The Texarkana Phantom Killer

In 1946, the Devil came to Texarkana, a small town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. Between February and May that year, a masked man would attack four couples, killing five victims and severely injuring three. Despite a massive manhunt sparked by the brutality of the crimes, the killer has never been identified, and few suspects have arisen. He’s only known by the terrifying moniker given to him by the press - The Phantom Killer.

The first attack occurred on February 22nd, 1946. Jimmy Hollis (25) and his girlfriend Mary Jeanne Larey (19) were parked on a secluded lover’s lane after a date. At around 11:55 pm, a man wearing a white cloth hood, like a pillowcase with eye holes, on his head approached their car, shone a flashlight in at them, and ordered them both to get out. The man ordered Hollis to remove his pants; when he complied, the man hit him twice with a blunt object, most likely a lead pipe. Larey would later say that the sound she heard was so loud, she thought Hollis had been shot. In reality, it was the sound of his skull cracking.

 

When Larey tried to show the man Hollis’ wallet, thinking he wanted to rob them, he hit her over the head as well. He told her to stand up and run. When she tried to escape into a nearby ditch, he ordered her to run towards the road instead. She ran towards an old car parked off the road, but no one was in it. The man caught up with her and asked why she was running. When she replied that he’d told her to run, he called her a liar, knocked her to the ground, and sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun. 

 

Both Mary Jeanne Larey and Jimmy Hollis survived the attack and were rescued by neighbors and a passing motorist. Oddly, the couple gave completely opposite descriptions of their attacker; according to Larey, the man was African-American and wore the cloth mask, while Hollis insisted that the attacker was a young white man who hadn’t worn a mask at all. Unfortunately, not all victims would be as lucky as Hollis and Larey. 

The next murder occurred on March 24, 1946. The bodies of Richard L. Griffin (29) and Polly Ann Moore (17) were found inside Griffin’s Oldsmobile between 8:30 and 9:00 AM, parked on a lover’s land called Rich Road. The location was eerily similar to the place where Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey had been when they were attacked. Griffin was found between the front seats, resting on his knees with his head on his hands; he’d been shot twice while still inside the car. Polly Ann Moore was face-down in the back seat. The theory is that she was killed while on a blanket outside the car and then placed back inside. Both had been shot in the back of the head. There are no autopsy reports for Griffin or Moore, so whether Moore was sexually assaulted remains unknown. These murders were what got the FBI involved in the case, and by March 27 law enforcement had interviewed over 60 witnesses. No suspects emerged.

The third attack occurred a few weeks later, on April 14, 1946. Paul Martin (17) and Betty Jo Booker (15) were last seen alive at around 1:30 am after Martin picked Booker up from a band performance. The next morning, Martin was found lying on his left side on the northern edge of North Park Road. He’d been shot four times, in the back, right hand, through the nose, and finally through the back of his neck. Blood was found further down the road, indicating that he may have been running from his attacker.

Betty Jo Booker’s body wasn’t found until almost two hours later; no one but her parents had known that she was with Paul Martin that night. Search parties discovered her 2 miles from where Martin had been found. She was lying on her back, fully clothed, with her right hand placed inside the pocket of her overcoat. She’d been shot once in the chest and once in the face. Whether or not she was sexually assaulted remains unknown. Martin’s car was discovered outside Spring Lake Park with the keys still in it. There were no witnesses to this crime, and authorities had no suspects.

The last attack was completely different from the others, and without eyewitness information, it’s unclear whether this would have been connected with the Phantom Killer. On May 3, 1946, Virgil Starks (37) was sitting in his living room, listening to the radio when someone shot him twice in the back of the head through the window. His wife, Katie, said that she didn’t hear the shots, but she did hear glass breaking. When she went to go check on Virgil, she saw blood and ran to him, finding him dead. She ran to call the police, and managed to ring the wall-crank phone twice before the attacker shot her through the same window. The first bullet entered her right cheek and exited under her left ear. The second went in just below her mouth, breaking her jaw and shattering several teeth before lodging beneath her tongue.

Horrifically wounded but still alive, she ran to try and find her pistol as the killer tried to enter the house. She couldn’t find her gun, and as she went back into the kitchen she saw the killer crawling through the kitchen window. She ran out the front door and across the street to her sister’s house. When she found that her sister and brother-in-law weren’t home, she ran to another neighbour’s house, gasping out “Virgil’s dead, “ before collapsing on their doorstep. 

