over the life of Aileen Wuornos.
- Aileen (wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aileen_Wuornos
- Vice – https://www.vice.com/en/article/mbm3j4/how-serial-killer-aileen-wuornos-became-a-cult-hero
- Women serial killers – https://web.archive.org/web/20081021042707/http://www.mcnair.uncc.edu/Ayanna.htm
- Fullscreen – https://www.queerancestorsproject.org/fullscreen-page/comp-jexbc1ti/69fcf9e9-46af-44d5-911c-26624bead1d7/2/%3Fi%3D2%26p%3Dxjzn3%26s%3Dstyle-jexaosm9
- Biography – https://www.biography.com/crime-figure/aileen-wuornos
- 1980s – https://www.oxygen.com/blogs/8-of-the-most-lethal-serial-killers-of-the-80s
- Orlando Sentinel – https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1992-01-17-9201170489-story.html
- Capital – https://capitalpunishmentincontext.org/cases/wuornos
- Tyria – https://www.liveabout.com/tyria-jolene-moore-2172095