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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Mark Putnam: Love and Murder in Appalachia

Eastern Kentucky is about as far from the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas and Hollywood as you can get. But that’s where this week’s case takes us. From last week’s mob murder in Beverly Hills, we travel to Pikeville, Kentucky. There, in 1989, FBI Agent Mark Putnam killed an informant with whom he was having an affair.

Mark Putnam

Mark Putnam was born on Independence Day in 1959 and studied criminology at the University of Tampa. After college, he attended the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He married Kathy Ponticelli, the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, shortly after graduating.

Mark Putnam and his wife, Kathy and daughter Danielle in 1987
Mark Putnam and his wife, Kathy and daughter Danielle in 1987

The FBI assigned newly-minted agent Putnam to Pikeville, Kentucky for his first case, bank robber Carl “Cat Eyes” Lockhart. Putnam was to gather evidence to convict Lockhart.

Susan Daniels Smith

Susan Daniels was born in Matewan, West Virginia in 1961. Matewan is at the heart of the area embroiled in the infamous nineteenth century Hatfield-McCoy feud. The old feud was part of Susan, as she was a descendant of both clans. Her father came from the Hatfield while her mother was a descendant of the McCoys.

Susan Daniels Smith
Susan Daniels Smith

Susan met Kenneth Smith in 1977 when she was just 15 and he was 22. Smith was a local dealer in methamphetamine, PCP, and cocaine, hardly a model citizen. Nevertheless, the two married sometime in the late 1970s. Although the marriage produced two children, it’s hardly surprising that there were problems. The couple divorced in the mid-1980s.

Mark Putnam Finds an Informant

Recall that in 1987, Agent Mark Putnam was just beginning his investigation of “Cat Eyes” Lockhart. Sheriff’s deputy Bert Hatfield suggested to his friend, Susan, that she could earn extra money by becoming an informant. Putnam and Susan met in the spring of 1987. They met frequently to exchange information about Lockhart’s activities and plans.

Susan Smith in 7th grade, the last year she attended school
Susan Smith in 7th grade, the last year she attended school

Susan’s collaboration with Putnam was successful. The FBI arrested “Cat Eyes” Lockhart in December 1987. The following year saw him sentenced to 57 years in federal prison for robbery. For her assistance in the case, Susan received $5,000 (nearly $12,000 in 2021 dollars).

Mark Putnam Crosses a Line

The case may have been over, but Susan and Mark continued to meet. Sometime in mid-1988, they began a sexual relationship. According to what Susan told friends, they met in motels for sex. In his later confession, Putnam claimed they only had quickies in his car. Regardless of where they met, the two continued their affair.

Mark Putnam was smart enough to realize that continuing to see Susan could be detrimental to his career and his marriage. In early 1989, he requested and received a transfer to Miami, Florida (Kathy had hated Pikeville anyway). However, mid-1989 saw him back in Kentucky to wrap up a car theft investigation.

An Affair Turns to Murder

Putnam and Susan met during this visit to Kentucky. While they were driving on an isolated country road on June 8, she told him she was pregnant. She said the child was his and threatened to expose him. In his confession, Mark said that he pulled off on the side of the road to continue the discussion. He said that he and his wife would adopt the baby. Susan objected and began slapping him. In what he called “an act of extreme rage,” he began choking her. Soon Susan Smith was dead. If, as he claimed, Putnam tried to reviver her, his efforts were unsuccessful.

Mark Putnam under arrest
Mark Putnam under arrest

Now Putnam had a dead body on his hands. He placed Susan in the trunk of his rental car. The next evening, he dumped her off an old coal mine road about nine miles north of Pikeville. Then he went home to his family in Florida.

Susan’s sister, Shelby Ward, reported her missing three days later. It took a year, but suspicion slowly focused on Mark Putnam. After failing a polygraph examination, Putnam confessed and led authorities to where he’d dumped Susan’s body.

Shelby Ward, was the one who reported Susan missing
Shelby Ward, was the one who reported Susan missing

Epilogue

Mark Steven Putnam pled guilty to one count of first-degree manslaughter (Susan’s autopsy determined she had not been pregnant). Sentenced to 16 years in prison, he served 10. He was a “model prisoner” inside. He lives in Georgia, is remarried, and works as a personal trainer. To date, he is the only FBI agent convicted of homicide.

Mark Putnam is now a personal trainer
Mark Putnam is now a personal trainer

Putnam’s first wife, Kathy stood by him while he was in prison. She died of a heart attack at age 38 in 1998. Years of struggles with alcohol had compromised her health.

