Phantom Killer: The Unsolved Mystery of the Texarkana Murders
In 1946, a sadistic killer dressed in a white mask terrorized the small town of Texarkana at night.
Texarkana, a small town that straddles the state line between Texas and Arkansas, is also known as The Town That Dreaded Sundown , thanks to the 1976 horror flick of the same name. Set in Texarkana and based loosely on a string of local slayings, the proto-slasher film came out just two years after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas , and two years before Halloween .
Related: 6 Serial Killer Movies Based on Real Murderers
Yet the true story behind the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” is as chilling as anything seen on the silver screen—and made all the more unsettling because the case remains unsolved nearly 70 years later.
The mysterious Moonlight Murders rocked the sleepy southern town of Texarkana in 1946. Police on either side of the state line struggled to work as one while the killings themselves possessed the iconic quality of urban legend. Young couples parked at the end of a lonely country road, savaged after the sun went down.
In fact, some claim that the infamous campfire tale of lovers who catch a report of a hook-handed killer on the car radio only to discover a bloody hook hanging from their back door can be traced to the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.
Related: 5 Urban Legends That Came to Life
The killer, described by witnesses as wearing a white mask or sack with holes cut for eyes, was dubbed the Phantom Killer or Phantom Slayer—a name that, like so much about the case, seemed ready-made for drive-in theaters.
Authorities believe he killed five people in ten weeks. Three others, including his first two victims, survived their attacks. The first attack took place on February 22, 1946, on a secluded road outside of town. The Phantom approached Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larrey, a young couple parked in their car. He blinded them with his flashlight upon approach, then held them at gunpoint and ordered them out of the vehicle. The Phantom then told Jimmy Hollis to remove his pants and proceeded to beat him severely, fracturing his skull.
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Jimmy Hollis, the Phantom Killer’s first victim who survived his attack.
The Phantom told Mary Jeanne Larrey to run. When she scrambled toward a ditch, he told her to change course and run toward the road. He then chased her down and sexually assaulted her with the pistol he carried before letting her run away again. In spite of the savagery of their attacks, both Hollis and Larrey survived. Others were not so lucky.
In March, Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore were found dead in their parked car at the end of a secluded road. The couple, who had only been dating six weeks, had had dinner with Griffin's sister and her boyfriend earlier in the night. Griffin, 29, was a veteran who made his living in carpentry and painting. He was shot fatally in the back of the head. Moore, only 17, was living in a nearby boardinghouse with her cousin. She was also fatally shot in the back of head.
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A few weeks later, they were joined by another young boy and girl, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker. Booker was the Phantom’s youngest victim, at only 15 years old. Martin and Booker had begun dating after a long friendship, dating back to kindergarten. Booker played the saxophone in a local band, and Martin came out to pick her up. Five hours later, Martin's body was discovered. Booker's body would not be found for another six, laying two miles from Martin.
In the first week of May, the Phantom Killer attacked what are his last official victims, a husband and wife, in their farmhouse northeast of town. Virgil Starks was killed by two shots to the back of the head, but his wife Katie survived, in spite of being shot twice in the face and having to run down the street to a neighbor’s house to get help.
Youell Swinney, center, is believed by some to be the Phantom Killer.
While the Phantom was on the loose, Texarkana was like a city under siege. Residents armed themselves and curfews were set for local businesses. In spite of the involvement of the Texas Rangers, no conclusive arrest was ever made in connection with the Moonlight Murders.
Theories spread wildly about the Phantom Killer's identity. The killer's targeting of couples and lack of other identifiable motives, such as burglary or revenge, led many in the area to believe that the killer was some sort of "sex maniac". Nearly 400 people were arrested in connection with the killings.
Suspects included a University of Arkansas freshman who committed suicide in 1948, an escaped German prisoner of war, and an L.A. resident who believed that he may have committed the crimes while in a coma.
Related: Serial Killer Survivors: 5 People Who Lived to Tell Terrifying Tales
Many people believe that local man named Youell Swinney—arrested in 1947 for auto theft—was the Phantom. His wife confessed to as much at the time, but by law she could not testify against her husband. She later repudiated her confession. Swinney remained in prison as a habitual offender until 1973, and died in 1994, without ever implicating himself in the murders.
In 2014, James Presley, a Texarkana native, wrote what he considered to be definitive book on the murders, The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror . In it, he lays out enough evidence that he claims proves Swinney was responsible for all five Phantom slayings.
- Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Others remain unconvinced. A 1948 cold case involving the disappearance of 21-year-old Virginia Carpenter from Texarkana is thought by some to have been the work of the Phantom Killer, though Swinney was already in prison by that time. And in 1999 and 2000 an anonymous woman contacted surviving family members of the Phantom’s victims to apologize for “what her father had done.” But Youell Swinney never had a daughter.
Regardless of the killer’s true identity, the town he traumatized has never been the same since the spring of 1946. Yet while other towns may have tried to forget such a gruesome legacy, Texarkana embraced it. When The Town That Dreaded Sundown was filmed there in 1976, locals were cast as extras. Every year around Halloween, the movie is screened at Spring Lake Park, near where one of the murders took place.
