People like Donald Henry Gaskins are the reason why we are urged to never accept a ride from a stranger. Gaskins, also known as “Pee Wee”, was a prolific serial killer based in South Carolina who was convicted of killing eight people from the 1950s to the 1970s, though the actual number of his victims is unknown.
Known also as the “Hitchhiker Killer”, the “Meanest Man in America”, and the “Redneck Charles Manson,” Gaskins was a truly terrifying individual, although those who knew him believed that he was deeply disturbed, but harmless. Nobody could ever have imagined the extent of the atrocities he committed.
In 1933, Gaskins was born in the backwoods of South Carolina. Information on his background is muddled, but it is known that his mother, Eulea Parrott, had a string of bad romances and a number of illegitimate children. “Pee Wee” was the youngest–and the smallest. Eventually, Gaskin’s mother married. Her husband abused Gaskins and Eulea’s four other children.
Gaskins was consistently small for his age and would only ever reach five feet, four inches in height. He was picked on by kids at school, and he did not hesitate to fight back. He dropped out of school at the age of 11–his crime spree would begin shortly thereafter.
Gaskins began working in a car garage, where he apparently showed a great deal of mechanical promise. Unfortunately, this promise would soon be cast aside in favor of a life of crime with two other boys that worked with Gaskins.
Gaskins and his two new friends, Marsh and Danny, referred to themselves as “The Troubled Trio”. Despite their young age, the three began picking up sex workers, robbing homes, and raping young boys. The Troubled Trio avoided being caught by threatening their young victims with death if they told anyone about being raped.
The trio disbanded after the police caught them raping Marsh’s younger sister. During their first court appearance, Gaskins apparently learned his legal name, Donald, for the first time, having always been called Pee Wee to this point. Marsh and Danny left town soon after their trial, but losing his law-breaking companions didn't stop Gaskins.
He continued burglarizing homes and menacing others. During one of Gaskins’s burglaries, a 13-year-old girl who lived at the targeted home interrupted him, yielding an ax to get him out. He was able to tear the ax from her hands, and he soon turned it on her. The girl survived her injuries, and her account of what transpired led to a conviction of assault with a deadly weapon for Gaskins.
Because Gaskins was still a minor when he committed the deadly weapon assault, he was sent to a reform school. He was sexually assaulted throughout his time there by older boys. At one point, Gaskins escaped the school, got married to a fellow teen, then voluntarily returned to finish his sentence at the school. Released for good at 18, Gaskins, undeterred, continued his lawless lifestyle.
Gaskins started working at a tobacco plantation and soon became involved in a ploy to burn barns to help owners commit insurance fraud. When his boss’s daughter confronted Gaskins, he split the girl’s skull with a hammer and was arrested for attempted murder.
While in prison, Gaskins was sexually abused like he had been at reform school. This time, Gaskins was willing to commit murder to escape abuse. His first known murder victim was Hazel Brazell, one of the most feared men in the prison. After Brazell’s death, the other prisoners feared Gaskins–he reportedly became an “owner” of other prisoners, rather than one of the owned.
Gaskins was released and began working as a driver for a traveling minister. For a while, this managed to keep him out of jail. Then, Gaskins married a 17-year-old. Not long after they were married, she reported him to the police for rape. He was sent back to prison once more and paroled after six years. After this release, Gaskins developed what would become known as his signature crime.
He picked up a young female hitchhiker in North Carolina, who he propositioned for sex. When she told him no, Gaskins decided he would take what he wanted. He beat her until she lost consciousness, then raped and sodomized her. He tied weights to her unconscious body and dropped her in a swamp to die.
According to Gaskins himself, this first murder of a civilian temporarily satisfied the violent urges he had been feeling his entire life. He would torture his chosen victims, sometimes for days, and mutilate their bodies. In some instances, Gaskins cannibalized those he tortured while they were still alive. He would even make these victims eat parts of their own flesh before he killed them.
Gaskins generally chose his victims by driving along the highway, asking if solo travelers needed rides somewhere. He preferred female victims, but would kidnap males if he had to. But his murders were not restricted to solely strangers.
