For four years, he lay awake nights, haunted by the shotgun murder of his parents, grocery store owners whose killer, he heard, laughed from Death Row as the courts ordered new trials and appeals dragged on and on.
"I dreamed constantly about him laughing while my mother begged on her knees for her life," he reflects. "Plain as the TV, I kept seeing my mother and father lying in a pool of blood."
So Tony Cimo, 36, a beefy bricklayer with a wife and two daughters, did what he believed he had to do. He brought down the Angel of Death. A man possessed by revenge, infuriated by plodding courts, he had the killer killed in prison.
"I don't feel the good Lord holds nothing against me for this," said Cimo (pronounced see-moe), toasting his last day of freedom with a cold Budweiser among friends in his back yard here. "He was like a rabid dog that needed to be done away with."
He says he sleeps well now, has no regrets and would do the same thing again. It will be costly for him: eight years in prison, out of a possible 20, for contracting for an execution, a sentence he began serving yesterday after a tearful farewell beneath a pecan tree.
He kissed his wife and family goodbye, grabbed a beer and climbed into a friend's pickup for the 175-mile drive to Columbia, where he turned himself in to state prison officials. He will be eligible for parole in 2 1/2 years, and for work release perhaps sooner.
"I'm going to prison, but I'll sleep better knowing he's dead," Cimo said. "Two judges and two juries in two different counties sentenced him to die and set an execution date. I was just helping 'em along."
The seeds of vengeance took root in Cimo's soul on the night of March 18, 1978. It was 9:30 when two young men with a shotgun walked into the small grocery just down the road from the frame-and-brick house of Myrtie and Bill Moon, Cimo's mother and stepfather.
Myrtie was counting the money.
Rudolph Tyner, 18, a kid from Harlem who had stolen a car to drive South, aimed the shotgun at Bill Moon. His companion, Carlton Davis, played lookout. Tyner ordered Moon to hand over the cash. Moon, a retired Air Force master sergeant and Vietnam veteran, said no.
Tyner aimed the 12-gauge shotgun "to scare them," he said in a taped confession introduced at the trial. He figured: "If I shot Moon in the arm . . . I would get some money." He fired. Moon died on the spot.
Then, "the lady started hollering and screaming," said Tyner in his confession. So he shot her. "When I shot her, she fell to the ground." He scooped up $200 and ran into the night.
In his trailer nearby, Cimo lay on a couch, watching John Wayne in "Rio Lobo" when his pit bull growled. He shined a flashlight outside. He went back to the TV. Two teen-age girls wandered into the store to buy Pepsis, Chee tos and candy. Then came his sister's screams. He raced to the store.
"I looked over the counter and my mother and father were laying in a pool of blood," he said. "My mother had a hole in her chest big enough to stick my fist through. I felt her pulse, but she didn't have any. Neither did my dad. All I could feel was my own heart pounding. The cash register was open."
Cimo picked up one spent shell, wondered about the other one, and hopped into his pickup and rode the back roads in search of a killer. Police arrested Tyner later that night after a tip that a kid from New York had been causing trouble. He was read his right to remain silent five times, say police. Then he was taken to the station and strip-searched. Tyner confessed after a spent shotgun shell fell from his pocket.
To help in getting a conviction, Cimo and three sisters hired a savvy, tobacco-chewing attorney to assist the prosecutor. They played detective, tracking down leads, quizzing possible witnesses.
Tyner's confession was played in court while the family listened. Cimo took the stand.
Such was community outrage over the murders that a candidate for county solicitor quit the race to avoid defending Tyner.
After tests showed that Tyner's IQ was below 80, his lawyers argued that it was impossible for him to understand his rights. Tyner claimed he felt threatened by police.
"I figured if I didn't tell these people something, they was going to hurt me bad," Tyner told the judge at his first trial.
That August, a racially mixed jury found him guilty of both murders and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Davis was sentenced to two life terms in the case. Cimo believed justice had been done. He went back to work laying brick.
A year later, the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered a new trial on grounds that prosecutors had biased jurors by telling them that any death sentence would be reviewed automatically. Cimo heard it on the radio.
"That was the beginning of our disillusionment with the court system," said Rene Guyton, a sister. "We suddenly realized there was no death penalty in South Carolina, that no one would ever be killed."
Indeed, the death penalty had not meant death since 1962, when South Carolina's last execution took place.
The state's death penalty law had been declared unconstitutional in 1977 because it provided no separate sentencing procedure. Twenty-six men now await the executioner in a Civil War-era prison in Columbia where Tyner was sent.
After he heard the news, Cimo drove home and found his family weeping at the picnic table in the back yard.
Said a sister: "I just can't go through it again, Tony."
A gentle man who rarely raises his voice, Cimo exploded.
He punched a flower pot, smashed his fist through a door and walked off into the woods to brood. That was the moment the thought first came to him: "I'll have to take care of it myself."
"It's hard to explain how much it takes out of you," said his sister, Rene. "You go to court and hear the facts over and over. You hear the taped confession about my mother screaming and begging . . . To hear it over and over again . . . It was hard to look at Tyner and know this was the person who killed them. You'd look over and he'd smile and grin at you. I felt like he was laughing at us."
Jury selection began for a retrial. It was aborted by a change of venue.
Cimo exploded again. He jumped Tyner in the courthouse.
"I hit him a glancing blow and police were all over me. I was about to give up when he looked at me and laughed. That's when I shoved a cop back and kicked him pretty good between the legs. Broke my ring finger before deputies wrestled me down."
A third trial started in nearby Marion County. Again, Tyner was sentenced to death. The state Supreme Court had yet to review his case, as is the custom with death penalties, when a homemade bomb killed him in prison last September.
