Phantom: The Texarkana moonlight murders
In 1946, The American twin city of Texarkana was plunged into the depths of panic and fear. The population of the postwar suburb was subjected to a series of murders that shook the dual cities to their core, prompting curfews, rumours and unease to spread through the area like the rail tracks that crept from it’s central hub. Nights of midnight movies, drive-in cafes, the songs of Duke Ellington and big band orchestras were perforated with tales of a man with a white sheet over his head, holes cut out for eyes, performing brutal executions upon the vulnerable and unexpecting.
Amazon – The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, Michael newton – Good book on the case.
Amazon – The Phantom killer – Good book on the case, leans towards Swinney as a suspect heavily.
YouTube – A couple of good talks on the case on John Tennisons channel, drilling into the circumstantial evidence surrounding the suspects and a little more on Henry Booker Tennison
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Texarkana Moonlight Murders
In 1946, The American twin city of Texarkana was plunged into the depths of panic and fear. The population of the postwar suburb was subjected to a series of murders that shook the dual cities to their core, prompting curfews, rumours and unease to spread through the area like the rail tracks that crept from it’s central hub. Nights of midnight movies, drive-in cafes, the songs of Duke Ellington and big band orchestras were perforated with tales of a man with a white sheet over his head, holes cut out for eyes, performing brutal executions upon the vulnerable and unexpecting. The case would later be loosely retold in horror films, linked with Urban Legends and dubbed “The number one unsolved murder case in texas history”. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Founded in 1873, Texarkana was a strange place to lay down a town. Spilling over the state line of Texas and Arkansas, half of the town lies in one state and half in the other. On the Texas side, it resides in Bowie County, the Arkansas side, Miller County. The area, for the most part, operates as two separate cities, with each half having their own mayors, police force and each with its own governing bodies, though they cooperatively shared many utilities and a federal building, which sits centrally, straddling the two states making it the only federal building in America to occupy more than one state. It’s built in the center of the aptly named “State Line Avenue”, the cities central street which snakes through the middle of the region, marking the division between Texas and Arkansas.
Hundreds of years before its founding, Texarkana lay on the Great South Western Trail, a native American route that ran from the Mississippi river to the South West and after it’s founding, the city continued this tradition with a railway junction connecting it with nine railroad systems. It was known as the gateway to the South-West and had the rough and ready reputation of any good frontier boom town, inn 1888, 21 saloons were listen in Texarkana and it had its fair share of gambling dens and brothels too with local law enforcement taking an “Out of sight, out of mind” mentality, besides, the Sheriff himself had a taste for illegal gambling and ran much of the network either through laws of his own making, or through underhand deals that cut him in on profits. Sheriff Dixon was not a man to be crossed, when one Gambling hall owner wouldn’t cooperate with Dixons shady dealings, he had his establishment raided, the man arrested and tried, where he shot him dead in the middle of the courthouse before calmly walking out to continue his duties as sheriff and local boss. That was until 1894, when Dixon met his maker, after an argument with another establishment owner, one Albert Johnson, who promptly went home to collect his shotgun, returning only to blow the sheriffs head off as he stood outside his saloon in what was deemed “Justifiable Homicide.”
On the turn of the 20th Century, Texarkana boasted a population of 14,000, city status, a waterworks and streetcar system, two foundries, a machine shop, schools and a hotel all fueled by it’s timber and agricultural economy. By the 1930’s the Great Depression had hit Texarkana and whilst 146 of it’s 890 businesses had been forced to close, the Second World War buoyed it’s economy with the arrival of both the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant taking residence in the city, over doubling its population to 53,000 and offering jobs and housing for thousands in the local area. The small city of Texarkana grew bigger and did so quickly, leaving behind much of it’s small town lifestyle.
Texarkana’s railroads continued to be a strategic advantage for industry and crime alike. The rails bought in big business, politicians and industry, but also drifters, strangers and oftentimes, criminals. It became known locally as “Little Chicago”, bar brawls broke out on the regular and during prohibition it was central in the line of running illegal alcohol across it’s nearby borders and bootleggers passed through the town almost daily. In any of the numerous clubs and dancehalls, nobody paid much mind to what might have been in another’s cup.
By 1946, Texarkana had shaked much of it’s earlier frontier roots. Servicemen were returning from the war and people were looking forward in life. Weekends consisted of going to one of several theatres to catch a movie, one of the largest being the Paramount, as well as drive in cafes, clubs and bars that operated a “brown-bag policy”. You could only buy beer on the premises, but you could bring in liquor as long as it was concealed, which most chose to do with brown paper bags. Black and White movies still played at midnight and jazz and big band groups played late into the night and following morning. Whilst it did have its share of violence and crime, Texarkana existed in a state of duality. Brothels, bar fights, teenage drinking and violent crime existed on one hand and on the other, it was an idyllic, postwar suburb with unlocked doors and strong community. It was, it seems, a town split in more ways than one.