In 1970, he murdered his 15-year-old niece, Janice Kirby, and her friend after telling them he would drive them home from a bar. Instead, he drove them to a vacant house, where he raped, beat, and drowned them. Soon after, it is believed that he killed 20-year-old Martha Dicks, who had a crush on Gaskins and often hung out with him while he worked at a car repair shop. The young woman was last seen at a nightclub with a man who may have been Gaskins–her body was never found.
Gaskins bought a hearse in 1973, telling people that he needed it to move dead bodies around. Although his neighbors regarded him as mentally unstable, everyone assumed the strange man was simply trying out a macabre joke.
The victim of one of Gaskins’s most gruesome murders was someone he had seemed to count as a friend. Doreen Dempsey was 23 years old in 1973 when she asked Gaskins for a ride to the bus station–she wanted to get out of town. Doreen had a two-year-old daughter and was eight months pregnant with her second child. Instead of driving her to the bus, Gaskins took Dempsey and her daughter out to the woods, where he raped and killed them both.
By 1975, Gaskins’s crimes were starting to catch up with him, and his days of freedom were becoming numbered. The fact that he didn’t have any accomplices had helped him elude the police for years. So when Gaskins asked another ex-con, Walter Neely, to help him repaint a victim's car, he thought he was simply finding another way to make a living from his dastardly ways–instead, he was setting himself on a path towards justice.
Self-assured in his ability to evade the law, Gaskins had even started to contract out his killing services. Gaskins was hired to kill a farmer later in 1975. The farmer’s ex-girlfriend wanted him dead, and two middlemen facilitated the deal. More and more people were learning of Gaskins’s murderous ways.
The ex and her new boyfriend, after finding out just who had killed the farmer, tried to blackmail Gaskins for $5,000. Gaskins killed them both during a meeting set up to pay the bribe. Shortly thereafter, he killed a 13-year-old girl, Kim Ghelkins, who had rejected his sexual advances.
When Gaskins’s body shop was robbed, he killed the two men responsible and, once again, enlisted the help of Walter Neely to dispose of the bodies. While at the burial location, Gaskins showed Neeley the spots of the other graves of his victims.
Meanwhile, the police had independently linked Gaskins to the murder of Ghelkins. They eventually found some of the young girl’s clothes in Gaskins’s home. He was arrested, and Walter Neely cracked under pressure from the police during an interrogation. He told them where all of Gaskins’s victims were buried. The Redneck Charles Manson was finally caught.
After the police found eight bodies in Gaskins’s makeshift gravesite, he was charged with murder. He was found guilty of the murder of one of his blackmail victims, Dennis Bellamy, and he subsequently admitted to killing seven others. He was sentenced to death.
It is widely believed that Gaskins killed far more than eight people; he at one point bragged about the number being over 100, which would have made him South Carolina’s most prolific serial killer.
After death penalty sentencing was changed by a Supreme Court case, Gaskins’s death sentence was mitigated to life imprisonment. However, two years later, South Carolina legalized the death penalty once again. If Gaskins had committed no further crimes, he would have simply remained in jail until his natural final day.
However, in 1982, Gaskins killed another prisoner, Rudolph Tyner, by blowing him up. Tyner was in prison for killing two people. A son of one of the victims, frustrated that Tyner would remain on death row possibly for years, paid Gaskins to expedite Tyner’s death sentence. Gaskins constructed a bomb and snuck it through Tyner’s cell. After Gaskins was convicted, he was sentenced to death for the second and final time.
Gaskins spent his final months telling writer Wilton Earle stories about his life, which were eventually turned into a memoir, Final Truth. In the memoir, he alleges that he killed dozens more, but none of the claims could be substantiated.
Before he was electrocuted, Gaskins cut his wrists with razor blades that he had previously swallowed. Some believed that it was an attempt to derail the day of his execution, while others thought that he was trying to end his life on his own terms.
We may never know the true extent of Donald Henry “Pee Wee” Gaskins, the “Hitchhiker Killer”, but his gruesome murders mark him as one history’s most dangerous serial killers.