In the early 1990s, writer Joe Sharkey penned Above Suspicion, a book about the case, which he recently revised and updated.

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Darrell Lunsford: Dashcam Video Records a Murder

Last week we looked at the murder of former child actor Carl Switzer, “Alfalfa” of The Little Rascals. Our subject this week is the murder of Darrell Lunsford, an East Texas police constable. His murder was the first case where dashcam video led to the quick arrest of the killers. The video also ensured their conviction.

Darrell Lunsford is Murdered on the Highway

At about 1:20 on the morning of January 23, 1991, Constable Lunsford noted a vehicle he considered suspicious. It was a ten-year-old Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with Maine license plates. As the car passed through the tiny town of Garrison, Texas on U.S. Highway 59, Lunsford pulled it over. Lunsford got out of his cruiser, but before he did, he activate his dashboard camera.

Photo of Darrell Lunsford in uniform
Constable Darrell E. Lunsford, Sr.

Three Hispanic men occupied the Cutlass: the driver, Reynaldo Villarreal, his half-brother, Baldemar, and Jesus Cortez Zambrano. Lunsford asked Reynaldo for identification. He claimed to have a driver’s license but said he didn’t have it on him. Reynaldo failed to mention that the three were heading to Chicago from Houston with 30 pounds of marijuana.

At 1:27, Lunsford asked to look in the Cutlass’s trunk and the men reluctantly agreed. When he and Reynaldo opened the trunk, the scent of marijuana was immediately evident. Although told to stay in the car, Baldemar got out and joined Reynaldo in talking with Lunsford. Suddenly, Baldemar grabbed Lunsford by the legs while Reynaldo grabbed him from behind. The two men, soon joined by Zambrano, then began to kick, beat, and stab the immobilized officer.

Sill frame from Darrell Lunsford's dashcam video seconds before the deadly attack
Still frame form Lunsford’s dashcam video, seconds before the deadly attack

Not content to disable Lunsford, Baldemar shot him in the neck with the officer’s own gun. The bullet severed his spinal cord, killing him instantly. The three dragged the body to a nearby ditch. Then they sped off in the Cutlass, leaving Lunsford’s body and his cruiser on the side of Highway 59.

Darrell Lunsford Murder Suspects Captured

Shortly before the murder, Sheriff’s Deputy Don Welch drove by the traffic stop. Moments later, when the Cutlass zoomed past him, Welch turned around and found Lunsford’s body. He radioed for help. Chief Deputy Thomas Stanaland noticed the video camera in Lunsford’s cruiser. He watched the video, then made a copy of the tape.

Analyzing the video, police were able to identify the three suspects. The trio had abandoned their Cutlass less than a mile from Garrison when they realized Welch had spotted them. On foot now, and toting 30 pounds of marijuana, they didn’t move fast. A highway patrolman spotted and arrested Reynaldo Villarreal later that same day. Two days after that, authorities found and arrested his brother, Baldemar. It took another week, but Zambrano was soon in custody as well.

Shooter Baldemar Villarreal in court
Shooter Baldemar Villarreal in court

All three men stood trial for murder and were convicted. Baldemar Villarreal, the actual shooter, received a life sentence. Reynaldo Villarreal received a 40-year sentence while Jesus Zambrano drew a 30-year term.

Epilogue

A few months later, on September 21, 1991, Texas State Trooper Andy Lopez, Jr. stopped a suspicious vehicle along U.S. Highway 77 in Refugio, Texas. In an eerie echo of Lunsford’s murder, three Hispanic men were in the car transporting a cargo of marijuana. At first, they men allowed Lopez to open the trunk. But then, one of the suspects drew a handgun.

Lopez quickly knocked the suspect off balance and drew his own gun. The two men exchanged shots. The armed suspect continued to fire at Lopez while the other two fled on foot. By the time help arrived, the armed suspect had suffered mortal wounds in the gun battle. Lopez credited the video of Lunsford’s murder with helping him learn what mistakes to avoid in a similar situation.

Sign identifying  a portion of U.S. Highway 59 as the Darrell Lunsford, Sr. Memorial Highway
Sign identifying a portion of U.S. Highway 59 as the Darrell Lunsford, Sr. Memorial Highway

According to Bureau of Prisons records, Baldemar Villarreal is in prison in Beaumont, Texas with no release day. He is likely to spend the rest of his days behind bars. Reynaldo Villareal languishes in the Federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His planned release date is January 2026. Jesus Zambrano served 27 years of his 30-year sentence and was released in 2018.

