For the first time in U.S. history, a woman stands accused of being a serial killer – of having killed six adult male motorists, one by one, in just over a year, after accompanying them to wooded areas off Highway 75 in Florida, a state well-known for its sun, surf and serial killers.
I first heard about Aileen (Lee) Carol Wuomos in December of 1990, when Florida newspapers and national media announced: “Two women are being sought as possible suspects in the shooting deaths of eight to 12 middle-aged men who were lured to their deaths on the Florida highways…These women are armed and dangerous and may be our nation’s first female serial killers.”
It’s a 35-minute drive from the Ft. Lauderdale airport to Death Row at the Broward Correctional Institute. I drive up to the last building on the property. A male guard-in-uniform, armed with a gun and a walkie-talkie, is sitting in an open-doored van, observing whatever there is to observe. Me. I start walking over to ask for directions.
“Stand back,” he orders. I freeze in my tracks. He calls my name in on his walkie-talkie. “You’re a half hour early” he says accusingly.
“I was advised to arrive at 12:30 to allow a half hour to be processed. Can I wait inside?”
He stares straight ahead and, after awhile, shrugs as if to say “guess you can.”
I walk to the end of the room to the glassed-in enclosure. A receptionist tells me I’m too early, and that her only escort is busy. Eventually Sergeant “X,” a woman wearing a brown uniform and heavy black men’s shoes, is buzzed into the waiting room. She says: “Well, Lee is being difficult. Moody as hell. Uh-huh. That’s how she got with the BBC crew. She just didn’t want to see them.”
Sergeant X and I wait. And then, suddenly, she says: “Well, c’mon, let’s go. I told you she changes her mind. She’ll see you now.”
The Sergeant told me no such thing. But her job is to keep prisoners off balance so that you stop thinking for yourself and simply do what you’re told with no questions asked. Also, you don’t argue with a prison guard when you’re in her territory.
I’m not a prisoner in the Broward Correctional Institute, but I’m not about to do anything that will allow them to justify canceling my visit or punishing Lee for my “uppity” behavior.
Prison bureaucracies are formidable paramilitary endeavors, fraught with humans caged, or lined up like schoolchildren, heart-stopping metal bars, earsplitting metal detectors. Will an insurrection-in-her-heart metal detector go off? There’s so much force and punishment on display – all of which can and will be used against you if you do anything to suggest that you’re not properly defeated, or at least intimidated. Move too suddenly, or too colorfully, and you’re challenging the rule of inertia, messing with the system, they’ll bury you alive: In lawsuits and investigations, or in solitary. Who wants to risk it? The Broward bureaucracy has made its point; I’m already super-alert and somewhat docile.
Lee: You hit the ground running before either Thelma or Louise came to town. You’re the real star of that movie; it’s about you, about what you’ve done, about what to do, when men, you know, ordinary married men, the mainstay of your profession, start making those sounds and faces at women, any women. They drive slowly with one hand on the wheel, the other somewhere out of sight, and yell the vilest obscenities as they follow the teenage hitchhiker, or the mother of teenagers. It makes no difference: Whether the hitchhiker’s own car has broken down, or whether she’s just been raped by the previous man-in-a-moving-vehicle, or whether she’s just out riding to clear her mind. There’s no law against trying, is there?
Talk about women who run with the wolves! You’ve navigated North America’s vast, frozen tundra, with a craftiness, a cunning, a scavenging genius, without which neither wildlife nor prostitutes could survive: Not for a day, not for an hour.
When we first spoke, early in 1991, I told you that I represented a feminist government in exile, and that we wanted to support you.
“Far out, man,” you said. “You’re from the Women* Lib aren’t you? Tell the women out there that I’m innocent. Tell them that men hate our guts. I was raped and I defended myself. It was self defense. I could not stop hustling just because some asshole was going around Florida raping and killing women. I still had to hustle.”