After returning from Vietnam and with 20 years in the Air Force, Bill Moon retired and settled onto seven wooded acres down a country road five miles outside of Myrtle Beach. He opened a seafood cafe. It thrived on oyster roasts and good cheer. Bill and Myrtie worked long hours until it became too much and he shut it down.
Still, Moon yearned to have his family close by. He urged Tony to move his wife, Jan, and their two girls from Atlanta, pick out a lot on his land and escape urban crime. Moon opened a small convenience store to give his daughters work when they weren't busy raising children.
Moon, a career military policeman who trained guard dogs, kept a pistol beneath the counter, but advised his family to treat robbers gingerly--to hand over cash and cooperate. He gave customers credit, often sending unemployed neighbors off with cereal and milk and never marking it down.
Moon had married Cimo's mother in LaGrange, Ga., when they were both 19 and Richard Tony Cimo was 2. Myrtie and Bill later had three daughters. After a serious boating accident put Tony out of work for a year, Moon supported Tony's family. Crises were settled around the picnic table. They were close.
After the murders Cimo swore on his mother's grave he would see the score settled. During Tyner's second trial, Cimo said, "I started looking for shady characters and outlaws."
Cimo roamed the bars around Myrtle Beach, meeting bikers and punks, hunting for anyone with a prison contact to arrange the hit. There were reports that Tyner was boasting of the killings from Death Row.
A builder put Cimo in touch with a welder who put him in touch with an inmate inside Central Correctional Institution, as it was revealed later in court. At last, he found his man in South Carolina's most notorious mass murderer, Donald (Pee Wee) Gaskins, a rat-faced man who stood 5 feet, 2 inches tall and had murdered 13 people, including a pregnant mother and her 2-year-old daughter.
Gaskins was still alive to play hit man only because lawyers couldn't get a death sentence under the same contested death penalty laws that had infuriated Cimo.
Gaskins said he would be delighted to do the killing for an undisclosed amount of cash, said Cimo. As cellblock maintenance chief, Gaskins had a handful of devotees and access to tools. With 10 consecutive life terms, he had nowhere to go.
Cimo and Gaskins plotted by long-distance telephone on Sunday mornings. Cimo took the calls at a friend's house to keep them from being traced to his place. Gaskins wanted poison. Cimo, who had little experience in such matters, began his research at home with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He visited the library. He phoned the state poison control center.
"They said one leaf from an oleander bush would be enough to kill a young child," said Cimo, who never figured on getting caught. "So I decided on oleander. They were plentiful and easy to get."
He harvested the leaves, boiled them down, extracted the toxic residue with chloroform and mailed it to Gaskins, who claimed to have salted Tyner's food with it to no avail. Cimo smuggled strychnine and cyanide to Gaskins in the heels of new shoes.
"All it does is make him sick," said Gaskins, according to a tape played in court. "He looks sort of peaked."
Gaskins wanted dynamite.
"You get me a damn stick of dynamite, an electric blasting cap and we'll put that damn thing in a radio so when he turns it on, it'll blow him into hell and there won't be no coming back on that."
Gaskins did just that, say investigators, rigging explosives to a cup, topping it with a radio speaker and telling Tyner he would be able to talk through it if he plugged it into an extension cord between their cells. Tyner put his ear up to listen. Gaskins plugged in the cord and virtually blew Tyner's head off.
Gaskins was convicted of murder and now faces the electric chair for the first time. Cimo says he hunted explosives but couldn't find any. When he learned of the hit, he was "happy and confused. I couldn't figure out where Pee Wee had gotten the explosives."
He was also shocked when he was arrested and charged with several counts, including conspiracy to murder. Cimo pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of having knowledge of a felony after investigators searched Gaskins' cell and found cassette tapes with Cimo's voice on them.
When Circuit Judge James Morris sentenced Cimo to prison, he was almost apologetic in his remarks. "I don't think you are a hardened criminal, and need to be put away for a long time, but in order to deter others, I am going to incarcerate you."
State prosecutors feared a jury of angry locals would consider Cimo a folk hero and acquit him. A plea bargain was struck.
Indeed, there is conspicuous local sympathy for him.
"There comes a time when a man has to take things into his own hands for peace of mind," said Winston Perry, 46, who runs a bait shop in the area. "A man can only stand so much. I'd have done the same thing as Tony if I could have."
But Richard Harpootlian, the prosecutor, disputes the notion of Tony Cimo, hero. "He was no Charles Bronson in 'Death Wish.' He was just a disturbed man bent on revenge and willing to do anything and use anyone to get it."
Elsie Tyner, a cleaning lady at the Empire State Building, can understand why Cimo was upset. But she remains puzzled over his lack of remorse for plotting to kill one of her seven children, especially one who suffered brain damage at birth and later dropped out of seventh grade. "It lowers him to the same level he put my son at," she told her lawyer.
She plans to sue the State of South Carolina for failing to protect Tyner.
"Is this bizarre, or is this bizarre?" says South Carolina prosecutor Harpootlian. "The only favor Cimo did was giving the state a shot at killing Gaskins by getting him to kill Tyner."
To help pay for $13,000 in legal fees, friends held a barbecue and raffle for Cimo and raised $3,000. Letters are pouring in, some with small checks, and petition drives are being launched to ask South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley to commute his sentence. Cimo's family doesn't know how it will support itself except by selling its belongings.
Tony Cimo has become a lightning rod for death penalty proponents who want the more than 1,000 inmates on Death Row in America cleared out. Seven have been executed in the past six years.
"To most people time is a wonderful healer, to others it's a malignancy," said Horry County Sheriff M. L. Brown Jr., a family friend. "How would you feel if someone blew your mother and father away? I never walked that road. I don't condone what he did, but I can kinda understand it."