Texarkana Moonlight Murders

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Phantom Killer
Born Never identified
Victims 5 killed, 3 wounded
Span of killings
February 22, 1946–May 3, 1946
Country United States
State(s) Texas (Texarkana)
Date apprehended
Never apprehended

The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a term coined by the news media, references the unsolved murders committed in and around Texarkana in the spring of 1946 by an unidentified serial killer known as the "Phantom Killer", or "Phantom Slayer". The killer is credited with attacking eight people within ten weeks, five of whom were killed. The attacks happened on weekends between February 22, 1946 and May 3, 1946. The first two victims, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey, survived. The first double murder, which involved Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore, happened four weeks later. The second double-homicide, involving Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, occurred exactly three weeks from the first murders. The Texas Rangers came in to investigate, including the famous M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas. Finally, almost exactly three weeks later, Virgil Starks was killed and his wife, Katie, was severely wounded.

The murders sent the town of Texarkana into a state of panic throughout the summer. At dusk, city inhabitants heavily armed themselves and locked themselves indoors while police patrolled streets and neighborhoods. Although many businesses lost customers at night, stores sold out of guns, ammunition, locks, and many other protective devices. Several rumors began to spread, including that the killer was caught, or that a third and even fourth double-homicide had been committed. Most of the town hid in fear inside their houses or hotels, sometimes even leaving town. Some youths took matters in their own hands by trying to bait the Phantom so they could kill him. After three months of no more Phantom attacks, the Texas Rangers slowly and quietly left town to keep the Phantom from believing he was safe to strike again. The murders were reported nationally and internationally by several publications.[1][2][3][4]

The 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown was released internationally and is loosely based on the events, despite its claim that "only the names have been changed". Since the movie claimed that the "story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened," the fabricated parts created much of the myth and folklore around the murders for several decades. A cold case in Texarkana in 1948 of the disappearance of Virginia Carpenter has been speculated to be the work of The Phantom. The prime suspect in the case was Youell Swinney, who was linked to the murders by statements from his wife. Swinney's wife refused to testify against him, and he was never convicted, but two of the lead investigators in the case believed him to be guilty, and the 2014 book The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders, by Dr. James Presley also points to Swinney as the culprit of all five attacks. Presley believes that there is enough evidence to close the case.

Attacks and murders[edit]

Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey[edit]

At around 11:55 p.m. on Friday, February 22, 1946, Jimmy Hollis, age 25, and his girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, age 19, were attacked while parked on a secluded road known as a lovers' lane.[5] The attack happened on a lateral road off of Richmond Road, a mile north of the addition known as Beverly. According to a fourteen-page statement by Hollis, the attack happened about 50 feet (15 m) off Richmond Road on an unpaved street, about 100 yards from the last row of city homes.[6]

The couple arrived at the scene around 11:45 p.m. After about ten minutes, a man walked up to Hollis' driver-side door and flashed a flashlight in his face, blinding him. Hollis, not sure if it was a prank or if he had been mistaken for someone else, told the man, "Fellow, you've got me mixed up with someone else. You've got the wrong man."[7] The man had a pistol and told him something like, "I don't want to kill you fellow, so do what I say",[8] and ordered them to get out of the car. They both got out through the driver-side door. The man told Hollis to "take off your [expletive deleted] britches."[8] Larey pleaded with Hollis to please take them off, believing that if he did they would not be hurt, but, after Hollis removed his trousers, he was struck twice in the head with a heavy, blunt object. Larey explained in an interview three months later with Texarkana Gazette reporter Lucille Holland that the noise was so loud she thought he had been shot, but she learned later it was the sound of his skull cracking.

Larey then picked up Hollis' pants and pulled out his wallet and told the assailant, "He doesn't have any money."[8] The assailant told her she was lying and that she had a purse. Larey told him that she did not and was knocked to the ground. She said she felt like she was hit with an iron pipe. The assailant ordered her to get up, and, when she did, he told her to run. As she ran towards a ditch, the assailant told her not to go that way but to run up the road. She stated that while she was running, she heard Hollis groaning, and that the man continued to beat and stomp him. She was having trouble running in her high heels when the assailant ran after her. She saw an older car parked further up the street facing their vehicle. She quickly looked inside to see if anyone could help her, but after seeing no one, she began to run and was overtaken by the attacker. The man asked her why she was running. She told him he told her to run. Larey said, "He called me a liar again and then I knew that he was going to kill me."[8] He knocked her down and assaulted her sexually. Larey stated he did not rape her but abused her terribly. Later reports indicated that the assailant sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun.

She managed to get up and told the assailant, "Go ahead and kill me."[8] She ran half a mile, believing she was being chased, to a Beverly residence at 805 Blanton Street,[6] where she screamed for help and banged on the front door. A car passed but did not stop when she called after it. She ran to the back of the house and woke up the owners, who then notified authorities. Bowie County Sheriff W. H. "Bill" Presley and three other officers arrived at the scene, but the attacker had already driven off. They found Hollis' pants 100 yards away from the attack.


Larey was taken to the hospital for minor cuts and received stitches for head wounds. Hollis was hospitalized for several days with three skull fractures.[6] Larey was taken home the next evening by sheriff's deputies. She stated she did not know why the attacker did not chase after her or kill her. She learned that the injured Hollis made his way to Richmond Road and flagged down a passing motorist, who contacted a local funeral home ambulance. Larey thought the attacker may have been scared off by headlights. In her interview with Lucille Holland, she stated that she had told the attacker to kill her because she would rather have been dead than to be touched or abused. She also explained that she did not understand why officers did not believe her when she told them the attacker was black and that she did not know who he was. She said officers attempted to coerce her into stating that she knew the assailant.[8] Larey described him as a man with a white mask over his head, with cutout places for his eyes and mouth. Because Hollis was blinded by the flashlight before being beaten, he did not notice a mask. Although Hollis believed he was a dark-tanned white man, Larey believed he was a light-skinned African American "because of the way he pronounced the curse words he growled."[9] They agreed he was about six feet tall.

The details of the attack were published on the front page of the Texarkana Daily News, a now-defunct evening newspaper, on Saturday, February 23, 1946, with the headline "Masked Man Beats Texarkanian and Girl". By March 9, no developments had been made, but the department continued to search for clues to the identity of the attacker.[10] The case was considered an isolated incident and further attacks were not expected. The next attack happened 28 days later on March 24.

Larey moved to Frederick, Oklahoma two months later to live with her aunt and uncle. After the first double murder, she made a trip from Frederick to Texarkana hoping that her story would help police connect the incidents and catch the killer. She was questioned by the Texas Rangers, who continued to insist that she knew who her attacker was. Later, after the second double murder, Texas Ranger Joe Thompson flew to Frederick to question her again.

Following the murder of Virgil Starks nine weeks later, Hollis and Larey declared that their attacker was the same person who killed the other five victims.[11] Hollis said, "I think the man is a young white man; under thirty years old." He also stated, "I know he's crazy. The crazy things he said made me feel that his mind was warped,"[11] and "Evidently he thought he had killed me that night. Right after it happened, I told the deputy sheriff and the city attorney that that man was dangerous. He is a potential murderer. The next person he gets will be killed. It wasn't long after that when the first two bodies were found out on West Seventh street. I think there are three people alive today who escaped from that man. The woman who is in the hospital now [Katie Starks], Mrs. Larey and I."[11]

Richard L. Griffin and Polly Ann Moore[edit]

Richard L. Griffin, age 29, and his girlfriend of six weeks, Polly Ann Moore, age 17, were found dead in Griffin's 1941 Oldsmobile sedan on Sunday, March 24, 1946 between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. by a passing motorist.[12][13] The motorist saw the parked car on a lovers' lane named Rich Road (now South Robison) near a railroad spur 100 yards south of US Highway 67 West close to a nightspot called Club Dallas.[6] At that time, Club Dallas was about 1 mile (1.6 km) west outside the city limits. The motorist at first thought that they were asleep. Griffin was found between the front seats on his knees with his head resting on his crossed hands, and his pockets were turned inside out. Moore was found sprawled face-down in the back seat. Griffin had been shot twice while still in the car[14] and both had been shot once in the back of the head and were fully clothed. Moore's purse was beside her in the back seat and contained the photo of her that was used in the following morning's paper. The motorist contacted the city police who then contacted Bowie County Sheriff W. H. Presley. According to a police report written by Arkansas State Trooper Max Tackett, one of the lead investigators of the Phantom cases, Moore was killed on a blanket in front of the vehicle before being placed back inside.

In a mix-up, Moore's body was picked up before an examination could determine if she had been sexually assaulted. Both bodies were taken to the Texarkana Funeral Home. The couple were last seen having dinner with Griffin's sister and her boyfriend on Saturday at around 10 p.m. in a cafe on West Seventh Street, also known as US Highway 67 West. They were also seen earlier Saturday at 2 p.m. by friends in another West Seventh Street cafe. On Monday, March 25, the front page of the morning paper read "Couple Found Shot to Death in Auto".


Bowie County Sheriff W. H. Presley, leader of the investigation, was with his old friend Texas City Police Chief Jack N. Runnels when the call came in and they sped to the scene. They immediately launched a citywide investigation along with the Texas and Arkansas city police, the Department of Public Safety, Miller and Cass County sheriffs' departments and the FBI. No money was found on Griffin, nor was any found in Moore's purse. Family members claimed that they did not carry much money with them.[15] By Monday morning, the Texas Rangers were called in.

Moore was identified when Sheriff Presley called Homer Carter, the city marshal of Atlanta, Texas, for the initials P.A.M. which were found on her 1945 Atlanta High School class ring. Officials spent most of Sunday exploiting the very few clues that were left behind. Presley declared that no break in the case was left in sight. Among the uncovered clues were a section of ground 20 feet from the car saturated in dry blood, blood spattered throughout the vehicle, and congealed blood on the running board, which flowed through the bottom of the door. A blanket was also found in the car and a .32 cartridge shell, believed to be shot from a Colt, inside the blanket.[16] No gun was found at the scene, which ruled out a murder-suicide, and since it had rained overnight it was believed that any footprints left by the killer were washed away.

Texas Ranger Jimmy Greer arrived in Texarkana Monday night around 9 p.m. He and the rest of the investigators combed for more clues on Tuesday. They concluded the only apparent motive was robbery. The investigators continued to work overtime on the crime the papers called "baffling". The lack of definite clues hampered their investigation. The bloody sand that was found seven steps in front of the car was sent to laboratories of the State Department of Public Safety in Austin, Texas, along with the blood-soaked clothing of the victims, to determine if the blood belonged to one of the victims or a third party.[17] They continued their investigations as they waited for the blood test results.

By Thursday, March 28, the investigators were growing weary after five consecutive days of questioning about 200 suspects, chasing over a hundred false leads and tips and going back over the meager clues. They managed to get three suspects in custody because of bloody clothing, two of whom were released on explanations that satisfied the officers. The third suspect was held in Vernon, Texas for further grilling. Dick Oldhan, another Ranger, was called in and arrived Wednesday from Tyler, Texas to help in the investigation.

