Donald Gaskins had all the makings of a serial killer as a child. As an adult, he claimed the title of the most prolific serial killer in South Carolina history. Gaskins tortured, killed, and sometimes ate his victims.
In his taped memoirs for the book "Final Truth," by Wilton Earle, Gaskins said, "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."
Gaskins was born on March 13, 1933, in Florence County, South Carolina. His mother, who was not married when she became pregnant with Donald, lived on and off with several men during his childhood. Many of them treated the young boy with disdain, sometimes beating him just for being around. His mother did little to protect him, and the boy was left alone to raise himself. When his mother married, his stepfather beat him and his four half-siblings regularly.
Gaskins was given the nickname "Pee Wee" as a child because of his small frame. When he began school, the violence he experienced at home followed him into the classrooms. He fought daily with the other boys and girls and was constantly punished by the teachers. At 11, he quit school, worked on cars at a local garage, and helped around the family farm. Emotionally Gaskins was battling an intense hatred toward people, women topping the list.
At the garage where Gaskins worked part time, he met Danny and Marsh, two boys close to his age and out of school. They named themselves "The Trouble Trio" and began burglarizing homes and picking up prostitutes in nearby cities. They sometimes raped young boys, then threatened them so they would not tell the police.
They stopped their sexual rampage after being caught for gang-raping Marsh's younger sister. As punishment, their parents bound and beat the boys until they bled. After the beatings, Marsh and Danny left the area, and Gaskins continued breaking into homes alone. In 1946, at the age of 13, a girl he knew interrupted him burglarizing a home. She attacked him with an ax, which he managed to get away from her, striking her in the head and arm with it before running from the scene.
The girl survived the attack, and Gaskins was arrested, tried, and found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and intent to kill. He was sent to the South Carolina Industrial School for Boys until he turned 18. During the court proceedings Gaskins heard his real name spoken for the first time in his life.
Reform school was particularly rough on the young, small Gaskins. Almost immediately he was gang-raped by 20 of his new peers. He spent the rest of his time there accepting protection from the dorm "Boss-Boy" in exchange for sex or trying unsuccessfully to escape from the reformatory. He was repeatedly beaten for his escape attempts and sexually exploited among the gang favored by "Boss-Boy."
Escape and Marriage
Gaskins' desperate attempts to escape resulted in fights with guards, and he was sent for observation to a state mental hospital. Doctors found him sane enough to return to the reform school. After a few nights, he escaped again and managed to get on with a traveling carnival. While there, he married a 13-year-old girl and turned himself over to the police to finish his sentence at the reform school. He was released on March 13, 1951, his 18th birthday.
After reform school, Gaskins got a job on a tobacco plantation but could not resist temptations. He and a partner got involved with insurance fraud by collaborating with tobacco farmers to burn their barns for a fee. People began talking about the barn fires and suspected Gaskins' involvement.
Gaskins' employer's daughter, a friend, confronted Gaskins about his reputation as the barn burner and he flipped. He split the girl's skull with a hammer and was sent to prison for five years for assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder.
Prison life was not much different from his time in reform school. Gaskins was immediately assigned to sexually service one of the prison gang leaders in exchange for protection. He realized the only way he could survive prison was to become a "Power Man," having a reputation as being so brutal and dangerous that others stayed away.
Gaskins' small size prevented him from intimidating others into respecting him; only his actions could do so. He set his sights on one of the meanest inmates in the prison, Hazel Brazell. Gaskins manipulated himself into a relationship of trust with Brazell, then cut his throat. He was found guilty of manslaughter, spent six months in solitary confinement, and became a Power Man among prisoners. He could look forward to an easier time in prison.
Escape and Second Marriage
Gaskins' wife filed for divorce in 1955. He panicked, escaped from prison, stole a car, and drove to Florida. He joined another carnival and married for the second time. The marriage ended after two weeks. Gaskins then became involved with a carnival woman, Bettie Gates, and they drove to Cookeville, Tennessee, to bail her brother out of jail.
