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A victim of life, then of television

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Like thousands of Americans, Shirley Humphreys will sit in her family room Tuesday night and tune in Overkill, the CBS-TV version of the Aileen Wuornos story.

Mrs. Humphreys will be one of the few who pays as much attention to actor Arell Blanton as she does to headliner Jean Smart, the Designing Women star who switched gears to portray the blond-haired murderer.

Blanton portrays Douglas Chambers, the character clearly meant to be Charles "Dick" Humphreys. In the movie, Chambers is an investigator for the department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) last seen at a Sumter County truck stop. That profile perfectly fits Mrs. Humphreys' husband, who was one of the seven men Wuornos killed while hitchhiking and prostituting herself along Central Florida's highways.

The program's appeal is easy to understand. In a nation that thirsts for "true crime" stories, people are no doubt parched for information about Wuornos, whom many describe as the first female serial killer.

But the two-hour show won't be entertainment for Mrs. Humphreys. It will mark a return to her own tragic role _ powerless victim _ in which she was unwillingly cast two years ago.

On a fall day in 1990 her 56-year-old husband left work but never returned to their Citrus County home. The next day, two boys found his bullet-ridden body alongside a Marion County road.

Police eventually arrested Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute with a criminal record, a .22-caliber handgun and a story about self-defense.

With media trumpeting the story nationwide, Mrs. Humphreys saw Wuornos convert to Christianity, embrace a Levy County woman as her spiritual guide and legal guardian and argue about movie and book rights.

When the case finally got to court, Wuornos pulled another surprise: She admitted to the murder and opted to skip a trial. Not so much because she was sorry, but because she saw no sense dealing with a criminal-justice system that couldn't believe she hurt her victims only to avoid being hurt herself.

When the death sentence finally came down, Mrs. Humphreys sat in the packed Ocala courtroom and watched, horrified, as Wuornos held up her middle finger to the judge, if not the world.

Mrs. Humphreys isn't sure what's next on the script. She expected a break, of sorts, while the decadelong appeals process began its slow grind.

But before looking forward, she will stare at the television screen Tuesday and witness a prime-time portrait of her worst nightmare.

Movie vs. life

The camera pans across a dusty truck stop with a busy interstate highway looming in the background. Douglas Chambers rolls through the parking lot in his black car, checking out the action.

A hooker with dark hair and a low-cut top approaches the passenger side of his car and sticks her head through the open window. "Sorry, darlin'," he tells her, "I'm looking for a blond."

He finds one, Wuornos, dolled up with purple eye makeup and lipstick. With her in the passenger seat, the camera shows the driver head-on, capturing the leer on his face and the wedding band on his left hand.

"Nowadays, everyone's going nowhere in a hurry," he drawls. ".

.

. Now me, I like things slower. I like 'em to happen when I say. And you know, the longer it takes to get there, the more I enjoy it."

Wuornos guzzles a beer, smiling and laughing. She likes drinking fast, she says, picking up on his cue. "It kinda puts me in the mood for the slow stuff."

"How far did you say this place was?" he asks.

"Believe me, honey, it's worth the wait," she replies. "You're never gonna forget this place."

That's the only glimpse viewers get of Douglas Chambers alive.

Mrs. Humphreys remembers her husband a different way.

They spent their last night together eating dinner at a Citrus County restaurant to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary.

"I just did not know that it was going to be his last day forever," she has said.

Dick Humphreys had served 21 years in the Air Force and was chief of police in Sylacauga, Ala., during the 1980s. They raised a son, Michael, and two daughters, Terri and Elizabeth Jane.

Mrs. Humphreys says her husband was a faithful family man. His co-workers described him as dedicated, hard-working and fearless.

The Humphreys moved to Florida in the late 1980s, and Dick Humphreys started work for HRS. He was a supervisor of the Sumterville office but was scheduled for a transfer.

Sept. 11, 1990, was his last day in that office. It also was his last day alive.

At least two women saw Humphreys that day at the Journey's End motel, one of many rundown businesses that crowd the Wildwood exit off Interstate 75, between his office and his home. He entered the lobby because he had seen a young child sleeping alone in a car in the parking lot and was concerned, the women said.

He left, carrying his trademark pipe. But no one is sure why he was there in the first place.

Investigators later learned that Wuornos and possibly her lover, Tyria Moore, were at the Wildwood exit that day, as well. Technicians found a store receipt indicating Wuornos had purchased a six-pack of beer at a gas station.

In her rambling confession, Wuornos said that Humphreys, like her other victims, was a rough client who intended to hurt her.

Mrs. Humphreys doesn't believe that. She doesn't know what happened.

"He would not stop for a hitchhiker," she has said in the past. "He was very adamant about this. We both were."

Would he pick up a prostitute? "He was a dedicated family man," Mrs. Humphreys has said. "We had a great life together."

"So many untruths'

Producer Chuck McClain clearly took a sympathetic view of Wuornos when he filmed Overkill. A character mentions that Wuornos had been sexually abused as a child, even though that allegation never has been proven.

"I think that if men treated her right, if they paid her what they promised to pay her, or if they didn't pretend to be cops, which a lot of them did to get free sex, if they treated her the way they should have, then she didn't kill them. But if they crossed this line, then she killed them," McClain told the news media last summer.

McClain did not consult Mrs. Humphreys or the families of the other six victims when he prepared the film. It's not clear whether he viewed Humphreys as a prostitute-seeking man, or whether he combined many victims' characteristics into Douglas Chambers.

McClain was on preproduction for another film last week and could not be reached for comment, according to Stacey Luchs, a publicist for Republic Pictures Television.

According to victims-rights advocates, this kind of movie production leaves people such as Mrs. Humphreys in a familiar posture: angry, but powerless.

"I think it's hurtful, vicious, unfair. What opportunity does Mrs. Humphreys or those children have to speak the truth and get the kind of coverage that this movie will get?" asked Judi McBride , the victim/witness coordinator for the Citrus County State Attorney's Office.

Mrs. McBride and her staff members sat through court proceedings with Mrs. Humphreys, helping her understand the legal process. Throughout it all, they say, Mrs. Humphreys was amazingly gracious and dignified.

Mrs. McBride hates to see any victim forced to watch an inaccurate version of her life story. "There's not one scintilla of evidence" to support the movie's portrayal of Humphreys, Mrs. McBride says. "There's eight people who know what went on out there, and seven of them are dead."

State Attorney Brad King even wrote CBS a letter this summer after reading a draft of the Overkill script. The "based on a true story" movie "creates an Aileen Wuornos that is some sort of sociological victim, instead of the cold-blooded killer of reality," he wrote.

Mrs. Humphreys has not yet seen the movie but has heard description of the way Douglas Chambers is portrayed. "There are so many untruths, so many innuendos being made," she said.

"They've taken a handful (of facts) and made a movie out of it that shows Aileen Wuornos as more the victim than those she murdered."

As Mrs. Humphreys watches the movie Tuesday night, she will hold her vision of her husband. But she no doubt will wonder what America thinks of the man she loved.