Pee Wee Gaskins
by Michael Newton
Murder had lost its novelty for Donald Gaskins by the fall of
1980. A prolific killer, dubbed “the Redneck Charlie Manson” in some press
accounts, he had claimed his first victim at age 19, in a jailhouse stabbing
that got him sentenced to nine years for manslaughter. Now, in middle age, he
was serving nine life terms in South Carolina’s state prison -- one for each of
nine victims police had recovered -- and that tally barely scratched the surface
of his crimes. Gaskins was well acquainted with the means of violent death. It
held no mysteries.
But the crime he had in mind this time was different.
Gaskins had never killed a victim on Death Row.
Rudolph Tyner was already marked for death by the state, but he wasn’t dying fast enough to please some people. Condemned for the holdup murders of Bill and Myrtle Moon at Murrells Inlet, in Georgetown County, Tyner expected to drag his case out for a decade or more with appeals before he kept his date with the electric chair. He might even beat the rap, since racial aspects of the case -- black gunman, white victims -- added weight to his appeals. South Carolina’s death penalty statutes had been twice invalidated by Supreme Court rulings in the past eight years, proving that anything was possible. Tyner’s worst problem on Death Row, so far, was feeding his insatiable narcotics addiction.
Outside the prison walls, Tony Cimo schemed to accelerate Tyner’s execution. Cimo was Myrtle Moon’s son by a previous marriage, bent on avenging his mother’s death. Through prison contacts, he negotiated for the hit, passed along from one convict to the next until he connected with Donald Gaskins. Finally, he had a contact who could guarantee results for a price. A maintenance trusty housed next-door to Death Row, Gaskins had free access to condemned inmates, mending broken pipes, toilets, light fixtures, anything at all. Unknown to Cimo, Gaskins also had a tape recorder, capturing their conversations for posterity -- a blackmail tool as good as money in the bank if he should ever manage to escape from custody.
Gaskins decided poison was the way to go. Befriending Tyner on his visits to Death Row, Gaskins began to slip the holdup killer junk food, marijuana, pills and heroin. Tyner received the gifts, unquestioning, and begged for more. Cimo supplied a box of candy laced with poison “strong enough to kill a horse,” but Tyner merely suffered stomach pains. Over the next 12 months, Gaskins repeated the experiment five times, spiking his target’s food and drugs with ever-larger toxic doses, all in vain. Tyner lived on, oblivious to the “coincidence” between his gifts and stomach-churning trips to the infirmary.
Six strikes and out. Gaskins gave up on poison and decided to construct a bomb. Cimo supplied the wiring, hardware and C-4 plastic explosive (smuggled past distracted guards in the hollowed-out heels of cowboy boots). Tyner agreed to let Gaskins connect a homemade intercom between their cells. Gaskins strung wire through prison heating ducts, constructed a “receiver” for his target from a plastic cup, and packed it with C-4. The two men synchronized their watches for a test run on the evening of Sept. 12, 1982.
At the appointed hour, Tyner pressed the loaded plastic cup against his ear and spoke to Gaskins, on the far side of the wall between their cells. “The last thing he heard through that speaker-cup before it blew his head off,” Gaskins later said, “was me laughing.”
But the last laugh belonged to his jailers.
Press reports initially described Tyner’s death as suicide, but there are no real secrets in prison. Snitches started talking, and Tony Cimo soon confessed his role in the plot. A grand jury was impaneled, indicting Gaskins and Cimo with two inmate accessories for murder and conspiracy.
The state of South Carolina had failed to execute Donald Gaskins for his previous murders. Now, it was prepared to try again.
Few observers would agree with Donald Gaskins’s claim that he was “born special and fortunate” on March 13, 1933, in rural Florence County, South Carolina. An illegitimate child who never met his father, Gaskins was known for the first 13 years of his life as “Junior Parrott” (his mother’s maiden name) or simply as “Pee Wee,” a derisive reference to his size. Gaskins was alternately beaten and ignored by a series of brutal “step-daddies” until his mother finally married one of them in 1943, the union adding four half-siblings to the family. The new man of the house beat Gaskins and his other children “just for practice,” as Pee Wee recalled, but the violence was a part of daily life, Gaskins steadfastly insisted that “I certainly weren’t in no way what you could ever call abused.”