James Mack “Jimmy” Hollis & Mary Jeanne Larey
James Mack “Jimmy” Hollis was born on September 5th, 1920 in Dubach, Louisiana. He had two brothers, Edmund and Bob Hollis and two sisters. Just a few months following his birth, his parents decided to up sticks and move to El Dorado, Arkansas to open a general store and restaurant. They later moved again to California, where Jimmy attended high school. After his graduation and with the outbreak of the second world war, Jimmy attempted to follow in his elder brothers footsteps by enlisting in the services, however failed the Navy physical examination, due to a congenital heart defect. Instead, he did the next best thing that he could think of and took a job manufacturing aircraft in Fort Worth, Texas. He was a likeable guy and sang in a dance band and at the age of 21, settled down to marry 19 year old Dora Louise Nicholls in December of 1942. The marriage was not to last however and after a mutual separation in 1946, aged 25, he left Fort Worth and joined up with his older brother Edmund in Texarkana on the Arkansas side. Edmund was working as a manager of an insurance company and had recently employed their brother Bob as an insurance agent after he had returned from serving in the war. Edmund offered Jimmy the same deal and seeing the opportunity to regain his feet after his separation, he took it gratefully and moved in with Bob. On Friday 22nd February, Jimmy was getting ready to go on a double date with his brother Bob and Virginia Fairchild. He’d be taking a young lady he’d only met earlier that month, Mary Jeanne Larey, who at 19 years old was 6 years his junior, but was also going through a recent separation. The pair had found themselves in a similar position and hit it off immediately.
Mary Jeanne Larey was 19 years old, having been born in 1927 in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, but with the incoming industry boom at the onset of war, she moved to Texas with her mother and father, who had taken a job in the Red River Ordinance Depot, a large ammunition storage facility 15 miles West of Texarkana. Hooks was a small town consisting of government housing for workers of the depot that nestled on the Northern edge of the facility about a 20 minute drive from central Texarkana. She attended high school in Hooks, and in 1943, at the age of 16, married Roland Larry, changing her age on her marriage certificate to 18, so as to avoid any need for her parents consent. Shortly after their marriage, Larry joined the Navy and went off to war and by the time he had returned home in 1946, ther couple decided that it would be best if they were seperated. The marriage had been one of many thousands of war-time spontaneity that just hadn’t worked out. Their separation was made official in January of 1946.
At 10:15pm Mary Jeanne, Jimmy, Virginia Lorraine and Bob left the Paramount theatre where they’d gone to see “Three Strangers”, a recent Film-Noir Thriller release, set in london, England. Not wanting to call it a night, Jimmy drove the group in his old model, grey chevrolet to an all night drive in cafe. After a late night drink, Jimmy drove Bob and Virginia Lorraine home and then turned on to Richmond Road that would take the couple North East, out of the city, to drive Mary jeanne home to Hooks.
It was only 11pm, still a little early for a Friday night, so instead of driving Mary Jeanne straight home, the couple decided instead to detour onto a dirt road that sprung from Richmond and parked up in a small, layby, surrounded by shrubland. It was pitch black out there on the dirt track, away from the city lights, but more importantly it was peaceful and quiet. There were several of these lanes around Texarkana, known as “Lovers Lanes” and it was common practice at the time to head out and park up late at night for a little “privacy” with one’s date. A place you could be alone together. The problem for Jimmy and Mary jeanna however, was that they weren’t alone.
Months later, Mary Jeanna told the story to the Texarkana Gazette:
“We had been there about 10 minutes when a man walked up. He wore a white mask over his head with cutout places for his eyes and mouth. He pointed a flashlight and pistol at us. He came up on the driver’s side of the car and told Jimmy something like this: ‘I don’t want to kill you, fellow, so do what I say.'”
“We both got out of the car on Jimmy’s side and stood by the man. The man then told Jimmy, ‘Take off your fucking britches.'”
Mary jeanne, scared, begged Jimmy to go along with the mans strange request in the hope they could get out of the situation unhurt. Though the beam from the flashlight shone on their eyes, they could tell he was fairly tall and didn’t sound like an old man. The glint of the pistol barrel reflected in the beam. Jimmy unbuckled his pants and let them fall to the floor around his ankles.
“After Jimmy had taken off his trousers, the man hit Jimmy twice on the head. The noise was so loud I thought Jimmy had been shot. I learned later that the sound was his skull cracking.”
“I picked up Jimmy’s pants and took his billfold out of his pocket, and I said, ‘Look , he doesn’t have any money,’ but the man told me I was lying and he said that I had a purse, but I told him that I didn’t. Then he hit me, I thought, with a piece of iron pipe and knocked me to the ground, but I managed to get up.”