The Texarkana murders remain unsolved to this day. Whoever hid behind that white mask, chances are that after almost 70 years he no longer “lurks on the streets of Texarkana” as the tagline to The Town That Dreaded Sundown suggests.
Yet his legacy lives on, haunting the country roads of Texas and Arkansas beneath the glow of the moon.
[Via Texas Monthly ]
Featured Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Texarkana Moonlight Murders
An unidentified assailant often known as the Texarkana Phantom Killer committed a number of murders and assaults in Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas, and Bowie County, Texas) through the spring of 1946. Five people were killed, and three were wounded. While there was one major suspect, he was never convicted of these crimes. The attacks served partially as the basis for a motion picture, The Town that Dreaded Sundown .
On February 22, 1946, two young people, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, were parked on a secluded Bowie County road outside Texarkana. They were forced out of the car by an armed man, his face hidden by a burlap sack with two slits for eyes. The assailant beat Hollis with the gun, cracking the young man’s skull in two places. He then sexually assaulted Larey before fleeing when he saw the headlights of a car approaching. Both of these victims eventually recovered from their wounds.
One month later, on March 24, two more young people, Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore, were found on another Bowie County back road, both shot in the back of the head with a .32 revolver. Blood stains on the ground indicated they had been killed outside the car and then put back in it.
The following month, on April 14, teenagers Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were found dead in Spring Lake Park on the Texas side, with their bodies found some distance away from their car. Again, a .32 was the murder weapon.
The young women in both grisly killings had been tortured and sexually assaulted before dying. Police began patrolling secluded roads and “lovers’ lanes.”
The next month, on May 3, an isolated farmhouse in Miller County was the scene of another murder. Virgil Starks was shot twice and killed by an attacker standing outside the front window. When the dead man’s wife, Katy Starks, heard the shots and ran to the phone, she was shot twice in the face. Nevertheless, she was able to escape and run to a nearby farmhouse for help. Though a .22 pistol had been used in Starks’s death, tire tracks similar to those in earlier cases were found at the scene, and the crime was generally attributed to the same killer.
In all, two women and three men were killed. With each new murder, panic rose higher in Texarkana. Citizens bought weapons and stayed in their homes at night, literally dreading sundown. Law enforcement officials on both the Arkansas and Texas sides of the city worked the case. Texas rangers arrived, including the handsome and charismatic Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, and reporters from all over the country flocked to the town, adding a new level of chaos. When neighbors reported seeing strange lights from the Starks farmhouse, local police surrounded the home only to find Gonzaullas and a woman reporter from Life magazine taking photos of the crime scene with flash bulbs.
The murders were soon dubbed the “Moonlight Murders” by the news media, although the first two occurred a week after the full moon and the final attack occurred around the time of the new moon. Because he seemed to strike and vanish, the night stalker was also dubbed the “Phantom Killer” by the local newspaper, the Texarkana Gazette .
Numerous individuals claimed to be the Phantom Killer, while other citizens came forward with accusations against various local residents, including an agent of the Internal Revenue Service. One young man, a student at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) , who came from a prominent Texarkana family, killed himself in his room in Fayetteville, leaving a poem and confession. All turned out to be false leads.
The one suspect who was most often cited as the probable killer was a repeat offender named Youell Swinney, who had a record of car theft, counterfeiting, burglary, and assault. An Arkansas law enforcement official, Max Tackett, had noticed that before each murder, there were reports of a car being stolen and then abandoned. In July 1946, a stakeout of a reported stolen car on the Arkansas side led police to a woman who claimed to be Swinney’s girlfriend. She provided details of the murders that had not been released to the public. Subsequently, her story changed, and she married Swinney. Because of the unreliability of her testimony and the fact that she could not be forced to appear as a witness against her husband, law enforcement officials declined to prosecute. In 1947, Youell Swinney was jailed for life as a repeat offender for car theft but was released on appeal in 1973. While some sources say he later died in prison, others say he died in 1994 at a nursing home in Dallas.
In 1977, Arkansan Charles B. Pierce produced an R-rated horror film called The Town that Dreaded Sundown with the tagline, “In 1946 this man killed five people….Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Arkansas.” It starred Academy Award–winning actor Ben Johnson, Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island , and Andrew Prine. Though it purported to be based on the true story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, many people dispute its accuracy. It remains a minor cult classic.
To date, the identity of the Phantom Killer remains unknown. While theoretically still open, it is considered a cold case. In 1996, the Texarkana Gazette published a twenty-four-page special section called “The Phantom at 50,” and the crime was revisited extensively in 1996 and again in 2003 by the Dallas Morning News .
For additional information: Malsch, Brownson. Lone Wolf Gonzaullas: Texas Ranger . Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Newton, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers . New York: Checkmark Books, 2006.
———. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders: The Unsolved Case of the 1946 Phantom Killer . Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013.
