“Diggin’ Up Bones”–Resurrecting Lee

Reynolds_DeadEnds[1]I’m diggin’ up bones, I’m diggin’ up bones
Exhuming things that’s better left alone
I’m resurrecting memories of a love that’s dead and gone
Yeah tonight I’m sittin’ alone, diggin’ up bones

(1986, Paul Overstreet/Al Gore/Nat Stuckey)

                       Marion County Courthouse, March 31, 1992.  
                              Photograph: James Quine                     


(from Dead Ends)

Lee was wide awake just before dawn on Wednesday, October 9, 2002, when the death row officers came to call. She was in a “good mood,” they said.  She was “ready to go,” they said. The night before she’d chatted it up  until midnight with her childhood friend, Dawn Botkin.  Four hours now remained in her life.

A week earlier Florida Governor Jeb Bush lifted a stay of execution after a panel of psychiatrists ruled that Lee was mentally competent.  Wuornos had been fighting for date with the executioner for ten years.  In her last petition to Florida’s Supreme Court, Lee wrote: “I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.”

Wuornos refused the barbecue  chicken dinner along with any religious counsel.  No chaplain, no preacher. Certainly not the born-again huskter Arlene Pralle who made her screen debut by taking $10,000 in cash from British filmmakers Nick Broomfield for an interview with Wuornos for his 1993 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.  Wuornos later complained that she had received little money from Pralle.

Pralle didn’t show up to see Lee off. Neither did Steven Glazer, the pot-smoking attorney from Gainesville Pralle roped in to facilitate Lee’s race to the death chamber and to arrange pay-to-play interviews with Lee.  When contacted by reporters Glazer said he had to be in court that day.  “Ob-la-di, Ob-la da, life goes on,” said the bearded Glazer. “You can quote me.”

As for Broomfield, the in-your-face filmmaker met Lee for her last interview on Tuesday afternoon but after thirty-five minutes it all went sideways when Wuornos unleashed a string of invectives and stormed out of the room.

Broomfield told waiting reporters outside the prison that “we are executing someone who is mad.  Here is someone who has totally lost her mind.  My overall impression doing the interview with her is that she was completely insane.” He said Lee told him that she was a victim of sonic mind control perpetrated by Florida correction officers whenever she complained.  She also bitched about the police investigators who deliberately ignored her killings so that they could make big money off her story.

Her attorney in her first trial– the Richard Mallory murder–Billy Nolas agreed with this assessment, naming Lee as “the most disturbed individual I have represented.”

One of the Volusia County prosecutors in that case, David Damore, told the Orlando Sentinel that “she’s really a much more shallow character than she’s ben portrayed as.  She has been made into something she’s not. She truly hated men. I think it’s a tragedy to make her into some type of heroine figure.”

But some did.

Carla Lucero, composer/librettist of the opera Wuornos, said: “On a karmic level, it’s almost like–and many women would agree with me–Wow! I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner.  I don’t really condone killing, but you do have to wonder, why did this take so long? I’ve always likened it to a boiling pot, and she’s the steam that escaped the pot.”

Steve Binegar  (the Marion County Sheriff’s detective who first linked Wuornos to the murders) didn’t have any metaphors in his view the day before Lee’s execution. “She’s not a robber who kills, she’s a killer who robs. She’s a pathetic creature.”  As for the motivations in the killings, Binegar said, “I don’t think anybody but the victims know.”

Volusia County Sheriff’s detective Larry Horzepa who investigated Lee’s first killing didn’t have any comments for the press on Wuornos’ execution date.  He was busy building a case on another murder suspect, the alleged killer of 2 year old boy who had been beaten to death in 2001.

When it came time to climb aboard the execution gurney, Lee offered no resistance. She was strapped down and rolled into an anteroom to the death chamber where IV shunts were placed into her arms that would carry the lethal chemicals into her system.Then she was wheeled into the death chamber where the assembled witnesses waited to watch her die.  “Other than her final statement, she made no sounds,” said Florida Department of Corrections spokesman Sterling Ivey who witnessed the execution. “She just closed her eyes  and her heart stopped beating.”

Her last words from the T-shaped gurney inside the death chamber were an off-kilter fusion of Hollywood celebrity, pop Christianity and murderous revenge.  The subject of three films, two plays and an opera, Lee referenced two apocalyptic action movies in her final statement: Independence Day and The Terminator, both filled with massive destruction by alien forces. An oddly articulated summation of the final twelve years of her desperate and damaged life, it was marked by egregious error and capped by a final empty threat.

“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 mothership and all. I’ll be back.”

The lethal drugs began to flow and she said nothing more. At 9:47 A.M. Aileen Carole Wuornos, aged 46, was pronounced dead.

On instruction from Lee, Dawn Botkin claimed the body and had it cremated.  She carried Lee’s ashes aboard a flight back to Michigan where they were scattered at a location known only to the two women.  The body of Lee’s seventh victim, Peter Siems, remains somewhere in the marshes near the Florida-Georgia state line.