The man then told Mary Jeanne to “take off”. In a blind panic, she made towards a ditch, before the voice rung out into the night again, yelling at her, telling her to change direction. She ran instead back towards the main road, her heels made it difficult on the dirt road but she had spotted another car parked up. She headed straight for it but as she drew nearer, she noticed there was no one inside. In her panic, she had not stopped to think it might have belonged to the attacker. She started to run again.
“Just as I got past the car, the man overtook me”
The attacker hit her again on the head, knocking her to the floor and attempted to sexually assault her with the barrel of his gun. As quickly as it had begun, however, the horror had stopped, the man had quickly got up from Mary jeanne and left. Possibly scared away by headlights of a passing car. Mary Jeanne pulled herself up from the ground and ran to the first house she could see on Richmond Road.
Whilst this had been going on, Jimmy had also picked himself up from the ground. Beaten, bloody, with no glasses and his skull fractured in three places, he stumbled onto Richmond Road and flagged down a passing car. The car pulled over and was occupied by a man and woman who looked terrified at the site of Jimmy’s beaten figure, ambling out of the dark. The driver refused to let Jimmy inside the car, but promised he would call an ambulance for him at the first opportunity. As it turned out, it was unnecessary as at that point, the emergency services, a police car and ambulance had arrived on the scene, alerted earlier by Mary Jeanne.
The ambulance took Jimmy to Texarkana hospital, followed by Mary Jeanne in the police car. Mary jeannes head needed 8 stitches, but she had, physically at least, come away in a better state than Jimmy who lay in a coma in intensive care. Police estimated the whole attack to have taken between just five and eight minutes, with the attacker taking, at most twenty dollars.
An Investigation Begins
The investigation into who the attacker may have been began almost immediately. Police tracked the scene and found Jimmy’s pants, but little else. Mary Jeanne was questioned in the hospital, where she told police that she had never seen or heard the man before, but that he had been wearing a white mask with holes cut out for eyes. She thought he might have been a black man, based on his speech, but due to shock, her account was shaky at best. The police certainly didn’t give it much credence and thought that it was incomplete. They were guessing that she had known more than she was letting on and had invented the mask as a way to hide information for fear of reprisal. In the afternoon edition of The Daily News on the next day, Saturday 23rd, the headline read “MASKED MAN BEATS TEXARKANIAN AND GIRL – Attack occurs on road where couple parked.”
With little for the police to go on, they first suspected Mary Jeanne’s ex-husband. Jimmy’s brothers had assured police that he had no enemies to speak of and that his recent divorce had been a mutual agreement and carried out with civility. After they found the same had applied in Mary Jeannes divorce and even more critically, that her ex-husband had an alibis that checked out, they found themselves back at square one. Once Jimmy came out of his coma, they placed a 24 hour guard on his room for the 15 days he was kept in for recovery. Onc he was finally allowed home, Bowie County Sheriff, William Presley, the officer who arrived first on the scene on the night of the attack, visited him to question him on the identity of the perpetrator. Jimmy couldn’t help the police much more than Mary Jeanne, he’d been unable to see much of anything due to being blinded by the flashlight, however, he did tell police,
“I think he is a white man, not over 30 years old and desperate. That man is dangerous, he’s a potential murderer. The next one he gets will be killed. Evidently he thought he’d killed me that night. I know he was crazy, the crazy things he said, I know his mind was warped.”
The discrepancies between the couples statements caused problems for police. They now believed stronger than ever that Mary jeanne was possibly holding back information and that the mask had been a fictional detail. Moreover, the description given by Jimmy was so vague, that it simply opened up the list of potential suspects to thousands of young men in texarkana alone.
On March 20th, Texas Ranger Stewart Stanley visited Jimmy for further questioning, but no new details were forthcoming. The police had precious few details and no obvious motive for the violent crime. He had taken no more than $20 and hadn’t seemed interested in robbing them in the first place, he had sexually assaulted Mary Jeanne with his pistol, but not raped her, who was the man, and what exactly, had driven him to commit such violence upon two unsuspecting and entirely inoffensive and indistinguishable young people? The question was turned over again and again, each time drawing a blank.
Richard Griffin & Polly Ann Moore
Richard Griffin was a 29 year old world war two veteran who had recently returned to Texarkana after serving in the Navy Construction battalion in the Pacific. He was born on August 31st, 1916 and was the eldest of five children, with two sisters and two brothers. He had schooled in Linden, Texas and his family worked a cotton farm. They were devout methodists, attending church every Sunday. Richard had been a carpenter and worked as an independent contractor before the war and had gained a contract in Hawaii repairing warships. This led him to join the Navy in 1942, where he joined the Seabees, constructing naval bases in the Pacific. In 1943, whilst he was serving, his father died unexpectedly and Richard, stuck in the middle of a grueling warzone, was unable to attend the funeral. His mother, Bernice moved in with her daughter, Eleanor in Texarkana following their father’s death. Like many texakanians, about 12,000 to be exact, Eleanor was working at the Lonestar Army Ammunition Plant and the family lived in Robertson Courts, government wartime housing. After his service and the war was ended, Richard moved into the family home, but took on a carpentry job over 40 miles away. Rather than commute, he worked Monday through Friday, away from Texarkana and stayed with his family at the weekends. In February of 1946, he met and began dating Polly Ann Moore, a headstrong 17 year old from nearby Cass County.
