Getting inside the head of a `Monster'

Wuornos' letters prepped Theron for Oscar-winning role

March 03, 2004|By Paul Lomartire | Paul Lomartire,COX NEWS SERVICE

For her chance to walk down the red carpet at Sunday night's Academy Awards, best actress Oscar winner Charlize Theron had to first drive down a dirt road in rural Michigan, out past Flint to where the blacktop narrows and the broken-down towns shrink.

Theron had to go see Dawn Botkins, the woman who knew serial killer Aileen Wuornos best.

Botkins owns everything Wuornos left in this world: boxes of court documents. The jailhouse flip-flops she wore to her execution. The sneakers she signed because they might be worth something one day. Her ashes. And thousands of her letters, written in tight cursive handwriting during Wuornos' 10 years on Death Row.

On the night before she was executed, Wuornos told Botkins to share the letters with Theron, who was playing Wuornos in the movie Monster, and Patty Jenkins, the film's director.

So Theron drove out to Botkins' dirt road and into the bizarre mind of Florida's infamous highway hooker.

"I was watching Charlize when she was at my house and thinking, `Maybe she can do Aileen,'" Botkins says. "What made me realize she was going to pull it off was watching her sitting in a chair reading. She cried reading the letters.

"She was letting Aileen into her heart."

The notorious Aileen Wuornos - angry, violent and raging, with wild eyes - inspired more hate than heart when she was arrested in 1991 and confessed to the murder of seven men.

At biker bars, the regulars called her "Lee." Reporters called her the "damsel of death." But to Botkins, Wuornos was a teen-age pal, a running buddy, a mercurial and lost soul, a fellow high-school dropout in their hometown of Troy, Mich.

Abandoned by her birth mother when she was 6 months old, Wuornos was raised by her grandparents. She never knew her mother and never met her father, Leo Pittman, who hanged himself in a Kansas prison where he was doing life for raping a 7-year-old.

Heavy drinkers, Wuornos' grandparents couldn't control Aileen, who had a hair-trigger temper. She started stealing at 9. When she was 13, she got pregnant, gave birth to a boy and put him up for adoption.

Wuornos never mentioned regret, remorse or anything else to Botkins about giving up the baby. And Botkins never brought it up.

After Botkins got kicked out of Troy High School, she and Wuornos burned off boredom hitchhiking. They'd go to the mall, pool hall or buy drugs in Detroit. The increasingly street-smart Wuornos had strict rules for Botkins: "Sit in the back seat; let me do the talking."

"She always had a knife with her, in her bag, and I always knew she'd never let anything happen to me," Botkins says.

Whatever they needed, Wuornos bought. When the money ran out, Wuornos sent Botkins home and disappeared for hours or days.

That pattern would be repeated years later when Wuornos hustled to take care of her lover, Tyria Moore, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Moore would end up testifying against Wuornos, sealing her trip to the death chamber.

Botkins' days running with Aileen ended in 1975.

Botkins, now married, wouldn't hear from Wuornos for 16 years, when the first letter arrived from Broward Correctional Institution in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

"That's the part nobody ever gets," Botkins says. "I knew Aileen Wuornos. I don't know anything about Lee Wuornos in Florida, the lesbian stuff, any of it. When the cops came to my house [in 1991], I thought they were comin' to tell me she was dead. I always figured somethin' would happen to her. But not what happened."

Who was Lee Wuornos, serial killer?

"Don't know anything," says Botkins, "except what's in the letters."

Wuornos' letters are a chilling mix of lucidity and lunacy, of girlish lingo - "okeedokee!" "love ya, gal!" "here's a hug!" - and brutal confessions:

"When I first hit Fort Lauderdale as a teen. 16. I was picked up by a State Trooper around 2:30 in the Morn and he played up to me that he just wanted to help me find a place to crash. Only to drop me off at some abandoned house out there and later bring 2 deputies and 1 more State Trooper to rape [me] in that house. Cars parked outside it and all. Afterward telling me that when the sun rises - just split town. If ya snitch about this to anyone we'll kill ya."

Reading the letters, with her drawings of smiley faces and laughing cartoon characters, it is impossible to justify Wuornos' horrific crimes, but it is also difficult to despise her.

Though psychiatrists declared Wuornos sane before she was put to death by lethal injection on Oct. 9, 2002, her words reveal her to be less monster than madwoman.

"Really, the thing was to portray her as a real person," Theron told one interviewer last year. "There were a lot of things going on - very complicated situations."

After reading Wuornos' letters, Theron said, "She was in my head. I had to play her.

"That's why she gave the letters to us. That's how she wanted to be remembered."

The minute Botkins reconnected with her old friend, she was back with Aileen, not Lee. "I kept her from going insane," Botkins says.

In the end, Wuornos spent her final hours with Botkins.

"The last thing she said to me was, `I love you, buddy, see you on the other side.'"

As the keeper of all things Wuornos, Botkins is now the prisoner. "It's been really tough. You know how many times I've wanted to go outside and burn all this stuff?"

Botkins, 48, has had multiple sclerosis for 28 years, and it's getting worse. She and husband Dave Botkins are disabled and unemployed.

Botkins held out as long as she could after Wuornos urged her in letters to cash in. A&E paid Botkins $2,500 to appear in a Wuornos Biography. A few hundred bucks come in here and there. Last week, a German TV crew came to Botkins' house and paid for an interview.

But it didn't even pay for heat, lights utilities and groceries.

"Aileen always said, `I'm leaving you all this to take care of you,'" she says. "But what am I supposed to do with it? I can't sell it."

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