February 25, 1991 12:00 PM

Back in December 1989, two men were scavenging for scrap metal in the woods north of Daytona Beach, Fla., when one of them noticed a buzzard picking at something. The bird’s meal turned out to be the hand of a badly decomposed corpse hidden beneath a piece of carpet.

The body was that of Richard Mallory, 51, a video-repair-shop owner from Clearwater, whose bloodstained Cadillac had been discovered a mile away two weeks earlier. Mallory had been shot four times with a small-caliber handgun. His pockets, turned inside out, made it appear that the killing was a typical robbery-homicide.

Then, late in the summer of 1990, Larry Horzepa, the Volusia County Sheriffs Office investigator assigned to the Mallory case, began receiving teletypes from other central Florida sheriffs’ departments about similar incidents. In June, a construction worker had been found dead in Citrus County. Five days later, the body of a truck driver from Missouri was discovered in nearby Pasco County. In Marion County, a delivery-truck driver for a sausage company turned up dead in August, and a child-custody investigator for the state of Florida was killed in September. All were white men aged 40 to 60. Most of them frequently traveled the state’s highways alone. All had been killed in wooded areas off the main roads, shot repeatedly with small-caliber bullets.

The similarities in the killings strongly suggested that a serial murderer was on the loose, a daunting prospect for police anywhere, but especially so in Florida. “This state is a haven for serial killers,” says Sgt. Bruce Munster of the Marion County Sheriffs Department. “There’s such a large transient population here. They fit right in.” So when investigators from four counties joined forces in October, they expected a long and frustrating search.

But in January, just three months (and one additional murder) later, authorities announced the arrest of sometime prostitute Aileen Wuornos, 34. They say she is that rarest of criminals, a female serial killer, and that she murdered seven men in a year.

The critical lead in the case had come in July, when witnesses in Orange Springs, Fla., saw two women crash a Pontiac Sun-bird through a fence, then leave the scene. The car belonged to Peter Siems, 65, a missionary for the Christ Is the Answer Crusade, who had been missing since June 7—and is now presumed to be one of the serial killer’s victims. As other men turned up dead, their autos invariably stolen, the cops’ interest in the pair increased.

In early December, authorities released composite sketches of the women to three nationally syndicated TV-tabloid shows. Tips poured in, repeatedly naming Tyria Moore, 28, a hotel maid from Ohio. Her companion was identified by several different names, all of which turned out to be aliases used by Wuornos, a drifter from Rochester, Mich., with a long rap sheet, including a 1982 conviction for the armed robbery of a Florida convenience store.

Investigators soon learned that Wuornos had been hanging out in the Daytona area with Moore, her lesbian lover. “We decided to do surveillance in a certain kind of bar in the hope that they would show up,” says Sergeant Munster. One of the bars was the Last Resort, where tattooed bikers play pool beneath an array of bras and panties dangling from the ceiling. “It’s not the kind of place you’d take the family,” says Munster. On Jan. 8, two weeks into the stakeout, a brawny blond woman called Lee showed up for a few cold ones. Undercover officers in the bar recognized her as Wuornos. They kept her under surveillance, hoping she would lead them to additional evidence. She did not, never straying far from the bar, listening to country music (“Leather & Lace” and “Diggin’ Up Bones” were her favorites) and sleeping on a vinyl car seat on the porch. The next day, they arrested her. She surrendered peaceably.

Meanwhile, investigators tracked down Moore—whom they do not believe was involved in the murders—in Pennsylvania. According to court documents, she told them that Wuornos returned from a December 1989 hitchhiking trip in a Cadillac and said that she had “killed a guy today.” Moore, whom one cop describes as “a very sweet, likable person, not a trashy person,” told cops that she’d finally broken up with Wuornos a year later, partly because she was frightened of her.

Investigators had no trouble getting Wuornos to talk. She allegedly implicated herself in all seven killings and told cops they could find her .22 in Rose Bay, a brackish waterway near the $15-a-night Fairview Motel south of Daytona, where she had often stayed with Moore. The gun has been recovered, and police say tests show it was used to kill Mallory.

