When Carol Hottell answered the telephone in her east Mesa home late on the evening of September 6, she heard a voice that made her shake.
Her half-brother Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins was calling from death row in Columbia, South Carolina. She always felt confused about Pee Wee. This time was worse because in just a few hours he would be strapped into the electric chair.
"I've always been a staunch supporter of capital punishment," says Hottell, recalling the conversation, "but when it came down to the wire--it wasn't that I thought his life should be saved, it was just . . . we came from the same mother. I was torn. I am torn.
"I talked to him about his soul. I'm not a very, very religious person necessarily, but I thought it was important for somebody this evil and this disturbed all his life to repent before God."
Pee Wee Gaskins, 58, died in the electric chair for the 1982 killing-for-hire of another inmate. Gaskins was South Carolina's most infamous prisoner, having confessed to killing 13 people--men, women, and children--and suspected of slaying many more. Pee Wee's case also drew national attention because his was the first execution of a white for killing a black since 1944.
A few days before Pee Wee's execution, South Carolina columnist Charlie Walker wrote in the Lynches River News, "Pee Wee Gaskins: legend, folk hero, myth. How does a murderer become a folk hero? Pee Wee is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 130 pounds. He doesn't look like a sex symbol. Pee Wee never made a record or a video, but if he had it would probably be a smash hit. . . . Even today, no one really knows how many bodies are buried in Williamsburg and Lower Florence counties that are the responsibility of Pee Wee Gaskins. Animals like Pee Wee Gaskins should not be housed and fed at taxpayers' expense. They should be snuffed out like a candle."
Carol Hottell heard sentiments like this for years and often agreed with them. She knew several of Pee Wee's victims--including their sister's 15-year-old daughter--and she lived with the horror that her brother was a mass murderer who, as she puts it, had "killed when he wanted to kill."
A few years ago, Hottell and her husband Ken moved from South Carolina to Arizona to try to escape the pressures of being family to Pee Wee Gaskins. "I've lived in this my entire life," she says. "All of my life, it seems, cops were coming into our backyard or wherever digging for bodies. I've had my whole life trying to learn how to cope, and I'm still struggling. You read about or hear about a killing that your brother did, and you feel some guilt for being the same blood, for having the same mother."
Hottell is a warm, outgoing 42-year-old woman who lives in a nice trailer park off Main Street and rides her bicycle to work at a nearby Smitty's supermarket. She's popular with her fellow workers and customers, who like her upbeat nature and pure, Tobacco Belt drawl. But beneath her thousand-watt smile, Hottell says, is "someone who has suffered some serious depression over all this, some real deep sadness. I've had a lot of anger in my life. I used to be consumed with anger and I don't want to be."
She was born into what she calls "extreme poverty" in a huge family in the eastern South Carolina sticks. Hottell recalls Pee Wee, who was 16 years older than she, as a cocky fellow who always seemed to be returning home from stints in prison.
"The wrong way always appealed to him," Hottell says. "Still, he's your brother. He'd always get caught again and go back in."
Pee Wee enjoyed a mythic reputation in his nook of South Carolina even before his murderous spree came to light. One time, police sought to arrest Pee Wee, but the master escape artist hid out in familiar woods and swamps. Someone revealed later that Pee Wee had tied police bloodhounds to a tree deep in the woods. The yelping dogs were uninjured--it seems that Pee Wee had more compassion for animals than humans.
Carol Hottell married, had two children and divorced her first husband by the time she was 22. Around that time, she recalls, she had a fight with Pee Wee. He had brought home several friends (including one of his future murder victims) for an orgy.
"We hit each other good," she says. "He said he'd get me, and when I thought about it later, I was really fortunate that he didn't kill me."
Hottell isn't exaggerating. During one stretch in the early 1970s, Pee Wee Gaskins killed and killed and killed. He didn't have a method to his madness; he drowned a pregnant woman and a baby, beat young women to death with his fists, laced someone's soft drink with poison and shot a few other people in the backs of their heads.
The rampage seemed to have ended in 1975, after a cohort told police that Pee Wee had bragged of having his own private graveyard. Pee Wee went on death row, then off, while South Carolina's Supreme Court battled over the legality of the death penalty. Eventually, Pee Wee was sentenced to life imprisonment for nine of his murders.
"We hated him for what he had done to all those people," says Hottell, who was working at a factory in eastern South Carolina. "We found later that he killed my niece and had the body in the trunk when he came over to see us. We had coffee and cake, and it was like a little family gathering. He buried her about a half-mile from our place. We didn't know that for seven years."
Pee Wee was generally out of the limelight until September 1982, when he was accused by prison authorities of handing death row inmate Rudolph Tyner a booby-trapped portable radio. Tyner was blown to bits, and the evidence later showed that a South Carolina man named Tony Cimo had hired Pee Wee to kill Tyner to avenge the murder of Cimo's parents.
Tyner was the only one of Pee Wee's known victims who was black. "But I don't think he saw black and white when he murdered, for the most part," Carol Hottell says. "He saw a person that he wanted to murder."
Pee Wee was put back on death row, and his name kept popping up in the news as his appeals for a new trial were rejected time and again. The cries for his scalp increased.
"When it heated up again," Hottell says, "the people who cared about me still cared about me. But you'd see little groups of people at work or wherever talking, and they'd just stop when I approached them."
A few years ago, Carol and Ken Hottell decided to leave South Carolina. "It was a very stressful situation back there, to put it mildly," Ken Hottell says. "Life's too short. We hit upon the notion of getting a motor home and just going."
The couple and their two cats wandered the country for a time, then wound up at the trailer park in Mesa. Carol Hottell has told some of her workmates at Smitty's about her connection to Pee Wee Gaskins. Now she's thinking about starting a self-help group for the families of murderers. She considers herself and others like her society's forgotten grievers.
"There's a family who's innocent, but they're left with these terrible feelings of guilt and anger," she says. "There's no kind of support except for each other. Think of how Jeffrey Dahmer's mother feels, or the wife of Barry Kaiser--that guy who just did all the shootings in Phoenix. We don't want innocent people to get hurt. It's a lifelong nightmare that never ends. I want some good to come out of all this evil."
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"I thought it was important for somebody this evil and this disturbed all his life to repent before God."
"All of my life, it seems, cops were coming into our backyard or wherever digging for bodies."
"The wrong way always appealed to him," she says.
THE BALANCE OF POWER CLASSIC COUNCIL ENC... v9-25-91