Gaskins went to the jail with bail money and a carton of cigarettes in hand. When he returned to the hotel, Gates and his stolen car were gone. Gates never returned, but the police did. Gaskins discovered that he had been duped: Gates "brother" was actually her husband, who had escaped from prison with the aid of a razor blade tucked inside the carton of cigarettes.
Little Hatchet Man
It did not take long for police to learn that Gaskins was also an escaped convict, and he was returned to prison. He received an additional nine months in prison for aiding an escape and for knifing a fellow prisoner. Later he was convicted of driving the stolen car across state lines and received three years in a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. While there, he got to know mafia boss Frank Costello, who named him "The Little Hatchet Man" and offered him future employment.
Gaskins was released from prison in August 1961 and returned to Florence, South Carolina. He got a job in the tobacco sheds but was unable to stay out of trouble. Soon he was burglarizing homes while working for a traveling minister as his driver and assistant. This gave him the opportunity to break into homes in different towns where the group preached, making his crimes harder to trace.
In 1962, Gaskins married a third time but continued his criminal behavior. He was arrested for statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl but managed to escape to North Carolina in a stolen car. There he met a 17-year-old and married for the fourth time. She ended up turning him in to the police, and Gaskins was convicted of statutory rape. He received six years in prison and was paroled in November 1968.
'Them Aggravated and Bothersome Feelings'
Throughout his life, Gaskins had what he described as "them aggravated and bothersome feelings" that seemed to push him into criminal activity. He found some relief from the feelings in September 1969 when he picked up a young female hitchhiker in North Carolina.
Gaskins became angry when she laughed at him for propositioning her for sex. He beat her until she was unconscious, then raped, sodomized, and tortured her. He then sank her weighted body into a swamp where she drowned.
This brutal act was what Gaskins later described as "a vision" into the "bothersome feelings" that haunted him throughout life. He finally discovered how to satisfy his urges, and from then on, it was the driving force in his life. He worked on mastering his skill at torture, often keeping his mutilated victims alive for days. As time passed, his depraved mind grew darker and more horrific. He ventured into cannibalism, often eating severed parts of his victims while forcing them to watch or to participate in the eating.
Relieving Those 'Bothersome Feelings'
Gaskins preferred female victims, but that did not stop him from victimizing males. He later claimed that by 1975 he had killed over 80 young boys and girls he found along North Carolina highways. Now he looked forward to his "bothersome feelings" because it felt so good to relieve them through torture and murder. He considered his highway murders as weekend recreation and referred to killing personal acquaintances as "serious murders."
His serious murders included his 15-year-old niece, Janice Kirby, and her friend, Patricia Alsobrook. In November 1970, he offered them a ride home from a bar but drove them to an abandoned house, where he raped, beat, and finally drowned them. His next serious murder was of Martha Dicks, 20, who was attracted to Gaskins and hung around him at his part-time job at a car repair shop. She was also his first African-American victim .
In 1973, Gaskins purchased an old hearse, telling people at his favorite bar that he needed the vehicle to haul all the people he killed to his private cemetery. This was in Prospect, South Carolina, where he lived with his wife and child. Around town, he had a reputation for being explosive but not truly dangerous. People thought he was mentally disturbed, but a few actually liked him and considered him a friend.
One of them was Doreen Dempsey. Dempsey, 23, an unwed mother of a 2-year-old girl and pregnant with a second child, decided to leave the area and accepted a ride to the bus station from her old friend Gaskins. Instead, Gaskins took her to a wooded area, raped and killed her, then raped and sodomized her baby. After killing the child, he buried the two together.
No Longer Working Alone
In 1975, Gaskins, now 42 and a grandfather, had been steadily killing for six years. His got away with it mainly because he never involved others in his highway murders. This changed in 1975, after Gaskins murdered three people whose van had broken down on the highway. Gaskins needed help getting rid of them and enlisted the aid of ex-con Walter Neely. Neely drove the van to Gaskins' garage, and Gaskins repainted it so he could sell it.