Your voice was Joplin-husky and surprisingly sweet, even girlish. Did I expect you to sound like a man? Well honey, that’s a real hefty swagger you wore on TV, and the way you tossed your hair around. Most women do it out of nervousness; you, you seemed to do it out of defiance, to intimidate, the way male lions toss their manes.
You said that jail didn’t “bother” you, that you could “take it,” that the daily verbal abuse was nothing: “Hey, whore, show us some tits ‘n ass.” “We’ll put you in solitary forever if you do any weird lesbian shit in here.” “Bark at the moon, bitch, if you don’t like it.” “I’m going to enjoy watching you fry, real nice and slowly, once for each guy you killed.”
“Lee,” I said, “think of yourself as a prisoner-of-war. Try to give away as little information as possible – this phone line is probably tapped – and be cautious about what you say to anyone in jail, no matter how friendly they seem. “How are you doing on toiletries, do you have a canteen allowance? Are they letting you shower, exercise, see sunlight? What do you need?”
“I need you guys real bad,” you answered. “The public defender has 47 other capital cases and no time for me. I’ll pay you back if you get me a lawyer who has time for me. I’ll sell my life story for 30 million dollars and I’ll set up a foundation for abused women. Hey man: I’m going through living hell for defending myself.”
And then, with wonderment, you said: “I can’t believe there are women out there rooting for me!”
Well, not so fast. Yes, many women, actually a surprising number, have said: “It’s about time women started shooting back,” and “Good for her. Those men must have done something to provoke her: They’re Johns, they deserved it.” Some feminists (and anti-death penalty advocates) have urged me to do everything I can for you. But most women, including feminists and lesbians, see you as too unsympathetic a victim to bother with: Unstable, uncooperative, a loser, a real pain-in-the-ass, and just plain nuts.
Know that I don’t romanticize you. How could I? You’re as conventional as most (abused) women are. For example: you’re quite the ‘”Golly-gee-whizz” kind of “good ol’ gal” when you talk about how some of your best friends are Johns, and about how you believe in Jesus, always did, and that He’s coming too. You’re proud you were able to “please” your dates/customers/johns. You’re an outlaw by default, not by choice.
The women who kill violent men are all “good girls” who’ve bought into the very system that I dream of destroying. Talk about “tricks!” When they/you realize you’ve been tricked, had, taken, left for dead, and that no one will help you, you’re invisible anyway, maybe that’s ¥when you kill the man who’s been breaking your bones for years; the 100th john who’s taking his knife out and threatening to cut your face/ breasts/ anus/vagina; the man who’s just walked out with custody of your kids, the deed to your home, and a new wife on his arm.
Lee: It’s the “Femme” in you who killed, not the “Butch.”
Yet, as THE (so-called) FIRST FEMALE SERIAL KILLER, you’ve made headlines, not for what has been done to you, but for what you’ve done. Your bullets shattered the silence about violence against prostituted women, about women fighting back: And about what happens to them when they do.
No small feat.
But even if I thought you’d led the equivalent of a slave revolt, planned a raid on Harper’s Ferry, left the Massa’s House in flames behind you, this is not something most women can do. Our fear of certain, further punishment, is too great. Unlike you, I didn’t buy a gun. Instead, I clipped and filed all the grisly notices of our dead; I mean to have them engraved on a vast, memorial tombstone, or stitched into a quilt, like the parents of murdered children do.
So here’s what’s troubling me. How could you, a “nobody,” have summoned up enough grit and righteous rage to save your own life? Is it that you had nothing to lose, you knew no one would save you but yourself, so you did that – and got arrested for saving your own life?
Sergeant X leads me to a very small room, which is further divided into two rooms, separated by a door and two windows. The inner room is where Lee and I are to meet; the outer room is where we are to be observed. There is no desk, only two chairs.
Lee is led into the room by two guards. She is unsteady on her feet, a bit ungainly, not that tall.
I remember how she looked when she was first arrested: Spirited, defiant, drunk, but now the swagger and the smirk are all gone, all gaunt, not an ounce of flesh on her bones. She is more ghost than human.