Still, something was obviously wrong with Junior Parrott. He was “pissed off” at girls from his earliest memory, unable to explain the rage coherently. By age 10, he suffered from the onset of a lifelong “bothersomeness,” described as feeling like “a ball of molten lead rolling around in my guts and up my spine into my head.” That feeling presaged outbursts of erratic violence, sometimes assuaged by forays into criminal activity.
Gaskins was clever with his hands, a natural around machines and motors. He quit school at age eleven to work on cars at a local garage, teaming with two friends named Danny and Marsh in his spare time to form a marauding gang they dubbed “The Trouble Trio.” Starting off with thefts of gasoline from service stations after closing time, they soon graduated to residential burglaries, counseled along the way by Danny’s ex-convict father. Buying an old car with the proceeds from their robberies, they ranged farther afield, visiting prostitutes in Charleston and Columbia. Their sexual experiments also included younger boys, but the Trouble Trio made a critical mistake when they gang-raped Marsh’s younger sister. Threats and promises of cash failed to secure her silence, and parental wrath descended on the boys in full force. Danny’s father defended him with a shotgun, but Gaskins and Marsh were strung up by their wrists in a barn and whipped bloody by parents wielding a leather strap in relays.
Pee Wee’s cohorts fled the area as soon as Marsh could walk again, and Gaskins soloed for a while before he met another teenage thief, resuming weekend burglaries. One Saturday in 1946, he was prowling a house when one of the tenants -- a girl he knew -- surprised him. She was armed with a hatchet, slashing at Gaskins and chasing him outside, where he disarmed her and struck back, gashing her arms and splitting her scalp. The girl survived to identify Gaskins, whereupon he was jailed for assault with a deadly weapon and intent to kill. The judge found him guilty as charged and consigned him to the South Carolina Industrial School for Boys until his 18th birthday. Junior Parrott heard his true name for the first time in the courtroom, as sentence was pronounced.
Gaskins would later say that he received his “real education” at the state reformatory near Florence, a few miles from where he grew up. His second night in custody, Gaskins was ambushed in the shower, beaten and gang-raped by a group of 20 boys. Afterward, he accepted “protection” from his dormitory’s “Boss-Boy,” who demanded daily sex and other services while sometimes loaning Gaskins out to friends.
With no escape from torment inside the walls, Gaskins plotted his first escape. Thirteen months after his arrival, he fled the reform school with four other inmates. All were captured the next afternoon, but Gaskins leaped from the truck on his way back to Florence, this time running as far as the hideout he had once shared with his cronies of the Trouble Trio. A local lawman found him there and persuaded Gaskins to surrender. His reward: 30 lashes with a strap and 30 days’ “hard labor isolation,” digging ditches in the broiling daytime heat, with whippings every night for trivial infractions. After serving his penalty time, Gaskins went back to his dorm and the Boss-Boy who “owned” him.
For his second escape, Gaskins chose a single accomplice and remained at large for six days before bloodhounds tracked him down. The punishment this time was 50 lashes and four months’ hard labor. Returning to his dorm, Gaskins found “a new Boss-Boy who wasn’t so easy to please.” This one, Pee Wee recalled, “particularly liked to watch gang-rapes with me on the bottom.”
Gaskins made his third escape alone, fleeing south to an aunt’s home in Williamsburg County. She convinced him to return after the warden promised leniency, but the promise was a lie. Back in Florence, Gaskins faced more isolation and a nightly regimen of 20 lashes. On the seventh day he punched a guard and was beaten unconscious, packed off to the state mental hospital in Columbia for five weeks. While there, Gaskins suffered a ruptured appendix, his life saved by emergency surgery.
Deemed sane and fit for normal custody, Gaskins was shipped back to the reformatory in 1950. Light duty soon gave way to threats of whipping in reprisal for his prior conduct, fleeing to Sumter, where he joined a traveling carnival. He fell in love with a 13-year-old member of the crew and married her -- the first of his six wives -- on Jan. 22, 1951. After one night together, for his bride’s sake, Gaskins surrendered to authorities and spent the last three months of his sentence in solitary confinement.
Released on his 18th birthday, Gaskins tried four different jobs in his first six months of freedom, finally settling down to work on a tobacco plantation. Soon, he joined forces with a reformatory bunkmate to loot and burn tobacco barns, collaborating with landowners on insurance fraud. They torched six barns before Christmas 1956, but rumors spread quickly and Pee Wee’s partner wisely fled the state. Gaskins stayed on, but he soon had cause to regret it.