That same year Gaskins was paid $1,500 to kill Silas Yates, a wealthy farmer from Florence County. Suzanne Kipper, an angry ex-girlfriend, hired Gaskins for the job. John Powell and John Owens handled all correspondence between Kipper and Gaskins arranging the murder. Diane Neely, Walter's wife, claimed to have car problems to lure Yates from his home on Feb. 12. Gaskins then kidnapped and murdered Yates as Powell and Owens watched, then the three buried his body.
Soon afterward, Neely and her boyfriend, ex-con Avery Howard, attempted to blackmail Gaskins for $5,000 in hush money. Gaskins quickly disposed of them when they met him for the payoff. In the meantime, Gaskins was busy killing and torturing other people he knew, including a 13-year-old, Kim Ghelkins, who sexually rejected him.
Not knowing Gaskins' wrath, two locals, Johnny Knight and Dennis Bellamy. robbed Gaskins' repair shop and were eventually murdered and buried with other locals Gaskins had killed. Again, he called on Neely for help burying them. Gaskins obviously believed Neely was a trusted friend, pointing out the graves of other locals he had murdered and buried there.
Meanwhile, the investigation into Kim Ghelkins' disappearance was turning up leads that all pointed to Gaskins. Armed with a search warrant, the authorities went through Gaskins' apartment and uncovered clothing worn by Ghelkins. He was indicted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and stayed in jail, awaiting his trial.
With Gaskins tucked away in jail and unable to influence Neely, police increased the pressure on him. It worked. During an interrogation, Neely broke down and led police to Gaskins' private cemetery on land that he owned in Prospect. Police uncovered the bodies of eight of his victims, including Howard, Neely, Knight, Bellamy, Dempsey, and her child. On April 27, 1976, Gaskins and Neely were charged with eight counts of murder. Gaskins' attempts to appear as an innocent victim failed, and on May 24 a jury found him guilty of murdering Bellamy. He was given a death sentence. He later confessed to the seven additional murders.
In November 1976, his sentence was commuted to seven consecutive life terms after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled South Carolina's death penalty unconstitutional. Over the next few years, Gaskins enjoyed grandiose treatment from other inmates because of his reputation as a ruthless killer.
The death penalty was reinstated in South Carolina in 1978. This meant little to Gaskins until he was found guilty of murdering Rudolph Tyner, a fellow prisoner on death row for murdering an elderly couple, Bill and Myrtle Moon. Myrtle Moon's son hired Gaskins to murder Tyner, and after several failed attempts Gaskins succeeded by blowing him up with a radio that he had rigged with explosives. Now dubbed the "Meanest Man in America" Gaskins once again received the death sentence.
In an attempt to stay out of the electric chair, Gaskins confessed to more murders. Had his claims been true, it would have made him the worst killer in the history of South Carolina. He admitted to murdering Peggy Cuttino, 13, the daughter of a prominent South Carolina family. William Pierce had already been convicted for the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Authorities were unable to substantiate the details of Gaskins' confession and rejected it, claiming he did it to attract media attention.
During the last months of his life, Gaskins worked with author Wilton Earle on his book, "Final Truth," dictating his memoirs into a tape recorder. In the book, which was published in 1993. Gaskins talks about the murders and his feeling of something "bothersome" being inside him. As his execution date grew closer, he became more philosophical about his life, why he had murdered, and his date with death.
For someone who willingly disregarded the lives of others, Gaskins fought hard to avoid the electric chair. On the day he was scheduled to die, he slashed his wrists in an effort to postpone the execution. However, unlike his escape from death in 1976, when his sentence was commuted to life in prison, Gaskins was stitched up and placed on the chair as scheduled. He was pronounced dead by electrocution at 1:05 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1991.
It probably never will be known whether Gaskins' memories in "Final Truth" were truthful or fabrications based on his desire to be known as one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history, not just as a small man. He claimed to have killed over 100 people, although he never offered proof or provided information on where many of the bodies were.