“The Phantom at 50.” Special section. Texarkana Gazette . April 23, 1996.
Presley, James. The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror . New York: Pegasus Books, 2014.
Nancy Hendricks Arkansas State University
I have a picture of the man who supposedly was the phantom killer. My eighty-four-year old mother tells the story that Mr. Keith from Cookville, Texas, was supposedly the Texarkana killer. The story goes that when the law started closing in on him, he committed suicide. Mr. Keith did kill himself.
From watching the original movie, I am intrigued. It would be good to see a movie or a documentary that actually follows the case exclusively. Since it is not solved, I put it up there with the Zodiac. I think that a very good documentary on it or a movie based on the facts would interest quite a few people, including me.
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The Creepy Truth About The Texarkana Murder Mystery
In 1946, the town of Texarkana, which straddles the state line between Texas and Arkansas, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks that ultimately left five people dead and three gravely injured. What the media quickly dubbed the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, carried out by a shadowy figure the local paper called the "Phantom Killer," sent the small southern city into a panic.
According to the New York Daily News , the terror began on February 22, when a date that was going pretty well ended in tragedy. Jimmy Hollis, 25, and Mary Jeanne Larey, 19, had gone to see a movie and then went to park on a local lovers' lane. But their tryst was interrupted by a man wearing a white sack with eye and mouth holes cut into it, shining a flashlight into their car. The man ordered Hollis to take his pants off, then beat him badly enough to put him into a coma for several days. He then caught up with Larey as she tried to escape. He beat her as well, and sexually assaulted her with the barrel of the gun he had threatened them with.
The young lovers survived the attack, but had differing reports of who had carried it out. Larey claimed that the man had been black, despite not having seen his face, but Hollis said he believed the man to have been white. The next victims of the Phantom Killer, however, would not be as fortunate as his first.
The Moonlight Murders terrified the citizens of Texarkana
The second attack came about a month after Hollis and Larey were assaulted. Again, the victims were a couple of sweethearts out for a night of intimacy on a local lovers' lane, but this time the Phantom Killer didn't leave anyone alive. The bodies of Richard Griffin, 29, and Polly Ann Moore, 17, were discovered the following morning. They had both been shot several times in the back of the head. In April, Paul Martin, 16, and Betty Jo Booker, 15, were found murdered after a high school dance. They had also been shot to death.
The term " serial killer " hadn't been coined yet (according to Refinery29 , it entered the lexicon via a 1981 article in The New York Times ), but authorities in Texarkana strongly believed that a single killer had been behind all of the attacks.
The FBI was brought in, as well as the Texas Rangers . Local gun shops enjoyed a flurry of business, as people flocked to buy up firearms to defend themselves against a possible attack. Residents booby-trapped their houses with pots and pans full of silverware or old nails. Texarkana was on high alert, but despite the best efforts of the authorities, the violence continued. Virgil and Katie Starks were shot in their own home in May. Virgil, 37, was killed, but Katie made it to the safety of a neighbor's house despite being hit in the face with two bullets.
The Texarkana Murder Mystery remains unsolved to this day
In June of that year, police arrested Youell Lee Swinney, 29, for stealing cars. But as they drove him to the station, the young man asked a strange question for someone accused of car theft: "Will they give me the chair?" That led police to suspect that they had ended up arresting the Phantom Killer. They were also told some incriminating stories by his wife Peggy, 21, whom they had arrested a few weeks earlier for the same thing. Unfortunately, the law barred Peggy from testifying against her husband, and the detectives lacked evidence strong enough to convict Swinney for murder . They put him behind bars for car theft.
Swinney died in 1994, and no evidence has come out to unequivocally prove whether or not he was the Phantom Killer. According to Texas Monthly , however, local journalist James Presley's book The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror presented a compelling case for Swinney's guilt in 2014. "I daresay ... every lawman who worked this case never quit mulling the story over and over in hopes of turning up the hard evidence that could have convicted Swinney of the murders," Presley told the magazine.
The killings were also the inspiration for the 1976 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown , which Texarkana still shows each Halloween in a park near one of the crime scenes.
Author 'Unlocks' the Mystery of Texarkana's Phantom Killer
In the spring of 1946, "The Phantom Killer" attacked eight people around Texarkana, Texas, killing five. Three of the dead were 17 years old or younger. To this day, these serial murders remain officially unsolved. The murders were dramatized in the 1976 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown , directed by Charles Pierce, (who happens to be buried in Dover, Tennessee.) On Sounds Good , Todd Hatton speaks with Presley about this dark chapter in his hometown's history.
In 1946, Texarkana was two cities divided by a street along the state line. In reading newspapers from the 1940s, Presley learned that it was a wild town rife with robbers, safecracking, killings and automobile accidents. Increasing local industry also led to an influx of people. By the mid 1940s, the population was around 50,000 - primarily made up of people from different parts of the country. It was not a calm and peaceful town, says Presley. Max Tackett, a state trooper and the lead investigator of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders once remarked that the city was callous to murder. But the ages of the victims set the public into a frenzy. People suspected their neighbors, the local newspaper came out with the headline citing a "sex maniac" and law enforcement patrolled disguised as young couples in love hoping to lure out the killer.