One day on the job, his employer’s teenage daughter and a girlfriend cornered Gaskins in the barn, taunting him with rumors of his barn-burning forays. Gaskins snapped, lashed out with a hammer and cracked the girl’s skull. Jailed for arson, assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder, he beat the first charge at trial, then struck a bargain on the others. The prosecutor promised Gaskins 18 months’ confinement in return for a guilty plea, but Pee Wee failed to get the deal in writing and Judge T.B. Greniker had other ideas. He pronounced a five-year sentence, then added another year for contempt when Gaskins cursed him.
Pee Wee was on his way to the Big House.
When Gaskins entered the South Carolina state prison in fall 1952, it struck him as “the dreariest looking place on earth.” There were new faces and new rules to memorize, but the reality of prison life remained unchanged. In place of dorms and Boss-Boys, the state pen had cell blocks and “Power Men” who took what they wanted by force. Gaskins went in expecting another round of gang-rapes, but instead he was ignored until the afternoon when a hulking con approached him on the yard and told him, “You belong to Arthur.”
Over the next six months, while Gaskins was sharing his cell with a brutal rapist, he realized that the only way to save himself was to become a Power Man. To that end, knowing it meant murder, Gaskins started looking for the biggest, toughest victim he could find. He chose Hazel Brazell, a con so vicious that no one on either side of the bars dared call him by his despised first name.
To ingratiate himself with Brazell, Gaskins used the same tactic he would employ with Rudolph Tyner, almost 30 years later. He brought gifts of food from the kitchen, becoming a fixture around Brazell’s cellblock, accepted as part of the crowd. On his fifth visit, Gaskins found Brazell on the toilet, only one guard stationed outside his cell. Striking swiftly, he cut Brazell’s throat with a stolen paring knife and warned the bodyguard to flee before guards arrived. “I surprised myself at how calm I was,” Gaskins later wrote in his autobiography, Final Truth. “I didn’t really feel nothing much at all.”
He admitted killing Brazell “in a fight” and bargained a murder charge down to manslaughter, two-thirds of the nine-year sentence concurrent with his pre-existing term. “I figured that was a damn fair deal,” Gaskins said, “considering I wouldn’t never again have to be afraid of anybody in The Pen no matter how long I was there.” He spent six months in solitary and emerged a Power Man in his own right, the “Pee Wee” nickname now a label of respect.
Gaskins cruised through his next two years of confinement, enjoying himself, but 1955 brought news that his wife had filed for divorce. Despondent, he hatched a plot to escape in a garbage drum, jumping from the truck along the highway to Florence. Stealing a car, he drove to Florida and rejoined the carnival at Lake Wales, meeting his next wife in the process. At 19, she was three years younger than Gaskins. Their marriage lasted all of two weeks, before he dropped her at her parents’ house and hit the road. They were never divorced, but that small technicality would not stop Gaskins from logging four more marriages over the next two decades.
His new love of the moment was Bettie Gates, a sideshow contortionist whose supple body proved irresistible. They left the show together, driving Pee Wee’s stolen car to Cookeville, Tennessee, where Gates claimed her brother was jailed pending trial on some undisclosed charge. On arrival, Gates confessed that she was wanted in five states on counts ranging from forgery to armed assault. Gaskins agreed to deliver bail money and a carton of cigarettes, then returned to find Gates and his car missing from their motel. He was awaiting her return when police came to arrest him, breaking the news that Bettie’s “brother” -- in fact, her husband -- had escaped from jail using a razor hidden with the smokes.
Putnam County’s sheriff initially accepted Gaskins’s tale of being duped, but the recovery of his stolen car and false I.D. saw Pee Wee held on a fugitive warrant from South Carolina. Before his return to the Palmetto State, he pulled three months in Tennessee for aiding an escape, plus six more for slashing another inmate during a brawl. Back at South Carolina’s state pen, he spent a “miserable” time in solitary before FBI agents arrived to charge him with a federal Dyer Act violation, for driving a stolen car across state lines. Conviction on that charge earned him three years at the federal lockup in Atlanta, Georgia.