Polly Ann Moore was born on November 10th, 1928 and had attended high school in Atlanta, Texas. She had one brother, named Mark and lived with her mother Lizzy. Her father had died from a stroke when she was just eight years old. She graduated in 1945 and went off to work in the Red River Ordinance Depot as an ammunitions checker, maintaining records and inventory. Due to the commute, she rented a room in her mother’s cousins house in Texarkana on the texas side, where she had met Richard Griffin. The couple had only dated for six weeks, but were getting along real fine, the 12 year age gap was not such a big deal at the time and Polly was confident and mature for her age.
On Saturday, 23rd March, Richard picked up Polly in his slightly road-worn, 1941 Oldsmobile Sedan from her house on Magnolia Street, one street over on the Texas side of State Line Avenue. The couple had planned a double date with Richards sister Eleanor and her boyfriend at the Canary Cottage, a diner that specialised in chicken and steak. They had planned to go for dinner, then on to a movie at the Paramount. During the meal, polly spilt some food on her blouse, so after they had finished, the double date split up, with Richard driving Polly back to her house to change her clothes and then they went as arranged to the paramount to watch a showing of the 1945 release, Snafu, a comedic take on a military film set in the pacific theatre during world war 2. After the film, they went to a cafe and wound down the evening until 2am, where they called it a night and took off in the direction of home.
Richard and Polly drove down West 7th, one of the main arteries that runs from central Texarkana, slightly leaning South West to the city boundary. Given the opposite direction to either of the couples home, it’s likely that their pulling over at a lovers lane, just south from the highway, known as Rich Road, was a premeditated end to the evening. They parked up in an empty parking spot and the silence of the night fell upon the old Chevrolet. They weren’t alone for long however, as another car pulled up by the parking spot, as the lights shut off, Richard and Polly paid it little mind. That was until their privacy was once again interrupted, this time by a man standing at the window of the car who told Richard to drop his pants.
As the sun peaked above the horizon, a light rain fell across texarkana. That Sunday morning saw little traffic on the roads. At around 9am, a man driving along the lane from West 7th saw Richards grey chevy and thought something about it seemed suspicious. He didn’t stop to check it out, instead deciding to call it in to the police and go on his way. It was probably lucky he did so, as when the officers in the squad car dispatched to check the call out arrived, they found a scene that would have given him nightmares for years. The body of Richard griffin sat in the well between the two front seats, slumping forward. His pants were around his ankles and his pockets had been turned out. He had been shot twice in the back of the head, whilst he’d been in the car. Polly body lay on the back seat, also shot twice in the back of the head.
By the time Sheriff Presley and Arkansas state trooper Max Tackett arrived on the scene, a crowd had gathered and worse, no efforts had been made to protect the crime scene from outside interference. Police deduced from a large blood soaked stain on the ground twenty feet from the car that Polly had been shot outside the car and then placed in the car after she had bled out onto a blanket. The police figured from the amount of blood on the scene and inside the car, the killer must’ve been covered, though the earlier rain and the bustling crowd on the scene had laid waste to any idea of following a track that may have been left by the killer.
Presley contacted the Rangers, though there was little hope of discovering much else at the scene. They managed to obtain an ID for the man’s body and confirmed it to that of Richard Griffin from his driver’s license in his wallet. The womans ID was a little more difficult, but after discovering she was wearing an Atlanta High “Class of ‘45” ring with the initials P.A.M etched on the inside of the band, the Sheriff contacted the Atlanta city Marshall who confirmed with the school that the body was that of Polly Ann Moore. An onlooker, who had been scouring the ground around the car found the ignition keys stomped into the ground fifty yards from the vehicle and handed them in to Presley. Later in the day, the car was removed and taken to the station for fingerprinting, though by the time it arrived, it had been manhandled both at the scene by the numerous onlookers and by the removal process that it would turn out to be next to useless. Richards elder brother Wellborn confirmed the car belonged to Richard at least and later that evening ID’d the body of Richard himself in the city hospital.
The onlookers had a secondary effect on the case, quite outside of potentially destroying important evidence or clues, they also fostered rumours and hearsay as they spoke amongst themselves, deducing what each thought might have happened. A rumour quickly spread that Polly had been sexually assaulted and persisted for many years after the killings, however, the physician that carried out the examination of her body officially remarked that there had been no evidence that a rape or assault had been carried out. The following Monday, 25th March, the Texarkana Gazette ran with the story as the main headline.