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George Trepal: Murder by Means of a Rare Poison

Last week’s blog underscored the old saw about there being no honor among thieves. This week, our topic is George Trepal, a murderer with a genius IQ.

Problems with the Neighbors

Two families lived next to each other amid the orange groves of the tiny town of Alturas, Florida. In one house, mine worker Parearlyn “Pye” Carr lived with his wife Peggy and their children from previous marriages. Even though they had only been married for a few months, Peggy suspected her husband of having an affair. There was also frequent strife among the children, who were in their teens and early twenties.

Peggy Carr portrait
Peggy Carr

The other family was George Trepal and his wife, Dr. Diana Carr (no relation to Pye). George was a chemist and Diana an orthopedic surgeon who people said dominated George. Both belonged to Mensa, a society for people with high IQ.

George Trepal at the time of his trial in 1991.
George Trepal at the time of his trial in 1991.

You’d think two families living close together with no other neighbors nearby would form a bond but not in this case. The two families argued frequently over things like firecrackers and loud music. It seemed that Diana and Peggy’s stepson, Duane, were frequently at odds. And on one occasion, Peggy and Diana had a ferocious altercation over Duane’s alleged bad behavior.

A Strange Illness — And Death

Peggy Carr worked in a local restaurant. One day her daughter, Sissy, visited her at work. Peggy complained she didn’t feel well, and Sissy urged her to go home. Her youngest son found her lying on a sofa, unable to speak. Her family rushed her to a hospital.

At the hospital, doctors spent three days running tests but couldn’t find anything wrong. They suggested that perhaps Peggy’s symptoms were psychosomatic—all in her head. But her symptoms slowly disappeared in the hospital, so the doctors sent her home. The symptoms returned almost immediately.

Again, Peggy couldn’t speak. She was able to write a note saying, “My feet are killing me.” As they drove Peggy back to the hospital, her son Travis and stepson Duane both started feeling a burning sensation in their own feet. Now doctors suspected poisoning. They thought it might be a metallic substance like arsenic. But when Peggy began to lose her hair, they suspected the poison was thallium.

Peggy slipped into a coma, while doctors put Travis on a respirator. Peggy died in March 1988 after Pye allowed the hospital to take her off life support.

Detectives Find Thallium and Finger George Trepal

Detectives tested the Carr’s well water and dozens, if not hundreds, of items around the house. They found no thallium until they noticed an eight-pack of Coca Cola under the kitchen counter. Four of the bottles were empty and all four contained traces of thallium.

The Carr home
The Carr home

Product tampering is a federal crime, so the FBI was now involved. They found that someone had deliberately opened the bottles in the eight-pack. Since one else in the area developed symptoms of thallium poisoning, investigators concluded that someone had targeted the Carr family.

Naturally, Pye was the initial suspect. But authorities doubted he would poison his own son. Besides, tests showed that Pye himself had consumed thallium. Investigators widened their circle and began to consider the oddball neighbor, George Trepal.

George Trepal was an intelligent but passive man. Even the Carr family thought he was harmless. But George Trepal wasn’t harmless. A self-taught chemist, he had a 1975 conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine for sale. When questioned about the Carrs, he was nervous and complained at length about things that seemed trivial to detectives. Detective Susan Goreck befriended him and got to know him well. He told her he hated people less intelligent than himself and people he couldn’t control. Both traits applied to the Carrs.

The George Trepal house at the time of Peggy Carr's murder
The George Trepal house at the time of Peggy Carr’s murder

George Trepal Arrested and Convicted

Eventually the FBI found traces of thallium in a small bottle in Trepal’s garage. They arrested him and charged him with murder. They also found a room in his house full of BDSM paraphernalia. The supposedly meek Trepal appeared to have a vivid fantasy life.

George Trepal's garage. Inside, investigators found thallium that the jury decided he used to poison Peggy Carr.
George Trepal’s garage. Inside, investigators found thallium that the jury decided he used to poison Peggy Carr.

George Trepal refused a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for life. Instead, he went to trial. A jury found him guilty and, on March 16, 1991, the judge sentenced him to death.

George Trepal prison photo
George Trepal prison photo

Epilogue

Dr. Diana Carr died at age 69 in 2018 from complications following a stroke. George Trepal still sits on Florida’s death row. He maintains his Mensa membership and continues to file appeals, all of which have failed.

Dr. Diana Carr (no relation to Pye Carr)

Detective Susan Goreck and Jeffrey Good wrote a book about the case, Poison Mind.

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