Gaskins later described that sentence as his “college education” in crime. His cellmates, whom he dubbed the “Three Wise Men,” were bodyguards for imprisoned Mafia “prime minister” Frank Costello, serving time for income tax evasion and casino skimming. Pee Wee’s reputation preceded him, and Costello dubbed him “the little hatchet man,” reportedly offering Gaskins work as contract muscle if he ever felt an urge to settle down.
The federal prison term was concurrent with Gaskins’s remaining time in South Carolina, a favor from the court that left him eligible for parole in August 1961. Forgiving his escape, the state released him with a new suit, $20, and a bus ticket back to Florence.
Mugshot of Donald Pee Wee Gaskins
Whatever Gaskins may have learned from his prison “college education,” it did not include a course on staying out of trouble. Reunited briefly with his mother and stepfather, he returned to work in the tobacco sheds, until an argument with his stepfather came to blows and Gaskins threatened the older man’s life with a pitchfork. From there, he moved in with a cousin and resumed stripping cars, soon reverting to his old pattern of residential burglaries, looking for cheap sex in honky-tonk bars.
Late in 1961 Gaskins had a near-miss brush with salvation. He went to work for circuit-riding preacher George Todd, driving the minister’s van and serving as his general assistant, but the gospel had no impact on Pee Wee. Instead, he seized the opportunity to loot homes while they traveled, selling off whatever he could steal to willing buyers on the road. Along the way, in 1962, he met wife number three, a 17-year-old who caught his eye despite the fact that she was “old by my standards.”
Marriage, like religion, failed to civilize Gaskins. During his second year with Rev. Todd, he was jailed for statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl in Florence County. Taken to the courthouse for arraignment, Gaskins slipped out a window, stole a county car, and fled to Greensboro, North Carolina. There, he soon met and married wife number four -- another 17-year-old -- and abandoned her after three months. “It weren’t that I stopped loving her,” he later wrote. It were the edginess and bothersomeness stirring around inside me...I got so edgy and mad at the world, I just had to get away.” As for his many wives, Pee Wee maintained, “I truly loved them all,”
Briefly reunited with his third wife in Georgia, Gaskins was en route to Florida when a highway patrolman tried to stop him for speeding. Fearing arrest as a fugitive, Gaskins drove his car into a swamp and escaped on foot, leaving not-so-ex-wife to the law. From there, he returned to North Carolina and wife number four, but she blew the whistle on him and he was extradited for trial. Jurors in Florence County rejected Pee Wee’s argument that sex with pre-teen girls was justifiable. Convicted in 1964, he got six years for statutory rape and two more for his flight from custody.
The state pen in Columbia had been renamed the Central Correctional Institute in Gaskins’ absence, but nothing else had changed. He brought his reputation with him and did easy time as a Power Man, paroled in November 1968 on the condition that he stay out of Florence County for two years. Upon release, Pee Wee later said, “I was damned determined I never was going back to prison -- which didn’t meant that I wasn’t ever going to do anything illegal again. I just wasn’t never planning on getting caught.”
That meant getting rid of witnesses, and Gaskins reckoned he was equal to the task.
And in the process, he would have some fun.
Gaskins settled in Sumter, South Carolina, working construction and stripping hot cars on weekends, cruising bars for sex. He still suffered “them aggravated and bothersome feelings,” now accompanied by headaches, stomach cramps, and pain in his groin. Increasingly, he raged and brooded over women who rejected him. He drove compulsively along the Carolina coast, later recalling, “It was like I was looking for something special on them coastal highways, only I didn’t know what.”
In September 1969 he found out.
The hitchhiker was young and blond, bound for Charleston, thumbing rides outside Myrtle Beach. Gaskins picked her up and propositioned her. When she laughed in his face, he beat her unconscious and drove to an old logging road. There, he raped and sodomized his victim, then tortured and mutilated her with a knife. She still clung to life when he weighted her body and sank her in a swamp to drown. Leaving the scene, Gaskin recalled, “I felt truly the best I ever remembered feeling in my whole life.”
Gaskins later called that first impulsive homicide “his miracle ... a beam of light, like a vision.” From that day on, he made a habit of trolling the coastal highways on weekends, seeking victims and exploring future dump sites. By Christmas 1969 he had committed two more “coastal kills -- ones where I didn’t know the victims or their names or nothing about them.” It was recreational murder, refined over time until he could keep his victims alive and screaming for hours on end, sometimes for days.