Presley says he was curious about the case because of its unknown factors and the misinformation circulating after the popular film The Town That Dreaded Sundown , which was loosely based on the facts of the case, distorted many of the facts. In his book, The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of The Texarkana Serial Murders, the Story of a Town in Terror , Presley makes a case for who he believes the actual culprit is. In the summer of 1946, the suspected culprit was arrested but was never charged due to lack of evidence.
Today, there's a mixed reaction regarding the story's legacy. This is a result of the movie and notoriety over the years, Presley says. He says there's a form of denial and a feeling that trauma and stigma was killing business in Texarkana. Over time, The Phantom Killer has been disregarded as a stranger passing through town. Maybe that's the hope of the people, he says. Also, the movie struck a strange sense of Texarkana pride as it was largely a local production, further distorting the unsolved case.
James Presley is the author of The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of The Texarkana Serial Murders, the Story of a Town in Terror , available on Amazon.com (your purchase through this link supports WKMS).
The Texarkana Moonlight Murders
Over the spring of 1946, a ruthless serial killer held the citizens of Texarkana in a state of perpetual fear. The identity of the so-called "Phantom Killer" who murdered 5 people in this sleepy town still remains unknown to this day.
Morbidology is a weekly true crime podcast created and hosted by Emily G. Thompson. Using investigative research combined with primary audio, Morbidology takes an in-depth look at true crime cases from all across the world.
Texarkana is a sleepy town that is split between both Texas and Arkansas. Over the spring of 1946, a ruthless serial killer held the citizens of Texarkana in a state of perpetual fear. Even to this day, even the thought of the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” sends a chill down the spine of the residents. This elusive killer predominantly targeted young couples parked on lovers’ lanes; their final attack, however, was committed against a middle-aged couple in their own farmhouse. Despite an abundance of theories and suspects, the identity of the “Phantom Killer” still remains unknown.
It all began on the night of February 22, 1946, when Jimmy Hollis, 24, and his girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, 19, were parked in a secluded corner on a lonely road just off Richmond Road in Texarkana. The young couple had spent the evening at the cinema and decided they would stop down the lovers’ lane for some alone time before Jimmy dropped Mary back home. Out of the darkness, a man wearing a white cloth mask – presumably a pillowcase with eye holes – appeared at the car window and shone a flashlight into their eyes.
He shoved a gun at the terrified couple and ordered them out of the car where he proceeded to pistol-whip Hollis to the ground. “The noise was so loud I thought Jimmy had been shot,” said Larey. 1 The noise, however, was Hollis’ skull fracturing three times from the violent blows. After attacking Hollis, he turned his attention on Larey. The hooded figure smacked Larey across the head with the butt of his gun before telling her to run. Larey, who was wearing high heels, attempted to run towards the road but she was chased down by the assailant and hit over the head once again. She fell to the ground and the man sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun – this gruesome act wasn’t initially reported in the media at the time; police thought it was too vulgar to mention and thought by leaving it out of the media, they could weed out false confessors. “Go ahead and kill me!” she spat. 2 Moments later, headlights from an oncoming car scared the attacker away. Both Hollis and Larey were rushed to the hospital where they miraculously both recovered from their injuries but not without psychological trauma that would plague them for the rest of their lives.
Around a month later, on the 24th of March, Richard Griffin, 29, and his girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore, 17, were found shot dead in Griffin’s car which was parked on an isolated road called Rich Road. Griffin, a WWII veteran, was slumped over in the front seat, dead from two bullet wounds. Moore was sprawled out in the back seat of the car; she had been raped and then shot in the head. A bloody patch of land nearby suggested that the couple had been shot outside the car and then placed back inside, ready to be found. Rain had washed away any potential footprints but police found .32 slugs, possibly from a Colt. Following this attack, people realised that a sadistic killer was on the loose in their quaint town. As citizens were reeling from his gruesome murder, they would by rocked another just three weeks later.
Betty Jo Booker, 15, was an A student and an avid saxophone player and played each Saturday night with a group called the Rhythmaires and that Saturday night was no different. At around 1:30AM, Booker’s friend, Paul Martin, 16, who she had known for ten years, picked her up. The friends stopped at Spring Lake Park which was just a few minutes from Booker’s Sussex Downs home. The following morning, Martin’s body was discovered on the edge of North Park Road. He had been shot four times; one bullet entered the back of his neck and exited through the front of the skull, one entered through the left shoulder, one went through his right hand and the final one went in his face. A search party was assembled to look for Booker. Six hours later, her body was discovered behind a tree around two miles from Martin’s body; she had been shot once through the chest and once in the face.