In the March 27 edition of Texarkana Gazette, an announcement was made that told readers "You Can Help Solve Murders":

Sheriff Bill Presley and his deputies have a difficult task ahead of them as they attempt to solve the shocking double murder discovered Sunday morning. Texarkana residents can help in this investigation and at the same time if they are not careful, they can hinder the investigation and cause the officers to spend many hours following blind trails. Persons who have information which might furnish a clue to the identity of the slayer or slayers or which might indicate a motive for the crime should not divulge such information on street corners or at cold drink stands but should immediately make it available to the officers. Do not spread rumors regardless of how much basis for fact there is in them. Do not say 'I heard' or 'they say', because the chances are that the person listening will repeat your information and enlarge upon it. Before long the story grows to such proportions as to necessitate a detailed investigation by the officers, thereby perhaps pulling them off the true trail and sending them up a blind alley. Stick to facts that you know of your own personal knowledge and relay those facts as quickly as possible to the officers.

By Saturday, March 30, Sheriff Presley and Chief of Police Jack Runnels posted a $500 reward in an effort to gain any new information on the Griffin and Moore case that would lead to the arrest and conviction of the slayer or slayers. Officers stated that all clues found thus far had been fruitless. The results from the blood-stained sand were expected to arrive the day before, but due to delays at the laboratory, the results had not come in. By April 11, the officers were still hard at work on the case. Presley said that his department and other authorities had not relaxed for one minute since the discovery of the crime. He also stated that the $500 reward was still being offered and that no tip, no matter how small, was left without a thorough investigation.

Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker[edit]

On Saturday night, April 13, Betty Jo Booker, age 15, was playing her alto saxophone in her regular weekly gig with her band, The Rythmaires, at the VFW Club at W. 4th and Oak Street. She did not finish until about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. She waited for her friend since kindergarten, Paul Martin, age 16, to pick her up. Martin was in town after moving away to Kilgore two years prior. He had been with her earlier that day before the dance and was to take her to a slumber party across town. Booker's classmates said that earlier that day she told them that she did not want to go out with Martin but felt obligated since he was an old friend.

Booker and Martin were killed early Sunday, April 14. Martin's body was found at about 6:30 a.m. by Mr. and Mrs. G. H. Weaver and their son, who drove 200 yards to the nearest residence to contact police. Martin's body was found lying on its left side by the northern side of North Park Road. Blood was found further down on the other side of the road by a fence. He had been shot four times—once through the nose, again through the left fourth rib from behind, a third time in the right hand, and finally through the back of the neck.[18]

Officers searching for clues down Morris Lane

Booker's body was not found until approximately 11:30 a.m., almost 2 miles (3.2 km) away from Martin's body. She was found by members of the Boyd family, along with their friend Ted Schoeppey, who had joined the search party as a friend of the girl's family. Sheriff Presley, who attended church with the Boyds, had come to Sunday School that morning and asked the group to search for her. George Boyd spotted her body behind a tree 25 yards off the north side of Morris Lane, saying a number of times: "Oh my God, there she is!"[19]

Her body was lying on its back, fully clothed, with the right hand in the pocket of the buttoned overcoat. Booker had been shot twice, once through the left fifth rib from the front and once through the left cheek by the nose. The weapon used was the same as in the first double murder, a .32 automatic Colt pistol. The reports in the following day's newspaper said that the bodies were not abused, but later reports claimed that Booker had been raped. Martin's 1946 Ford Club coupe[20] was found about 3 miles (4.8 km) away from Booker's body[21] and 1.55 miles (2.49 km) away from his body. It was parked outside Spring Lake Park with the keys still in it. The authorities were not sure who was shot first. Sheriff Presley and Texas Ranger Captain Manuel Gonzaullas said that examinations of the bodies indicated that they both had put up a terrific struggle.[22] Martin's friend, Tom Albritton, said he did not believe an argument had happened between the victims and that Martin hadn't had any enemies.


Jerry Atkins, Booker's band leader, had arranged with the girl's parents to take her to and from the dances, taking turns with bandmate Ernie Holcomb. It was Holcomb's turn that night, but he said Booker told him that she had a ride with an old friend. Atkins was awakened the next morning at 6:00 with a telephone call. It was a female asking if he knew where Booker was. He had no knowledge of Booker's change of plans and told the caller that Holcomb took her home, but he was informed she had been expected at a party but never came. Atkins received a similar call around 8:00 from another girl, and he asked if she had checked with Booker's parents. This girl told him that Booker had gone with a friend named Paul but neither had attended the party.

A radio news bulletin announced that a young male teen was found shot to death at Spring Lake Park. Hundreds of people flocked to the area. Throughout the day, cars jammed the highway and roads in the park as people tried to view the crime scenes. Shocked by the news, several hundred residents assembled around the sheriff's office to be on the spot in case a suspect was apprehended.


As in the first double murder, Presley and Runnels were the first officers on the scene. Presley said that this crime coincided in many details with the first double murder. After collecting all the evidence they could find, they called in county and city officers from Bowie, Miller, Little River and Cass counties, the Texas and Arkansas State Police, Texas Rangers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas, the captain of the Company B Texas Rangers from Dallas, Texas, and six other Texas Rangers (Stewart Stanley, Jim Geer, Dick Oldham, Earnest Daniel, N. K. Dixon, Tulley E. Seay) came to Texarkana to help in the investigation.

Suspects were consistently brought in throughout the day by city police. Many friends of the victims, schoolmates and others went to the Bowie County Sheriff's Office to lend information. Atkins and the other girls from Booker's band talked to Gonzaullas and Presley for a long time. Atkins suggested that Booker should have a saxophone with her and since no saxophone had been found, it became a very important lead. The make and serial number were obtained and widely circulated to pawn shops and music dealers in many states, but her saxophone was not found until six months later. Suspects were continually questioned during the night, but by Monday morning, Gonzaullas said that although some progress had been made there were still many missing links.

By the end of Monday night, a $600 reward was offered to anyone with "solution-breaking information": $500 from Presley and Runnels for the Griffin/Moore case, and $100 from Oliver Dreyer (whose house was near where Martin's body was found). Dreyer said that if the reward were paid in one of the cases, a similar amount would be paid for the other. Gonzaullas declared that rewards to individuals would help stimulate information that could lead to an arrest. A committee to handle the reward fund was composed, chaired by John W. Holman. An appeal was made over the Texarkana Gazette & Daily News radio station, KCMC, for people to contribute to the fund. By Tuesday morning, the reward totaled $2,200.

Although the investigators had in the past cracked some of the most publicized and difficult cases in Texas, Captain Gonzaullas said that the murders were among the most puzzling cases he had encountered in his 30 years of criminal investigation. He also stated that "We have certain information which we cannot disclose and we do not think the public should expect us to give out any information which would be injurious to our investigation."[23] The Texarkana Gazette and Daily News cooperated with Gonzaullas by withholding such sensitive information. Sheriff Presley and the Rangers stated that, out of the many suspects questioned during the past two days and nights of ceaseless work, very little valuable information had been obtained. Presley stated, "We are required to follow all leads, regardless of how thin they might be, in the hope that they will lead to something tangible in the eventual solution of the mystery."[24] The officers started to work in relays on Tuesday after many of them had become exhausted in their investigations. Gonzaullas stated that they were dealing with a shrewd criminal who had left no stones unturned in concealing his identity and activities. A voluntary midnight curfew was agreed upon Tuesday night by the Texarkana, Texas city council and the Bowie county commissioners court for all places of amusement.

Three rooms in the Bowie County building were used for questioning suspects from a 100-mile radius, both men and women, black and white. By Wednesday, newspaper crews were camped outside the door of the "questioning room". Reporters from the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star Telegram had shown up. Captain Gonzaullas guarded new developments from release, especially by the press, but assured them that progress was being made. By April 24, no new developments had been made, but the Texas Rangers assured the town that they would remain in the city and on the case until the killer or killers were apprehended. The Rangers brought in an airplane to facilitate their investigation of leads and suspects outside of town.[25] By Thursday, April 25, contributions to the reward fund brought it to $6,425.


The Tuesday night after the second double murder, rumors had already spread that the killer had been caught. On Wednesday, rumors suggested a local minister had turned in his own son as a suspect in the killings of Martin and Booker. Captain Gonzaullas and Sheriff Presley discounted these allegations. Surprised at the credence locals gave them, Gonzaullas also stated that it "hindered the investigation because of the time it was necessary to consume tracking it down. The spreading of the rumor certainly was an injustice to the family and the boy, because it absolutely is not so. We do not have any minister's son in custody at this time, nor have we had one in custody or questioned a minister's son relative to this crime."[26]

As rumors continued, they were tracked and checked by the investigating officers to make sure that a clue was not being overlooked. Stories ranged from the killer turning himself in, to a third and even fourth double murder. Gonzaullas stated that Texarkanians were trying hard to help in the cases, but many were hindering it maliciously, using the cases as an instrument for grudges and spitefulness. On Thursday, Gonzaullas and Presley issued a statement that if a break came in the cases, it would be reported in the Gazette and Daily News. Gonzaullas continued, "The newspapers are not printing rumors and have assured us they will not. Any information which the public hears about this case will not be official unless it comes from us through the newspapers."[27]

Missing saxophone[edit]

Over six months later, on the morning of October 24, P. V. Ward and J. F. McNief, while repairing a fence, discovered Booker's missing saxophone still in its black leather case. It was located in the underbrush, across Morris Lane and about 140 steps east from where the body was found. At the time of the discovery, the Phantom case was already considered closed.[citation needed]

Ward, who first saw it, said, "It looked more like an old broken-down suitcase. As soon as I got to it and got a good look, I knew exactly what it was."[28] McNief called the police from Ochsenbein's Grocery Store. Runnels investigated, with Deputy Sheriff Z. C. Henslee and officers Pete Carrara and Bill Bagwell. The music case was placed in a paste board box and returned to Chief Runnels's office. The saxophone was tarnished and the leather case's bottom and lining had deteriorated enough that pieces fell to the ground as it was placed in the box. A Texas High School emblem was also in the case, as well as sheet music for "The Song of the Navy", probably played at the dance on the night of Booker's death.

Virgil and Katie Starks[edit]

On Friday, May 3, sometime before 9 p.m., Virgil Starks, age 37, a farmer and welder, was in his modest, yet modern ranch-style house on his 500-acre farm off Highway 67 East, almost 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Texarkana.[29] He turned on his favorite weekly radio show and his wife, Katie, age 36, gave him a heating pad for his sore back. He sat in his armchair in the sitting room, which was just off of the kitchen and the bedroom. While Katie was in her bedroom lying on the bed in her nightgown, she heard something from the backyard and asked Virgil to turn down the radio. Seconds later, while Virgil was reading the May 3rd edition of the Texarkana Gazette, two shots were fired into the back of his head from a closed double-window 3 feet (0.91 m) away. Katie did not hear the gunshots; instead, she heard what "sounded like the breaking of glass". She thought Virgil dropped something and went to see what happened. As she entered the doorway to the living room, she saw Virgil standing up and then suddenly slump back into his chair.[30] She saw blood then ran to him and lifted up his head. When she realized he was dead, she ran to the phone to call police.

