Was Aileen Wuornos A Serial Killer, A Victim, Or Both?

Published October 15, 2023
Updated November 2, 2023

After suffering sexual abuse as a teenager and being forced out of the house, Aileen Wuornos engaged in sex work and eventually killed seven of her johns in 1989 and 1990.

In 2002, the state of Florida executed the 10th woman to ever receive the death penalty in the United States since the 1976 reinstatement of capital punishment. That woman’s name was Aileen Wuornos, a former sex worker who had killed seven men she picked up while working the highways of Florida in 1989 and 1990.

Aileen Wuornos

YouTubeAileen Wuornos in handcuffs after her capture.

Her life later became the subject of screenplays, stage productions, and multiple documentaries as well as the basis for the 2003 movie Monster. These takes on the story of Aileen Wuornos revealed a woman who proved capable of murder again and again, while also revealing just how tragic her own life was.

The Troubled Early Life Of Aileen Wuornos

If a psychologist was challenged to invent a childhood that would predictably produce a serial killer, Aileen Wuornos’ life would have been it to the last detail. Wuornos found prostitution early in life, trading sexual favors at her elementary school for cigarettes and other treats at age 11. Of course, she didn’t just pick up the habit on her own.

Wuornos’ father, a convicted sex offender, was out of the picture before she was born and ended up hanging himself in his prison cell when she was 13 years old. Her mother, a Finnish immigrant, had already abandoned her by that point, leaving her in the care of her paternal grandparents.

Less than a year after her father committed suicide, Wuornos’ grandmother died of liver failure. Meanwhile, her grandfather had been, according to her later account, beating and raping her for several years.

When Aileen Wuornos was 15 years old, she dropped out of school to have her grandfather’s friend’s baby at a home for unwed mothers. However, after having the child, she and her grandfather finally had it out in a domestic incident, and Wuornos was left to live in the woods outside of Troy, Michigan.

She then gave up her son for adoption and got by on prostitution and petty theft.

How Wuornos Tried To Escape Her Trauma

Young Aileen Wuornos

YouTubeA young Aileen Wuornos, years before committing her first murders.

At the age of 20, Aileen Wuornos tried to escape her life by hitchhiking to Florida and marrying a 69-year-old man named Lewis Fell. Fell was a successful businessman who had settled into semi-retirement as the president of a yacht club. Wuornos moved in with him and immediately started getting into trouble with local law enforcement.

She frequently left the home she shared with Fell to carouse in a local bar where she often got into fights. She also abused Fell, who later claimed she beat him with his own cane. Eventually, her elderly husband got a restraining order against her, forcing Wuornos to return to Michigan to file for an annulment after just nine weeks of marriage.

Around this time, Wuornos’ brother (with whom she had had an incestuous relationship) suddenly died of esophageal cancer. Wuornos collected his $10,000 life insurance policy, used some of the money to cover the fine for a DUI, and bought a luxury car that she then crashed while driving under the influence.

When the money ran out, Aileen Wuornos returned to Florida and started getting arrested for theft again.

She briefly did time for an armed robbery in which she stole $35 and some cigarettes. Working as a prostitute again, Wuornos was arrested in 1986 when one of her customers told police she had pulled a gun on him in the car and demanded money. In 1987, she moved in with a hotel maid named Tyria Moore, a woman who would become her lover and partner in crime.

How Aileen Wuornos’ Killing Rampage Began

Cops On Wuornos Case

Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesAn investigator on the Aileen Wuormos case holds mugshots of Wuormos and her first victim, Richard Mallory.

Aileen Wuornos told conflicting stories about her murders. Sometimes, she claimed to have been the victim of rape or attempted rape with every single one of the men she killed. At other times, she admitted she was trying to rob them. Depending on who she was talking to, her story changed.

As it happens, her first victim, Richard Mallory, actually was a convicted rapist. Mallory was 51 years old and had finished his prison term years earlier. When he met Wuornos in November of 1989, he was running an electronics store in Clearwater. Wuornos shot him several times and dumped him in the woods before ditching his car.

In May 1990, Aileen Wuornos killed 43-year-old David Spears by shooting him six times and stripping his corpse naked. Five days after Spears’ body was discovered, police found the remains of 40-year-old Charles Carskaddon, who had been shot nine times and tossed on the side of the road.

