HPD reopens cold case involving 12-year-old strangled in bathroom

Courtney Fischer Image
Thursday, December 14, 2023
HPD reopens cold case involving 12-year-old strangled in bathroom
50 years ago this December, a 12-year-old boy accompanied his mother to work at an East End café and never came home. Kirk Douglas Gaskin was found murdered - hanging in the restaurant bathroom in what police call a hate crime.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- On December 8, 1973, Kirk Douglas Gaskin, 12, walked into the bathroom at the Early Roberts Famous Foods restaurant in Houston's East End, and was killed. Fifty years ago, the fifth grader's murder barely made news. Now, one cold case detective hopes to change that.

"They literally put a towel around that baby's neck and they hung him," says Detective Darcus Shorten, with Houston police.

According to investigators in 1973, Gaskin was found dead, strangled with a towel drying roll, which was nailed to the bathroom wall. Officers interviewed one witness who said she saw two boys follow Gaskin into the restroom, though the report provides no description. Police took just three photos of the crime scene, showing the little boy on the bathroom floor.

Clearly, a much different investigation than one that would happen today.

"They just didn't do follow through like they should have. That's the only thing I can say," says James Gaskin, Kirk's uncle.

"It felt bad, you know?" says Juanita Wyatt, Kirk's aunt. "I mean we were a poor Black family and, you know, of course you're going to think that that's the reason why nobody's doing anything."

"I tried not to even imagine that was a factor, especially with the age," Shorten says. "However, when I started going through the archives, I was hoping to get a whole throw up of information in regards to his death. I only saw an article that was really small and it was disturbing."

Kirk's brother, Kenneth Gaskin, who was 11 years old at the time of the murder, says he was supposed to be the one at the Early Roberts restaurant the day Kirk was killed. Their mother and grandmother were short order cooks at the diner and would often bring one of the boys for a Saturday shift to "keep us out of trouble," Kenneth says. "His last words, he told me, take care of the family. So, he must have felt something. I remember that. That still stick with me today."

"It's not the death that he's haunted by, I think they've all come to a gracious spiritual settlement with that," Shorten says. "It's the fact...no one seemed to care from the seventies when (Kenneth) was little, to the current time as an adult."

Now, HPD is reopening Kirk's case thanks in part to their Emmett Till grant, affording cold case detectives money and time to investigate unsolved murders of Black men, from the seventies.

Police commissioned a sketch of fifth grader, asking: do you recognize this little boy? Did you happen to be at the café on that day 50 years ago?

Shorten realizes finding witnesses is a longshot, but says the original police report leads investigators to think the diner was full that day. And, officers didn't clear the restaurant as the murder was being investigated.

"The bus boys kept passing out food, the water kept being delivered, the eggs were still being cooked," Shorten says. "That's the hurtful part-that you went on as normal, allowing customers to go in and out."

Nearly nothing exists about Kirk's death-except for a few pages in his case file and a couple '73 Houston Chronicle articles. The Early Roberts diner at the corner of Wayside Drive and Harrisburg Boulevard has long since been torn down. Through the years, Kirk's family has lost all photos of him, but the memories haven't faded.

"Kirk Douglas was everything. Everything," says Wyatt. "We miss him terribly. To be taken away like that at such a young age when he had such promise is-it's so important to say his name."

If you know something about Kirk's cold case, contact Houston police cold case detectives at 713-308-3618.

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