Says Horzepa: “She was very protective of Ty. She wanted to make sure that everybody realized that she acted on her own and that Ty was not responsible.” He says Wuornos described herself as a prostitute who killed some of her customers or potential customers. (She may also have lured her marks by posing as a motorist in distress.) Horzepa says that Wuornos tried to turn eight or 10 tricks a night. Because most men escaped Wuornos unscathed, Horzepa asked what went wrong in the cases of the seven victims. “She told me, ‘All I wanted was to get my money for sex. If I could do it clean, no problem. When somebody gave me a problem, that’s when the incident happened.’ ”

Experts agree, though, that money alone cannot explain Wuornos’s murderous ways. James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice and coauthor of Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace, says that if she is guilty, Wuornos has written an unusual chapter in the annals of crime. Fewer than 5 percent of serial killers are female, and those few women who do kill repeatedly “generally kill people they know. They kill for particular reasons, such as jealousy or revenge. My guess is that the motive in this case was actually control, power, dominance. It could be that these men were trying to take control, and submission, perhaps, is not something she was into. This may have been some attempt to get back at men.”

Wuornos apparently had a lot to get back for. “She had the most hellish life I’ve ever known,” says Russell F. Armstrong, the Daytona lawyer who represented her in the 1982 armed-robbery case. Armstrong believes that, as a 14-year-old runaway, Wuornos “was beaten and raped at least six times.” He says she has tried suicide at least once, shooting herself in the stomach in 1978.

Wuornos’s problems began in the cradle. Her mother, Diane, who left home as a teenager to get married, could not care for her two young children, Aileen and Keith. So she turned them over to her parents for adoption, then disappeared. Diane’s younger sister, Lori K. Grody, who grew up with Aileen, maintains that their family was “pretty normal,” though her adoptive sister was also her niece. “Our parents [Aileen’s grandparents] were strict, but not more than anyone else. They certainly were not abusive.”

Grody, 37, a Michigan factory worker and married mother of two, does recall that even as a child Aileen had an explosive temper. “Aileen had some friends, but they were always fighting—nothing physical, but verbally. Her friends would always end up hating her.” Aileen’s first “real trouble,” Grody says, came when she got pregnant at 13. She said she had been raped, but no one pursued the allegation. Grody says that Aileen’s adoptive parents “swept the whole thing under the rug,” packing her off to a home for unwed mothers, where the baby was taken away. “After that, Aileen always told me, ‘All men are out to use women,’ ” she recalls.

Around the time Aileen gave birth, she experienced two additional traumas. She and her family learned that her biological father, Leo Pittman, who was in prison for molesting a 7-year-old child and was suspected of killing another child, killed himself. Two years later, her grandmother, an alcoholic, died of liver failure, leaving her in the nominal care of her grandfather.

Aileen “hated her grandfather’s guts,” recalls her high school friend Dawn (who prefers not to be further identified). “I don’t know if he was ever physically abusive to her, but he never cared about her.” (He killed himself in 1976.) By age 14, Aileen was living on her own, supporting herself as a prostitute. “She had no home,” says Dawn. “Hitchhiking, drugs and booze became her way of life. I was not surprised when I heard [about the murder charges]. She has been living with a death penalty since she was 12.”

Grody agrees that “life on the road” may have turned Aileen into what she is today. But, she speculates, “Maybe all this is genetic. Both Aileen and Keith (who died of cancer in 1976] had raging tempers. Maybe it had to do with their real father.”

Since her arrest, Grody says, Wuornos has written her from jail that she hopes “the Lord will forgive me.” She has also phoned, weeping, purportedly out of grief for the dead men. But she also carried on excitedly about the book and movie deals she said she had been offered. “I told her, ‘Get realistic. You are going to get the electric chair,’ ” says Grody.

She very well may. Wuornos has already been arraigned on first-degree murder charges in the killing of Mallory, and State Attorney John Tanner says he will seek the death penalty. Murder indictments in all seven cases are expected. Wuornos’s attorney, Ray Cass, who entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf in the Mallory case, is considering an insanity defense, based on his client’s background of abuse and neglect.

Even investigator Horzepa can find some sympathy for Wuornos; he believes she may have felt a kind of relief at being arrested. “I think she’s had a very hard life and she’s just tired,” he says. “She just had enough.” But, he adds, “I didn’t sense any remorse from her. There was no doubt in my mind that she could go through with what she did.”

—James S. Kunen, Meg Grant and Cindy Dampier in Florida, Sara Gay Dammann in Michigan

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