She rang the wall-crank phone two times before being shot twice in the face from the same window. One bullet entered her right cheek and exited behind her left ear.[30] The other went in her lower jaw just below the lip, breaking it and splintering out several teeth before lodging under her tongue. She dropped to her knees but soon managed to get on her feet.[31] She ran to get a pistol from the living room, but she was blinded by her own blood.[32] She heard the killer tearing loose the rusted screen wire on the back porch. She thought she was going to be killed, so she stumbled toward her bedroom near the front of the house to leave a note. Meanwhile, the killer ran to the back of the house and made his way up the steps and into the side-screened porch through the back screen door. She heard the killer coming through the kitchen window, so she turned around and ran through the dining room, through the bedroom, down a hallway, through another bedroom, and then into the living room and out the front door, leaving behind a "virtual river of blood" and teeth throughout the house and across the street. Barefooted and still in her blood-soaked nightgown, she ran across the street to her sister and brother-in-law's house. Since no one was home, she ran 50 yards more to A. V. Prater's house. Prater answered her call for help. She gasped, "Virgil's dead", then collapsed.[33] Prater shot a rifle in the air to summon another neighbor, Elmer Taylor. Prater called to Taylor to bring his car because Mr. and Mrs. Starks had been shot. Taylor, along with Mr. and Mrs. Prater and their baby, rode with Mrs. Starks to Michael Meagher Hospital (now Miller County Health Unit) at 503 Walnut Street. Mrs. Starks gave Mr. Taylor, the driver, one of her teeth with a gold filling. She was in a semi-conscious state, slumping forward on the front seat. Although she lost a considerable amount of blood, she showed no signs of going into shock and her heart rate remained normal. Miller County Sheriff W. E. Davis, who became head of the investigation, questioned Mrs. Starks in the operating room at Michael Meagher Hospital. The news was printed on the front page the next morning, on Saturday May 4, reading "MURDER ROCKS CITY AGAIN; FARMER SLAIN, WIFE WOUNDED". Four days later, Sheriff Davis talked with Mrs. Starks again at the hospital. Mrs. Starks discounted a rumor that was circulating about Virgil hearing a car outside his home several nights in a row, fearing of being killed.[32]

Investigation and post-events[edit]

The Miller County Sheriff's Department was notified just minutes after the alarm reached Hope City Police. Arkansas State Police officers Charley Boyd and Max Tackett got the call on their radio and were the first officers at the scene. Some of the reports were contradictory. One of the officers said that they found Starks still slumped in the blood-soaked chair. The chair had caught fire from the electric heating pad. "Smoke was filling the room and was coming up all around the man and between his legs."[30] Yet Sheriff W. E. Davis, head of the investigation, said that when officers arrived at the scene, they found the chair on fire, but Starks' body was not burned because it had fallen on the floor.[29]

Immediately after reports of the slaying spread, blockades were set up several miles northeast and southwest on Highway 67 East. Sheriff Davis called in officers from the entire area to help in the investigation; some of which included two agents from the FBI, Captain Gonzaullas and other Rangers, Sheriff Presley and his deputies, Sheriff Jim Sanderson from Little River County, Arkansas State Police, local police, and many others. In the house, investigators found a trail of blood with scattered teeth. On the dining room table was Mrs. Starks' work for making a dress. Gonzaullas, after seeing the "virtual river of blood", stated that "It is beyond me why she did not bleed to death."[30] There were only two bullet holes in the window, leading Sheriff Davis to believe an automatic rifle was used. Investigators declared that after the killer shot Virgil, he waited patiently outside the window to shoot the wife.

Three clues were found at the scene. The first was the caliber of bullets. The second was a flashlight found in the hedge underneath the window that Starks was shot from. The last clue was of bloody prints around the house; shoe-prints on the kitchen floor, and smudged fingerprints in other places. Sheriff Davis stated that although this murder could not be directly linked to the Phantom because the caliber was a .22, "it is possible that the killer is one and the same man."[30] Those who had been driving in the area near the time of the slaying, along with several men found within the vicinity, were picked up for questioning. Early Saturday morning, bloodhounds were brought in from Hope by the Arkansas State Police. They found two trails that led to the highway before the scent was lost. That night, many officers patrolled lovers' lanes hoping to prevent another attack. By Sunday night, more State Police officers were called in to help in the investigation and to aid in protecting the local civilians. Officers had detained at least twelve suspects but only kept three for further questioning. Forty-seven officers were working around the clock to solve the mysteries. Among them were sheriffs of four counties, Captain Gonzaullas and his staff of Texas Rangers, and Chief Deputy Tillman Johnson. The flashlight was sent to Washington, D.C. for further inspection by the FBI. Meanwhile, Mrs. Starks was showing improvements at Michael Meagher Hospital. The unofficial theory for a motive amongst the majority of the 47 officers was that of "sex mania", because large amounts of money in the home were not taken, nor was Mrs. Starks' purse, which was lying on the bed containing money and jewels, and because nothing was stolen from the home. The title on the front page of the Texarkana Gazette on Sunday, May 5, 1946 read: "SEX MANIAC HUNTED IN MURDERS".

On the night of Virgil's death, the reward fund was up to $7,025.[29] That following Tuesday, a mobile radio station was being sent from Austin, Texas. Gonzaullas stated that the unit, which was "one of the best in the country", would be accompanied by a fleet of prowl cars equipped with two-way radio equipment, which would allow the officers to converse not only with headquarters but between cars as well. A clerk from the Bowie County selective service Board No. 1 stated that even though he contacted officers two weeks prior, no investigating officers had checked his files. Another clerk, from the Miller County draft board, stated that no request for examination of her files had been made. Both explained that their reports would reveal information such as thumb prints, rifleman awards, and mental and physical conditions of the registrants. That night, during a radio-interview, Gonzaullas asked residents to help the investigation by refraining from spreading and repeating rumors. He stated that "These only take the officers from the main route of the investigation. It is so important that we capture this man that we cannot afford to overlook any lead, no matter how fantastic it may seem."[34] On the next day, the mobile radio transmitting station arrived in Texarkana late in the afternoon, along with ten police cars and twenty State Police officers. Captain Gonzaullas placed it into operation immediately. A correspondent from the International News Service made reservations to come to the city and cover the story. Bob Carpenter from the Mutual Broadcasting Service in New York City arrived and was arranging a coast-to-coast broadcast directly from the KCMC studios (the Gazette and Daily News radio station) on 315 national stations.[35] John Holman, chairman of the reward fund, asked people to send their donations in check form made out to either Texarkana National Bank or the State National Bank. He said that the reward monies would be kept in deposit slips and that it would make it easier to return the money back to the donators, if ever needed.

On Thursday morning, May 9, Sheriff Davis was notified that the flashlight, which was found at the Starks' murder scene, contained no fingerprints. On Wednesday, May 29, a colored picture on the front page of the Texarkana Gazette showed the flashlight. It was the Texarkana Gazette's first spot-colored photograph.

The spot-colored photograph of the flashlight in the Texarkana Gazette

The description under the picture read:

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS TWO-CELL FLASHLIGHT?--This is a picture in detail of the flashlight found at the scene of the Starks murder. This is a two-cell, all metal flashlight, both ends of which are painted red. Three rivets hold the head of the flashlight to the body of the light. There has been only a limited number of these lights sold in this area. If you have owned or know of any one who owned one of these lights, report at once to Sheriff W. E. Davis, Miller county courthouse, Texarkana, Ark. You may be the one to aid in solving the phantom slayings.

In the May 11th edition of Texarkana Gazette, Sheriff Presley and Chief of Police Jack N. Runnels asked for any information on missing persons on the nights of the murders. "Somebody in Texarkana or in Bowie or Miller counties knows that somebody else was 'out of pocket' on the nights of Feb 22-23, March 23–24, April 13–14 and May 3, and Sheriff W. H. Presley and Chief of Police Jack Runnels want persons having such knowledge to report to them immediately," said the newspaper. In a joint statement, the officers stated:

We want every man and woman in these two counties to recall the dates of these murders and also to recall whether or not any person close to them was missing or out of pocket during those nights. Persons who have such information and have been withholding it when they know they should report it are leaving themselves open to possible charges of complicity in event the slayer is captured. Make no mistake about the fact that the slayer will be captured because we will not give up this hunt until he has been captured or killed. All information received will be treated confidentially. We urge you to come in and tell what you know. Don't be hesitant or fear that you are causing an innocent man embarrassment and trouble in as much all investigation will be confidential. This is no time to take any chance on information which might lead us to the slayer. This maniac must be captured. We believe that we are justified in going to any ends to halt this chain of murder. Bear in mind--this killer may strike at any one. He may strike at persons close to him. For that reason, we believe any person with information that may lead us to the murderer should act in the interest of self-preservation.

On Saturday, May 11, a teletype machine arrived from Austin, Texas in the afternoon and was installed in the Bowie County Sheriff's office. It was in operation later that night. Gonzaullas explained that the machine would aid in the investigation by allowing them to be connected with other law enforcement offices in Texas. Sheriff Presley and Sheriff Davis suggested raising a reward fund of $2,500 for information that would help them catch the killer of Virgil Starks. They mentioned that if the slayer of Mr. Starks was the same killer responsible for the other murders, then the Starks reward would be combined with the other rewards making it a sum of $10,000.[36] Over a month later, on Monday, June 10, Virgil's father, Jack Starks, added a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of his son's killer. By November 1948, authorities no longer considered the Starks' murder connected with the other double murders.[37]


By May 19, rumors were still being spread. Many people believed that the slayer had been caught. Some of them believed he was being held at the Bowie County Jail surrounded by Texas Rangers with submachine guns on their knees.[38] Others believed he was flown to an out-of-town jail. The Gazette and News offices were drowned with phone calls, both local and long distance, inquiring about the apprehension of the killer. "Newspapers Will Tell Public If Killer Is Caught", read one of the sub-headlines of the May 19th edition of Texarkana Gazette. Sheriff Presley declared that innocent people were being accused of being the Phantom and asked the residents to show more consideration for their fellow citizens. Presley stated, "These rumors positively are not true. We can understand why the people believe them. All of us are tense and are hopeful that at any hour officers will announce they have the killer in custody. The people must not become so anxious to rid themselves of the killer, however, that they brand innocent persons as the murderer and believe unfounded stories. The investigating officers have announced that when and if the killer is apprehended or killed the public will be given the full story through the newspapers. We reaffirm this statement. The newspapers are kept posted on developments in the investigation and they will announce all news immediately. We believe that the people have a right to know if the killer is caught or killed and we pledge ourselves to let the public have this information."[38]

Consternation and panic[edit]

After the first double murder, some parents warned their children about being out late. The second double murder shocked the city and curfews were set for businesses. The height of the town's hysteria snowballed after the murder of Virgil Starks. The Texarkana Gazette stated on Sunday, May 5, that the killer might strike again at any moment, at any place and at any one. Before, it was normal to leave your house unlocked, but soon residents started locking doors, pulling down shades, blocking windows, and arming themselves with guns. Some people would nail sheets over their windows or nail the window down. Some used screened-door braces as window guards.[39] The next day after Starks' death, several residents bought firearms and locks. Stores sold out of locks, guns, ammunition, and window shades and Venetian blinds. Other items that sold well included window sash locks, screen door hooks, night latches, and other protective devices.[11]

During that weekend, Texarkana residents kept the police busy by flooding the station with reports of prowlers. One officer stated that nearly all of the alarms were the result of excitement, wild imagination and even near hysteria.[40] Farmhouses and neighborhoods blazed with lights. Several businesses, including cafes, theaters and night clubs, lost many customers. One business reported a 20% drop. The evenings were hopping, but the streets were practically deserted when dawn approached. The city became a virtual ghost town. Because of the drop in business, liquor stores closed at 9:30 and posted a statement in the paper saying, "We fully understand the state of mind in which Texarkana is now gripped. And we are selling no liquor to persons who already have been drinking. We do not wish to add further to the troubles of the police. Any person who drinks whiskey at this time to get drunk and wander about the streets of Texarkana is further complicating the works of the police and is placing himself in grave danger of being shot by people whose nerves are on edge from the recent murders."[34] Since citizens were so jittery and armed with guns, Texarkana was a very dangerous place. Officers had to turn their siren on when they drove up, get out and stand in their headlights and announce themselves to keep from being shot by a nervous homeowner. In order to go to someone's house, you had to call in advance and let them know to expect you. A fearful tavern proprietor had shot a customer in the foot who was in search of beer.[41]

On the front page of the Texarkana Gazette on Monday, May 6, a headline stated that the entire area was fighting jitters. Captain Gonzaullas helped fuel the hysteria when he announced on the radio Tuesday evening that Texarkanians should "Oil up their guns and see if they are loaded. Put them out of the reach of children. Do not use them unless it's necessary, but if you believe it is, do not hesitate." When asked what advice he could give to quiet the town's fear, he responded "I'd tell them to check the locks and bolts on their doors and get a double-barreled shotgun to take care of any intruder who tried to get in." Another part of the hysteria came from the killer being called a "Phantom".