“Couple found shot to death in Auto”
A new investigation
The investigation into the double murder of Richard griffin and Polly Ann Moore proceeded slowly. The police had almost nothing to go on in terms of hard facts. On Monday evening, Texas Ranger Jimmy Gear arrived to examine the body of Richard. Polly had, by now already been buried and the Ranger was not best pleased with how the entire event had been handled. He scolded the police for not protecting the crime scene and for burying Polly before removing the bullets from her body. He arranged for the 2 bullets to be removed from Richards head. Outside of this, all were left perplexed by the killers motive, or rather, lack thereof. No robbery appeared to have taken place, or at least, a small sum of money had been found still in Richards wallet and no sexual assault or other sexual motive appeared to present itself. The whole affair appeared to have been a mindless execution. With a lack of rhyme or reason, justified or not, panic will begin to spread and so it did in texarkana. The deaths of the couple were officially written up as “deaths at the hand of an unknown person, for unknown reasons.”
Analysis of the bullets removed from Richards body did give the police some clues, chiefly that they were a .32 calibre shell, shot from an auto, or semi auto pistol, most likely an American made Colt. The problem with this analysis however, was the commonality of the firearm. Ranger Gear searched the scene for a further two days, before accepting defeat with no results, whilst a $500 reward was posted for information regarding the crime, a sum equal to about $6000 today. Within four days of the killings, over fifty people were questioned and over one hundred leads were followed, all that lead nowhere. Three suspects were arrested on the basis they were found in possession of bloody clothing, but all had been checked over and released. In the following weeks, police would tirelessly track over another 100 false leads, each one leading to a dead end.
When Mary Jeanne Larey heard of the murders, she drove from her new home in Frederick, Oklahoma where she had moved after the earlier attack on her and Jimmy, to insist to police that she was sure the attack she had endured was linked. The police however, found little stock in the story and since they found her earlier testimony to be unreliable in their book, wrote it off without much thought to the fact that the two attacks showed several distinct similarities.
Days and then weeks passed with little to no progress made on the investigation. Frustration and rumour grew, but there was little that could be done. Life in Texarkana continued at a normal pace, with nothing out of the ordinary occurring, just an added salacious story to do the rounds in quiet talk and local gossip.
Paul Martin & Betty Jo Booker
On Saturday 13th April, local band “Jerry Atkins and his Rhythmaires” were winding down a gig at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars club. They played their regularly to a lively dance crowd, knocking out Duke Ellington and Glen Miller classics in the upbeat big band theme of the time. The leader of the band, Jerry Atkins had taken control of the group after the onset of World War 2, due to the shortage of players. He rebuilt it with several younger members, one of which was local sax player Betty Jo Booker.
Betty Jo was 15 years old and attended Texas High school. She was born on June 5th, 1930, but lost her father at the age of three to a fatal road accident. Despite this, she had a lively and vibrant childhood, interested in singing and dancing, she won Miss Tiny Texarkana in 1933, less than a year after her father’s passing. She had an older brother, though he had been born with brain damage. Their mother Bessie Booker did her best to support the family alone and idolised her daughter. When Betty Jo was seven years old, her mother remarried to an insurance salesman named Clarke Brown. He was a good addition to the family as far as Betty Jo was concerned and he taught her music and songs on the piano, supporting her love of music. In 1942, whilst she was age 12, her older brother too passed away, leaving Betty Jo the last link to their original family for her mother. The pair remained exceptionally close and Bessie kept a scrapbook on all of Betty Jo’s school achievements whilst she played in the school bands.
That weekend, she had made some loose plans to meet with her childhood friend, 16 year old Paul Martin. The pair had grown up together, but Paul had left the Arkansas side of Texarkana aged 11, when his mother Inez, moved the family one hundred miles South to Kilgore, texas, after the death of her husband. Paul had three older brothers, all of which had joined to serve in the war, but Paul being too young to sign up, settled for attending Military school in Mississippi instead, moving back to Kilgore with his family in 1945. On Friday 12th of April, the night before Betty Jo’s gig at the VFW, Paul left Kilgore High and borrowed his brothers Ford Coupe to drive back North to Texarkana to visit his some of his friends, he had arranged to spend the Friday night with Tom Albritton. The next day, Saturday 13th April, Paul made his way over to Betty Jo’s house on the Texas side, but found she was out swimming in the lake with some of her friends. He caught up with her mother and step-father for a while and then arranged to collect Betty Jo after her gig that night at the VFW.
1am rolled around and Paul sat outside the VFW awaiting the arrival of Betty Jo. She’d been playing in the dance hall since 9pm, but the night was over at last and the dancers began to filter out onto the street. Atkins collected the bands fee and distributed it among the players and then drove to an all night restaurant. The band were quite used to socialising after their gigs, though Betty Jo would always, without fail return home first to place her Sax in the safety of her home and let her mother know the night had gone okay. When he met Betty Jo, Paul agreed to drive her home to drop off her sax, then the pair planned to met up with some of Betty Jo’s friends, maybe they’d stop in at the all night Diner or maybe at a slumber party one of her friends was holding that weekend. On the way back to Betty Jos place, Paul suggested parking up near the Spring Lake Park on the Northern boundary of Texarkana. It was a quiet, rural area in 1946 and the pair parked up around 2am, cutting the engine and sinking the car into the darkness.
