She has been heralded in tabloid headlines and on television talk shows as America’s “first female serial killer.” In fact, Aileen Wournos was neither the first nor the worst, although she did display a curiously “masculine” approach to homicide. Suspected of at least seven murders, sentenced to die in four of the six cases she confessed to police, Wournos still maintains that some or all of her admitted killings were performed in self-defense, resisting violent assaults by men whom she solicited while working as a prostitute. Ironically, information uncovered by journalists in November 1992 suggests that in one case, at least, her story may well be true.
America’s future media monster was born Aileen Pittman in Rochester, Michigan, on February 29, 1956. Her teenage parents separated months before she was born, father Leo Pittman moving on to serve time in Kansas and Michigan mental hospitals as a deranged child molester. Mother Diane Pratt recalls Aileen and her older brother Keith as “crying, unhappy babies,” and their racket prompted her to leave them with her parents in early 1960. On March 18 of that year, maternal grandparents Lauri and Britta Wournos legally adopted the children as their own.
Aileen’s childhood showed little improvement from there. At age six she suffered scarring facial burns while she and Keith were setting fires with lighter fluid. Aileen later told police that she had sex with Keith at an early age, but acquaintance doubt the story and Keith is unable to speak for himself, having died of throat cancer in 1976. At any rate, Aileen was clearly having sex with someone, for she turned up pregnant in her 14th year, delivering her son at a Detroit maternity hospital on March 23, 1971. Grandmother Britta died on July 7, and although her death was blamed on liver failure, Diane Pratt suspected her father of murder, claiming he threatened to kill Aileen and Keith if they were not removed from his home.
In fact, they became wards of the court, Aileen soon dropping out of school to work the streets full-time, earning her way as a teenage hooker, drifting across the country as the spirit moved her. In May 1974, using the alias “Sandra Kretsch,” she was jailed in Jefferson County, Colorado, for disorderly conduct, drunk driving, and firing a .22-caliber pistol from a moving vehicle. Additional charges of failure to appear were filed when she skipped town ahead of her trial. Back in Michigan on July 13, 1976, Aileen was arrested in Antrim Country for simple assault and disturbing the peace after she lobbed a cue ball at a bartender’s head. Outstanding warrants from Troy, Michigan, were also served on charges of driving without a license and consuming alcohol in a motor vehicle. On August 4, Aileen settled her debt to society with a $105 fine.
The money came, at least indirectly, from her brother. Keith’s death on July 17 surprised her with a life insurance payment of $10,000, squandered within two months on luxuries including a new car, which Aileen promptly wrecked. In late September, broke again, she thumbed a ride to Florida, anxious to sample a warmer climate, hoping to practice her trade in the sun. It was a change of scene, but Aileen’s attitude was still the same, and she inevitably faced more trouble with the law.
On May 20, 1981, Wournos was arrested in Edgewater, Florida, for armed robbery of a convenience store. Sentenced to prison on May 4, 1982, she was released 13 months later, on June 30, 1983. Her next arrest, on May 1, 1984, was for trying to pass forged checks at a bank in Key West. On November 30, 1985, named as a suspect in the theft of a pistol and ammunition in Pasco County, Aileen borrowed the alias “Lori Grody” from an aunt in Michigan. Eleven days later, the Florida Highway Patrol cited “Grody” for driving without a valid license. On January 4, 1986, Aileen was arrested in Miami under her own name, charged with auto theft, resisting arrest, and obstruction by false information; police found a .38-caliber revolver and a box of ammunition in the stolen car. On June 2, 1986, Volusia Country deputies detained “Lori Grody” for questioning after a male companion accused her of pulling a fun in his car and demanding $200. In spite of her denials, Aileen was carrying spare ammunition on her person, and a .22 pistol was found beneath her passenger seat she occupied. A week later, using the new alias “Susan Blahovec,” she was ticketed for speeding in Jefferson County, Florida. The citation includes a telling observation: “Attitude poor. Thinks she’s above the law.”