That Tuesday night, many residents around East Ninth street were alarmed and called into the Gazette and News that they believed more murders had been committed because they heard sirens. The sirens turned out to be sound effects from a carnival.[34] Guard dogs became a hot commodity in local want-ads. Terrified wives would not go out after dark. In addition to arming and barricading themselves, residents took to extreme measures, such as creating booby-traps, installing lights, and even temporarily moving into hotels or relatives' homes, for safety in numbers. Overnight watches were kept, and tensions were high, with police questioning anyone who appeared suspect.

On Thursday, May 9, the Two States Press, a weekly paper published on Thursdays, announced:

Texarkana people are jittery, plain frightened--and with reason. Within a period of six weeks five people have been murdered in cold blood and a sixth seriously wounded, escaping death by a seeming miracle. The question in the minds of most of the citizens is, when, where and how soon will another tragedy shock the community, and who will be the victim or victims, since two deaths seem to be the design of the killer?

More than a week after the death of Mr. Starks, police departments on both sides of the city were still being swamped with excited calls about prowlers and gunshots. Reports ranged from the possible to the ridiculous, yet officers diligently checked every report. On Friday, May 10, officers rushed to a home on Olive street with reports of strange noises coming from an upstairs room. Officers found a cat thrashing about in a trash can.[36] Again on Olive street, officers checked a report that a strange man was on someone's porch. It turned out that he had stepped out of the rain to wait for a bus. On Magnolia street, a report of a prowler bumping up against a house turned out to be hedges being blown against it. On Sixteenth street, a family called in that they heard a tapping at their door. It was later discovered that a messenger was delivering a special letter. At one point, when white-faced calves broke loose around County Avenue and slept on lawns, frightened residents called to report "white-faced things in the dark".[42] Gunshots that were heard turned out to be someone shooting at something they thought was a prowler (usually a shadow), accidental discharges from people loading their guns, and even backfires from vehicles.

As news announcements spread and suspects were searched in surrounding counties, the fear crossed over to many other cities, including Hope, Lufkin and Magnolia, even going as far as Oklahoma City. Residents in other cities were also stocking up on guns and even axes. Every three weeks when there were no murders, the town's fear began to drop little by little. The hysteria lasted throughout the summer and eventually faded three months later. The Texas Rangers quietly left Texarkana little by little through October. This was not announced to keep the Phantom from attempting another attack.

Sleuthing for the Phantom[edit]

Although most of the town was in fear of the Phantom, some kids continued parking on lonely roads. Some of them hoped to apprehend the evasive slayer. One night, Officer Tillman Johnson was patrolling a lonely road with Arkansas State Trooper Charley Boyd when they came up to a parked car. Johnson got out while Boyd stayed behind. Johnson walked up to the car and noticed a couple. He said, "I am Tillman Johnson with the Miller County Sheriff's Department. Aren't you scared to be parked out here at night?" The girl replied, "You're the one that ought to be scared, Mister. It's a good thing you told me who you are," as she revealed that she had been pointing a .25 pistol at him the whole time.[43]

On Friday night, May 10, Texarkana, Texas City Police officers chased a car for three miles that had been following a city bus. The police shot out the tires and arrested a high school star athlete named C. J. Lauderdale, Jr. When the officers questioned the teen at the station, he explained that he did not know they were officers because they were driving an unmarked car. He said that he was following the bus because he was suspicious of an occupant who had gotten on from a private car.[11] On Sunday, May 12, Captain Gonzaullas gave a warning to "teen age sleuths" in the Gazette, saying that "it's a good way to get killed."

Ranger Gonzaullas also tried baiting the Phantom by recruiting teenagers, some of which were sons and daughters of Texas Rangers, as decoys in parked cars while officers waited nearby.[44] Officers, too, volunteered as decoys, some with real partners, others with mannequins. After the murders of Booker and Martin, some officers hid in trees at Spring Lake Park. Despite all efforts, the Phantom never took the bait.

The killer[edit]

"The Phantom Killer"[edit]

The unknown killer did not acquire a nickname until after the death of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin. In the April 16 edition of the Texarkana Daily News, a heading read, "Phantom Killer Eludes Officers as Investigation of Slayings Pressed". The story from the front page continued on page two with the title, "Phantom Slayer Eludes Police". The Texarkana Gazette contained a small title on April 17 which read, "Phantom Slayer Still at Large as Probe Continues". J.Q. Mahaffey, executive editor of the Texarkana Gazette in 1946, said that Calvin Sutton, the managing editor of the Gazette, had an acute sense for the dramatic in the news, which impelled him to turn to him and ask if they could not start referring to the unknown murderer as "The Phantom".[4] Mahaffey replied, "Why not? If the SOB continues to elude capture, he certainly can be called a phantom!"


The victims of the first attack, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, were the only victims to give a description of their attacker. They described him as being six feet tall with a white mask over his face with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth. Although Hollis believed he was a young dark-tanned white man under 30 years old, Larey believed he was a light-skinned African-American. The only other surviving victim was Katie Starks, but she never saw her assailant. Since Hollis and Larey were the only survivors to give a description, it cannot be known if the killer wore a mask during the other attacks.


The modus operandi established for the killer was that he attacked young couples in lonely or private areas just outside city limits using a gun with a .32 caliber. Even though the caliber used at the Starks' murder was .22, it was first believed by the majority of lawmen that it was used by The Phantom. He always attacked on the weekend, usually three weeks apart, and always late at night.


Texas Ranger Captain Gonzaullas was said to have stated that he and officers were dealing with a "shrewd criminal who had left no stone unturned to conceal his identity and activities,"[23] and that his efforts were both clever and baffling.[45] He also stated the man he was hunting was a "cunning individual who would go to all lengths to avoid apprehension."[46] After the murder of Virgil Starks, the majority of the 47 officers unofficially believed that the killer's motives were that of "sex mania". One of the officers stated, "I believe that a sex pervert is responsible."[30] The headline of the May 5, 1946 edition of the Texarkana Gazette read "SEX MANIAC HUNTED IN MURDERS". At the murder scene of Virgil Starks, Bowie County Sheriff William "Bill" H. Presley said, "This killer is the luckiest person I have ever known. No one sees him, hears him in time, or can identify him in any way." Officers have said that the killer is apparently a maniac who is an expert with a gun.[47] Victim and survivor Jimmy Hollis said, "I know he's crazy. The crazy things he said made me feel that his mind was warped."[11]

The Texarkana Gazette stated:

If one and the same man is responsible for the five murders that have been committed in this vicinity since March 24, the Gazette feels that the public should know the type of man with which the community is dealing. With that thought in mind, the newspaper asked Dr. Lapalla for the following interview. This interview was sought and was given only in the interest of the public and the intent is not to alarm unduly anyone, but to give everyone the benefit of what is considered an expert opinion as to the mental behavior of the man sought in these crimes.[47]

Dr. Anthony Lapalla, a psychologist at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, believed the killer was planning to continue to make unexpected attacks such as that of Virgil Starks on the outskirts of town. He also believed that the same person committed the murders of Virgil Starks, Betty Jo Booker, Paul Martin, Polly Ann Moore and Richard Griffin. He also believed the killer was between the ages of middle 30s to 50 years old. He said that the killer was apparently motivated by a strong sex drive and that he was a sadist. He said that a person who would commit such crimes is intelligent, clever, shrewd and often not apprehended. According to Lapalla's theories, the killer knew at all times what was being done in the investigation and knew that the lonesome roads were being patrolled, which is why he chose the house on the farmland. He pointed out that his statements were surmised theories that were based on a large number of people who have committed similar crimes. He said in many cases the killer is never apprehended and in some instances he will divert attention to other distant communities where it is believed the crimes are committed by a different individual or else he will overcome the desire to kill and assault women.

Lapalla said that the murderer is probably not a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and that he could be leading a normal life, appearing to be a good citizen. He also said that he probably is not a veteran because if the man had served in the armed forces for even a year, the maniacal tendencies would be apparent. He said that the murderer was not necessarily a resident of the area, despite his knowledge of the area. He said that all of the attacks show evidence of cool and cunning planning and that the killer could be from another community and had acquainted himself with the area. He said that the strengthening of the police force would not scare him away but that he would willingly leave due to the difficulty of committing a crime. "This man is extremely dangerous. He works alone and no one knows what he is doing because he tells no one," Lapalla said, adding that the killer may have reasoned in past crimes that the only way to remain unidentified is to kill all persons at the scene. Lapalla did not believe the killer was a black man because "in general, negro criminals are not that clever."[47]


Throughout the investigations of the Phantom Killer case, almost 400 suspects were arrested.[4]

In the Hollis and Larey case, no suspects were apprehended.

In the Griffin and Moore case, over 200 persons were questioned and about the same number of false tips and leads were checked. Three suspects were taken into custody for bloody clothing, two of which were released after officers received satisfying explanations. The remaining suspect was held in Vernon, Texas for further investigation but was later freed of suspicion.

In the Martin and Booker case, a taxi driver quickly became a major suspect because the cab was seen in the vicinity of the crime scene that morning, but the driver was soon "washed out" as investigations continued. Friends, acquaintances, and several suspects were questioned in three rooms of the Bowie County building by officers who worked in 24-hour relays. Suspects were brought in from within a 100 miles (160 km) radius, both male and female and white and black. Officers received a lead from Jerry Atkins, Booker's band leader, who stated that Betty had a saxophone with her. Since no saxophone was found, officers hoped that it would lead them to a suspect.

On Saturday, April 27, a man was arrested in Corpus Christi, Texas for trying to sell a saxophone to a music store.[48] On Thursday, April 25, the thirty-year-old man walked into a music store without an instrument and asked the sales person if they wanted to buy an alto Bundy saxophone. The girl told him that she would need to speak to her manager. The man replied, "What do you have to talk to him about it for? You work here, don't you?"[49] The girl claimed that the man seemed nervous. Once the manager was summoned, the man fled. The store contacted the police. The man was arrested two days later at a waterfront hotel after purchasing a .45 revolver from a pawn shop. On Tuesday, April 30, the sales girl identified him as the same man who tried selling the saxophone. Although no saxophone was found in his possession, the police found a bag of bloody clothing in his hotel room. The man claimed that the blood was from a cut he had received on his forehead in a bar fight.