It was theorised that the crime scene had been staged; her coat was buttoned up to her chin and her hand was in her coat pocket. “Official reports would say Miss Booker was raped in the same manner as Miss Moore” noted Sammy Wacasey, researcher at the East Texas Historical Association. Ballistic tests showed that they were killed with the same .32 caliber weapon used in the first killing. Martin’s car was found around 3 miles away from Booker’s body with the keys still in the ignition.
As the days went by with the killer remaining on the loose, fear overran the area. A voluntary curfew was put in place and businesses closed early; nobody wanted to be caught outside as sundown approached. Terrified citizens raised thousands of dollars which could be offered to whoever could provide information that would lead to the arrest of the perpetrator. Gun sales went through the roof. The town was truly on edge and fearful for another attack and they had every reason to be; the killer was still lurking, eyeing up his next victim.
On the 3rd of May, Virgil Starks, 37, was sitting down to listen to his favourite weekly radio show in the ranch-style home he shared with his wife, Katie Starks, 36. Suddenly, two shots were fired into the back of his head; the shots came through a closed window. Katie – who was upstairs – came rushing down where she saw her husband standing up with blood rushing down his body. Moments later, he slumped back into his chair. Virgil was dead. Katie ran to grab the phone and call the police but as she reached the phone, she was shot twice in the face from the same window. Despite her injuries, Katie managed to pull herself up and grab a pistol which the couple kept in the living room. Blinded by her own blood which was now streaming down her face, she heard the killer enter the home. Knowing he was coming to kill her, she got up and ran for her life. Katie made it to a neighbour’s home who then alerted the police. Miraculously, Katie survived. An investigation at the scene turned up a flashlight and unidentified bloody footprints. Despite the fact that a different gun was used – .22 caliber shells were found at the scene – and the modus operandi was different than the previous killings, police announced that the couple were victims of the so-called Phantom Killer.
Following the attack on the Starks, the killer faded back into the shadows and never struck again. Eventually, life in Texarkana drifted back to a semblance of normality. Over the years, there have been plentiful theories on the identity of the elusive killer. Hollis and Larey described their attacker as being around 6 feet tall. Hollis said he was a young dark-tanned man under 30-years-old while Larey said he was a light-skinned African-American. As is the case with high profile murder cases, there were numerous false confessors, one of which was University of Arkansas freshman, 18-year-old H.B. “Doodie” Tennison, who committed suicide in November of 1948. Tennison left behind a suicide note in which he confessed to the string of murders. 3
The prime suspect in the slayings was Youell Swinney, who came to police’s attention after an Arkansas trooper – who was looking at car theft reports in the area – realised that on the night of each attack, a car had been stolen and a previously stolen car abandoned. Weeks after this revelation, a farmer complained that his tenant hadn’t paid rent.
He gave the officer the tenant’s name and license plate number. The tenant was Youell Swinney and a run of his plates showed the car he was driving had been stolen on the weekend of the Griffin-Moore murders. Swinney’s wife, Peggy, would subsequently implicate him in the Texarkana Moonlight Murders and described the murder of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin in great detail. Following the confession, however, Peggy made conflicting statements and changed her story. With no physical evidence against him and with Peggy claiming her lawful right to refuse to testify against her husband, Swinney was never prosecuted for the murders. In 1947, Swinney was sentenced to life imprisonment for repeated auto-theft but was released in 1978. Whether or not Youell Swinney was Texarkana’s “Phantom Killer” is debatable but there was never another attack following his arrest. 4
Over the ensuing years, hundreds of people were questioned and numerous suspects were interrogated. Thousands of clues have been followed yet all led to a dead end. Despite the extensive investigation into the murders, the elusive figure that made Texarkana dread sundown still remains unidentified.
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The True Story Behind ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’
In 1946, Texarkana was haunted by the presence of a masked killer who struck and then disappeared forever.
During the 1980s slasher craze, masked killers were all the rage, thanks to the likes of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface. Jason was arguably the biggest and baddest of the decade, but before he donned the infamous hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part 3 , he wore a burlap sack over his head in his debut, Friday the 13th Part 2 . The hockey mask became iconic, and the sack was never seen again. Still, for many, it was not forgotten, and never failed to be chilling, no matter how many times you saw it.
What Is 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown' About?
A lot of that fear is rooted in the reminder of reality, for Jason’s look in the second film is eerily similar to the real life killer dubbed The Phantom Killer, whose crimes inspired the creation of the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown thirty years later, as well as a part sequel, part meta remake in 2014. While the film wasn’t the hit that a similar feature like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was two years earlier, it still connected with audiences, providing a thrilling mystery and creepy atmosphere, along with some humor that worked in moments even if it was arguably inappropriate. What made it work, besides the great acting from Academy Award winner Ben Johnson , was its connection to true events and its open ending. In the finale, the killer is still on the loose, which was sure to have left 1970s theater goers frazzled and looking in the backseats of their cars as they left the cinema. In fact, the film even leans into this by including a scene where the killer is shown, filmed from the shins down, standing in line at a theater for a screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown .
The film isn’t entirely accurate. Liberties were taken for dramatic effect. For example, in the film, the killer is seen and chased. That never occurred in reality , but it would have made for a rather dull climax if the complete truth had been stuck to. Murders occur on different days, in different ways (including one disturbing scene that has a knife attached to a trombone), with different people finding the bodies. While this may have been done to make a more cohesive and exciting plot, it wasn’t needed. The real life story of The Phantom Killer and the havoc he caused, known as The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, are scary enough on their own without Hollywood’s involvement.
Who Was The Phantom Killer?
The Phantom Killer operated in 1946 for less than a three-month period in Texarkana, a town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. He first attacked on February 22 , near midnight, in a moment that would help create an urban legend. 25-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, had just been to the movie theater, and now sat together in Jimmy’s car on a secluded road to makeout. It was then that a man in a white, pillowcase-like mask stepped out of the darkness and ordered the couple out of the car. He beat Jimmy with a pistol, before raping Mary. Fortunately, both survived, but neither were able to identify their attacker due to his mask.
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A month later, on March 24, the attacker would grow more bold , leaving behind no breathing victims to speak about the man in the mask. It was then, in another lover’s lane area, that Richard Griffin and his girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore, were attacked in Richard’s car, both shot several times, and both left dead. The killer then disappeared into the night without a trace.
After getting a taste for blood, The Phantom Killer wouldn’t wait another month to strike. It only took three weeks for him to commit another double-murder . This time it was April 14, and involved another teenage couple, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, the latter who was only 15-years-old. Both were again shot, but this time the victims wouldn’t be found together. Booker’s body was found two miles away, posed propped up against a tree with a hand in her coat pocket.
Again, about three weeks later, on May 4, the killer would strike one last time . His last act had a different motif, for here he did not strike teens in their cars at night, but a couple in their 30s while they sat in their home. He had progressed from rape, to murder, to the posing of bodies, to now home invasion. As Virgil and Katie Starks sat in their farmhouse at night a shot rang out and the living room window shattered. Virgil fell, having been shot dead from outside. His wife was shot as well, and she ran for her life as the killer broke into her home, fleeing to a nearby residence. Katie would survive, but she never got a look at her attacker.
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The Texarkana Moonlight Murders: 10 Shocking Facts About the Phantom Killer
Photo by Rulo Mora: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-man-in-a-mask-and-black-robe-in-the-forest-14075071/
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1. the phantom killer targeted young couples who were in secluded places.
Photo by Rulo Mora: Pexels
2. The Killer Launched Attacks on Weekends, 3 Weeks Apart
3. he sexually assaulted his first victim using the barrel of his gun.
Relative of Jimmy Hollis , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
4. The Phantom Killer Murdered His First Victims Using a .32 Calibre Gun
5. there was some struggle in his second double murder.
Texarkana Daily News , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
6. The Phantom Killer Fatally Injured Wife of Fifth Victim After Killing Him
JeremeK , CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
7. The First Victims Described the Phantom Killer as a Tall Light Skinned African American
8. he was described as a sadist.
Tillman B. Johnson, Sr. , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
9. He was Considered to have known the Area of the Murders
10. the phantom killer intelligently planned his attacks & knew how to cover his tracks.
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The Town Afraid of the Dark: The Texarkana Moonlight Murders
There is something about an unsolved serial killer case that is both fascinating and frightening. Who was the killer? How did they get away with it? Is the murderer still alive and living in the town they tortured?
And, in one instance, how is a series of murders still unsolved after over 400 people were arrested and questioned as well as an investigation led by the FBI and Texas Rangers? When it comes to the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, these questions have remained unanswered since 1946. Will we ever discover the identity of the vicious Phantom Killer, who committed the Texarkana Moonlight Murders?
The Phantom of Texarkana
Texarkana is a city located along the border between the states of Texas and Arkansas in the United States, and is the name given to the surrounding area where the cultures of the two states blend together. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders occurred in Miller County, Arkansas, and Bowie County, Texas, for ten weeks between February 22 to May 3, 1946.
Eight people were attacked in total, and five of the victims were killed, leading to an investigation full of mistakes. Texarkana saw its share of violence, but these attacks shook the residents of Texarkana to their very core.
The first attack took place on the evening of Friday, February 22, 1946. A young couple, returning from a date to the movies, parked their cars in a popular lovers’ lane. Jimmy Hollis (25), and his date Mary Jeanne Larey (19), were approached by a strange man wearing a mask who shone a flashlight into the car at the pair. The man had a gun and demanded the two get out of their vehicle: the worst night of the pair’s life had just begun.
The masked man ordered Hollis to take off his pants, and as Hollis complied, he was struck in his head twice with a pistol knocking him unconscious. Larey would later tell police that the man hit Hollis so hard in his head that she believed he had been shot.
Horrifyingly, that sound Larey heard was Hollis’s skull fracturing. In a panic, she gave the stranger Hollis’s wallet, thinking that the masked man was there to rob them. That was not the case, and the man told Larey to get up and run.
