Suspect in serial killings has long, troubled past

Published June 2, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

As the police cruiser rolls on toward Ocala, Aileen Wuornos cracks open the window and lights a cigarette. Outside, the deep woods and narrow roads pass by. She once lived on roads like these _ roads all over America _ hitching rides and living by her wits.

Now she is a suspect in the murders of seven of the men she met on these Florida roads. She is on one of the many long trips she'll be making between jails and courts this year, and she is making small talk with her police escorts.

"Oh, I pray to God they understand this was self-defense," she says. "I had no reason to hurt anybody unless they were gonna hurt me."

The officers keep trying to gain her confidence. They talk sympathetically to her. Secretly, they are taping her every word.

For the first time in her desperately troubled life, what goes on inside Aileen Wuornos' head now matters. Her words finally have value.

Value to prosecutors who may want to see this woman executed.

Value to defense attorneys who want her to avoid that fate.

And value, too, to the cottage industry of serial murder experts and Hollywood true-crime movie makers who see in these killings a new wrinkle in murder American style _ a female serial killer.

But as investigators re-create her life, a disturbing profile is emerging _ a profile that suggests her problems were rooted in family circumstances that, while troubled, are not rare in the United States today.

From birth, Wuornos faced obstacles that are familiar to those who have traced criminal lives. Abandoned, then adopted, she never seemed a part of the worlds she lived in.

She grew up not knowing her true identity, and, in time, she would change her name as frequently as she changed her address.

"But can we say that alone is what made this woman what she is?" asks Hunter Hurst, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

"No. The truth is we don't really know enough to say what makes people into what they are. But we see and recognize patterns."

A rocky start

By the time she was in eighth grade, back in her Michigan hometown, it was obvious that Aileen Wuornos was a troubled girl.

A 1970 school report, written two months after she turned 14, chronicles poor relationships with classmates and teachers. Tranquilizers were tried, but they failed.

"It is vital for this girl's welfare that she receive counseling immediately," the report says.

Experts looking for the roots of her problems look back further _ to a father she never knew.

She had been born Aileen Carol Pittman, the second child of 16-year-old Diane Wuornos and Leo Pittman, a 19-year-old handyman.

Pittman's parents abandoned him when he was 5 months old. His grandmother adopted him and his sisters.

During his teens, he married twice and drank heavily. His marriage to Diane Wuornos ended just months before Aileen was born. Later, Pittman was convicted of raping a 7-year-old girl. He hanged himself in jail.

Though Pittman was gone, the life of the daughter he never knew took an eerily similar path.

Aileen's mother, Diane, alone and just 16, left Aileen and her older brother, Keith, with a sitter one night. She called later to say she wouldn't be back.

"I just couldn't cope," Diane Wuornos told police recently. "The whole family came to me and, in turn, one at a time, begged me to give (Aileen and Keith) to my parents, which was probably the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life."

Aileen's grandparents legally adopted her. Her aunts and uncles became her sisters and brothers. For much of her childhood, family members say, Aileen didn't know she had been adopted.

Her grandfather was Lauri Wuornos, an engineer at Ford Motor Co. who was a dead ringer for comedian Jackie Gleason _ in looks, but not in demeanor.

Family members described Lauri Wuornos as an alcoholic who was mean to his wife and children.

"I should have . . . adopted them to strangers," Diane Wuornos said recently. "We in our family suffered a form of child abuse. My father was verbally abusive. My mother was verbally abusive, and we were always told we were no good."

Diane Wuornos says Aileen, at age 10, learned from gossip at school that the man she believed to be her father was really her grandfather and that her sisters and brothers were really aunts and uncles.

From bad to worse

The problems started small but got bigger.

One sister/aunt tells of Aileen starting a fire in a junior high restroom.

School photos stapled to Aileen's attendance record show a broadly grinning girl when she was about 7. Year by year, the smile diminishes. By 13 or 14, the smile was all but gone.

Family and friends told investigators that Aileen became pregnant around 1969, when she was 13.

She wore tight pants to hide the pregnancy and later said it was the result of rape. Some family members didn't believe her. No police report was filed. The baby was given up for adoption.

At 15, Aileen was left to fend for herself. She spent nights sleeping in abandoned cars or seeking the refuge of homes in the area, family and neighbors told investigators.