After several days of grilling, Captain Gonzaullas stated, "Everything the man tells us is being checked and double checked, and everything he has told us this far has been found to be true. He has answered all of our questions without hesitancy, and we are making every effort to find out if he is telling the truth or is covering up information. We are convinced that thus far the man has told the truth, and if all of his story is found to be true beyond the shadow of a doubt, we can no longer hold him as a suspect." Gonzaullas also stated, "Our duty is not only to apprehend violators of the law, but also to protect innocent persons. When we make an arrest in this case and charges are filed, there must be no mistake. We must get the right man or no man at all."[50] On Friday, May 3, the Gazette reported Gonzaullas' announcement that, "This man has been completely eliminated. He has been checked and double checked and he couldn't have had anything to do with the murder cases here."

In the Starks case, several people, who were found in the vicinity of the home, were stopped and questioned. Twelve were detained, but nine were soon released. The other three were kept for further questioning. Eventually, all detainees were released.

Prime suspect[edit]

Max Tackett, a 33-year-old Arkansas State Police officer rookie at the time, realized that a car had been stolen on the nights of the murders, and a previously stolen car was found abandoned. On Friday, June 28, 1946, Tackett found a car that had been reported stolen in a parking lot. He staked out the car until someone came back to it. He arrested a 21-year-old woman. She said she had just married her husband in Shreveport, but he was currently in Atlanta, Texas trying to sell another stolen car. Homer Carter, chief of police in Atlanta, told Tackett that a man had tried selling a stolen car to one of his citizens. Tackett asked the citizen if he would recognize the suspect, but the man said that he would not. Tackett noticed that the citizen had a distinct look, which included a cowboy hat and boots. Tackett told the citizen, "You wouldn't recognize him, but he would recognize you."[51] Max then asked the citizen if he would be willing to walk with him into several public places. Tackett had the idea that the suspect would not want to see the citizen and would try to avoid him. On a Saturday in July, Tackett walked into the Arkansas Motor Coach bus station on Front Street, near Union Station, with the citizen. Tackett saw a man run out the back of the building. He chased after him and caught him on the fire escape. The man, Youell Swinney, would not talk, but his wife Peggy confessed in great detail that he was the Phantom Killer and that he killed Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin.

By law in 1946, Peggy could not be made to testify against her husband, and, because she was considered as an unreliable witness, Youell was not arrested for murder. Instead, with only circumstantial evidence, Swinney was sent to prison for being a habitual offender for car theft.

Circumstantial evidence[edit]

  • The car Peggy Swinney was arrested for was the one reported stolen on the night of the Griffin/Moore murders.
  • When Tackett caught Youell Swinney on the fire walk, Swinney said, "Please don't shoot me." Tackett replied, "I'm not going to shoot you for stealing cars." Swinney then replied, "Mister, don't play games with me. You want me for more than stealing cars."[51]
  • When Youell was in the police car, he asked Tillman Johnson, "Mr. Johnson, what do you think they'll do to me for this? Will they give me the chair?" Johnson responded with, "You won't get much. Maybe five or ten years. They don't give you the electric chair for stealing cars." Swinney then said, "Mr. Johnson, you got me for more than stealing cars."
  • When a lawyer told Peggy that her husband was being held for murder, she exclaimed, "How did they find it out?"
  • Peggy took officers near the spot where Paul Martin's car was found. She said she went in the woods there. The officers found a woman's heel prints in that area.
  • Peggy's family and Youell's brother-in-law believed Youell was the Phantom.
  • Police found a khaki work shirt in the suspect's room with a laundry mark of the word "S-T-A-R-K", which was read under a black light.
  • In the front pocket of the work shirt, slag was found, which matched samples found in Virgil Starks' welding shop.
  • Youell Swinney owned a .32 Colt automatic but had previously sold it at a crap game.
  • While being accused of murder, Swinney remained silent instead of pleading his innocence.
  • Peggy Swinney confessed to her husband's actions, revealing very detailed information, including things officers already knew and other things they did not.


  • Youell's fingerprints did not match any of the latent prints at the Booker/Martin crime scene.
  • Peggy Swinney recanted her confession.
  • The Texas Rangers and Sheriff Bill Presley were not convinced that Swinney was the Phantom.
  • Swinney denied being the Phantom and never made a confession.
  • Officers, including Bowie County Sheriff Presley, Miller County Sheriff Davis, Texas City Chief of Police Runnels, their officers and both State Police departments worked day and night for six months trying to validate Peggy Swinney's story of their whereabouts. They deduced that Peggy was not telling the truth and that, on the night of the murder of Booker and Martin, the couple was sleeping in their car under a bridge near San Antonio.[52]
  • Unknown as either a sick prank or a true confession, an anonymous woman contacted family members of the victims, one in 1999 and another in 2000, apologizing for what her father had done. Youell Swinney never had a daughter.

Other suspects[edit]

H. B. "Doodie" Tennison[edit]

On November 5, 1948, an 18-year-old freshman, Henry Booker "Doodie" Tennison, from the University of Arkansas, was found dead in his bed at home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Washington County Sheriff Bruce Crider discovered that Tennison had purchased cyanide of mercury on November 3, explaining that he was going to use it for rat poison. A note was found reading:

The opening to my box will be found in the following few lines. In a tube of paper is found, rolls on colors and it is dry and sound. The head removes, the tail will turn, and inside is the sheet you yearn. Two bees mean a lot when they are together. These clues should lead you to it.

A note was found inside a B·B fountain pen. Poison was found on the cap. The note inside the pen contained clues to the combination of a lock box. Not in the mood for playing games, the police forced the lock box open. Inside was a View-Master with several rolls of film of Mexico and a stack of papers. Under the stack of papers was a note confessing to the Texarkana killings. The note read:

To Whom It May Concern:

This is my last word to you fine people, and you are fine. I want to thank you for all the trouble that you have gone to, to send me to college and to bring me up, you have really been wonderful. My thanks to Ella Lee [Mrs. McGee, the owner of the house he was rooming in] for letting me stay with her during my college career, and to Belva Jo [Mrs. McGee's 12-year-old daughter] for putting up with me the way she did, she had to I know, but I fell in love with her about a week ago, if she was older I would have asked her to marry me, but that would be impossible.
Why did I take my own life? Well, when you committed two double murders you would too. Yes I did kill Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin in the city park that night, and killed Mr. Starks and tried to get Mrs. Starks. You wouldn't have guessed it, I did it when Mother was either out or asleep, and no one saw me do it. For the guns, I disassembled them and discarded them in different places. When I am found, which has already been done, please give this typewriter to Craig [Tennison's older brother], and tell him that I hope that his child is a boy, it will (help) him in his work. Everything can go wherever you think it will do best except for the View-Master which will go to Belva Jo. Please take my bankroll and give it to Daddy, I think it should go to him, and tell him I don't want the car now. Well, goodbye everybody. See you sometime, if I make the grade which will be hard for me to make.

H. B. Tennison[37]

Tennison had written many rough drafts with a pencil and then completed type-written copies. He had even created his own newspaper headlines mentioning his body being found. One read, "UA Student Found Dead", another, "UA Student Commits Suicide". Printed words on a sign read: "Do not disturb, death in the making". He also wrote his own epitaph, which read: "Here lies H. B. Tennison. Born Feb. 12, 1930. Died Oct. 2, 1948. He committed suicide for the happiness of his family. May He rest in peace. Amen."[53] The officers found several more notes. Sheriff Crider had no idea in which order the many notes were written because they were all undated. Miller County Sheriff W. E. Davis and Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley were surprised by the news. They said that the youth was never a suspect in the killings and that a detailed investigation would be made. Max Tackett left El Dorado, Arkansas to investigate the incident in Fayetteville. Texas Ranger Stewart Stanley was sent to investigate the suicide by "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas. Fingerprints were taken from Tennison to see if any match could be made on the still-unclassified prints taken at the scene of the Booker/Martin murders. Mrs. Bessie Brown, Booker's mother, visited Tennison's mother to offer sympathy and told her that she felt that Tennison had nothing to do with her daughter's death.

Officers also found a confusing note which they believed to contradict his other notes, but were unsure when it was written. This note read:

Please disregard all other messages which I have written, they are only thoughts which I was thinking about as possible reasons for taking my own life.

As I think about it, it is none of these things. They are not the reasons for this incident, there's a much later point to it all. Happiness. Yes happiness. If I am out of the way, all the family can get down to their own lives. Mother will not have to worry about me making my grades, and Daddy will not have to put out more money on me, which would do no more good than it did in high school. No one will have to worry about me, keep having to push me through the things which would be best for me.

After much thought, I decided to take this way out. It took more thought than anyone can think possible. It started about a week ago, when I began to think of a way to get out of this. Running away would not do any good, the police would find me where ever I went and would bring me back to it all. No, Mother and Daddy are not to blame, it is just me. If I had done what they told to do this would have never happened. Studying instead of playing around, going out with the people in my age group instead of staying home and dreaming...."[54]

James Freeman, a 16-year-old friend of Tennison from Texarkana, came forward and talked to a deputy prosecutor after hearing that Tennison confessed to being the Phantom. Freeman explained that on the night of Virgil Starks' death, he was with him at Tennison's house playing cards or checkers between 7 p.m. and midnight. That night, they both heard the news of Starks' death. Tennison's brothers, J. D. Jr. and Craig, said the confession and suicide were "fantastic things" induced by reading too many comic books. They both stated that he did not know guns, and did not care for weapons, hunting, or shooting. All guns that Tennison would have had access to did not match the bullets used in the Phantom murders. Craig said that he taught Tennison how to drive a car in the summer of 1947. Bowie County Sheriff Presley stated that he was notified Tuesday, November 9, that the fingerprints from Tennison did not match those at the Booker/Martin crime scene. A ballistics expert from Little Rock, Arkansas revealed that cartridge cases of test bullets fired from rifles Tennison would have had access to were nothing like the case of the bullets found at Starks' home.[55] In 2013, a relative of Doodie claimed that all ballistics testing from these available guns were irrelevant since they were most likely not the guns Doodie used; especially if the real guns were disassembled and hidden as stated in his note.

H. B. Tennison was born February 12, 1930. He was 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. He was extremely shy and was said by his sister, Mrs. Alys Jo Daniel, that he had a sunny disposition and that she does not remember him being a moody person. Tennison did not have many boy or girl companions. He played the trombone in the Arkansas High School band with Booker, but they were not friends. He was very fond of comic books and loved listening to radio plays, especially quiz programs. He used to work as a part-time usher at the Paramount theater (now the Perot) in downtown Texarkana. Though he was an average student and was not interested in school work, he graduated in June 1948. After high school, he traveled for his father's Memphis firm, Tennison Bros. Inc., which manufactured sheet metal products. Tennison swallowed poison and died on November 4, 1948. A private funeral consisting of family and close friends was held at his family's home on Hickory street Saturday, November 6 at 4 p.m. He is buried in Hillcrest Cemetery on US Highway 67 West.

German prisoner of war and others[edit]

On Wednesday, May 8, it was announced that an escaped German prisoner of war was considered as a suspect. He was hunted as "a matter of routine."[56] He was described as a stocky 24-year-old, weighing 187 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. The POW stole a car in Mount Ida, Arkansas and attempted to buy ammunition in several eastern Oklahoma towns.