During the night, Betty Jo’s mother woke several times in a panic. Betty Jo had not returned her sax and that, she concluded was far too unusual. Her husband did his best to relax the anxious parent, telling her that she’d probably gone out with friends and not to call them up, to save Betty Jo from embarrassment. Finally however, Bessie won the argument and they called Betty Jo’s friends who did nothing to assuage her fears, when they confirmed they hadn’t seen Betty Jo since she got into Paul’s car after the gig at the VFW.
At 6am Sunday morning, a married couple, Mr and Mrs weaver saw the body of Paul lying by the roadside, near to Spring Lake Park and drove to the nearest home to call the Sheriff. Sheriff Presley was fortunately a morning kind of guy and he had been awake and eating breakfast with the Texas side chief of Police, Jack Runnels before his usual Sunday church visit. Both responded to the call over the radio of the discovery of what was thought to be a body out by Spring Lake Park. Upon their arrival, they found the body of Paul Martin lying on the gravel of North Park Road, on his left side with his legs and feet jutting out into the road. Sheriff Presley confirmed that the body was deceased and quickly worked to protect the scene to avoid any repeat of the destruction of evidence found at the last scene. Paul had been shot four times, once in the back of the neck, once in the back of his left shoulder, once in his right hand and savagely, once in his face. They ID’d Paul Martin quickly via his wallet. Sheriff Presley also found a datebook near to his person and quickly pocketed it. They found blood on the fence on the opposite side of the road and thought that it could’ve been possible he was shot on that side and then crawled to his position half on and half off the road. They found Paul’s brothers Ford Coupe parked up with the keys still in the ignition about a mile and a half from his body and about 400 yards from the entrance of the park. Initially, no one knew that Betty Jo had been with Paul, so they didn’t extend their search for any other bodies, however news spread quickly in texarkana and as the news of the discovery of Paul slowly filtered back through Texarkana and Betty Jo’s friends all confirmed she had last been seen leaving with paul, the police were notified and a search was organised, comprising of both law officers and local citizens who were happy to assist. Once again the scene had been drawing onlookers and police drew from this crowd along with some church friends of Sheriff Presleys to work in small groups and try to find any sign of Betty Jo. The boyds were one such family who joined in the search and were ultimately, the unlucky group to find her body. She was lying on her back about a mile from Paul’s Body and 2 miles from the Ford Coupe, in a small wooded area, 25 yards North of another gravel road named Morris Lane. She was fully clothed including her overcoat, with one hand in her pocket. She had been shot twice, once in the chest and once in the head.
Meanwhile, back at the scene of Paul’s body, Sheriff Presley had noticed tracks of a man alongside smaller tracks on the ground and tried in vain to follow them. Officers visited Tom Albrittons house to question him regarding Paul staying at his house that weekend, though he confirmed he had not seen Paul since the day before.
Once again, clues at the scene were not forthcoming with clues. From the angle of the gunshots made on the body of Betty Jo, police surmised the killer had been right handed, but otherwise there was once again a lack of any immediate motive, no tracks, no clues, no murder weapon. Blanks were being drawn as quickly as new leads were tracked down. To all involved, it seemed as though the killer had simply tracked the pair down for sport, killed them and left after gaining his fill of excitement. It was now that the bubble of quiet building of rumours and gossip in Texarkana finally burst. Panic began to weave it’s way through the local narrative as people felt threatened by someone who killed with little rhyme or reason. The opinion of 11 year old Herbert Wren, a young man who had gone up to Spring Lake Park after church school that Sunday morning to see what the fuss was about, was one that echoed throughout the community.
“It changed our community overnight. Before that, youngsters never felt threatened or uncomfortable anywhere. Now young people were in potential danger at night almost anywhere”
At 9pm on Sunday night, the players of Betty Jos band visited the police to tell them everything they had known about the Saturday night, although it had seemed like any ordinary night up until they’d waved off Betty Jo. One important detail they did manage to help the police with was to report that Betty Jo had been with her Sax, an item the police had not found in the car. They supplied the officers with a complete description of the instrument along with its serial number. Police used the information to send out a bulletin to all music and pawn shops in the area to keep an eye out if any instruments matching the description were bought in to be sold.
