Certain American serial killers are always talked about. There will always be documentaries and books written about Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy. The faces of these monsters are known internationally. The same cannot be said for Donald Henry “Pee Wee” Gaskins.
Born and raised in rural South Carolina, Gaskins was a troubled youth who became a hopeless thief and bully. Ultimately, while still in his teens, Gaskins graduated to rape and murder. Between 1969 and 1981, the diminutive murderer killed nine known victims but may have killed many, many more.
Like many serial killers, “Pee Wee” Gaskins was raised in an unstable home. He was born on March 13, 1933, in Florence County, South Carolina. Gaskins’s mother was an unmarried woman who lived with a revolving cast of suitors. Many of these men treated young Donald terribly. After his mother married Gaskins’s stepfather, the abuse ratcheted up as the man also mistreated his own four children.
School proved to be no sanctuary for “Pee Wee.” Gaskins never grew above 157.5 centimeters (5’2″) and never weighed more than 59 kilograms (130 lb). Due to his small stature, “Pee Wee” was regularly bullied in school and was reportedly blamed by teachers for this abuse. At just 11, Gaskins dropped out of school and began working a series of odd jobs, including tobacco plantation worker and auto mechanic.
While working at a local garage, Gaskins met two other young men named Danny and Marsh. Dubbing themselves the “Trouble Trio,” Gaskins, Danny, and Marsh began committing a string of serious crimes, including burglary and solicitation of prostitutes. However, of all the bad things that the Trouble Trio did, their worst crimes involved the rape of girls and boys. One of the crew’s victims included the sister of either Danny or Marsh.
Eventually, sometime before 1946, Danny and Marsh left Florence County. Gaskins continued to burglarize homes by himself. During one such crime, a young woman caught “Pee Wee” creeping into her home and she struck him with an axe. Gaskins survived the ordeal, but a deputy with the Florence County Sheriff’s Department located a muddy footprint that was traced back to “Pee Wee.” As a result, Gaskins was arrested and put into solitary confinement.
At 13, “Pee Wee” was ordered by a court to attend a reform school. It turned out to be worse than prison as “Pee Wee” was frequently gang-raped in the school’s showers. To fend off these attacks, Gaskins provided sexual favors to “Boss Boy,” a school kingpin, in return for protection.
For a brief time following a successful escape, “Pee Wee” traveled with a circus and was married to a 13-year-old girl. However, Gaskins eventually returned to the school and graduated on his 18th birthday in 1951.
“Pee Wee” soon found work on a tobacco plantation. Around the same time, several barns in the area caught on fire and more than a few locals blamed “Pee Wee.” The daughter of Gaskins’s employer believed that the fires were part of an insurance scheme. When she confronted “Pee Wee” with this suspicion, he struck her in the head with a hammer.
“Pee Wee” was arrested for this crime and sentenced to six years in prison.
Back in prison, Gaskins’s tiny size made him a target for sexual assault and rape. One of the prison’s toughest “power men” took a liking to “Pee Wee,” but after a series of rapes, Gaskins struck the man and slit his throat with a razor. This killing earned “Pee Wee” respect in the prison, and the diminutive monster was mostly left alone for the rest of his incarceration.
In 1955, Gaskins escaped prison by hiding out in the back of a garbage truck. He found his way to Florida before being captured in Tennessee. Gaskins received a charge of driving a stolen car across state lines, and this sentence ran concurrently with his original six-year sentence from 1951. Gaskins would not see freedom again until August 1961 following his parole.
By 1962, “Pee Wee” was once again in trouble with the law. That year, he was charged with the statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl. But before “Pee Wee” could be hauled off to jail, he managed to escape via a courtroom window.
Once again, he joined a traveling circus. But the law finally caught him and put him away in prison until November 1968. One condition of his 1968 release was that he would refrain from staying in or visiting Florence County for two years.
Relocating to Sumter, South Carolina, “Pee Wee” joined the civilian world as a vicious, coldhearted killer. Gaskins hated the world and everyone in it. Although most of his crimes had been done in the name of profit or protection, “Pee Wee” desired to commit a crime for the pure thrill of it.
So, in September 1969, “Pee Wee” picked up a female hitchhiker, murdered her, and then dumped her body in a swamp. “Pee Wee” would later recall this killing in his memoirs by writing, “All I could think about is how I could do anything I wanted to her.”
After September 1969, “Pee Wee” began preying on hitchhikers traveling the roads between Sumter and Charleston, South Carolina.
Gaskins’s lust for murder knew no bounds. In November 1970, Gaskins raped, murdered, and mutilated his 15-year-old niece, Janice Kirby. He also killed one of her young friends.