Meanwhile, late at night on Tuesday, May 7, a 45-year-old black man named Herbert Thomas was flagged down by a hitchhiker in Kilgore. The man said that he needed a ride to Henderson because his mother was seriously ill and offered $5. Thomas said that he would not have given the man a ride but felt like he needed to because the man told such a sad story. When they neared Henderson, the man pulled out a pistol and told Thomas to keep driving or he would kill him like the five people he killed in Texarkana, mentioning Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker by name. The man told Thomas that he was not done killing and was planning on killing more. He said he was going to return to Texarkana and kill Martin's father. The suspect apparently did not know that Martin's father was already dead. The man then made Thomas stop in Lufkin and told him to drive back to Kilgore and that if he followed him, he would trail him and kill him. The man stole back the $5 as well as an additional $3. Thomas drove back to Kilgore and reported the incident to the police. Thomas described the man as being 5'8, about 130 pounds, approximately 27 or 28 years old, with red hair and wore khaki trousers and a GI jacket.

During that same night, in Lufkin, a local resident named Robert Atkinson spotted a peeping tom in his window. Atkinson grabbed a flashlight and chased after him but the man escaped. Atkinson then got in his car and went looking for him. Atkinson caught the man he believed was the peeping tom, but the man convinced him that he was not the window peeper and that he had just taken his girlfriend home. Atkinson later heard the story about Thomas and decided to notify the police of his experience. Atkinson said the man he saw was 5'9, wore khaki and had hair that could have been dark red. Gonzaullas stated that, "We don't believe that the man who killed the five people here in the past six weeks would boast about his crimes and then let the Negro go."[57]

It's unsure whether the man in each instance was the same man. The police kept searching for the POW, but it was said that he had "vanished into thin air".[11]

Atoka County suspect[edit]

On Friday, May 10, in Atoka, Oklahoma, a man walked up to a woman's house and opened her screen door. He asked Mrs. Harmon if he could have some turpentine, food, and money. Mrs. Harmon told the man that she had very little turpentine and had no money or food. The man then grabbed Mrs. Harmon by the hair and dragged her out onto the porch. He told her that he might as well kill her since he had already killed three or four people and that he was going to rape her. He then heard a horse galloping towards them and told her, "There comes a man on a horse. If you report this to officers I'll come back and kill you."[58] After the man ran off, the woman took her child with her to a neighbor's house further up the street and reported it to the police. Soon after her report, a widespread search for the man included 20 officers and 160 residents. She described the man as a 5'9-10 white man about 40 or 45 years old, about 150 to 155 pounds, with dark hair, and was in bad need of a shave. He carried an open, five-inch bladed pocket knife and was wearing gloves, a faded and worn blue shirt with khakis, and had an old, dirty, dark-colored flopped hat.

Police arrested a suspect that closely matched the description on Sunday. The suspect had gloves that Mrs. Harmon identified as the same gloves worn by her attacker. The man was also wearing blue clothes and khakis. The pocket knife the 33 year-old was carrying, though, had a blade much shorter than five inches. This man was also clean shaven. After investigating the suspect, officers did not believe the man was the Phantom. According to the man's story about bumming around the country, he could not have been in Texarkana during the slaying of Virgil Starks. The man said that he left Pine Bluff in the latter part of April and went to Colorado. Officers said that they were going to thoroughly check his story. They kept him in jail for three weeks so his beard would grow back, which would allow Mrs. Harmon to positively identify him as her attacker.[59]

Los Angeles coma veteran[edit]

On Thursday, May 23, 1946, a 21-year-old ex Army Air Force B-24 machine-gunner by the name Ralph B. Baumann told Los Angeles police that he thought he might have been the Phantom. "I've been in a coma; running from something. Maybe murder. I want to clear it up. If I didn't kill five people in Texarkana, I want to settle down and be a stunt man in Hollywood. I'm happiest when I'm living in danger."[60] Previously, he had gone to the Los Angeles Examiner and told a reporter, "I want to sell you some murder information. I know who and where the Texarkana Killer is. Give me $5 and let me have an hour's start and I'll put the information in a sealed envelope." The reporter called the police after reading: On a certain day in March, I was in a Texarkana theater watching a Pathé news picture of war. When a party of persons acted wise and said "overacting" it kind of got me. I followed them home. I killed them within a period of three days.

Police arrested the red-head at a downtown shooting gallery; he had just shot his 23rd bulls-eye in a row with a .22 rifle. Baumann said, "I'm my own suspect." He claimed to have been in a coma for several weeks. He said that he woke up from the coma on May 3 with his rifle missing and heard about a suspect matching his description. He then hitch-hiked to Los Angeles feeling like he was running from murder. Baumann said that he was discharged from the AAF for being a psychoneurotic in 1945. The chief of police said, "I feel that the man is certainly a mental case. The Texarkana killings could have been the work of a mental case and so far as we know this man could have done it. But we have absolutely no facts. They will have to be developed, if they exist." Gonzaullas stated that several parts of the man's story had little basis in fact.[61]

Hypnotized suspect[edit]

Police arrested a black man in his 30s whose tire tracks were found on the other side of the road from Martin's corpse. After he failed a polygraph exam, officers decided to have him hypnotized. The man was taken to a psychiatrist and hypnotist named Travis Elliott. Elliott talked to the man in a private session for a while. Sheriff Presley asked Elliott if the man could be hypnotized. "Yes, but you have the wrong man. He has no criminal tendencies," replied Elliott.

Elliott, later speaking about the session, said "The technique I used on this man was to get him to completely relax. I got him started counting by ones, twos, threes, etc., to a hundred and then backwards. I had established in his mind that I was his friend. He knew he was in very serious trouble and he knew he was innocent. When he went under, he was counting by threes backward. He was completely relaxed. The critical stage is the next state when you say the subject is cataleptic. The longer you keep them in the state of catalepsy, the deeper they sink into the third state. I kept him ten minutes in this state of catalepsy. He was in a state of extreme exhaustion. Sweat was on his face. Observing that even Bill [Sheriff Presley] was still somewhat skeptical of hypnosis, whether or not the man was truly hypnotized or faking, I resorted to a fail safe demonstration. Through suggestion, I removed all feeling, reflex actions, etc., from the subject's right arm and stuck a burning cigarette to his arm--absolutely no reaction. Bill was thoroughly convinced."

Elliott asked the man if he killed Betty Jo Booker, he replied "no". He then asked him if he knew who did; the man said "no". On the night of the murder of Booker and Martin, it was revealed that the suspect spent some time with a friend, dropped him off at home, then pulled over to the side of North Park road to urinate. He then visited his paramour, but after the plans did not work out, he went home and then to bed. Sheriff Presley and his officers then checked the details of the man's story and cleared him as a suspect. He lied during the polygraph test because of the love affair he was having with a married woman.[62]

False confessions[edit]

As in other famous crimes, including the case of Jack the Ripper, the police dealt with numerous false confessions. Tillman Johnson recounted a story about traveling to Shreveport after being notified that the Shreveport police were holding a man in custody for confessing to the crimes. The man was arrested at a bar after telling his story, unknowingly, to a news reporter. The reporter promised the man a fifth of whiskey if he would "tell all". When Johnson arrived, he noticed the man as a Texarkana alcoholic who had confessed to it before. Calling the man out by name, Johnson said, "You know you didn't kill those people. What'd you go and do this for?" The drunkard replied "Well, hell, I got a fifth of whiskey out of it."[43]

Tackett recalled that nine people tried to convince him that they were the Phantom. He said, "But in every case they could not have been for their stories didn't jibe with what we knew were the detailed facts in the case. You don't tell everything you know about a case. When it gets into the paper, the real criminal finds out how much you know and the confessors will fit those facts into their confessions. You keep yourself two or three pertinent facts to protect yourself from crackpots."


James Mack "Jimmy" Hollis[edit]

Jimmy Hollis

Jimmy Hollis was a 25-year-old insurance agent at the time of the attack. He was born September 25, 1920. He lived at 3502 N. State Line Avenue; a house which no longer exists. On the night of his attack, he was at the movies on a double date with his brother, Bob, who was also an insurance agent. After the movie, he dropped his brother and his date off. While he was taking his girlfriend home, they stopped on a lateral road off of Richmond where the attack occurred. Hollis suffered three fractures in his skull and was hospitalized for several days at Texarkana Hospital (also known as Pine Street Hospital) which stood at W. 5th and Pine street and no longer exists. He was in critical condition. After four days, he showed slight improvement but was still not fully conscious.[63] He was released from the hospital on Saturday, March 9. His doctor told him it would be "some time" before he was completely well again and that he was not to work for six months. By the middle of May, he was still recovering from his injuries. Three months after the attack, he stated "I still get nervous when I think about it. At night, on the street, even downtown."[11] Hollis was questioned several times by officers after the other killings. Starting at the end of April, he spent a week with Larey in Frederick, Oklahoma before residing in Shreveport, Louisiana. Hollis eventually married and had seven children. He had a Bachelor of Arts in history and a Master of Science in Public Administration.[dubious ][where?] He worked for the US government. He loved to dress in western clothing, including a cowboy hat, a holster and a pistol. He appeared in the 1971 television film They've Killed President Lincoln as Vice President Andrew Johnson. He eventually moved to Houston where he began working for NASA. Hollis died in his sleep at the age of 54. His family remembered him for his jokes and sense of humor, as well as his love for the outdoors, including camping and hunting.[64]

Mary Jeanne Larey[edit]

Mary was 19 and lived at East Hooks Courts in Hooks, Texas when she was attacked. She had just been on a double date at the movies with Jimmy Hollis' brother, Bob, and his girlfriend. On the way home, Bob and his date did not want to ride all the way to her house, so they were dropped off. Larey and Hollis then headed to the lovers' lane just off of Richmond, where the attack occurred. She was beaten and sexually assaulted with the perpetrator's pistol. She suffered a head wound which was stitched up at the hospital. Afterwards, she had nightly nightmares about her attacker. She then moved to Frederick, Oklahoma to live with her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Long. Her aunt said that for the first time in Mary's life she was extremely nervous and would not go upstairs by herself or sleep alone.

Three months later, Texarkana Gazette reporter Lucille Holland was flown to Frederick by a man named Paul Burns to interview her. By the time of the interview, officers had not publicly linked Larey's attack with the recent murders. The report appeared in the May 10 edition of the Texarkana Gazette. Larey said "I would know his voice anywhere. It rings always in my ears. Why didn't he kill me too? He killed so many others." She described her attacker as a light-skinned black man, which was different from Hollis' belief that he was a dark-tanned white man. After the first double murder, Larey went to Texarkana to talk to the police in hopes they would connect the incidents and help identify the murderer, but the Rangers questioned her and insisted she knew who her attacker was. After the second double murder, a Texas Ranger went to Frederick to question her again. Larey, native to Oklahoma, died in Billings, Montana of cancer in 1965 at the age of 38.

Richard Lanier Griffin[edit]

The headstone of Richard L. Griffin in Union Chapel Cemetery

Richard Griffin was born August 31, 1916. He was a 29-year-old war veteran who was discharged from the Seabees in November 1945. He was a carpenter and painter and handled his own contracting.[65] He was living with his mother, Mrs. R. H. Griffin, at 155 Robison Courts which was built for servicemen returning from World War II and has since been demolished. Griffin attended school in Linden, Texas and Union Chapel, Cass County. He was last seen alive around 10 p.m. on Saturday, March 23, in a West 7th street (US Highway 67 West) cafe with his sister, Eleanor, and her boyfriend J. A. Proctor. He was also seen earlier at another West 7th street cafe by friends around 2 p.m. He was found fully clothed on his knees between the front seats of his 1941 Oldsmobile sedan with his pockets turned inside out and his head resting on his crossed hands. He was shot once in the back of the head.