The terrified girl ran to a parked car she saw up the road only to find the car empty, and the man quickly caught her. He knocked her down and sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun, and took off into the night, leaving behind the seriously injured couple. Fortunately, Larey was able to run to a nearby house to phone the police.
The police questioned her, and she said the attacker was a black man wearing a white bag or pillowcase over his head with holes cut out for the eyes and mouth. When Hollis regained consciousness, he contradicted her however, saying the attacker was a white man.
The conflicting stories sounded suspicious to the police, and when they considered how brutal the attack was, they assumed that Larey was lying and that she knew her attacker but said he was black to cover for the mystery man. It is possible that the police didn’t believe the girl because of her gender and figured she was embarrassed about the sexual assault with an object and lied.
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The truth? The couple were traumatized and both had sustained head injuries . With that in mind, it is easy to see how they could have identified two men of different races when questioned later. Larey was so traumatized and upset that the police thought she was lying that she intended to move away from the Texarkana area.
The Second Attack
A month later on March 24th, a motorist spotted a car with two occupants parked in a lovers lane near US Highway 67 West and thought the couple in the car had slept there overnight. When the good Samaritan got closer to the car, he noticed they weren’t sleeping but were dead.
Police discovered that the man, Richard L. Griffin (29), had been shot twice in the car, and his girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore (17), was found shot in the backseat. Outside the car, the police found a blanket covered in blood and determined Moore had been killed on the blanket and then placed in the backseat of the vehicle.
Unlike the first attack, some evidence was found at the scene. A single .32 bullet casing had been left behind. The Texas Rangers and FBI analyzed the bullet and determined it was likely fired from a .32 Colt automatic pistol.
Strangely, the two victims were laid to rest before a pathologist could examine them, which was not standard protocol for police investigations. Some rumors around the time stated that Moore was not sexually assaulted, but other rumors said that she had been sexually assaulted. To this day, the truth about why the two were not autopsied and if Moore was a victim of sexual assault before her death remains unknown.
The Third Attack
By now the killer was clearly quickening to his task. Three weeks later in the early hours of April 14, 1946, Paul Martin (17) had picked his girlfriend Betty Jo Booker (15) up from a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Club, where she was a member of the evening’s musical entertainment.
Booker’s mom grew concerned when her daughter didn’t stop by the house to drop off her saxophone before spending time with her boyfriend. Her mother called the couple’s friends, but nobody had seen them. Police were called and a search was started and Martin’s body was soon discovered just off the side of a road. He had been shot four times: once through his nose, once in the back of the neck, once in the right hand, and once through the ribs.
Booker’s body was discovered almost 2 miles (3.2km) away from her boyfriend. She was found behind a tree with two gunshot wounds: once in the face and again through her chest. Martin’s car was found an additional 3 miles (4.8km) from Booker’s remains with the keys in the ignition.
The police could not determine who was murdered first. Like the previous murder, a bullet casing indicated that a .32 Colt automatic pistol was the murder weapon.
The Fourth Attack
The final attack of the Phantom Killer occurred on May 3, 1946, in the evening, and was very different to the previous attacks. Virgil Starks (37) was shot twice in the back of his head through a window while he read the newspaper. When his wife Katie Starks (36) heard glass breaking, she rushed to see what happened.
When she discovered her husband’s corpse, she ran to phone the police and came face to face with the killer. She was shot twice in her face, again through the same window, but managed to escape to her neighbor’s home across the street and was able to tell the neighbor her husband was dead before she lost consciousness.
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Katie Starks survived her injuries and fully recovered. Still, when police questioned her after emergency surgery, she couldn’t tell investigators who attacked her and her husband because they never saw who shot them outside their home. All that was left behind at the scene was a black and red flashlight that nobody could identify.
In an attempt to solve the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, the police brought over 400 suspects in for questioning, but they were all cleared. The leading investigator, Texas Ranger Manuel Trazazas Gonzaullas, realized the attacks took place every three weeks and attempted to set a trap for the Phantom Killer.
Two undercover officers with mannequins posed as teenagers parked in lovers’ lanes . But the police had no luck: the Phantom never struck again. Residents in Texarkana began buying guns, guard dogs , and blinds for their windows. Curfews were set, and people locked their doors for the first time.
The killer was never identified, but two men were considered people of interest. The first possible Phantom of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders was 18-year-old H.B. Tennison. Tennison committed suicide in 1948.
He left behind a suicide note confessing being responsible for the Martin/Booker, and Starks murders. Tennison was in the same school band as Booker, but the two weren’t friends. #However, a friend of Tennison’s came forward to the police, telling them his friend did not kill anyone. They were playing cards at home when they heard the news reporting on the Martin/Booker murders.
The second possible Phantom of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders was a notorious car thief named Youell Swinney (29). Police discovered that on the night of every attack, a car was reported stolen and later found abandoned by the thief.