Meanwhile rumours circulated as quickly as ever. Sexual assault was always one of the first suggestions made in quiet whispers that flooded through Texarkana. Despite sheriff Presleys insistence to the press that no evidence of sexual assault had been found, the reality was a little more complicated. A leaf had been found inside the coat of Betty Jo, which lead some to believe she had removed it at one point or another and later medical records showed her vagina to have been bruised, along with the FBI’s forensics lab report which arrived in Texarkana on April 20th. The report told of the discovery of seminal fluid in her vagina and pubic hair, whilst Pauls penis was found to be free from any evidence of sexual intercourse, there were also four mentions in the Texas Ranger files that she had suffered rape before her death. This all suggested that the killer had assaulted and raped her, though if he had, he had then allowed her to redress before killing her and for unknown reasons, this fact was being withheld from the public. The same report also confirmed that the same .32 calibre weapon had been used to kill all four victims along with the discovery of four fingerprints, none of which were the victims, however they lead nowhere.
Irregardless, these were facts the public were not privy too, but it didn’t stop the rumours from spreading. Fear and panic rose quickly with the rumours that a killing spree was underway. This was a crime that differentiated itself from the usual violence known in Texarkana previously. The Miller County Deputy Sheriff’s deputy Tillman Johnson told of the public’s reaction years later in an interview.
“We were constantly getting calls, mostly at night, about prowlers. People would called about any noise they heard at all.”
By the evening, the atmosphere had grown tense in Texarkana, but some found hope in a new lease of life given to the level of security, when that night, six Texas Rangers came into texarkana to aid police with the investigation, headed up by Captain Manuel Trazazas “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas. Gonzaullas was a showman, a handsome Ranger who strolled into texarkana with dual pistols at his hip, each with a handle of pearlescent Ivory. He had something of a local reputation and was rumoured to have killed over 75 men in his 26 year career with the Rangers. He carried a dictionary everywhere he went and a personable character for someone who had reportedly killed so many. He would take the front and centre of the investigation, holding press conferences throughout the investigation. When he arrived he told one reporter, when asked about his nickname:
“I guess I got that nickname ‘cos I went into a lot of fights by myself. And i came out by myself too.”
He made good copy for the papers, but quite aside, he also attempted to regain a level of security amongst the locals, by telling them he wouldn’t leave Texarkana until the culprit had been captured.
Along with the rangers, the Department of Public safety dispatched technical experts along with a tech lab from Austin. With the bolstered manpower, something which the forces of texarkana had severely lacked previously, a 100 mile radius was investigated, following any and all leads. One promising statement came from a local man named Earnest Browning, who had seen an old model car drive off from the area of the murders at around 5:30am on Sunday morning after he had heard what he believed to be gunshots. Unfortunately for police, it had been too dark for Browning to catch any details of the driver, or his license plates.
On Monday morning, the day after the murders, the texarkana Gazette ran with the headline and lead story:
“Teenage couple shot to death – Betty Jo Booker, Paul Martin, killed in double slaying. Tension grips city as investigation launched to solve second twin murders.”
The funerals of the pair were held on Tuesday at Beech Street Baptist Church, and were attended by hundreds of locals, all looking to mourn the victims or rubberneck on the hot news item that was, by now, causing so much panic and commotion to the townsfolk. The one thing that was missing was a catchy name for the killer. Press soon put an end to that however by devising the moniker that would become the official title as far as reporting would go. On Tuesday afternoon, The front page of the Daily News afternoon edition hit the shelves with the headline
“Phantom Killer eludes officers as investigation of slayings pressed.”
The name stuck, the following day, Wednesday 17th April, the Texarkana gazette published its headline:
“Phantom slayer still at large as probe continues”
The Phantom, as he was now evocatively known summed up the crimes well in the imagination of the public. He came from nowhere in the dead of night, carried out his senseless killings and disappeared leaving no trace. It was a name that played well.
Curfew & a quiet couple of weeks
In the days following the funerals of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin, a ballistics expert at the Austin tech lab confirmed that the bullets were linked between the killings, confirming for the first time publicly that the killer was one and the same. At the same time, Gonzaullas told press that the case was the most mysterious he’d come across in his twenty year career. Neither report did anything to aid in quieting the fear spiked rumour mill working away with Texarkana. In a town that had previously operated on a pretty lax level of security, relying on the local community, locked door policies quickly came into play. Guns and ammunition was also quickly selling out at the local hardware stores.
The group of texas rangers took a backroom in a local drugstore as a temporary hideout, away from the local police where they could discuss plans to capture the killer. One such plan was to send rangers out in cars, parked up at various lovers lanes throughout texarkana with a dressed up mannequin as a passenger, lying in wait to trap the unsuspecting killer. This plan may have sounded outlandish, but the rangers were not the only ones to come up with the same idea. In fact not only had the police thought to do the same thing, but local vigilantes themselves had too, once as a patrol officer approached a couple parked up one night, announcing he was with the police, he was told that he’d been lucky to announce himself so quickly. Looking down, he saw the driver had a pistol pointed at him from the moment he’d stepped out of his car. The traps all came up empty handed though and no suspects were brought in for questioning as a result.