In 1970 Gaskins averaged one “coastal kill” every six weeks, experimenting with different torture methods, disappointed when his victims died prematurely. “I preferred for them to last as long as possible,” he wrote. The next year, Pee Wee claimed 11 nameless victims, including his first kidnap-slaying of two girls at once. Ideas for tormenting his captives came to Gaskins as he browsed through hardware stores, eyeing the tools. “I never gave no thought to stopping,” he admitted. “They was a clock-kind of thing. When it was time, I went and killed.”
His first male victims were acquired by accident, two long-haired boys whom Gaskins took for girls as he drove up behind them in March 1974. Gender would not save them, though. Gaskins drove them both to a hideout near Charleston, where he sodomized and tortured both, cooking and cannibalizing their severed genitals before he granted them the mercy of death.
Gaskins lost track of the victims he murdered for sport between September 1969 and December 1975. They were hard to recall, he explained, “because they’re mostly just a jumble of faces and bodies and memories of things I did to them.” In terms of numbers, he said, “The closest figure I can come up with is 80 to 90.” Sadistic murder was addictive for Pee Wee. “I finally reached the point where I wanted the bothersomeness to start,” he wrote. “I looked forward to it every month, because it felt so good relieving myself of it.”
The only coastal victim he recalled by name was 16-year-old Anne Colberson, picked up near Myrtle Beach in 1971. Gaskins was not hunting at the time, but he refused to miss a golden opportunity. Over four days of rape and torture, he became “real fond of her.” Finally, “because she had been so nice to me,” Gaskins stunned her with a hammer and cut her throat before dropping Colberson into quicksand.
The coastal kills were always recreation, though. However numerous the victims, however atrocious their suffering, they meant nothing to Gaskins. The focus of his life lay inland, where murder and business mixed.
Before 1970, despite sporadic incidents of violence with family and friends, Gaskins maintained that he never gave “any real serious thought whatsoever” to killing a personal acquaintance. “The most important thing about 1970,” he wrote from prison, “was that it was the year I started doing my ‘serious murders’” -- defined as slayings of persons he knew, whose deaths required more planning to avoid detection.
His first two “serious” victims were a 15-year-old niece, Janice Kirby, and her 17-year-old friend, Patricia Alsobrook. Gaskins had entertained thoughts of raping Kirby but saw no opportunity until one night in November 1970, when the girls were out drinking, in need of a ride home. Gaskins volunteered, taking them instead to an abandoned house where he ordered both to strip. The girls fought for their lives, clubbing Gaskins with a board before he drew a gun and overpowered them and beat them unconscious. After raping both, he drowned the girls and buried them in separate locations. Police grilled Pee Wee about the double disappearance, and while he admitted talking to the girls on the last night they were seen alive, he claimed they had left him and driven off in a car with several unknown boys. Lacking a corpse or other evidence, the trail went cold.
A month later, Gaskins kidnapped, raped and murdered Peggy Cuttino, the 13-year-old daughter of a politically prominent family. This time, he left the body where it would be found. His alibi looked solid when police came calling, and they later focused on another suspect, William Pierce, already serving life in Georgia for a similar offense. Conviction of Cuttino’s murder brought Pierce his second life sentence, a moot point since Georgia had no intention of releasing him. Years later, when Gaskins later confessed to the murder, embarrassed prosecutors rejected his statement, insisting Pee Wee claimed the murder “for publicity.”
Gaskins interrupted the murder spree to marry his pregnant girlfriend on Jan. 1, 1971, but it was only a momentary distraction. His next “serious” murder victim -- and the first African American he ever killed -- was 20-year-old Martha Dicks, a hanger-on around the garage where Gaskins worked part-time. For reasons best known to herself, Dicks seemed infatuated with Gaskins, boasting falsely to friends that they were lovers. Gaskins tolerated the jokes until Dicks claimed to be carrying his child. Inviting her to stay on one night, after work, he fed Dicks a fatal overdose of pills and liquor, discarding her corpse in a roadside ditch. Rumors of sex and racism aside, Gaskins insisted, “I didn’t kill her for no reason besides her lying mouth.”
