WILLISTON, FLA. -- The setting was the Citrus County Jail when Arlene Pralle was finally able a few weeks ago 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 she 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 month. "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, Fla., 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, Wuornos 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."

There are few parallels between the lives of Pralle and Wuornos. Pralle, adopted and raised by well-off parents on Long Island, N.Y., breeds Tennessee walking horses on a 35-acre farm that she bought last year with her husband, Robert, a field engineer for Sony.

After twice attempting suicide, Pralle became a born-again Christian in 1981. While looking at Wuornos's picture in a local newspaper, Pralle said, she peered deep into her eyes "and God prompted me to do something." She sent the accused a letter.

"I don't care if you're guilty or innocent," she wrote, "but I want to be your friend."

To Wuornos, alone and accustomed to betrayal, Pralle appeared to be the answer to a prayer, someone without an ulterior motive. Born in Troy, Mich., in 1956, Wuornos was abandoned by her mother when she was 6 months old, and she and her brother were raised by her grandparents. She has said her grandfather beat her and has admitted to a brief sexual relationship with her brother.

Wuornos became pregnant at 13 and gave birth to a son, who was immediately given up for adoption. A heavy drinker and drug user beginning in her early teens, she left school in the 10th grade and, while hitchhiking around the country, supported herself as a waitress, pool hustler, maid and prostitute.

In 1976 Wuornos wound up in Daytona Beach, a town popular with Hell's Angels, hellbent college students on spring break and drifters of various stripes. That same year, her father committed suicide in prison, where he was serving time for kidnapping and sodomizing a child, and her brother died of cancer at age 21.

Desperate for security, Wuornos says, she married a 70-year-old man. The marriage lasted a month. She said he beat her with his cane. Two years after that, crazed over breaking up with a boyfriend, she shot herself in the stomach.

Says Pralle: "She's had a horrible, horrible life."

In 1981 Wuornos was arrested after robbing a convenience store of $33; she served a year in a Florida prison. After her release, she wandered for years until 1986, when, in a lesbian bar in Daytona Beach, she met Tyria Moore, 28, the woman she has described as "the love of my life." The couple lived in rooms and motels, Wuornos taking care of Moore by working part-time jobs or by turning tricks.

Through the years, Wuornos claimed to police, she has had sex with 200,000 men, been raped nine times and been beaten up and manhandled more times than she can remember. Eventually, she decided not to take it anymore.

The killings began in late 1989. The body of the first victim, Richard Mallory, the 52-year-old owner of a television repair shop, was found on Dec. 13 that year, buried in the woods under a piece of carpet. He had been shot four times, police said.

Over the next year, the bodies of nine more men were found. One was a sausage delivery man. Another worked in rodeos. One was a former Alabama police chief working as a child custody investigator for the state of Florida. A part-time missionary also was killed.

All of the victims were men passing through, en route to somewhere else, and traveling alone. There was often evidence of sexual activity. In addition to some of the bodies being discovered in states of undress, empty condom wrappers were found in several of the dead men's cars.

Police say the killer met her prey at truck stops or while hitchhiking and lured them off the road with the promise of sex. Tips led to a composite drawing and soon to Wuornos's arrest.

Moore, picked up later in Ohio, cooperated with police to trick Wuornos into confessing to the murders. In an extraordinary court hearing last month, Moore described how police put her up in a Daytona Beach motel room for four days -- and kept her supplied with plenty of Budweiser and hamburgers -- as they tape-recorded 10 telephone conversations between the former lovers.

Moore admitted from the witness stand that she lied, cried and pleaded with Wuornos to get her to recount her crimes. And Wuornos did.

In one conversation, Wuornos says she pumped seven slugs into the former police chief, Charles R. Humphreys, 56, "to put him out of his misery."

In another, she tells Moore: "I will not let you be involved in the picture. You're not the one. I am the one who did everything. I did it all myself."

Tricia Jenkins, Wuornos's public defender, refuses to discuss defense strategy. But in the videotaped confession, Wuornos, asked by a police officer why she killed, says, "They crossed the line. They were gonna rape me, kill me, strangle me."

Jenkins has charged that prosecutors may have covered up evidence that could link Moore with the murders in order to ensure her expected role as the state's star witness. She has not been charged with any crime.

And Brian Jarvis, a former Marion County sheriff's deputy who was a key investigator on the case, also contends that Moore's involvement was ignored because fellow investigators had teamed up with her in a movie deal. The state attorney investigated and, while ordering the investigators to forget about the movies, found no wrongdoing.