The setting was the Citrus County Jail when Arlene Pralle was finally able last month to hold and kiss her daughter for the first time. It was a rapturous moment, Pralle says, when she understood what being a mother really means.
“I felt fulfilled, a sense of completeness and confirmation that what I was doing was correct,” she says. “And I knew that others didn’t know her like I do.”
Pralle, slight, doe-eyed and 44, is no ordinary woman.
Neither is the woman Pralle legally adopted, Aileen Carol Wuornos, a stocky, hard-drinking 35-year-old who is said to be that rarest of predators, a female serial killer.
Wuornos, called Lee, is a bisexual prostitute who has admitted luring at least six men to their deaths along Interstate 75, the north-south highway that slices through the rolling hills of central Florida like a twin-bladed knife.
“I had to kill them,” she said in a four-hour videotaped confession to police that was made public last week. “It’s like I’m thinking, ‘You bastards. You were gonna hurt me.’ It was self-defense. It was, like, ‘Hey, man, I gotta shoot you, ‘cause I think you’re gonna kill me.’ ”
Indicted in five of the murders, she is scheduled to be tried on the first of the charges Jan. 13.
Although the legendary Ma Barker met her end near here 55 years ago, this rural area between Ocala and Gainesville is known more for its horse farms and natural springs than for mayhem. But two years ago the bodies of middle-aged traveling men--shot to death, often with their pants down--began to turn up in the woods, and police announced that they were looking for a pistol-packing blonde who was quickly dubbed the “Damsel of Death.”
Soon after Lee Wuornos was arrested last January, curled up asleep on an old car seat outside a Daytona Beach biker bar called the Last Resort, she told police she killed to support her lesbian lover. In a rented storage shed to which Wuornos had the key, police said they found clothing, cowboy boots, watches, tool boxes and suitcases belonging to the victims.
In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Wournos tried to explain. “I’m not a man-hater,” she said. "(I am) so used to being treated like dirt that I guess it’s become a way of life. I’m a decent person.”
If this sounds like the stuff of Hollywood, it is. Wuornos and her story have set off a frenzy among filmmakers, writers, television tabloid shows and assorted hucksters, all trying to cash in on what is perhaps an unprecedented saga of a highway femme fatale. In fact, the scramble for the rights to the Lee Wuornos story has become a story in itself.
Republic Pictures once had a deal with three police officers who investigated the case, CBS Entertainment execs read a script, and at least half a dozen production companies at one time were in the chase for the rights to what could be one of the most sensational true-crime dramas in years.
The only person who claims now to have a contract with Wuornos is Studio City producer Jackelyn Giroux, whose credits include “Distortions,” “On the Prowl” and “Hangnail.”
In what can only be described as an astounding bit of coincidence, Giroux’s mother, an Ocala resident, ran into Wuornos in December while both were standing in a grocery store checkout line. Recognizing the suspect from a police composite drawing that had just been circulated, Giroux’s mother handed Wuornos her daughter’s business card and asked her to call. The producer’s mom then reported the sighting to the police.
Weeks later, when Wuornos was arrested, she did call Giroux. In exchange for a payment of $60 a month for life, Giroux says, she obtained the suspect’s permission to tell her story in a feature film to be called “Angel of Death.”
Meanwhile, in September Geraldo Rivera’s “Now It Can Be Told” devoted three consecutive programs to the case, and a follow-up is scheduled to air Friday. Carolco Pictures, a Los Angeles company, has optioned a free-lancer’s account, to be published by Warner Books. Working title: “Deadends.”
And psychologist and feminist Phyllis Chesler also has a book under way. Chesler, whose previous titles include “Women and Madness” and “About Men,” once worked closely with Wuornos and Pralle in hopes of helping Wuornos’s public defender mount a novel self-preservation defense to the murder charges.
But they had a falling-out, Chesler says, in part brought on by the “sleazoid machinations of Hollywood, the book contracts, the incredible piranhas that surfaced.”
Now the only deal Lee Wuornos has is with her mother and soul mate, says Pralle. “We don’t talk about the case,” adds Pralle, who visits Wuornos in jail once a week and talks to her nightly by telephone. “But in my heart I know that Lee is not a serial killer. She has a heart of gold, and she cares about other people more than herself. God has brought us together.”
There are a few parallels between the lives of Pralle and Wuornos, but nothing probable about the way they met or became mother and daughter. Pralle, adopted and raised by well-off parents on Long Island, N.Y., breeds Tennessee walking horses on a 35-acre farm that she bought last year with her husband, Robert, a field engineer for Sony.
After twice attempting suicide, Pralle became a born-again Christian in 1981. While looking at Wuornos’ picture in a local newspaper, Pralle said, she peered deep into her eyes “and God prompted me to do something.” She sent the accused a letter.
“I don’t care if you’re guilty or innocent,” she wrote, “but I want to be your friend.”
To Wournos, alone and accustomed to betrayal, Pralle appeared to be the answer to a prayer, someone without an ulterior motive. Born in Troy, Mich., in 1956, Wuornos was raised by her grandparents after she and a brother were abandoned by her mother when Lee was 6 months old. She has said her grandfather beat her and has admitted to a brief sexual relationship with her brother.
Wuornos became pregnant at 13 and gave birth to a son, who was immediately given up for adoption. A heavy drinker and drug user beginning in her early teens, she left school in the 10th grade and, while hitchhiking around the country, supported herself as a waitress, pool hustler, maid and prostitute.
In 1976 Wuornos wound up in Daytona Beach, a town popular with Hells Angels, hellbent college students on spring break and drifters of various stripes. That same year Wuornos’ father committed suicide in prison, where he was serving time on a conviction of kidnaping and sodomizing a child, and her brother died of cancer at age 21.
