WILLISTON, Fla. — 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."