In late 1971, Gaskins moved to Charleston with his wife and child, committing his next two “serious murders” there in 1972. The victims were Eddie Brown, a 24-year-old gun runner, and his wife Bertie, described by Gaskins as “the best looking black girl I ever saw.” Gaskins sold guns to Brown, including stolen military weapons, but he grew nervous when Brown informed him that federal agents were sniffing around Charleston, seeking illicit arms dealers. Fearing a setup, Gaskin shot the Browns and planted them behind the barn where he had buried Janice Kirby in 1970.
Gaskins moved to Prospect, South Carolina, in July 1973, after his Charleston home burned down. (He blamed arsonists for the fire, but never identified the culprits.) Before year’s end, he murdered three more victims, starting with 14-year-old runaway Jackie Freeman. Gaskins picked her up hitchhiking, in October, and held her captive for two days of rape, torture and cannibalism. “I always thought of Jackie as special,” he recalled in his memoirs, “not really a serious murder, but likewise not just another coastal kill.”
The weekend after Freeman’s slaying, Gaskins bought a used hearse and put a sign in the window: WE HAUL ANYTHING, LIVING OR DEAD. When asked about it over drinks, he explained that he wanted the vehicle “Because I kill so many people I need a hearse to haul them to my private cemetery.”
His first passengers were 23-year-old Doreen Dempsey and her two-year-old daughter Robin Michelle. Gaskins knew Dempsey from his carnie days. An unwed mother pregnant with her second child in December 1973, she planned on leaving town that month and accepted Pee Wee’s offer of a drive to the local bus station. Instead, he drove into the woods and there demanded sex. Doreen agreed, then balked when Gaskins started to undress her child. Gaskins killed Doreen with a hammer, then raped and sodomized the child before strangling her to death and burying both victims together. Years later, he would recall his brutal assault on Robin Michelle as the best sex of his life.
Pee Wee’s “serious murders” continued in 1974, beginning with 36-year-old car thief Johnny Sellars. Sellars owed Gaskins $1,000 for auto parts, but he was slow to pay. Finally, tired of excuses, Gaskins lured Sellars to the woods and shot him with a rifle. Later the same night, hoping to forestall investigation of Sellars’ disappearance, Gaskins called on Johnny’s girlfriend, 22-year-old Jessie Ruth Judy, and stabbed her to death, hauling her corpse to the forest for burial beside her lover.
Horace Jones, another car thief and con man, made the fatal mistake of trying to romance Pee Wee’s current wife in 1974. “That pissed me off,” Gaskins recalled in Final Truth. Not the attempt per se, “but the way he went about doing it. I mean if he had come straight to me like a man and asked to make a deal with me for my wife, I would probably have give her to him, for a night or a week, or to keep, if the offer was good enough.” As it was, he shot Jones in the woods and stole $200 from the corpse before leaving Jones in a shallow grave.
Searchers identify grave site
By December 1974 Gaskins was a grandfather, settled into a routine that suited him and satisfied his needs. That Christmas season, he recalled, was “the happiest and peacefullest I can remember.”
Pee Wee didn’t know it yet, but he was running out of time.
"The Killingest Year"
Writing from prison, Gaskins called 1975 “my busiest year and my killingest year.” His pace of random murders on the Carolina coast remained “about the same,” although he started January with a threesome, including a man and two women. Gaskins described them as “hippie types” from Oregon, whose van had broken down near Georgetown. He offered a lift to the nearest garage, then detoured to a nearby swamp and handcuffed his captives at gunpoint. Before he drowned the trio, Gaskins said, “It was hard to say which one suffered most. I tried to make it equal.”
Gaskins made a critical mistake when he recruited ex-con Walter Neely to help him dispose of the van. Neely drove the vehicle to Pee Wee’s garage, where Gaskin customized and repainted it for sale out of state. The drive made Neely an accessory after the fact, and Gaskin trusted his simple-minded helper to keep a secret. Before year’s end, he would regret that choice.
