Sunday, July 4, 2010
“I have walked the same path as God, 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.” – Pee Wee Gaskins
Being brutally beaten as a child for no reason has a lasting effect on any child. Whether they decide to inflict that same kind of damage as they grow older, it is unknown. It has been found that 21 out of 30 death row inmates are mentally ill, some suffering from severe frontal lobe damage. The frontal lobe is essentially in charge of social interactions, judgment, impulse, and sexual behavior. A normal smack in the head is seen often enough on television by the doting father to the foolish son. But taking a bat or a thick branch to the forehead of a cowering child is much different. By imposing “domestic rules”, the abuser is dictating to the victim how he should act as an adult. By cracking the skull of a child who deviates the rules in any way, the violent counterpart is taking a dedicated risk that his child will grow up and take revenge…. Or become a serial killer.
Illegitimately born on March 21, 1933 in Florence County, South Carolina, Donald Gaskins was introduced to many men in his early life. His mother had a lot of boyfriends, all of whom used Donald and his four half siblings as their personal punching bag. Donald, a small boy, with a puny build and short stature, was called “Pee Wee” from a young age. When his mother married a man, Pee Wee expected a real father figure who would teach him the ways of the world, maybe even take him on a fishing trip other boys were always talking about. Instead, his stepfather was a cruel tyrant who regularly beat him until he was half conscious.
Pee Wee Gaskins used the violence he saw at home to hurt the children who crossed him at school. Whether it was a boy or a girl, Gaskins made no distinction. He may have been little at 5’3”, but he had a ferocious temper and an even meaner agitation towards those who thought he was weak and fragile. Quitting school at 11, he began work at a local garage and helped out with the family farm chores. Around this time, near the beginning of his sexual urges, Gaskins began to have terrible and aggressive thoughts directed towards his peers. These were called “bothersome” and “peculiar” thoughts by Gaskins, who couldn’t understand his feelings, but nevertheless let them lead his actions for the rest of his life.
At the garage, Gaskins was able to make friends with two delinquent boys, Danny and Marsh, both of whom were also out of school and around his age. Calling themselves the Trouble Trio, the three boys committed burglaries and sought sex with prostitutes in the bigger cities. Again, Gaskins made no distinction between men and women, raping young boys and then threatening them so they wouldn’t go to police. When the Trouble Trio was caught gang-raping Marsh’s young sister, Marsh’s father bound the boys and beat them until they bled through their clothing.
At 13, Gaskins was burglarizing a home by himself. He was caught by a girl he knew who tried to attack him with an axe. Forcing the axe away from the girl, Gaskins decided to go with his first instinct, which was to strike her in the head and arm before fleeing the scene. Gaskins was later arrested and found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. Sentenced until his 18th birthday, Gaskins was sent to South Carolina Industrial School for Boys. The nickname of “Pee Wee” stuck, and the reform school boys delighted in pushing the new and little guy around. Gaskins was victim to a twenty man gang-rape, and later was the sexual plaything for the older and bigger boys.
Gaskins attempted escape over and over, each time getting caught and each time receiving a beating from the guards. Because of his fierce determination to leave the reform school, it was recommended that he visit a mental hospital to treat the demons that were consuming Gaskins’ brain. He was found sane enough to leave the mental facility and sent back to the reformatory. If psychiatrists had probed Gaskins further, they might have been able to stop the fledgling killer, imprisoning him and analyzing his thinking patterns. Gaskins might have been prevented him from murdering the 80 he later claimed to have committed. Escaping from the reform school for the final time, Gaskins caught a ride with a passing carnival and married a 13-year-old girl. Inspired by his new marriage and all the things he might be able to accomplish if given the right education, Gaskins returned to the reform school to finish his sentence. He was finally legally released on his 18th birthday.
Immediately after leaving the reform school, Gaskins began work at a tobacco plantation. His plan to turn things around in his life rapidly faded, and he was soon committing crimes again. Involving himself in insurance fraud, Gaskins and a partner began burning down barns and sheds for local farmers. When his employer’s daughter and a friend confronted Gaskins about the fraud, he grabbed a hammer and split her skull with it. The woman survived but for that incidence, Gaskins got a five year sentence for assault and attempted murder. Prison was much like reform school for Gaskins. He was sexually abused and found that he had to become a “Power Man” to avoid the customary beatings and rapings. Because Gaskins was small, he was unable to become a “Power Man” by simply standing tall and puffing out his chest. He sought out the meanest inmate he could find, Hazel Brazell. After winning his confidence, Gaskins cut Brazell’s throat, earning him not only his first murder but the much needed name of “Power Man.” Gaskins was found guilty of manslaughter for the death of Brazell, and spent six months in solitary confinement.
In 1955, Gaskins had escaped from prison and now had his first divorce under his belt. He found another carnival to travel with where he met his second wife, and divorced her two weeks later. Gaskins met another attractive woman he felt he could trust named Bettie Gates. They drove together to Cookeville, Tennessee to bail out Gate’s brother from jail. When they arrived in the city, Gates disappeared without a trace. The man in jail was not her brother, but her husband. Bettie Gates, like most women in his life had let Gaskins down with lies and cheating. The police in Tennessee quickly realized that Gaskins was an escaped convict and he was returned to prison. He was convicted with several more crimes, landing him back in prison.