"She had the worst life of anyone I have ever met," says Dawn Botkins, a childhood friend. "When I first heard (of Aileen's murder charges) it didn't shock me. If you had only been there and seen how terribly she was treated all her life, it only makes sense."

When she met Aileen in 1971, Botkins says, both had dropped out of school. Aileen already was known as a drug user and prostitute.

"I was really her only friend," Botkins says. "I knew she had a hard life and slept in the woods, so I never questioned what she did."

Botkins says Wuornos would share her prostitution earnings to buy alcohol and drugs for her friends.

Says Botkins: "She had a good side."

Failed marriage

Interstate 75 slices through Aileen Wuornos' hometown of Troy, Mich. Then it winds south through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and on through central Florida.

In a way, it ties together two ends of her life.

She would disappear from Michigan, hitching along highways. In the mid-1970s she headed to Florida and, as many lost youths still do today, found her way to the transient beach communities of northeast Florida.

In 1976, when she was 20, she met Lewis Fell, who Wuornos' family members estimate was about 70 years old. They were married in May.

By July, the marriage had ended.

In a psychological evaluation conducted after a 1981 armed robbery arrest, Wuornos said she left him because he beat her with a cane.

Lewis Fell's divorce decree, though, says he sought the divorce. Divorce papers say Wuornos "has a violent and ungovernable temper and threatened to do bodily harm." The judge issued a restraining order to keep Wuornos away from Fell's Ormond Beach home.

Wuornos' travels took her through Colorado, New Mexico and Florida. She developed a facile touch with aliases, using documents and licenses gathered from friends and family members. As early as 1973, she was using her sister/aunt Lori's diploma to mislead Michigan police.

Her crimes were generally not serious. Minor thefts, bad checks, criminal mischief. Even a serious crime, a 1981 convenience store robbery in Edgewater, Fla., was executed sloppily after she had walked a beach contemplating suicide.

With a history of less serious crimes, why would Wuornos, in late 1989, launch into a string of murders?

Analyzing motives

Police say she has admitted to seven killings.

The seven men were gunned down, some shot more than a half-dozen times. Their bodies were left along roadsides, their money and cars stolen, their possessions pawned.

Neither Wuornos nor her public defender, Tricia Jenkins, would comment. Her trials are scheduled to begin in September.

Wuornos has offered explanations of sorts _ telling police that she had been raped more than a dozen times. Friends and family say that throughout her life, Wuornos has expressed intense hatred for men, while counting on them for her income.

But police investigators have been unable to find proof that Wuornos ever was sexually assaulted. They say her friends think she considered herself raped if a customer didn't pay her for sexual services.

Clearly, her motivation _ or speculation about it _ will be important to prosecutors. Sentencing hearings that follow first-degree murder trials center on motive and mental state, not guilt.

Those issues also will be of interest to the book and movie agents who literally were trying to sign contracts before an arrest ever was made.

Movie deals

Agents approached the lead detectives before Wuornos was arrested in January. The detectives came under heavy criticism when it was learned they had referred movie and book agents to their private attorney.

"We were proud of what we did, and if there was going to be a movie or a book, we wanted the story told properly," says Marion County sheriff's Capt. Steve Binegar.

"We never intended to make any money off of it. Any profits would go to a victims' fund."

Wuornos switched attorneys after accusing her original lawyer of being more interested in a movie deal than her defense.

The public feeding frenzy of movie and book deals subsided, but agents have continued quietly to go about signing even minor participants in Wuornos' life to contracts.

Even if Wuornos is convicted, the book and movie writers still may be left to speculate as to why she chose to kill.

Jack Levin, a serial murder expert at Northeastern University, said the typical serial killer progresses to murder between age 30 and 40 _ usually after a cumulative series of disappointments.

But the typical serial killer, Levin says, also has an excessive need for power. "That's why," he says, "they're usually men."

If Wuornos proves to be that rare female serial killer, her life undoubtedly will be scrutinized from every angle _ including her own.

As she arrived in Ocala for court in February, she told her tape recorder-carrying escorts she wanted to write an autobiography.

"I think a lot of people need to know about my life, because the media is gonna make me all messed up," she said.

"I'm never gonna get a fair trial, and they're gonna hang me. They're gonna electrocute me, give me life in prison, and I don't deserve it. I don't deserve life. It was just self-defense."

_ Staff writer Jim Ross contributed to this report.