I wrote that about six months after Lee was executed. It was for an updated edition of my 1992 book, Dead Ends that Charles Spicer reissued under his newly launched imprint, St. Martin’s True Crime Library. Spicer’s timing couldn’t have been better. About the time I was writing  the Postmortem, a very young director–Patty Jenkins–was in Casselberry, Florida  shooting her low-budget independent first effort, Monster with Charlize Theron playing Lee Wuornos.  Jenkins’ film opened the same month my book dropped, January 2004.

Shortly after Charlize Theron won the Academy Award for Best Actress, Patty Jenkins was interviewed by Decca Aitkenhead of The Guardian .

In preparation for writing her screenplay, Jenkins corresponded with Wuornos before her execution and was later given more letters exchanged between Lee and her childhood friend, Dawn Botkin.

“During those 12 years in prison, she would go wildly back and forth, and there were always a few crimes she never got over, which she felt incredibly guilty about. There were two – even though in the film I showed only one – which to the day she died, in her intimate letters, she was very clear that they were in self-defence. There was this sliding scale: in the beginning, it was self-defence. As it progressed, she thought she could tell the difference between good and bad people, and by the end she was projecting on to innocent people.”

                     Marion County Courthouse. March 31, 1992.
Photograph: James Quine

I noticed yesterday that today marked the tenth anniversary of Lee’s execution. And twenty-two years since I first wrote about her and her lover and her murders and her victims and the cops who finally chased her down.

I never intended to write Dead Ends as psychological study of Aileen Wuornos. There were already at least two or three people hoeing that fraught terrain. I broke the story for Reuters as a manhunt for two female suspects in a string of similar murders that occurred in central Florida. That was in November 1990 and I stayed with it for the next two years. My intent was to write a police procedural of a successful serial murder investigation–not a serial killer portrait. There’s a difference. That the killer in this case was a woman only made the story far more than routine–especially for my Reuters editors in the UK and Australia where the tabloids went absolutely apeshit.Their readers could not get enough of it.

By the way, I never called Lee “the Damsel of Death”, though the Miami Herald and my publisher did. I also never claimed she was “the first female serial killer”. I knew better. Yet I notice she’s still being referred to as such at various bus stations on the Internet.

Some said I didn’t have enough sympathy for her in my book. I think that’s bullshit. I tried always to be egalitarian with Lee as regards any gender bias or otherwise,  showing her respect as far as it was possible, depending on given situations. Like Patty Jenkins told the The Guardian reporter: “Any sympathy won for Aileen Wuornos based on a lie is not sympathy at all.”  I like to think I adhered to that in Dead Ends.

In that interview Jenkins also said she was not opposed to Wuornos’ execution. “It was a ruined life, it was not salvageable”

That particular argument for state executions had not occurred to me. Basically saying:  “Its’ broke, can’t be fixed. So just shitcan it.” I think that Lee would probably have agreed. Or then, maybe not.

Lee’s legacy will likely endure thanks to  Charlize Theron’s amazing portrayal of her in Monster, a film I have several problems with–but Theron wasn’t one of them. Her capture of Lee was uncanny, thoroughly accurate, a physical devouring  of character. If Lee were still alive, though, she would likely be bitching about that fact she didn’t get her own Oscar.

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in The Last Resort Bar. 2003.

One of the problems I had with Jenkins’ film was the soundtrack–in particular the featuring of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as accompaniment to Lee and Shelby/Ty’s romantic rollerskating interlude. I later noticed that Steve Perry was credited as “musical consultant” for the film, which may explain everything. However,  Lee’s taste was much more shitkicker country/ biker rock as evidenced in her  jukebox selections the night she was arrested in Daytona Beach at The Last Resort which had been surrounded by a phalanx of cops from three counties. Inside the bar two undercover cops wearing wires that transmitted to the surveillance van and into the headset of Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy Terry Brevard…

THUB-thump THUB-thump THUB-thump THUB-thump THUB-thump….

The bass and rums laying down a hard flat country two-beat beneath Randy Travis’ taut leather twang..

“Last night I dug your picture from out our dresser drawer…”

Lee Wuornos started rocking her broad shoulders and stared wearily into the glow from the jukebox. When Randy sang the chorus, so did she, whapping her thick denim-clad thing to the beat.

“I’m diggin’ up BONES..diggin’ up BONES..ex-HUMin’ things better left A-lone…”

With her thin blonde ponytail wagging, she splayed out her elbows in her jacket and sashayed across The Last Resort like a drunken blackwinged hen.

“I’m RES-urrectin’ mem-o-ries of a love that’s DEAD and GONE…tonight I’m sittin’…diggin up bones.”

She lurched against the bar.

“Pitiful.” The three-hundred pound bartender set down two beers and glanced at her without a smile.

“Fuck you, Cannonball,” she said flatly. “I put my quarters in there just like anybody else. What the fuck you care? I lost my best friend.”

Her voice rose. “I don’t need this shit! I work my ass off up and down the fuckin’ state. What do I get?…What the fuck you know about pitiful?”

(Joseph Michael Reynolds, 1992, 2004, 2016)


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