Paroled in 1962, Gaskins married for the third and fourth time, finding that monogamy was not something he was interested in. With his last wife only 17, she turned him into the authorities for statutory rape. He ended up at Columbia penitentiary and was paroled from prison in 1968. One year later, he picked up a female hitchhiker on the highway. When he tried to have sex with the girl, she laughed at him, something Pee Wee Gaskins was not going to stand for. He beat her unconscious, raped, sodomized, and weighted her body down into a swamp where she ultimately drowned.
Gaskins spree of crime continued in the early 1970’s. His preferred method of finding victims was picking up willing and friendly hitchhikers on the highways of South Carolina. He tortured his victims for days, often cannibalizing their limbs while they watched and making them participate in it. His highway killings he regarded as “weekend recreation”, while personal acquaintances were considered “serious murders.” It has been said by Gaskins himself, that eighty to ninety men and women were killed on the Southern coast, although it has never been confirmed and the astonishing amount of bodies were never uncovered. Among his “serious murders” were his 15-year-old niece, Janice Kirby and her friend Patricia Alsobrook. The girls believed they were being driven home, while Gaskins instead drove them to an abandoned house. He beat, raped, and drowned them and buried them in separate locations. Another woman, 20-year-old Martha Dicks, who found herself mistakenly in love with Gaskins, was taken to his home where he fed her an overdose of pills and liquor. He disposed of her body in a roadside ditch.
By 1973, Gaskin was living in Prospect, South Carolina with his wife and child. He bought an old hearse and jokingly told his friends that he needed it to haul all the dead bodies he killed. No one knew he was not kidding. Although some stayed away from Gaskins because he was frightening and distrustful, some liked and considered him a close friend. Gaskins befriended 23-year-old unwed Doreen Dempsey, mother of a two-year-old infant girl. On her way out of town, Doreen accepted a ride to the bus station from Gaskins. Driving his hearse, Gaskins did not take Doreen to the bus station, rather took her to a deserted and wooded area. Gaskins raped and killed Doreen, then sodomized and killed her baby. He buried them next to each other in a shallow grave.
Gaskins did not only kill for his own fulfillment. In 1975, he was paid $1,500 to murder Silias Yates, a wealthy farmer from Florence County. Gaskins completed the task and buried the body in the local woods. Diane Neely, involved in the crime, knew Gaskins had killed Yates and three other hitchhikers on the road. Later blackmailed by Diane Neely and her boyfriend Avery Howard, Gaskins agreed to meet the two outside of town to exchange the $5,000 “hush-hush” money. Instead of finding a man holding a sweaty palm of cash, Neely and Howard were met with a pistol and two freshly dug graves. Gaskins killed the two and considered the matter over.
Unaware of the terrible temper of Gaskins, two local boys, Johnny Knight and Dennis Bellamy robbed Gaskins repair store. They disappeared soon after the burglary, courtesy of the deadly hand of Gaskins. With the help of ex-convict and friend Walter Neely, also Diane Neely’s ex-husband, the boys were buried next to the many locals that were vanishing quickly all around Gaskins. 13-year-old Kim Ghelkins was the next victim. After being sexually rejected by Ghelkins, Gaskins found himself feeling “bothersome” and “peculiar” again. Ghelkins was driven out to the woods where she was raped and strangled. She was buried in Gaskins fast growing graveyard.
With the disappearance of Kim, the Ghelkins family centered their attention on Pee Wee Gaskins, who had been seen with Kim on numerous occasions. Police found Kim’s clothing in Gaskins home, but the evidence was not damning. They decided to detain him for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. At the insistence of a neighborhood minister, Walter Neely came forward claiming that he had specific information on Gaskins. Brought in for questioning, he admitted that he had helped dispose of several of Gaskins victims, even taking them to the graveyard in the woods. Eight graves were uncovered in total, but Ghelkin’s body was not among them.
On April 27, 1976, Gaskins and Neely were charged with eight counts of murder. The one murder Gaskins went to trial for was that of Dennis Bellamy. Gaskins was desperate to appear innocent in the case, claiming Walter Neely had been the killer in all of the crimes. The jury did not believe this and on May 28, 1976, they gave Gaskins the death sentence. To avoid additional death sentences, Gaskins confessed to the other seven murders under the influence of truth serum. For Walter Neely, the jury found him mentally retarded and convicted him of all eight murders, but gave him a life sentence instead of death.
In 1978, Gaskins was sent to Death Row for the murder of inmate Rudolph Tyner. Gaskins was apparently unable to say no to a bit of cash and agreed to kill Tyner for another convict. Tyner’s clock radio exploded near his face, and he was killed from the blast. Before Gaskins execution, he worked with Wilton Earl on his book, Final Truth, published in 1993. In the book, Gaskins said of his ability to kill, “I am one of the few that truly understands what death and pain are all about. I have a special kind of mind that allows me to give myself permission to kill.” He spoke mainly of his crimes and the psychological manner in which his brain worked. To try to postpone his execution, Gaskins slashed his wrists on the day he was to be taken to the chair. With gauzed arms, Gaskins went to the electric chair and died 1:05 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1991. Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins was considered the most prolific killer of South Carolina history.