Polly Ann Moore[edit]

The headstone of Polly Ann Moore in Pleasant Hill Cemetery

Polly Moore, born November 10, 1928, graduated high school in 1945 in Atlanta, Texas, at the age of 16 and had worked for the Red River Arsenal (now Red River Army Depot) as a checker since July of that year. The seventeen-year-old was living with her cousin, Mrs. Ardella Campbell, in a boardinghouse at 1215 Magnolia St (demolished during widening of State Line Avenue). She had been dating Griffin for six weeks at the time of her death. Friends described her as being "homey", as she did not go out with boys much. She was last seen with Griffin on Saturday at 2 p.m. at a W 7th street café, and later around 10 p.m. at another café on W 7th street, having dinner with Griffin's sister and her boyfriend. Her body was found fully clothed, sprawled face down across the back seat of Griffin's car, with a gunshot wound to the back of her head. A picture of her at her former home in Douglassville, Texas, with her arm wrapped around a black and white dog, was found in her purse, beside her on the seat; it was printed in the next morning's newspaper. She was also wearing her class ring, with the inscription "P.A.M. -- '45", which allowed police to identify the body.

Paul James Martin[edit]

The foot marker of Paul Martin in Hillcrest Cemetery

Born in Smackover, Arkansas on May 8, 1929, Paul Martin was a 16-year-old high school junior at the time of his death. He had worked in his family's ice plant in Kilgore when he was young. His brother, R. S. Martin, Jr., described him as a "quiet kid". He was a member of Beech Street Baptist church,[66] the same church as Booker. He completed the ninth grade at Arkansas Junior High, and then attended Gulf Coast Military Academy at Gulfport, Mississippi in 1945 before going to school at Kilgore. He and Booker had been friends since attending Fairview kindergarten (on the Arkansas side) together, before she moved to the Texas side in 1944. He moved to Kilgore soon afterwards.

On Friday, April 12, Martin drove to Texarkana, from Kilgore. That night, he stayed with his friend, Tom Albritton, at Martin's Texarkana residence at 1222 Locust (now 1224).[67] The next day he hung out with Booker at her house during the afternoon. He then picked her up from her regular Saturday night gig at the VFW Club on W. 4th and Oak street Sunday morning around 2 a.m. He was found shot to death four hours later, his body lying on its left side beside the north side of North Park Road, a mile and a half from his car. He was buried two days later at his church, Beech Street Baptist, on April 16, at 10 a.m. during heavy rainfall. His mother stated that she had objected to his trip to Texarkana, not due to danger in the town, but because she feared he might wreck his car while driving alone.

Betty Jo Booker[edit]

Betty Jo Booker's foot marker in Westlawn Cemetery

Betty was born June 5, 1930. She was a 15-year-old junior at Texas High School at the time of her death. She was raised in church and, like her friend Paul Martin, a member of Beech Street Baptist church. She was also a member of Delta Beta Sigma sorority. She was one of four officers in the high school band and played the Bundy E-flat alto saxophone second in Jerry Atkins' orchestra, The Rythmaires, who would play at proms and other events. In 1937, her mother, Bessie Brown, married her stepfather Carl Brown, an employee of the Gifford-Hill Company, several years after the death of her father. She and Martin were friends since kindergarten on the Arkansas side until she moved to the Texas side at 3105 Anthony Drive.[68]

She was very popular, had many friends, and was well liked in school. She had many boyfriends but none which were serious. She loved music and swimming and liked dancing in programs and recitals. She won many awards, scholastic, literary and musical, as well as the citywide Little Miss Texarkana representing the Presbyterian Book Store in 1934.[69] She was a near straight-A student who was planning to become a medical technician. After her death, The Rythmaires never played again. The night before the attack, she played at her regular Saturday night gig at the VFW building on 4th and Oak street. She was then picked up by her friend Paul Martin and was headed to a slumber party. She was killed early Sunday morning. Her body was removed by an East Funeral Home ambulance.

Several classmates and her band leader, Jerry Atkins, attended her funeral two days later at her church, Beech Street Baptist. It was held on April 16, at 2 p.m., four hours after Martin's, also during heavy rainfall. Texas High School dismissed at noon that day for her funeral.[45] Hundreds of young people attended the separate funerals. Booker's mother could not control her grief as she watched the long line of teenagers file by her casket. Atkins was one of the pallbearers. She was then buried in Woodlawn Cemetery located between 3006 State Line Avenue and 3085 County Avenue.[70] Miss Booker was survived by her mother (died in 1977), stepfather, both grandparents, three aunts and three uncles.

Friends do not know how or why she ended up at Spring Lake Park since they knew she and Martin were just friends. Even after all this time, classmates of Booker and Martin do not want to be identified. The murders are still vivid. "We were all extremely frightened and extremely upset. And in a way we still are,"[71] said one classmate in 1996. Jerry Atkins stated "What happened was so tragic and for many of us who lived through it, the frustration and sadness will always be there."[72] Mrs. Brown said, "I trust the men who are handling the investigation into my daughter's death. I'm sure they'll find who ever did it. If he is caught, I would like to kill him. If they would let me, I would kill him myself."[69] Booker's parents stayed at their Texas home until October '46 when they moved to 1417 Locust (now 1407?).[73]

Virgil Starks' foot marker in Hillcrest Cemetery

Walter Virgil Starks[edit]

Virgil Starks was born April 3, 1909. He was a 37-year-old who lived in a modest yet modern ranch-style home on his 500-acre farm for five years and which was located about 10 miles northeast of Texarkana on Highway 67 East. He lived not far from his brother, Charlie (died in 1960), and only two miles away from his father, Jack (died in 1951). He married Katherine Ila Strickland on March 2, 1932. Known as a progressive farmer, he was also a welder who would do welding work for neighboring farmers. He had no known enemies and was said to be a neighbor of excellent reputation and was respected and trusted by everyone who knew him. He was a member of the First Methodist church on Sixth and Laurel streets for years.

On Friday, May 3 around 8:50 p.m. Virgil was relaxing in his chair in the sitting room just off of the kitchen and bedroom with a heating pad on his back. He was listening to his favorite radio program and reading the Friday, May 3 edition of the Texarkana Gazette when he was shot from a closed double window, which faced the highway, three feet behind him. He was shot in the back of the head by two slugs and died almost instantly. His funeral, which his recovering wife could not attend, was held the following Monday at his church at 2:30 p.m. More than 500 people attended his funeral; more than 60 which were his and his wife's relatives.[47] He was buried in Hillcrest cemetery on Highway 67 West; same cemetery as Paul Martin. He was survived by his wife, parents, sister (Mrs. Millard Boyce, Jr.), brother (Charlie), two nieces, and one nephew.

Katie Starks Sutton's foot marker in Hillcrest Cemetery

Katherine Ila "Katie" Starks[edit]

Katie Starks was born September 25, 1909 in Redwater, Texas. Katie was 36 at the time of the attack. She was married to Virgil Starks and lived at their farmhouse of five years on 500 acres of farmland off Highway 67 East almost 10 miles northeast of Texarkana. Her sister, Mrs. Allen, lived directly across the street from her. She was the daughter of Jim Strickland. She and Virgil went to school together growing up because their parents lived on neighboring farms in Red Springs, Texas. A friend had stated that she and Virgil were two of the best people he had ever known. After discovering her husband dead, she ran to telephone police. She rung the phone twice when she was shot two times in the face. One bullet went through the right cheek beside the nose, emerging behind the left ear, and the other went in her lower jaw below the lip, breaking her jaw and splintering several teeth before lodging under her tongue. She ran to a neighbor's house who then took her to the hospital where she recovered.

She eventually remarried. At 84 years old, she died as Katie Starks Sutton on Sunday, July 3, 1994 in a local hospital. Her funeral was held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, July 6. She was survived by her husband, Forrest Sutton, three sisters (Gertie Starks and Lois Russell of Texarkana, and Mary Johnson of Houston, Texas), and a number of nieces and nephews. She was buried next to Virgil and is now between both husbands. She was the retired office manager of American Optical and a member of the First United Methodist Church.


The grave marker of Tillman B. Johnson in Rondo Memorial Park

Miller County Chief Sheriff's Deputy Tillman Byron Johnson[edit]

Tillman Johnson was born May 24, 1911 in Stamps, Arkansas. He moved to Texarkana in the 1930s and started working for the Miller County Sheriff's Department in 1938.[74] He served two years in the military during World War II before he returned home and worked on the Virgil Starks murder case. He soon became one of the leading investigators. Johnson did not believe that the Phantom committed the Starks murder. He was a member of First United Methodist Church of East Sixth street. He was the last surviving lawman of the Phantom slayings, and was the "go to" man for the case. He had been contacted from many interested individuals, including television crews, from all over the world, including China, Sweden and Australia. He kept many personal files of the case; most of which became the only case files, since many of the original official files, photographs, and police notes went missing from both police departments.[75] Johnson firmly believed the Phantom was caught, the prime suspect Youell Swinney.

Johnson retired from the sheriff's office in 1957 and became an insurance adjuster, which he retired from in the 1970s. He then became a private investigator. Johnson died Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at the age of 97 in a local hospital. He was survived by two sons, a daughter-in-law, one daughter, a son-in-law, two grandsons and granddaughters-in-law, one granddaughter and 12 great-grandchildren. He is buried near the grave of his police peer, Max Tackett, at the farthest west-side of Rondo Memorial Park (not to be confused with Rondo Cemetery) in Miller County, Arkansas.

Max Tackett's grave marker in Rondo Memorial Park

Arkansas State Police Detective Max Andrew Tackett[edit]

Max Tackett was born August 13, 1912 in Glenwood, Arkansas. Max started living in Texarkana in 1941. He was a member of the Arkansas State Police from 1941 to 1948 having served as a trooper then a special investigator during that period. Tackett was the Texarkana Arkansas Police Chief from 1948 until his retirement in 1968. In 1951 he became the president of the Arkansas Peace Officers Association. He was a World War II combat veteran who had served in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. Max was a member of the Beech Street Baptist Church and a member of the Optimists Club. Max was said to be colorful, outspoken and even a controversial figure in the police department.[76] Max became the arresting officer of the lead suspect, Youell Swinney, when he realized that on each night of the murders a car was stolen and then later abandoned.

Tackett died on Sunday, March 12, 1972 at midnight (March 13) in a local hospital at the age of 59. His funeral was the following Wednesday at 2 p.m. at the Texarkana Funeral Home Chapel. He was buried in Rondo Memorial Park. Survivors included his wife, Mrs. Caroline Tackett, a son, John Tackett of Birmingham, Alabama, a daughter, Mrs. Sandra Zaleske of Bensenville, Illinois, two brothers, Boyd Tackett of Texarkana and John Zane Tackett of Nashville, Arkansas, two sisters, Mrs. Mary E. Rankin of Nashville, and Mrs. Minnie Raines of St. Louis, Missouri.