Three years later in 1973, “Pee Wee” turned his rage on his neighbors, killing them both. The victims were 23-year-old Doreen Dempsey and her two-year-old daughter. Shockingly, Dempsey was eight months pregnant at the time of the murder.
Along with these murders, “Pee Wee” continued to carry out what he called “coastal kills”—the murder of random female and male strangers that he picked up while driving around. Gaskins would later say that he had already committed 10 “coastal kills” by October 1970.
In December 1970, “Pee Wee” tortured and murdered 13-year-old Peggy Cuttino. This killing was blamed on William Pierce, a man already serving a life sentence in Georgia. “Pee Wee” would not confess to this crime until 1977.
Along with his random killings, which “Pee Wee” would later write occurred once a month during the early 1970s, “Pee Wee” sometimes killed friends and acquaintances. Some of these killings were contract murders, with people approaching the ex-con with big money. One such contract killing was arranged in February 1975.
Suzanne Kipper Owens hired “Pee Wee” to kill her boyfriend, Silas Barnwell Yates. The couple was originally set to be married, but for unknown reasons, the wedding was canceled. Gaskins not only murdered Yates, but he also killed four other people to cover up the original crime. One of the cover-up victims was Diane Bellamy Neely, one of the people who had originally singled out Yates for murder.
In his memoirs, “Pee Wee” would call 1975 his “killingest” year.
Gaskins’s crime spree would crumble because of someone close to him. Walter Neely, the brother of Diane Neely, had worked with “Pee Wee” on many of his contract killings. The pair was also involved in a car theft racket that more or less provided them with a steady income. Near the end of 1975, Gaskins would be in handcuffs again. But car theft was the charge rather than murder.
That same December, Neely decided to turn state’s evidence against Gaskins. In May 1976, both went on trial for the Yates killing and other murders. Neely received a life sentence, whereas Gaskins was sentenced to death.
To avoid the death penalty, Gaskins began confessing to a slew of crimes and cooperated with prosecutors in finding the bodies of some of his victims. “Pee Wee” ultimately confessed to killing 110 people in total, but the police only managed to recover 14 bodies. Later, “Pee Wee” denied most of these confessions.
“Pee Wee” had a flair for the dramatic. During the height of his murders, Gaskins kept dynamite in his refrigerator and sulfuric acid in his backyard. “Pee Wee” was also known to drive around looking for victims in a purple hearse featuring a hanging skeleton in the rearview mirror.
When asked why he drove a hearse, “Pee Wee” would reportedly say, “Because I kill so many people.” For years, people took this as nothing more than a morbid joke.
“Pee Wee” got another chance to murder in 1980. While serving his sentence in South Carolina, he was approached by Tony Cimo, the son of murder victim Myrtle Moon. Myrtle and her husband, Bill, had been killed during a grocery store robbery in 1978 by a New York–born junkie named Rudolph Tyner. Knowing that “Pee Wee” was the man to see if you wanted a murder done behind bars, Cimo gave “Pee Wee” money to knock off Tyner and “Pee Wee” agreed.
Gaskins’s first attempt to kill Tyner via food poisoning failed. “Pee Wee” then came up with an elaborate solution—turn a radio into a bomb and blow Tyner up. Accordingly, “Pee Wee” smuggled in plastic explosives and an electric firing cap.
On September 12, 1982, Gaskins gave the radio bomb to Tyner and told him to listen to it at a certain time. At the appointed time, Tyner died after the explosion blew his head off.
This event led the national media to dub “Pee Wee” the “Meanest Man in America.”
“Pee Wee” was executed by the state of South Carolina in 1991, long before the advent of YouTube. And yet, despite this problem with chronology, “Pee Wee” was close to someone who would later become an Internet sensation.
Charles Marvin Green Jr. became friends with Gaskins in 1975. At the time, Green worked for the North Charleston Fire Department and would occasionally go out drinking with “Pee Wee.” On one occasion, when both men were drunk, they got into a serious argument which ended when Green slammed Gaskins’s head into the bar.
While in prison, “Pee Wee” sent Green letters, some of which featured morbid drawings of Gaskins in an electric chair with a fried egg on his head. In one letter, Gaskins admitted that he missed Green. Green refused to acknowledge “Pee Wee” and did not respond to the letters.
Many years later, when the prison that once held “Pee Wee” was scheduled to be torn down, Green took his children to visit it. While there, Green visited Gaskins’s cell and saw that “Pee Wee” had drawn a pentagram on the wall. In the center of the pentagram was Green’s name.
Before his passing in 2017, Green was widely known as “Angry Grandpa,” a foulmouthed and bipolar citizen of North Charleston, South Carolina, who starred in videos featuring pranks, most of them orchestrated by Green’s son Michael.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Boston.