“I robbed them, and I killed them as cold as ice, and I would do it again, and I know I would kill another person because I’ve hated humans for a long time.” – Aileen Wuornos
Over a one year period, Aileen Wuornos was responsible for the brutal deaths of seven men in Florida. She was a woman to be feared – carefully stalking her male victims as she prostituted herself on the highways.
Once her victims were distracted, they were shot several times and robbed. Wuornos dumped their bodies in different areas, and on more than one occasion, she stole their vehicles. In most of the deaths, there were signs of overkill, an excessive use of force to ensure the death of her victims. Aileen has the unique distinction of being one of America’s few female serial rage killers.
Though her actions baffled police and judges alike, psychiatrists could later see she was destined to become a vicious offender from the moment she was conceived.
Born just 11 months after her older brother Keith, Aileen Carol Wuornos came into the world on February 29, 1956, in Rochester, Michigan. Her teenage mother Diane Pittman already had a handful with one child and single parenthood while her violent husband, Leo, was in prison. However, the small girl never met her father because he was imprisoned for child molestation in 1955 and later committed suicide.
Her father was believed to have been a very controlling man and Aileen would later mirror this aggressive behavior in her only known relationship. Her young mother tried to care for two children on her own but eventually had to return to live with her parents.
Diane decided she couldn’t cope with the responsibility of motherhood and abandoned her son and daughter to live with her parents, Lauri and Britta Wuornos, who adopted them. Until age eleven Aileen thought her grandparents were her parents, a discovery that later distressed and distanced her from them.
During the years she lived with her grandparents, she and her brother Keith were brutally disciplined by her grandfather, who was a raging alcoholic. She was often beaten with a leather strap on her bare bottom and was sometimes forced to lie on a bed, spread-eagle, to receive a whipping.
Lauri Wuornos called her “evil,” “wicked,” “worthless,” and told her she should have never been born. Aileen witnessed her grandfather drown a kitten that had scratched her, teaching her not to trust anyone. Neighborhood children remember seeing bruises on the young girl, but instead of confronting the problem, they looked the other way.
Her grandmother, Britta, was complacent and neglectful of her, he never tried to stop her husband from abusing her grandchildren, thereby producing a wedge between her and her rebellious granddaughter. When Britta died from cirrhosis of the liver after many years of alcoholism, Aileen caused a scene at her funeral.
From very early in life, Aileen was taught her body was an object. An incestual, violent relationship with her grandfather was most likely the basis for this belief. It would also explain her overtly sexual relationships with her peers and admitted sex with her brother, behavior that started as early as age eleven. Friends and neighbors remember her meeting boys for sex and then being shunned by them in public. However, they often gave her loose change and cigarettes, teaching her the value of using her body to get what she wanted.
By her adolescent years, she was acting out both sexually and violently. She was arrested for shoplifting, began drinking alcohol, and became pregnant at age fourteen. Her grandfather insisted she give up the child, not even allowing her to hold the baby boy before he was removed from her custody.
Once she returned home, she became more unruly and eventually, her grandfather kicked her out. Aileen was forced to live on her own, so she made her way down to Florida by hitchhiking and sleeping on the streets.
When she arrived at the Sunshine State, Aileen became a bonafide alcoholic and would often sleep on the beach when she couldn’t afford a motel room. She started hanging around biker bars and getting into fights – violently throwing bottles around. Her reputation was that she would lash out at males around her in a fit of rage, likely mirroring how she felt toward her abusive grandfather.
Above: Wuornos’ girlfriend Tyria Moore
In 1976, her short-lived marriage to a much older man ended after she beat him with his own cane for not giving her money. Wuornos was incapable of understanding why he wouldn’t tolerate her abuse. She once said, “I have hate crawling through my system.”
Later, she met and became romantically involved with a woman she met at a biker bar. Tyria Moore was the only individual who ever made her feel loved and that feeling finally cemented Aileen’s resolve to begin her killing spree. The relationship between the women was volatile at times but Tyria never left her, even after Aileen admitted to killing her first victim.
Above: Her victims
Wuornos was finally arrested on January 9th, 1991, she had been caught via fingerprints found in a victim’s car after leaving the scene of an accident. It was Moore who convinced her to confess to the authorities once she was in custody.
Aileen was eventually diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a mental disorder fraught with emotional instability, feelings of worthlessness, insecurity, impulsivity, and impaired social relationships. Genetics can play a part in this affliction and judging by her father and grandfather’s violent behavior, it was highly likely that their offspring would become violent.
Above: Gun used to kill her victims
Wuornos had a pattern of intense and unstable family relationships from birth and was ignorant of societal boundaries. Her efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment took on very frightening behaviors such as inappropriate outbursts and problems controlling her anger. She also engaged in manic behavior including unsafe sex and reckless driving.
When Aileen took the stand in her own trial, the jury quickly realized how unstable her moods were as she expressed a great deal of anger that shocked but assured them that she was guilty. Some people with BPD find solace in alcohol and drugs, much in the way Aileen did. Part of her defense was that her victims were attempting to attack her. Many individuals with BPD can be triggered by certain events, and this may have been why Aileen thought her clients were intending her harm.
It’s rare that a killer’s origins point so directly to her future killing spree, but Aileen Wuornos was destined from birth to become a violent individual who preyed on the men she thought would harm her. When Aileen shot and killed each of her victims, she was lashing out against not only her grandfather, but all the other men who had rejected her in her life. She was found guilty in the murders of seven men and sentenced to death.
As her execution date neared, she admitted, “I need to die for the killing of those people.” Whether through self-reflection or the desire to end her tragic life, she had a moment of clarity. However, she died never understanding how her life had gotten so out of control, never realizing how genetics and her unstable family life influenced her later actions.
Director Nick Broomfield, who directed the documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, said, “I think Aileen really believed that she had killed in self-defense. I think someone who’s deeply psychotic can’t really tell the difference between something that is life-threatening and something that is a minor disagreement, that you could say something that she didn’t agree with. She would get into a screaming black temper about it. And I think that’s what had caused these things to happen. And at the same time, when she wasn’t in those extreme moods, there was an incredible humanity to her.”
On October 9, 2002, after refusing any further appeals, 46-year-old Wuornos was strapped to a gurney on Starke, Florida’s death row and pronounced dead. Her ashes were buried in Michigan by a family friend.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING:
Shipley, Stacey L. The Female Homicide Offender. Upper Saddle River: Stephen Helba, 2004.