COLUMBIA, S.C. — One of the most notorious serial killers was born, raised, and executed right here in South Carolina.
Donald Henry Gaskins, better known as “Pee Wee” Gaskins, was a serial killer and rapist from the Florence area.
He was 58 years old when he was electrocuted at Broad River Correctional Institution.
But, for years, he was held at the site of the old Central Correctional Institution, also known as CCI in downtown Columbia where Canalside now stands in the Congaree Vista. The maximum security prison called Columbia home from 1867 to 1994, almost 130 years.
The prison greeted drivers just off of I-26.
Heading down Huger Street, the prison could be seen as plain as day from a car window. Depending on the time, a driver could see inmates outside in the ball fields and the recreation area. The prison buildings themselves were nestled right by the river.
More than 230 executions took place at CCI including the youngest person ever put to death in the electric chair, 14-year-old George Stinney Jr.
When Gaskins first arrived at CCI, he was there to serve life sentences. It was there that many thought he would die of old age in prison.
But that isn’t what happened.
The former deputy warden of Central Correctional Institution talked about Gaskins and his time on death row.
“Certain ones stick out," said former deputy warden Jim Harvey. "Like 'Pee Wee' Gaskins, I interviewed him a number of times.”
When asked what he was like, Harvey said, “It was just like you and me sitting here talking, having a pleasant conversation. He was a total sociopath.”
A sociopath, or someone with antisocial personality disorder, a mental disorder, consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others.
“He was fairly intelligent, very outgoing,” Harvey said.
“I would never turn my back on him,” Harvey added in a serious tone, almost as if he could see Gaskins when talking about him.
“When I say he was a total sociopath, I mean just that," Harvey said. "He acted with no empathy. He cared for no one but himself. Nothing ever bothered him.“
“We know he murdered at least 11 people; I think it was more," Harvey said.
To help the families avoid a long-drawn-out trial, prosecutors encouraged Gaskins to plead guilty, which he did.
Gaskins was sentenced to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 the death penalty was unconstitutional. His death sentence was then commuted into life sentences.
The court later ruled the death penalty constitutional in 1976.
The only reason Gaskins got the death penalty was that he killed another man, Rudolph Tyner, in prison, Harvey said.
“We had a young Black fellow, name was Tyner. He killed a couple at a convenience store in Myrtle Beach,” Harvey said of 24-year-old Rudolph Tyner, who was sentenced to the death penalty for killing a couple at a mom-and-pop grocery store in Murrells Inlet.
Tyner was, “here on death row, Cellblock Two ... and he’s up here and so is Pee Wee, that’s where he lived, in Cellblock Two," Harvey said. "It was a maximum-security cellblock at CCI, which also housed some state hospital patients.”
“Anyway, Pee Wee had told this young fellow that 'I made a device that we can talk to each other on, it's like an intercom, all you need to do is plug it into the socket in your cell and then just hold it up to your ear and we’ll be able to talk.'" Harvey said.
“I’ll never forget that phone call that I got from the warden that evening that there had been an explosion in Cellblock Two and that Tyner had killed himself,” Harvey said.
At first, officials thought it might have been a failed escape attempt and he was killed when something went wrong. It was late at night, so no one thought anything different because everyone was locked up.
Tyner's body went for an autopsy in Charleston, and the forensic pathologist showed Harvey a piece of metal that was taken out of Tyner’s head, Harvey said.
“The pathologist showed us what he took out of Tyner’s brain, and it was a magnet, and then we realized in the old radios there used to be a big magnet in there in the back."
Gaskins had taken that magnet out of a radio, “put it in some cover, wired it up with electricity," Harvey said. "This is why I say he was pretty smart. When Tyner plugged that into the outlet it went off, right through his brain.”
Still, at the time, no one knew it was Gaskins. Officials, including Harvey, thought it was still a failed escape attempt.
But then Harvey got in touch with the investigative division and said, “I want you to shake Pee Wee Gaskins down, and I want you to go through everything in his cell." They did it, Harvey said. "Took them half a day to do it, and they found cassette tapes.”
The cassette tapes turned out to be recorded calls that Gaskins had made with the son of the couple in Murrells Inlet that Rudolph Tyner killed.
Tony Cimo, son of the couple killed by Tyner, didn’t want to wait for Tyner to be executed, Harvey said. He wanted the man dead. So, Cimo contacted Gaskins by phone at the prison, according to Harvey.
“In those days we had pay telephones for inmate use," Harvey said, "When Pee Wee got time, he called the family and told them what he needed. He said to take the heel off a shoe, put in C-4 [explosive], put the heel back on, and mail to him. He did and Pee Wee got it."
"And you know the rest of the story," Harvey said. "That’s how Pee Wee got the death sentence of all the people he killed."
Harvey said he was struck when the hearse was leaving the death house, remembering that Pee Wee had driven a hearse, a purple one, when he was alive.
Gaskins was executed on Sept. 6, 1991.