Pee Wee’s first “serious murder” of the year involved a contract to kill Silas Yates, a wealthy Florence County farmer. He accepted $1,500 for the job, on behalf of 27-year-old Suzanne Kipper, furious at Yates for taking back a car, two horses, and other gifts he had given her while they were romantically involved. Two go-betweens on the contract, John Powell and John Owens, handled negotiations between Gaskins and Kipper. Gaskins recruited Diane Neely, friend Walter’s ex-wife, to lure Yates from home on the night of Feb. 12, 1975, claiming her car had broken down near his house. Pee Wee waited in the darkness to abduct Yates at gunpoint and drive him to the woods, where Powell and Owens watched him knife Yates to death, then helped Gaskins bury the corpse. Kipper subsequently married Owens, while Pee Wee used his knowledge of the murder to blackmail her for sex on demand.
The contract came back to haunt Gaskins when Diane Neely moved in with Avery Howard, a 35-year-old ex-convict whom Gaskins knew from state prison. She told Howard about the murder, and together they approached Gaskins with a demand for $5,000 hush-money. Gaskins agreed to meet them in the woods outside Prospect and bring the cash. The blackmailers arrived to find an open grave and Gaskins with a pistol in his hand. Two shots, a bit of spadework, and Pee Wee reckoned his problem was solved.
The human juggernaut rolled on. Kim Ghelkins was the next to die, a 13-year-old friend of Gaskins who angered him by rejecting his sexual overtures. Pee Wee reacted in typical style by raping, torturing and strangling her, planting her body in the woods. Diane Neely’s brother, 25-year-old Dennis Bellamy, teamed with 15-year-old half-brother Johnny Knight to loot Pee Wee’s chop shop that summer, thus earning themselves a death sentence. Gaskins took Walter Neely along to help bury the pair in his “private cemetery,” taking time to point out the surrounding graves of Johnny Sellars, Jessie Judy, Avery Howard and Walter’s ex-wife. Again, for reasons never clear, he trusted Neely and allowed him to survive.
By October 1975, Kim Ghelkins’s parents knew enough of her movements to suspect Gaskins of murder. A Sumter deputy sheriff searched Pee Wee’s home and found some of Kim’s clothes in his closet, afterward securing statements that she was often seen in his company. The evidence would not support a murder charge, but Gaskins was indicted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He returned from Georgia on Nov. 14, 1975, to find police staked out around his house. Gaskins dodged them and made his way to the local bus station, planning a return to Georgia, but officers nabbed him before he could leave.
Unable to post bond, Gaskins sat in jail for three weeks before the storm broke. Walter Neely had crumbled, telling all to police on advice from a neighborhood minister. He led authorities to Pee Wee’s graveyard, where victims Bellamy and Knight were unearthed on Dec. 4. A day later, diggers found the bodies of Sellars, Judy, Howard and Diane Neely. On Dec. 10, Walter led them to the graves of Doreen Dempsey and her child. Gaskins struck a pose of injured innocence, but all in vain. Looking back on that chaotic month, he would recall, “the coroner had the bodies, Jesus had Walter, and the law had me.”
Giving Up the Dead
Following a Florence County coroner’s inquest on April 27, 1976, Gaskins and Walter Neely were each charged with eight counts of first-degree murder. Police also detained James Judy, husband of the murdered Jessie, on one count of murder and an accessory charge. Prosecutor T. Kenneth Summerford arranged for Gaskins to be tried alone in the Bellamy case, since bullets from the victim’s body matched a pistol Gaskins had been carrying at his arrest in December 1975.
At trial, convened on May 24, 1976, Gaskins feigned innocent, blaming Bellamy’s murder on Walter Neely. Bellamy and Johnny Knight were both alive the last time he saw them, Gaskins testified, leaving his garage with Neely. For all he knew, Walter had stolen his pistol to murder the men, then replaced it without Pee Wee’s knowledge. Jurors dismissed the fable and convicted him on May 28, whereupon Judge Dan McEachin sentenced Gaskins to die.
That verdict frightened James Judy, wholly innocent of his wife’s murder, into angling for a plea bargain. Police thought he had hired Gaskins to kill his wife and Johnny Sellars out of jealousy, and if a jury felt likewise he might be sent to the electric chair. Panicked, Judy pled guilty in return for a life sentence and went off to serve his time.
Walter Neely was next, tried on eight counts of murder, his attorneys calling him a mentally retarded dupe who bowed to Pee Wee Gaskins’s every whim. “In a way,” Gaskins later wrote, “I reckon that was true, too. Walter surely weren’t real bright, and he did pretty much anything I asked him, up until he got borned-again and forgot all about what loyalty and friendship meant.” Convicted on all counts, Neely still evoked sufficient pathos to escape with a single life sentence.