Desperate for security, Wuornos says she married a 70-year-old man. The marriage lasted a month. She said he beat her with his cane. Two years after that, crazed over breaking up with a boyfriend, she shot herself in the stomach.
Says Pralle: “She’s had a horrible, horrible life.”
In 1981 Wuornos was arrested after robbing a convenience store of $33 and served a year in a Florida prison. After her release, she wandered for years, until 1986, when, in a lesbian bar in Daytona Beach, Wuornos met Tyria Moore, 28, the woman she has described as “the love of my life.” The couple lived in rooms and motels, Wuornos taking care of Moore by working part-time jobs or by turning tricks.
Over the years, Wuornos told police, she has had sex with 200,000 men, been raped nine times and been beaten up and manhandled more times than she can remember. Eventually, she decided not to take it anymore.
The killings began in late 1989. The body of the first victim, Richard Mallory, the 52-year-old owner of a television repair shop, was found on Dec. 13 that year, buried in the woods under a piece of carpet. He had been shot four times, police said.
Over the next year, the bodies of nine more men were found. One was a sausage delivery man. Another worked in rodeos. One was a former Alabama police chief working as a child custody investigator for the state of Florida. A part-time missionary also was killed.
All of the victims were men passing through, en route to somewhere else, and traveling alone. There was often evidence of sexual activity. In addition to some of the bodies being discovered in states of undress, empty condom wrappers were found in several of the dead men’s cars.
Police say the killer met her prey at truck stops or while hitchhiking and lured them off the road with the promise of sex. Tips led to a composite drawing of the suspects and soon to Wournos’ arrest.
Moore, picked up later in Ohio, cooperated with police to trick Wuornos into confessing to the murders. In an extraordinary court hearing earlier this month, Moore described how police put her up in a Daytona Beach motel room for four days--and kept her supplied with plenty of Budweiser and hamburgers--as they tape-recorded 10 telephone conversations between the former lovers.
Moore admitted from the witness stand that she lied, cried and pleaded with Wuornos to get her to recount her crimes. And Wuornos did.
In one conversation, Wuornos says she pumped seven slugs into the former police chief, Charles R. Humphreys, 56, “to put him out of his misery.”
In another, she tells Moore, “I will not let you be involved in the picture. You’re not the one. I am the one who did everything. I did it all myself.”
Tricia Jenkins, Wournos’s public defender, refuses to discuss defense strategy. But in the videotaped confession, Wuornos, asked by a police officer why she killed, says, “They crossed the line. They were gonna rape me, kill me, strangle me.”
Jenkins has charged that prosecutors may have covered up evidence that could link Moore with the murders in order to ensure her expected role as the state’s star witness. She has not been charged with any crime.
And Brian Jarvis, a former Marion County sheriff’s deputy who was a key investigator on the case, also contends that Moore’s involvement was ignored because fellow investigators had teamed up with her in a movie deal. The state attorney investigated and, while ordering the investigators to forget about the movies, found no wrongdoing.
As the media hubbub around the case swirls with increasing complexity, its fascination grows apace. “What makes the case of Lee Wuornos different is like the FBI says, ‘We have no profile of a woman serial killer,’ ” says Steven Glazer, a Gainesville attorney representing Wournos on civil matters. “That’s the uniqueness of it. Everybody wants into her psyche.”
Chesler says Wuornos’ psyche is what she will plumb in her book, tentatively titled “Letter to a Serial Killer.”
“We may be fascinated with her because something is going on with women,” says Chesler. “ ‘Thelma and Louise.’ Anita Hill. Women don’t want sexual harassment.
“Wuornos is not leading a feminist liberation army. But I can understand her actions most deeply in feminist and political terms. What would it mean if women started to defend themselves?”
Pralle has lost patience with Chesler and anyone else she thinks is attempting to make money or use Wuornos’ story for their own ends. Under Florida law, Wuornos would be barred from cashing in on literary or cinematic accounts of her crimes. But Wuornos follows the news from her jail cell and, says Pralle, is “euphoric” over a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down New York’s so-called “Son of Sam” law, on which Florida’s is modeled.
Lee does not want money for herself, adds Pralle, but “she is very concerned about the finances here. We could use money to pay off the farm.”
Nonetheless, Pralle insists, it is love, not money, that binds mother to adopted daughter. Along with providing Wuornos with unstinting, unquestioning support, Pralle delights in emphasizing her daughter’s sensitive, artistic nature by showing off her precise, greeting card-style jailhouse pictures, drawn with a ballpoint pen, and by reading aloud her poetry.
In one poem, titled “Friendship,” Wuornos writes: “A friend is one who fights to the end to make things right/Our pact as a friend/Cheering you up, never bringing you down/And making sure your life is safe and sound.”
Robert Pralle admits that at first his wife’s obsession with an accused killer troubled him greatly: He worried about losing his job because of the publicity and about the $4,000 in phone bills Arlene has run up this year talking to Wuornos.
“I wouldn’t think of doing something like this myself, and I was skeptical,” he says. “But I see her sincerity, the honesty and love, and I can’t fault it.” He has become Wuornos’ legal father.
For Arlene Pralle, becoming a mother to a woman whom some have described as a brutal, sadistic killer has been “the most painful road I’ve ever taken.”
“We’ve been called everything in the books over the last few months,” Pralle said recently as she stood by a pasture fence stroking a yearling filly called Remember Arlee’s Soulbinder. “What bothers me the most is when people say we’re gay lovers or that I’m doing it for book and movie deals.
“We just want Lee to have a family who cares about her and is not going to hurt her. She has a heart of gold, and even after all she’s been through, she’s given so much to me. “Lee’s talked about going to Colorado when she gets out. But this is it. I see her here with me.”