Lee’s blonde hair is pale, and pulled back into a thin pony tail. Her face is taut, her features bony, inexpressive: No energy to waste on “expressiveness.” Survival in prison demands that you contract everything, even dreams, in order to conserve energy, and call as little attention to yourself as possible.
She has great dignity. She has come from some truly faraway place to meet me, she is jerky in her motions, but gamely, she’s trying to smile. As if it’s a social occasion. We hug hello, briefly, carefully. I’m always amazed – although I shouldn’t be, when those with no formal education, no money, no health, no friends in high places and nothing to hope for, absolutely rise to the occasion of their 15 minutes of fame with eloquence and grace.
Lee’s been in jail since January 1991, much of the time in isolation. “I was railroaded,” she says, “because I’m a prostitute and expendable.” Lee insists: “I’d rather die and go home to Jesus than keep living in a world filled with lust and corruption.” She sighs. “It’s all over.” Lee doesn’t want to stay on Death Row, so she’s decided to die.
You don’t have to be crazy to come to this conclusion.
Despite what she’s written: That she wants me to find her a lawyer and a private investigator, and to re-assemble the team of pro bono experts I’d gathered for her first trial, she’s changed her mind again. Lee is emphatic. And growing louder by the second. She points her trigger finger and orders me to “Forget it. All I want you to do is help me expose the corruption, the crooked cops, the crooked lawyers, the media deals, the capital gains off a capital crime. Tell the world what’s going on. That’s all. I’m not concerned about any more trials.”
How can someone like Lee keep fighting back? She held on, as best as she could, did her best, actually acquitted herself nobly in the first trial, and it didn’t matter, nothing mattered, the jury convicted her anyway.
I ask her if anyone ever helped her when she was a child, sleeping in abandoned cars and living on the street, or later on. She says: “I raised myself. I did a pretty good job. I taught myself my own handwriting, and I studied theology, psychology, books on self-enhancement. I taught myself how to draw. I have been through battles out there raising myself. I’m like a Marine, you can’t hurt me. If you hurt me, I can wipe it out of my mind and keep on truckin’. I took every day on a day-by-day basis. I never let things dwell inside me to damage my pride because I knew what that felt like when I was young…”
A child is being beaten…How to intervene? What to do when no one ever intervened and now it’s much too late, the damage is done, the child is a woman, and the woman only knows how to sell – her body, her life story, her death – in order to survive. She hates having to sell, hates the seller, hates the buyer, hates not being able to sell. She’e exhausted, cynical, heartbroken, used up, and is, by now, simply not capable (if she ever was), of doing something – anything – that will turn out right for her.
Lee has been waiting, wanting, trying to die for a long time. Now, she means to finish what the men, and We, the People, have started: Her destruction. Lee is confined to a cage on Death Row by a legal order, I’m confined at home, often in bed, by Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. I write real and imaginary letters to her almost every day.
You’re the one I’m writing this book for; you’re the one I want to reach: But why? To understand who you are, to describe the impact you’ve had on the public imagination, to bear witness to the fact that you’re going to die. For years, feminists talked about how we’d like to get rid of the bad guys: Magically, non- violently, and now here you are, twisting in the wind, all unrepentant bravado, with your shots heard round the world.
Your coming was inevitable. You’re not the first prostitute to start killing Johns, others have, but you’re the first prostitute who kept right on doing it, and whose deeds have become very, very public.
Face it Lee: You’ve entered the world’s imagination and pried it wide open. Some novelist, a poet, a playwright or two, are the richer for it. You used a gun; we use words. Together, we may change reality.
Ma Soeur, Ma Semblable.
Comprehensive information on the Wuomos case may be found in On the Issues, Summer 1992:’ ‘Sex, Death and the Double Standard” by Phyllis Chesler and in Chester’s article “A Woman’s Right to Self Defense: The Case of Aileen Carol Wuomos,” St. John’s Law Review, April 1993.