On June 30, 1990, 65-year-old Peter Siems disappeared on a drive from Florida to Arkansas. Witnesses later claimed to have seen two women, matching Moore and Wuornos’ descriptions, driving his vehicle. Wuornos’ fingerprints were later recovered from the car and from several of Siems’ personal effects that had turned up in local pawn shops.

Wuornos and Moore went on to kill three more men before Aileen was picked up on a warrant after yet another fight in a biker bar in Volusia County, Florida. Moore had left her by this time, returning to Pennsylvania, where police apprehended her the day after Aileen Wuornos was booked.

The Betrayal That Led To Aileen Wuornos’ Capture

It didn’t take long for Tyria Moore to flip on Aileen Wuornos. In the days immediately following her arrest, Moore was back in Florida, staying at a motel the police had rented for her. There, she made calls to Wuornos in an attempt to elicit a confession that could be used against her.

Aileen Wuornos

YouTubeAileen Wuornos was captured when the police got help from her girlfriend, Tyria Moore.

In these calls, Moore acted up a storm, pretending to be frightened that the police would pin all of the blame for the murders on her. She’d beg Aileen to go over the story with her again, step-by-step, in order to get their stories straight. After four days of repeated phone calls, Aileen Wuornos confessed to several of the murders but insisted over the phone that the killings Moore hadn’t known about were all attempted rapes.

Authorities now had what they needed to arrest Aileen Wuornos for murder.

Aileen Wuornos spent all of 1991 in jail, waiting for her trials to start. During that time, Moore was fully cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for full immunity. She and Aileen Wuornos often talked by phone, and Wuornos knew in general terms that her lover had turned as a witness for the state. If anything, Wuornos seemed to welcome it.

Tyria Moore

YouTubeTyria Moore, Aileen Wuornos’ former lover who ended up helping to get her caught.

As rough as life had been for her outside of prison, she seemed to be having a harder time inside. As she sat in confinement, Aileen Wuornos gradually came to believe that her food was being spat in or otherwise contaminated with bodily fluids. She repeatedly went on hunger strikes as she refused to eat meals prepared while various individuals were present in the jail’s kitchen.

Her statements to the court and to her own legal counsel became increasingly unhinged, with many references to jail staff and other inmates she believed were plotting against her.

Like many disturbed defendants, she petitioned the court to fire her lawyer and let her represent herself. The court actually agreed to this, which left her unprepared and unable to cope with the inevitable blizzard of paperwork that seven murder trials involve.

The Controversial Trial And Execution Of A “Monster”

Aileen Wuornos In Court

YouTubeAileen Wuornos in court in 1992.

Aileen Wuornos went on trial for the murder of Richard Mallory on January 16, 1992, and was convicted two weeks later. The sentence was death. Around a month after, she pleaded no contest to three more murders, for which the sentences were also death. In June 1992, Wuornos plead guilty to the murder of Charles Carskaddon and was given yet another death sentence in November for the crime.

The gears of death turn slowly in American capital cases. Ten years after first being sentenced to die, Wuornos was still on Florida’s death row and degenerating fast.

During her trial, Wuornos had been diagnosed as a psychopath with a borderline personality disorder. This was ruled not strictly relevant to her crimes, but it did present the bedrock instability that let Wuornos go around the bend from her prison cell.

Real Serial Killer From Monster

Public DomainThough Aileen Wuornos was portrayed as a monster after killing seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990, she claimed her crimes were done in self-defense.

In 2001, she directly petitioned the court to ask for her sentence to be hurried along. Citing abusive and inhumane living conditions, Aileen Wuornos also claimed her body was being attacked by a sonic weapon of some kind. Her court-appointed lawyer tried to argue she was irrational, but Wuornos wouldn’t go along with the defense. Not only did she confess again to the slayings, but she also sent this to the court as a document for the record:

“I am so sick of hearing this ‘she’s crazy’ stuff. I’ve been evaluated so many times. I’m competent, sane, and I’m trying to tell the truth. I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.”

On June 6, 2002, Aileen Wuornos got her wish: she was put to death at 9:47 PM that day. During her last interview, she was quoted saying: “I’d 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.”

After this look at Aileen Wuornos, one of history’s most fearsome female serial killers, read about Leonarda Cianciulli, the serial killer who turned her victims into soap and teacakes, and the axe-murdering Lizzie Borden. Then read about six chilling serial killers who were never caught.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.