The headstone of William H. "Bill" Presley in Eylau Cemetery

Bowie County Sheriff William Hardy "Bill" Presley[edit]

William Presley was born April 25, 1895 in the Red Springs community of Bowie County. He was a member of the Men's Bible Class at First United Methodist Church on Fourth street and State Line Avenue. Presley had served 20 years in elected office, including terms as county commissioner, county treasurer, and sheriff. He was a veteran of World War I and had served overseas in France with the American Expeditionary Forces. He was a member of Chapelwood Methodist Church, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and was a 32nd degree Mason and a Shriner.[77] He was a long-time friend of Texas City Chief of Police Jack N. Runnels and he knew the Starks family well.[30] He was the first lawman on the scene of Mary Jeanne Larey's attack, as well as the first and second double murders.

Presley died Saturday, May 27, 1972 at 1:38 a.m. in a local hospital at the age 77. His funeral was held the following Monday at 10 a.m. He is buried in Eylau Cemetery off Gun Club road, which is off of South Lake Drive in Bowie County. His grave is near the end of the second row from the entrance.

Jack N. Runnel's grave marker

Texas City Chief of Police Jackson Neely "Jack" Runnels[edit]

Jack Runnels was born September 26, 1897. Runnels was a long-time friend of Bowie County Sheriff Presley. He was with Presley as they were the first ones called to the scenes of both double murders. Runnels was also the leading investigator of the missing saxophone after it had been found. He was a law enforcement officer for 30 years; 20 of those years as chief of police, having been re-elected ten times. He retired in 1953 and became a farmer.[78]

Runnels, 69, died at 11:15 a.m. on Friday, October 14, 1966 in a local hospital from a heart attack he had suffered a few hours earlier. He was survived by his wife, three sons (R. E. Gray of Jefferson City, Missouri, Bob Gray of Shreveport, and Captain Preston E. Gray of the U. S. Air Force), three daughters (Mrs. Denny Worley of New Orleans, Mrs. Walter Espy of San Antonio, and Mrs. L. M. Burch of Texarkana), six grandchildren and three sisters (Mrs. Patsy Strayhorn, Mrs. W. R. Turquette and Mrs. Ernest Ford). His funeral was held at 4 p.m. on Monday, 17. He is buried at the far left side of Hillcrest cemetery (front row of section H).

Texas Ranger Captain Manuel Trazazas "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas[edit]

Manuel Trazazas Gonzaullas was born July 4, 1891 in Cádiz, Spain by parents that were naturalized American citizens. He married in 1920, and enlisted in the Texas Rangers that same year. He was in charge of controlling gambling, bank robbery, bootlegging, narcotic trafficking, prostitution, riots and general lawlessness from the Red River to the Rio Grande and from El Paso to the Sabine during the 1920s and 1930s.[79] He was made captain of the Company B Texas Rangers in 1940. In 1946, while hunting the Phantom, he swore to stay in Texarkana until the killer was apprehended, but left three months after the last murder. Gonzaullas believed the attack on Hollis and Larey was not the Phantom. He also believed someone else committed the murder of Virgil Starks. He retired from the Rangers in 1951 and moved to Hollywood to become a technical consultant for radio, television, and motion pictures; most notably the long-running 1950s radio and TV show "Tales of the Texas Rangers". Gonzaullas, a Mason and Presbyterian, died of cancer at the age of 85 in Dallas, Texas on February 13, 1977. He is buried in Sparkman/Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas, Texas.

J.Q. Mahaffey, Texarkana Gazette editor during the spree of the Phantom, described Gonzaullas:

"...he was one of the best-looking men I have ever seen and wore a spotless khaki suit and a white 10-gallon hat. He packed two ivory-handled revolvers[80] on his hips and did not deny that he was the Ranger who sat in the cashier's office in the Crazy Water Hotel in Mineral Wells and gunned down two ex-convicts who sought to rob the place. He was so good-looking that my girl reporters would not leave him alone. He really didn't have time to hunt down the Phantom. He was too busy giving out interviews and trying to run the Gazette. All of the other officers working on the case were intensely jealous of Lone Wolf and complained bitterly every time his picture appeared in the paper."[4]

Mahaffey also stated that after the murder of Virgil Starks, the police made the farmhouse off limits to everybody. "Several nights later, I was holding forth in the Arkansas police station when a call came through that a neighbor had seen strange lights in the farmhouse. We sped to the scene and I hid behind a car while Police Chief Max Tackett and three other patrolmen approached the house. Chief Tackett yelled into the house that the place was surrounded and the Phantom might as well give up. Who do you suppose walked out? None other than Lone Wolf Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers and a woman photographer from Life and Time magazines. Lone Wolf explained rather sheepishly that he had been re-enacting the crime and the young lady was taking pictures of him. Police Chief Tackett turned to me and shouted at the top of his voice, 'Mahaffey, you can quote me as saying that the Phantom Murders will never be solved until Texarkana gets rid of the big city press and the Texas Rangers.'"[75]

Tillman Johnson said, "Whenever he came down the stairs from his hotel room, he called for the press. He was a showman. He was a handsome man, I'd say, and he made a good appearance and of course he had a reputation for being a killer. So the press all followed Gonzaullas." He also said, "No, he didn't do any real police work himself. He'd get in that car and ride around, ask a lot of questions about what the other officers had found then he'd release it to the press like it was his information. It got to where after a while some officers wouldn't tell him anything."[81]

Louis "Swampy" Graves, a Texarkana Gazette reporter in 1946, described Gonzaullas as a handsome man with a lot of personality. "He was well-built and wore a whipcord suit and a battle jacket with bright buttons. He was very clean looking, with an olive complexion, and wore pearl-handled pistols, one on each hip. He looked like a typical Texas Ranger," said Graves. "He would have been perfect in the Old West. He fit the description going around in those years about the number of Texas Rangers needed to quell a riot. One Riot, One Texas Ranger."[75]

Related news[edit]

Earl McSpadden[edit]

On Tuesday, May 7, 1946 (four days after Starks' murder), a body of a man was found on the Kansas City Southern Railway tracks 16 miles (26 km) north of Texarkana, near Ogden, at approximately 6 a.m. He was lying face-down beside the tracks with his head facing north. The man's left arm (severed at the elbow) and leg (severed at the hip) were on the inside of the tracks and had been cut off by a freight train that had passed at 5:30 a.m. The body was taken to Phillips Funeral Home in Ashdown for examination. The coroner's jury's verdict stated, "death at the hands of persons unknown" and that "he was dead before being placed on the railroad tracks."[34] Little River County sheriff, Jim Sanderson, however, scoffed at the coroner's report and said that the man died when he fell under the wheels of a passing freight train. The coroner examined the body a second time and found further evidence of murder. The Little River County coroner explained that "We found a deep cut over the man's temple [two inches wide and one and one-half inches long] which is sufficiently deep to cause death. We also found cuts about the man's hands and wrists which would indicate that the man grappled with another person who had a knife. All of these wounds were clean, and indicated that the cuts were made with a sharp instrument. The wounds which we believed the man received when his body was struck by the train were full of dirt and were jagged."[34]

The coroner believed that the man was dead for a full two hours before being placed on the tracks and that there was not enough blood around the wounds which caused his death before being found. Blood was found on the street near the crime scene, supporting the coroner's theory. Sheriff Sanderson still believed the man's death was accidental, regardless of the coroner's report, saying "I think the man fell from the train and was killed." The coroner maintained the verdict that the man had died of knife wounds.

The man was identified as Earl Cliff McSpadden from a social security card which was issued in Baltimore, Maryland. McSpadden's brother, R. C. McSpadden, contacted an attendant at the Ashdown funeral home after hearing about his death over the radio. The relative reported that McSpadden was employed by a company that "travels around a lot". Earl was said by his brother to be a transient oil storage tank builder. The relative was not sure where McSpadden was living at the time. It was also found that McSpadden had registered at the United States Employment Service in Shreveport. The body was taken from Phillips Funeral Home, by a Prewitt Funeral Home ambulance, from Dallas.

Since the murder is unsolved, locals have speculated that McSpadden was the Phantom's sixth victim. A prominent rumor exists claiming that McSpadden was the Phantom who had committed suicide by jumping in front of a train, taking his secrets with him in death.

Blood-stained clothing[edit]

On Monday, July 9, 1956, a worker tearing down the Spring Lake Park School found men's clothing with dark red stains in the attic under a table scarf with the same stains. The school was located across the railroad tracks near the scene where Martin's car was found. The clothing was sent to the state laboratory in Austin, Texas by Texas city police to determine if the stains were human blood. The clothing had been there for a long time because they were deteriorating. The clothing consisted of white linen trousers and a white linen shirt and undershirt.[82]

Before the test results came in, officers were cautious in linking the clothing to certain "particular murders" in the area. Officers received a written report claiming that the stains were blood, but it failed to give a blood type. Officers were concerned and made a long distance phone call to the Bureau of Investigation of the State Department of Public Safety and were told that there had been a mistake and that the letter should have said the stains were "not" blood.[83] The stains turned out to be paint stains. The "blood"-stained clothing were speculated as being hidden by the Phantom; a rumor which still persists as of mid-2013.


Every October near Halloween, the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which is loosely based on Texas Ranger Captain M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas' investigation into the murders, is the last movie shown to the public during "Movies in the Park" at either Spring Lake Park or at the Southwest Center.[84] The free event is sponsored by The Texarkana, Texas Department of Parks & Recreation. The showing of the movie has been a tradition since 2003. About 600 people attended the showing in 2008.[85]

The director of Texarkana, Texas Parks & Recreation Department, Robby Robertson, advised in 2009 that many people had requested DVD copies. Robertson said, "It's still shown only on VHS tape and those aren't even available anymore."[85] Robertson said that the city was unable to rent or hire a copy from a local video store due to legal restrictions, instead a copy is rented from a distributor for $175 to $200 per showing. The film was released on Blu-ray on May 21, 2013 by Scream Factory.

In popular culture[edit]

  • In 1976, Charles B. Pierce, a native of Texarkana, made The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which is based on the moonlight murderer. In 2014, a meta-sequel to The Town That Dreaded Sundown with the same name was released.
  • In 2007, the band The Bad Detectives recorded the song "Texarkana Moonlight" which is about the crimes.
  • In 2010, a play called "The Phantom Killer" debuted in Manhattan at the Abingdon Theatre Company's Dorothy Strelsin Theatre. It was written by Jan Buttram who grew up in the Oak Grove community near DeKalb.
  • In Seven Psychopaths (2012), a short flashback segment shows a couple setting a trap for the "Texarkana Moonlight Murderer".

Media based on the events[edit]



  • Corroborating Evidence by William T. Rasmussen (October 15, 2005)
  • Death in a Texas Desert: And Other True Crime Stories from The Dallas Observer by Carlton Stowers (January 30, 2003)
  • Haunted Route 66: Ghosts of America's Legendary Highway by Richard Southall (February 8, 2013)
  • Lone Wolf Gonzaullas, Texas Ranger by Brownson Malsch (September 15, 1998)
  • The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders by James Presley (November 15, 2014)
  • The Texarkana Moonlight Murders: The Unsolved Case of the 1946 Phantom Killer by Michael Newton (May 14, 2013)
  • Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Lone Star State by Michael J. Varhola (July 19, 2011)
  • Texas Ranger Tales: Stories That Need Telling by Mike Cox (April 1, 1997)
  • Time of the Rangers: Texas Rangers: From 1900 to the Present by Mike Cox (August 18, 2009)


  • Betty Jo's Rose by Robert Stewart (May 31, 2012)
  • It's a Marvelous Night for a Moondance by Flo Fitzpatrick (April 8, 2011)
  • Untied Shoelace by Pam Kumpe (February 6, 2014)




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External links[edit]