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Crime News Sins of the South

Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins Is One of the South’s Most Prolific Serial Killers

Sadistic killer Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins brutally murdered more than a dozen people, including his own niece. 

By Jill Sederstrom

For Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, killing was the answer to nearly every problem.

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Watch Sins of the South on Oxygen Sundays at 7/6c and next day on Peacock. 

The prolific South Carolina serial killer and rapist who authorities say mercilessly took the lives of at least 13 people — including a toddler — in often violent and sadistic ways for minor perceived slights. 

On one occasion, after claiming to have discovered his own niece high on drugs, he beat her to death, then calmly had coffee and cake with his unsuspecting family as her bloody body laid in the trunk of his car. 

“We had coffee and cake, and it was like a little family gathering,” his half-sister Carol Hottell recalled to the Phoenix New Times. “He buried her about a half-mile from our place. We didn't know that for seven years."

The diminutive killer also previously confessed, according to The State, to drowning a pregnant mother and her toddler, shooting his victims execution style, and lacing a Coca-Cola bottle with acid used to develop photographs to bring one victim to a horrific end. Gaskins, who drove a purple hearse, even had his own makeshift graveyard where he disposed of some of his victims.

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“He wasn’t some Ted Bundy serial killer,” attorney and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian once told the newspaper. “This was a guy who just killed people because, to him, they crossed the line, whether it was drugs or race or he thought they were somehow going to betray him or had betrayed him. His solution to the common, ordinary problems was to kill the problem.”

What was Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins’ childhood like? 

From early on, Gaskins lived a troubled life. His sister, who was 16 years his junior, recalled growing up in “extreme poverty” in rural South Carolina.  

Gaskins’ small stature (The Phoenix New Times placed him at 5’2” and 130 pounds) made him a frequent target for bullies and according to Investigation Discovery, he endured frequent beatings from his mother, who allegedly even sold her son to “boyfriends” or clients to sexually abuse him.

At the age of 11, Gaskins dropped out of school and created the “Trouble Trio” with two other troubled boys, per Investigation Discovery. The group spent their time breaking into homes, stealing cars, visiting sew workers, and sexually assaulting other boys.At the age of 13, Gaskins was sent to reform school after attacking a young girl with a hatchet and throwing her into a ditch. The reform school’s headmaster later wrote a note to the superintendent of the South Carolina State Hospital in 1950 describing Gaskins — who then went by the name Junior Parrott — as “anti-social” with “recurrent instances of psychopathic lying and stealing,” according to a 1983 article in The Index-Journal.

“We consider him dangerous and also he has the homicidal tendencies peculiar to a paranoid type,” the headmaster wrote.  

After beating another teen with a hammer who threatened to turn him in for setting fires as part of an insurance scam, Gaskins was sent to prison for attempted murder and received a six year sentence. Two years later, he went to prison again for raping a 12-year-old girl, according to Investigation Discovery.

Pee Wee Gaskins in walks with police in handcuffs

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What crimes did Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins commit?

Former Florence county Sheriff Billy Barnes told WPDE that it wasn’t until 1975 that investigators began to suspect that Gaskins was also a killer after young teen Kim Ghelkins disappeared and authorities linked her to his home. 

Although Ghelkins was nowhere to be found at the time, Gaskins was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and sent back to jail. Investigators realized that others with connections to Gaskins had also mysteriously disappeared. 

"We talked several times to an associate of Gaskins' named Walter Neely, and he told us he didn't know anything," Tom Henderson of the State Law Enforcement Division told The State in 1991. "Finally, he said that Pee Wee had told him he'd killed some people and had his own private graveyard."

Neely also told law enforcement officers that he had been there when Gaskins killed 29-year-old carpenter Dennis Bellamy and his 15-year-old half-brother John Henry Knight. He led authorities to their graves and investigators discovered more bodies at the site. 

Gaskins would eventually confess to killing 15 people and lead authorities to the graves of 13 of his victims, including Ghelkins, according to The State. In his book Final Truth, he later claimed to have killed more than 100 people, but authorities have questioned that account.

“A real odd bird,” Harpootlian, who later prosecuted Gaskins’ for a killing committed behind bars, told the paper. “He was either real nice, or he killed you.”

Gaskins’ detailed confession to investigators has also been questioned because some of the details he provided did not match up to autopsy results or witness accounts. However, it provides a glimpse of the killer in his own words. 

He told authorities the killing began in 1970 after his 15-year-old niece Janice Kirby ran away with her friend Patricia Allsbrook, per The State. Gaskins — who claimed to live a clean life himself free of alcohol or drugs — said he tracked the girls down and beat them to death for alleged drug use.

"They was both under drugs bad. And I started in on 'em about it and we had a fight in there and I beat 'em to death . . . with my fist and hand,” he said.

He buried Allsbrook in a “cement pit” and then hid his niece’s body in the trunk of his car before burying it near the family’s home.

He also claimed to have retaliated against the teens' alleged drug dealer, 20-year-old Martha Ann Dicks, by lacing a Coca-Cola bottle with acid used to develop photos and then throwing her body in a ditch. 

In 1973, Gaskins said he killed pregnant, single mom Doreen Dempsey and her 2-year-old daughter Robin because he believed the fathers of both of her children were Black. “When you go mixing, I don’t hold with that one bit in the world,” he said. 

Gaskins said when Dempsey’s friends brought her to his house to stay, he took Dempsey behind the house and drowned her in a fish pond before returning to the car, telling the friends she was welcome to stay. He then took her toddler back to the pond to kill her too, per the newspaper. 

He fatally shot Johnny Sellers, 36, and his live-in girlfriend Jessie Ruth Judy, 22, in 1974 because he didn’t want to pay Sellers money he owed him. 

Gaskins also claimed to have helped abduct and kill wealthy farmer Silas Barnwell Yates to make off with his money.

Also on his list of victims was Neely’s wife Diane Bellamy Neely, 29, and the man she was having an affair with, 35-year-old Avery Howard. 

"Shot some of them, cut some of their throats, drowned some," Barnes told WPDE of his various killing methods. "Just different ways. Even poisoned one."

He confessed to killing Ghelkins, who had stayed with him for a while, after he learned she was telling people he raped her. He took the teen to a dirt road, stabbed her in the stomach, and shot her in the back of the head, according to The State.

He killed Bellamy and Knight — in front of Neely — after they came to look for their missing sister Diane.

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What happened to Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins?

Gaskins and Neely were both convicted of killing Bellamy and sentenced to death in May of 1976, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison later that year after the South Carolina death statute was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gaskins was serving out multiple life sentences for his crimes in 1982 when he was hired by someone on the outside to kill fellow prisoner Rudolph Tyner.

Tyner was serving time for killing grocery store owners Myrtle and Bill Moon in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina in 1978. Myrtle’s son Tony Cimo arranged for Gaskins to carry out the hit, according to The State

Gaskins gave Tyner a device that was meant to look like an intercom, but instead it was an explosive made from a radio magnet that blew Tyner up, according to WLTX.

"This is why I say he was pretty smart,”  former deputy warden Jim Harvey told the outlet. “When Tyner plugged that into the outlet it went off, right through his brain.”

By then the death penalty had been reinstated in South Carolina and Gaskins was sentenced to die. 

On Sept. 5, 1991 — his last night alive — Gaskins attempted to take his own life using a razor he had put in his throat and regurgitated. He was saved so the state could execute him in the electric chair just after 1 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1991. 

“I’ll let my lawyers talk for me. I’m ready to go,” he said in his final words.

To learn more about other killers who operated in the South, check out Sins of the South, airing Sundays on Oxygen.