Donald Gaskins: Strange Serial Killer, “Meanest Man in America”

One thing about crime, it happens everywhere, even in places you’d think were relatively safe. Crowded cities often breed crime, like the murder of Jenny Maxwell we learned about last week. This week, we discuss crimes that occurred in rural South Carolina, and we meet Donald Gaskins. Gaskins committed a series of murders in the 1970s.

Donald Gaskins, A Rough Start in Life

Donald Gaskins was born on March 13, 1933, to Eulea Parrott, the last in a series of illegitimate children. His mother neglected him, and the various men that drifted in and out of her life physically abused him. Small in stature, the family called him “Junior” or “Pee Wee.”

Donald Henry Gaskins
Donald Henry Gaskins

Attending school changed nothing. Donald fought constantly with other students and his teachers punished him frequently. At age 11, he quit school altogether. He worked on cars at a local garage and sometimes helped work on the family farm. All the while, he nursed an intense hatred toward people, especially women.

Gaskins met two other school dropouts about his same age while working at the garage. Together, the three formed what they called “The Terrible Trio.” The trio’s main enterprise was burglary, although they occasionally indulged in sexual assault, targeting younger boys.

Donald Gaskins’ Life of Petty Crime

Burglarizing a house at age 13, a girl he knew interrupted Gaskins and tried to attack him with an axe. He got the axe away from her and struck her in the head and arm before fleeing the scene. The girl lived, and Gaskins went on trial for assault with intent to kill. He was convicted and sent to the South Carolina Industrial School for White Boys until his 18th birthday.

Reform school was tough on young Donald. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally managed to escape. He got a job with a traveling carnival and married a 13-year-old girl. Inexplicably, he then decided to turn himself in and finish out his reform school sentence. He was released in March 1951 and went to work on a tobacco plantation, supplementing his earnings by setting “insurance fires” to barns for a fee.

Donald Gaskins Goes to a Real Prison

At the tobacco plantation, the boss’s daughter and one of her friends confronted Gaskins about the arsons. He flipped out, attacking both girls with a hammer and splitting one girl’s skull. The result was a five-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder.

Gaskin's Florence, SC mugshot
Gaskin’s Florence, SC mugshot

In prison, as in reform school, there were many predators. Gaskins had been a small boy and now he was a small man, only 5’ 4” tall. He couldn’t hope to intimidate would-be attackers with his size, so he opted for intimidating them with his actions. He managed to earn the trust of one Hazel Brazell, reputed to be the meanest man in the prison. Using that trust, he cut Brazell’s throat. Claiming self-defense, Gaskins spent six months in solitary confinement. But when he got out of solitary, the other prisoners left him alone.

In 1955, Gaskins’ wife filed for divorce, causing him to flip out again. Escaping once more, he joined another carnival and married a second time. This marriage lasted all of two weeks. Gaskins was soon back in prison, anyway.

Released in 1961, Gaskins returned to his previous “profession” of burglary. He married for a third time but then was arrested for statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl. He escaped and married for a fourth time, to a 17-year-old girl. His new wife ended up turning him in and he went to the Columbia penitentiary for six years. Paroled in November 1968, he vowed never to return.

Donald Gaskins Turns Serial Killer

Donald Gaskins eventually confessed to dozens of murders, but the proven count is much lower. His first confirmed non-prison murder occurred in November 1970. The victims were his own niece, Janice Kirby (15) and her friend, Patricia Ann Alsbrook (17). He claimed he became enraged by their drug use, but he probably tried to sexually assault them.

Gaskins next killed his supposed friend, Doreen Hope Dempsey (22) and her two-year-old daughter in June 1973. A blatant racist, he was upset that Doreen was pregnant with what would be her second biracial child. A year later, Gaskins shot Johnny Sellers (36) and stabbed his ex-girlfriend, Jessie Ruth Judy (22), killing both. Sellers was Gaskins’ partner in an auto theft ring and Judy was a potential witness.

Nineteen-seventy-four was a busy year, with Gaskins killing six more people. One, Silas Barnwell Yates (45) as a murder for hire. The others were criminal associates or people who know of his criminal activities. He killed them to prevent them from ratting him out to the authorities.

Arrest and Prison

Police arrested Gaskins on November 14, 1975. An associate (and ex-husband of one of his murder victims) named Walter Neeley reported him to police. On December 4, Neeley led authorities to land near Gaskins’ home in Prospect, South Carolina. There they found the bodies of eight of his victims.

Gaskins identifies a burial site to investigators from the Florence, SC Sheriff's Office and the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division  (HeyThereChief)
Gaskins identifies a burial site to investigators from the Florence, SC Sheriff’s Office and the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (HeyThereChief)

On May 24, 1976, Gaskins went on trial for murder. Four days later, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and he received a death sentence. He quickly confessed to the seven other murders to avoid additional death sentences. In November 1976, his death sentence was commuted to seven consecutive life terms following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the death penalty as it existed was unconstitutional.

Gaskins murdered fellow prisoner Rudolph Tyner on September 2, 1982. Tyner was on death row for murdering an elderly couple during a botched robbery. Tired of the excruciatingly slow legal process, the couple’s son hired Gaskins to kill Tyner. After failing with poison, he constructed a device that looked like a radio or intercom. When Tyner put the device to his ear, Gaskins plugged it into a wall socket and the C-4 explosive inside blew up. This stunt earned Gaskins a death sentence and the sobriquet “the meanest man in America.” It was the first time in South Carolina’s history that a white man received the death penalty for killing a black man.

Epilogue

Attempting to delay his date with South Carolina’s electric chair, Donald Gaskins began confessing to murders. Police could not verify his involvement in any of these additional murders.

On execution day, Gaskins slashed his wrists, but that failed to delay his date with the electric chair. He died at 1:05 a.am. on September 6, 1991.

The South Carolina electric chair in Columbus, SC photographed in 2019 (Credit: Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP.)
The South Carolina electric chair in Columbus, SC photographed in 2019 (Credit: Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP.)

Before his execution, Gaskins collaborated with writer Wilton Earle to produce his “autobiography.” Final Truth: The Autobiography of a Serial Killer is full of contradictions and unverifiable claims.

For more about Gaskins, you can read Charlie Lark’s The Meanest Man in America or Roger Harrington’s Donald Henry Gaskins: The True Story of the Meanest Man in America, part of the American Serial Killer Stories series.

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