Katie survived the ordeal, despite losing a lot of blood and teeth on the way to the hospital. She would eventually discount a rumour that she and Virgil had seen a strange car in the neighbourhood preceding the attack. This attack is the last crime officially linked with the Phantom Killer case.

A .32 caliber shell casing was found at the scene of Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore’s murder. It was thought to have been shot from a Colt pistol or a similar weapon. The same caliber weapon was used in the murders of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin. Virgil and Katie Starks were attacked with a .22 caliber automatic rifle; despite this difference, Sheriff W.E. Davis stated that he thought that the Phantom Killer was also responsible for that crime. Shoe prints were also found around Virgil and Katie’s house, as well as a black and red two-cell flashlight believed to have belonged to the Phantom Killer.

A photo of the flashlight that was found at the scene of Virgil and Katie Starks' attack.

Other than these items, very little physical evidence was found in the Phantom Killer case. In 1946, very little was known about forensics, so it's unknown what evidence could have been found with more modern techniques.

The investigation mostly relied on eyewitness evidence and public pleas for information, spurred by a reward fund that, at its height, contained over $10 000.  The town of Texarkana was awash with rumours and fear. Many people believed that because the murders had stopped, that the killer had been caught, and was either being held at the Bowie County Jail under constant guard or had been flown to a jail further away. The murders spurred curfews for businesses, and parents warned their teens about being out late. By the time Virgil Starks was murdered, Texarkana was in full-blown hysteria. Residents were locking their doors, blocking their windows, and arming themselves with whatever they could find. Stores started selling out of locks, guns, ammunition, window shades, and other protective items.

 

While some citizens were terrified, others wanted to take the Phantom Killer head-on. Some teenagers started camping out in cars on lovers’ lanes, trying to lure the Phantom out so that they could kill or capture him. Despite the police warning against these “teenage sleuths” in newspapers, the police actually recruited some teenagers to sit as decoys in parked cars, while officers waited nearby. Despite their best efforts, the Phantom never materialized.

The authorities’ theory at the time was that the Phantom Killer was some sort of “sex maniac” that was cunning and very careful to conceal evidence of his crimes. Dr. Antony Lapalla, a psychologist from the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, was asked to profile the man responsible. He said that he did believe that the same person committed all of the attacks and that he had been monitoring the police activities in Texarkana during his crime spree and had been careful not to get caught. He believed that the Phantom Killer was indeed motivated by his sex drive, and was possibly a sexual sadist.

He also stated that the man was likely capable of living a normal life and appearing to be a good person and that he would either move to distant places to continue committing crimes or overcome his urges and stop assaulting people altogether.

Few suspects arose in the initial investigation - those that did were released after questioning or the discovery of alibis. One of the only enduring suspects is Youell Swinney, a man that had stolen a car on the night of one of the murders. After being arrested for the theft, he reportedly made incriminating statements about being a murderer, professing a fear that he would be sent to the electric chair. When his wife, Peggy, was questioned, she confessed that her husband was the Phantom Killer, and specifically that he’d killed Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin. The details that she gave would change across multiple interviews, and though some details could be independently verified, her testimony remained the cornerstone of the case against Swinney. By law at the time, she could not be forced to testify against her husband, and authorities eventually deemed her an unreliable witness. Swinney was never arrested in connection with the Phantom Killer case and was instead sent to prison as a habitual criminal in relation to other activities.

Another interesting suspect in the crimes is H.B. Tennison, an 18-year-old college student that committed suicide in November of 1948. After police followed a series of cryptic clues from his suicide note, they discovered a note in a lockbox that confessed to the murders of Betty Jo Booker, Paul Martin, and Virgil Starks, as well as the attempted murder of Katie Starks. However, a note that was discovered later recanted the confession, and Tennison was ruled out due to a mix of alibis from friends and circumstantial evidence.

The murders rocked Texarkana to its foundations; the fear and horror that the community felt during that time was bound to be immortalized somehow. The events of the murders inspired a 1976 film called The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The film takes many artistic liberties with the actual events of the murders - the murder of Betty Jo Booker in particular was heavily altered and dramatized. However, the film does a good job of capturing the hysteria of the town’s residents, and the creeping fear about a killer that was never caught. The town of Texarkana hosts a free public screening of this film in Spring Lake Park every Halloween, and has been doing so since 2003. 

 

This film also inspired other blockbusters; the Phantom’s eerie burlap sack mask was the catalyst behind Jason Voorhees’ character design in Friday the 13th Part II, which was released in 1981. A spiritual sequel to The Town That Dreaded Sundown was also released in 2014, though it focuses on the tale of a copycat killer rather than extended exploits of the Phantom himself.

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