Pee Wee’s attorney urged him to cut a deal with prosecutors to avoid another death sentence on his seven pending murder charges. Gaskins agreed, confessing to the crimes and adding details under influence of “truth serum,” but he could have saved the effort. In November 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated South Carolina’s death penalty statute and his capital sentence was commuted to life, with seven more consecutive life terms tacked on for good measure. The attendant publicity made Gaskins “downright famous” in prison, where even the guards dubbed him the “boss hog.”
Still unsatisfied, the law came after Gaskins next for Silas Yates’s murder, indicting him with John Owens, John Powell, and Suzanne Kipper (now married to John). At trial, in April 1977, Gaskins claimed he was the decoy who lured Yates from home in 1975, while Powell and Owens did the killing, but all four defendants were sentenced to life. (Powell and Owens were paroled in the late 1980s, prompting Gaskins to remark that “some life sentences don’t last as long as others.” Kipper escaped in October 1990 and remained at large until February 1993, when she was recaptured in Michigan.)
South Carolina passed a new death penalty statute in 1978 and prosecutor Ken Summerford filed new charges against Gaskins for Johnny Knight’s murder, declaring his intent to put Pee Wee on Death Row. Gaskins may have been the only player in the game who didn’t realize such retroactive prosecutions are forbidden. Bargaining for life imprisonment, he confessed still more murders, giving lawmen a hitchhiker’s corpse in place of Janice Kirby’s since he feared discovery of other victims buried near her grave site, yet unnamed.
The last round of confessions made Gaskins South Carolina’s most prolific serial killer to date. Between that reputation and his mechanical skills, it was easy to become a maintenance trusty.
Easy to kill Rudolph Tyner in September 1982.
After prolonged investigation, a grand jury indicted Gaskins and Tony Cimo for Tyner’s murder, along with inmate go-betweens Jack Martin and Charles Lee. Charges against Lee were dismissed after another convict, James Brown, claimed he took the explosive cup to Tyner’s cell without knowledge of its purpose. (Brown was never charged.) Prosecutor James Anders tried Gaskins separately, calling Ken Summerford as a witness to display photos of Pee Wee’s other victims, and Judge Dan Laney sentenced Gaskins to die.
Tony Cimo, more sympathetic than Gaskins in court, received a 25-year prison sentence with parole eligibility after 30 months. He served the minimum and returned to Murrell’s Inlet, where he died from a prescription drug overdose on June 10, 2001.
Gaskins, meanwhile, spent the first three years of his new sentence not on Death Row, but in a rat-infested isolation unit. His attorneys appealed the confinement in 1985, but lawmen cited “reliable information” that Gaskins planned to have cronies kidnap the prosecutor’s child and bargain for his release. Only after his petition for release from solitary was rejected did police “determine the report was an empty threat.” A year later, freed from solitary after the isolation unit was condemned as unfit for human habitation, Gaskins found Death Row “a lot nicer” than his previous quarters. In 1990, Gaskins and the state’s electric chair were moved again, this time to the Broad River Correctional Institute outside Columbia.
Gaskins filled his last months with an art scam, tracing cartoon characters for sale to collectors of Death Row memorabilia, and dictating his memoirs on tape for author Wilton Earl (published as Final Truth in 1993). As death approached, Pee Wee waxed philosophical. “I truly don’t mind dying,” he wrote. “I’ve lived a damned full and good life.”
In fact, he decided, it was even better than that. “I have walked the same path as God,” Gaskins raved. “By taking lives and making others afraid, I became God’s equal. Through killing others, I became my own master. Through my own power I come to my own redemption..”
He was even optimistic about his date with the chair, telling Earl’s tape recorder, “When they put me to death, I’ll die remembering the freedom and pleasure of my life. I’ll die knowing that there are others coming along to take my place, and that most of them won’t never get caught.”
There was no escape for Pee Wee, though. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his final appeal in June 1991, clearing the way for Gaskins to be executed in September. Hours before his date with “Old Sparky,” Gaskins slashed his arms from wrists to elbows with a razor blade he had swallowed days earlier, then regurgitated in a futile effort to postpone death. Prison medics stitched his wounds in time for Gaskins to meet his fate at 1:05 A.M. on Sept. 6, 1991.