A few days after that incident, Aileen met lesbian Tyria Moore in a Daytona gay bar. They soon became lover, and while the passion faded after a year or so, they remained close friends and traveling companions, more or less inseparable for the next four years. On July 4, 1987, police in Daytona Beach detained “Tina Moore” and “Susan Blahovec” for questions, on suspicion of slugging a man with a beer bottle. “Blahovec” was alone on December 18 when highway patrolmen cited her for walking on the interstate and possessing a suspended driver’s license. Once again, the citation noted “Attitude poor,” and “Susan” proved it over the next two months with threatening letters mailed to the circuit court clerk on January 11 and February 9, 1988.
A month later, Wournos was trying a new approach and a new alias. On March 12, 1988, “Cammie Marsh Greene” accused a Daytona Beach bus driver of assault, claimed he pushed her off his bus following an argument; Tyria Moore was listed as a witness to the incident. On July 23, a Daytona Beach landlord accused Moore and “Susan Blahovec” of vandalizing their apartment, ripping out carpets, and painting the walls dark brown without his approval. In November 1988, “Susan Blahovec” launched a six day campaign of threatening calls against a Zephyrhills supermarket, following an altercation over lottery tickets.
By 1989, Aileen’s demeanor was increasingly erratic and belligerent. Never one to take an insult lightly, she now went out of her way to provoke confrontations, seldom traveling without a loaded pistol in her purse. She worked the bars and truck stops, thumbing rides to snag a trick when all else failed, supplementing her prostitute’s income with theft when she could. Increasingly, with Moore, she talked about the many troubles in her life and a yearning for revenge.
Richard Mallory, a 51-year-old electrician from Palm Harbor, was last seen alive by coworkers on November 30, 1989. His car was found abandoned at Ormond Beach the next day, his wallet and personal papers scattered nearby, along with several condoms and a half-empty bottle of vodka. On December 13, his fully dressed corpse was found in the woods northwest of Daytona Beach, shot three times in the chest with a .22 pistol. Police searching for a motive in the murder learned that Mallory had been divorced five times, earning a reputation as a “heavy drinker” who was “very paranoid” and “very much into porno and the topless bar scene.” A former employee described him as “mental,” but police came up empty in their search for a criminal record. They could find “nothing dirty” on the victim, finally concluding that he was just a paranoid womanizer.
The investigation was stalled at that point on June 1, 1990, when a nude “John Doe” victim was found, shot six times with a .22 and dumped in the woods 40 miles north of Tampa. By June 7, the corpse had been identified from dental records as 43-year-old David Spears, last seen leaving his Sarasota workplace on May 19. Spears had planned to visit his ex-wife in Orlando that afternoon, but he never made it. Ironically, his boss had spotted the dead man’s missing pickup truck on May 25, parked along I-75 south of Gainesville, but there the trail went cold.
By the time Spears was identified, a third victim had already been found. Charles Carskaddon, age 40, was a part-time rodeo worker from Booneville, Missouri, missing since May 31. He had vanished somewhere along I-75, en route to meet his fiancée in Tampa, his naked corpse found 30 miles south of the Spears murder site on June 6. Carskaddon had been shot nine times with a .22-caliber weapon, suggesting a pattern to officers who still resisted the notion of a serial killer at large. On June 7, Carskaddon’s car was found in Marion County, a .45 automatic and various personal items listed as stolen from the vehicle.
Peter Siems, a 65-year-old merchant seaman turned missionary, was last seen on June 7, 1990, when he left his Jupiter, Florida, home to visit relatives in Arkansas. Siems never arrived, and a missing-person report was filed with police on June 22. No trace of the man had been found by July 4 when his car was wrecked and abandoned in Orange Springs, Florida. Witnesses described the vehicle’s occupants as two women, one blond and one brunette, providing police sketch artists with a likeness of each. The blond was injured and bleeding. Police lifted a bloody palm print from the vehicle’s trunk.