Swinney’s wife was seen driving a stolen car, and the husband and wife were arrested. Swinney’s wife confessed that her husband was the killer, but her story was inconsistent, changing details each time she was subject to questioning.
She did mention a location where some of Martin and Booker’s belongings were left by Swinney, but other than her confession, and there was nothing solid to tie Swinney to the Moonlight Murders . His wife was determined to be unreliable as a witness and could not testify against her husband in any trial.
He was sentenced to prison for his habitual grand-theft auto charges, where he would die almost 50 years later in 1994. Many found it suspicious that Swinney and his wife got married in the days before they were arrested. Did Swinney use marriage to keep the only person who could send him to the electric chair silent?
To this day, the Phantom Killer responsible for the Texarkana Moonlight Murders has never been identified. The murders have become part of the morbid history of the area. Each year around Halloween, the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown (based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders) is shown in a local park as the finale of the annual “Movies in the Park” event hosted by the Texarkana Department of Parks and Recreation.
For a terrifying series of unsolved murders that sent residents of Texarkana deep into the throws of terror, the tradition of free public screenings of a film based on the murders is definitely just as creepy as a serial killer who disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.
Top Image: Despite a huge manhunt for the killer, the Texarkana moonlight Murders remain unsolved to this day. Source: Alex Corv / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon
FBI. 2020. Texarkana Phantom Moonlight Murders Archives . Freedom of Information Act Archives. Available at: https://vault.fbi.gov/texarkana-phantom-moonlight-murders
Walsh, F. 2015. Phantom Killer Brings Terror to Texarkana 69 Years ago Tonight . Available at: http://txktoday.com/news/phantom-killer-brings-terror-to-texarkana-69-years-ago-tonight/
Thompson, E. 2018. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders . Available at: https://morbidology.com/the-texarkana-moonlight-murders/
Bovson, M. 2016. Murder Spree in Texas at hands of ‘Phantom Killer’ remains a mystery . Available at: https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/texas-murder-spree-hands-phantom-killer-solved-article-1.2554028
Lauren Dillon is a freelance writer with experience working in museums, historical societies, and archives. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Russian & Eastern European Studies in 2017 from Florida State University. She went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Museum Studies in 2019 from the University of San Francisco. She loves history, true crime, mythology, and anything strange and unusual. Her academic background has inspired her to share the parts of history not in most textbooks. She enjoys playing the clarinet, taking ballet classes, textile art, and listening to an unhealthy amount of true crime podcasts. Read More
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PHOTO | An Evening with the Phantom
PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Actors rehearse a scene in "An Evening With the Phantom" recently at the 1923 Banana Club in downtown Texarkana, Arkansas.
The dinner theater show is back for a second year on four nights beginning Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. The play depicts the infamous Phantom Killer murders of 1946 in and around Texarkana. (Photo courtesy of 1923 Banana Club)
Print Headline: An Evening with the Phantom
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Black janitor Nicodemus is surprised by the appearance of a man emerging from the Cromwell Finance Corp. office late at night. The man asks Nicodemus for the time and for a light for his cigar, then departs. Nicodemus later finds the president of Cromwell Corp. dead from strangulation. Nicodemus identifies wealthy philanthropist John G. Harrison as the man he saw in the building on the night of the murder. Assistant district attorney Edward Clark unearths information that similar murders were committed in other cities on the evenings that Harrison, a deaf-mute, was attending charity functions. The district attorney encourages Ed to indict Harrison, hoping that he will fail and will not be considered for promotion to his position. A physician confirms that Harrison is unable to speak, and he is found innocent of murder. Ed's girl friend, reporter Barbara Mason, then interviews Harrison for his life story, even though Ed is still convinced that Harrison is a killer. Ed resigns from his job and continues his investigation. He soon gets a call from an informant named Davy who, prompted by the $5,000 reward put up by Harrison, claims to know the identity of the killer. Before he meets with Ed, Davy sees Harrison and threatens to reveal him as the killer unless he is paid. Davy is later found strangled to death in his room after a visit from Harrison, who first spoke with Davy's astonished mother. Ed and police lieutenant Brady interrogate Harrison through his interpreter, Kramer, and are suspicious of the presence of a piano in the home of the deaf-mute. Barbara, who has continued to interview Harrison, is outraged by Ed's relentless investigation, and Brady plans to return the next day with a search warrant. However, Brady is found dead the next morning and only then is Barbara convinced that Harrison is dangerous. Barbara goes to his house to find evidence, and when she plays the piano, the high key opens a secret panel in the living room. Barbara is abducted by Harrison's identical twin, but her screams alert Ed and Sergeant Corrigan, who are on patrol outside. They rush inside and Ed plays the piano until he hits the high key. The double emerges and Corrigan shoots him in self-defense. Harrison confesses that his twin brother, the true deaf-mute, doubled for him at public appearances, while Harrison murdered the presidents of finance companies from which he had taken large loans. He also confesses to Brady's murder. Harrison is arrested and Barbara's faith in Ed is restored.
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