Eugene Burress, age 50, left the Ocala sausage factory where he worked to make his normal delivery rounds on July 30, 1990. A missing-person report was filed when he had not returned by 2:00 A.M. the next day, and his delivery van was found two hours later. On August 4, his fully dressed body was found by a family picnicking in the Ocala National Forest. Burress had been shot twice with a .22-caliber pistol in the back and chest. Nearby, police found his credit cards, business receipts, and an empty cash bag from a local bank.
Fifty-six-year-old Dick Humphreys was a retired Alabama police chief, lately employed by the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services to investigate child abuse claims in Ocala. His wife reported him missing when he failed to return home from work on the night of September 11, 1990, and Humphreys was found the next day in an undeveloped subdivision, shot seven times with a .22 pistol, his pants pockets turned inside out. On September 19, his car was found abandoned and stripped of license plates behind a defunct service station in Live Oak. Impounded on September 25, the car was not traced to Humphreyes until October 13, the same day his discarded badge and other personal belongings were found in Lake County, 70 miles southeast of the murder scene.
Victim number seven was 60-year-old Walter Antonio, a trucker from Merritt Island who doubled as a reserve police office for Brevard Country. Found in the woods northwest of Cross City on November 19, 1990, he had been shot three times in the back and once in the head. Antonio was nude but for socks, his clothes later found in a remote area of neighboring Taylor County. His car, meanwhile, was found back in Brevard County on November 24. Police determined that Antonio’s killer had stolen a distinctive gold ring along with his badge, nightstick, handcuffs, and flashlight.
By that time, journalists had noted the obvious pattern detectives were reluctant to accept, and media exposure forced authorities to go public with their suspect sketches on November 30, 1990. Over the next three weeks, police received four calls identifying the suspects as Tyria Moore and “Lee Blahovec.” Their movements were traced through motel receipts, detectives learning that “Blahovec” also liked to call herself “Lori Grody” and “Cammie Marsh Greene.” Fingerprint comparisons did the rest, naming “Blahovec/Grody/Greene” as Aileen Wournos, placing her at the scene where Peter Siems’s car was wrecked in July, but it still remained for officers to track the women down.
Meanwhile, “Cammie Greene” was busy pawning items stolen from her victims and pocketing some extra cash. On December 6, she pawned Richard Mallory’s camera and radar detector in Daytona, moving on to Ormond Beach with a box of tools stolen from David Spears. (She also left a thumbprint behind in Ormond Beach, identical to that of “Lori Grody.”) The next day, in Volusia County, “Greene” pawned Walter Antonio’s ring, later identified by his fiancée and the jeweler who sized it.
With mug shots and a list of names in hand, it was a relatively simple matter to trace Aileen Wournos, though her rootless lifestyle delayed the arrest for another month. On January 9, 1991, she was seized at the Last Resort, a biker bar in Harbor Oaks, detained on outstanding warrants for “Lori Grody” while police finished building their murder case. A day later, Tyria Moore was traced to her sister’s home in Pennsylvania, where she agreed to help police. Back in Florida, detectives arranged a series of telephone conversations between Moore and Wournos. Tyria begged Aileen to confess for Moore’s sake and spare her from prosecution as an accomplice. One conversation led police to a storage warehouse Aileen had rented, a search revealing tools stolen from David Spears, the nightstick taken from Walter Antonio, another camera, and an electric razor belonging to Richard Mallory.
On January 16, 1991, Wournos summoned detectives and confessed to six killings, all allegedly performed in self-defense. She denied killing Peter Siems, whose body was still missing, and likewise disclaimed any link to the murder of a “John Doe” victim shot to death with a .22-caliber weapon in Brooks County, Georgia, and found in an advanced state of decay on May 5, 1990. (No charges were filed in that case.) “I shot ‘em ’cause to me it was like a self-defending thing,” she told police, “because I felt if I didn’t shoot ‘em and I didn’t kill ‘em, first of all…if they survived, my ass would be getting’ in trouble for attempted murder, so I’m up shit’s creek on that one anyway, and if I didn’t kill ‘em, you know, of course, I mean I had to kill ‘em…or, it’s like retaliation, too. It’s like, ‘You bastards, you were going to hurt me.’”
Within two weeks of her arrest, Aileen and her attorney had sold movie rights to her story. At the same time, three top investigators on her case retained their own lawyer to field offers from Hollywood, cringing with embarrassment when their unseemly haste was publicly revealed. In self-defense, the officers maintained that they were moved to sell their version of the case by “pure intentions,” planning to put the money in “a victim’s fund.” To a man, they denounced exposure of their scheme as the malicious work of brother officers, driven by their jealousy at being cut out of the deal.
A bizarre sideshow to the pending murder trial began in late January 1991 with the appearance of Arlene Pralle as Aileen’s chief advocate. A 44-year-old rancher’s wife and “born-again” Christian, Pralle advised Wournos in her first letter to prison that “Jesus told me to write you.” Soon, they were having daily telephone conversations at Pralle’s expense, Arlene arranging interviews for Wournos and herself and becoming a fixture on tabloid talk shows from coast to coast. In Pralle’s words, their relationship was “soul binding. We’re like Jonathan and David in the Bible. It’s as though part of me is trapped in jail with her. We always know what the other is feeling and thinking. I just wish I was Houdini. I would get her out of there. If there was a way, I would do it, and we could go and be vagabonds forever.” Instead, Pralle did the next best thing, legally adopting Wournos as her “daughter.”
Aileen’s trial for the murder of Richard Mallory opened on January 13, 1992. Eleven days later, Wournos took the stand as the only defense witness, repeating her tale of a violent rape and beating at Mallory’s hands, insisting that she shot him dead in self-defense, using her pistol only after he threatened her life. With no hard evidence to support her claim, jurors rejected the story, deliberating a mere 90 minutes before they convicted Aileen of first-degree murder on January 27. “I’m innocent!” she shouted when the verdict was announced. “I was raped! I hope you get raped! Scumbags of America!” The jury recommended death on January 29, and the following day Aileen was formally sentenced to die. In April, she pled guilty to the murders of victims Burress, Humphreys, and Spears, with a second death sentence imposed on May 7, 1992.
Around the same time, Aileen offered to show police where the corpse of Peter Siems was hidden near Beaufort, South Carolina. Authorities flew her to the Piedmont State, but nothing was found at the designated site, Daytona police insisting that Wournos created the ruse to get a free vacation from jail. They speculate that Siems was dumped in a swamp near I-95 north of Jacksonville, but his body has never been found.
The Wournos case took an ironic twist on November 10, 1992, with reporter Michele Gillen’s revelations on Dateline NBC. Thus far, Aileen’s defenders and Florida prosecutors alike had failed to unearth any criminal record for Richard Mallory that would substantiate Aileen’s claim of rape and assault. In the official view, Mallory was “clean,” if somewhat paranoid and over-sexed. Gillen, though, had no apparent difficulty finding out that Mallory had served 10 years for violent rape in another state, facts easily obtained by running his name through the FBI’s computer network.
“The fascinating part about this,” Gillen said, “is here is a woman who for the past year has been screaming that she didn’t get a fair trial and that everyone was rushing to make a TV movie about here – and in reality that comes true.” (The first TV movie depicting Aileen aired on a rival network one week to the day after Gillen’s report.) Even so, Gillen stopped short of calling for Aileen’s release. “She’s a sick woman who blew those men away,” Gillen said, “But that’s no reason for the state to say ‘She’s confessed to killing men; we don’t have to do our homework.”
In early October of 2002 her execution was stayed by Jeb Bush in order to perform psychiatric exams. The stay was lifted when it was determined that she knew what she had done and that she was being executed. Aileen Wournos was executed on October 9, 2002 by lethal injection.