Local businesses and establishments chipped in to the reward fund which now reached over $6000 dollars, a cool $76,000 by today’s money. They also backed calls for a curfew to be put in place at night. 19 Clergyman of the local churches were the first to officially push for the idea, after much suggestion and talk of the same by the local adults. They sent a petition that read:
“Whereas this situation has existed in texarkana for some time which is unfavourable for the proper and due observance of the Christian sabbath in keeping open public amusement places until an early hour Sunday morning, and whereas this situation has further contributed to an increase in juvenile delinquency and crime in our community. Therefore, be it resolved the Texarkana ministerial alliance petition the city councils of Texarkana, Arkansas and Texarkana, Texas to adopt an ordinance to close all public places of amusement on Saturday evening at twelve O’clock midnight.”
Whilst the subtext might not be appreciated by all in retrospect, at the time, it was not an unpopular idea and many local businesses agreed to a voluntary curfew before the submission of the petition regardless. On the weekend of April 22nd, The Paramount cancelled it’s midnight movie and Diners closed their doors at 10:30pm. It’s a testament to the level of panic that had spread throughout the city, when one considers that even the young people of the time for the most part agreed willingly to the curfew.
As people linked the murders paranoia began spreading with the overall anxiety in the community, people had ideas on who they thought the killer was, or could be, the problem was, everyone suspected everyone else, so really, it could have been anyone as far as the community was concerned and this didn’t help matters. People began expecting another killing to take place and this was reflected when the body of a young man was thought to have been discovered on Saturday 27th April. After police checked out the call however, they found a drunk 15 year old boy passed out in the middle of the road. When four local lads had got there car stuck in the mud and couldn’t make it home that night, panic spread once again, that was until they strolled into town the next afternoon, stressed, but healthy.
The police had to follow all leads, including ones that lead them to drunk teens lying in the road. Thought to be slightly more promising at the time was a call from a local music shop. They had contacted police after a man had walked in off the street on the 25th April, trying to sell a saxophone and when the sales staff asked the man to wait and speak to the manager, he panicked and fled. He was eventually arrested two days later in the Waterfront Hotel after he’d tried to buy a .45 calibre pistol from a pawn shop. He no longer had the saxaphone in his possesion but he was positively ID’d by the sales staff from the music shop and the police did find a bag of bloody clothing in his hotel room. He told police the blood was his own and came from a cut on his head he’d recieved after getting into a bar brawl. What had seemed like a promising lead disintegrated as the mans alibis checked out and by May 3rd, Gonzaullas informed the Texarkana Gazette that he had been cleared from suspicion entirely.
A second arrested suspect was a man never publicly named, but known as “Sammy”. He was a local black man in his mid-30s and had been arrested due to the tires of his car matching tracks lifted and cast opposite the body of Paul Martin. Sammy didn’t seem fazed by the arrest and happily took a polygraph test. He failed it on three seperate occasions, but something wasn’t right. Sammy had had no police record and was a fairly amiable man with a solid local reputation, he kept insisting that he had not driven along the gravel road however and the each time, the question arose on the polygraph asking if he had been there, he failed. Sheriff Presley decided to take unusaul actions. He took Sammy to Dr Travis Elliott, a physician and practitioner of regression hypnosis. He spoke to Sammy in a private session and by the end of it, was convinced of his innocence. Still, Elliott and Presley pressed on with the hypnosis session and whilst in a deeply relaxed state, Sammy finally admitted to being at the scene. He hadn’t admitted to being a killer hoever, he simply admitted to driving home late on the night of the murder, pulling over by the side of the road to relieve himself, after which he stepped back into his car and drove home to bed. He was eventually cleared entirely.
Whilst police followed up on all the leads they could, the local press also found themselves inundated with hoaxers calling up claiming to be the killer. On one occasion, two weeks after the murders of Paul MArtin and Betty Jo Booker, a man called the Texarkana Gazette claiming to be the phantom and predicted a third crime would be carried out the following weekend, three weeks since the last. He suggested meeting with the journalist, however he was dismissed. “Killers don’t call and callers don’t kill,” they assessed. The fact of the matter was, people had been putting two and two together for a few days now and they’d taken note that the first attack had occurred three weeks to the day before the second. The extrapolation from that point, was to expect a third attack three weeks from the second and so, a countdown of sorts began, heightening the tension of the city as they counted down the days to May 4th.
Virgil & Katherine Starks
Virgil Starks was 37 years old. He was born on April 3rd, 1909 and was married to his childhood friend, 36 year old Katherine Starks, who was born just 5 months later on September 25th, 1909. Their parents had both owned farms in Red Water, about 15 miles West of Texarkana. Virgil Starks had moved to texarkana on the Arkansas side in the late 1920s. The pair married on March 2nd, 1932 and moved in together on a farm that sat 100 yards of Highway 67, another of the main arteries that sprung from Texarkana, headed North East on the Arkansas side. The couple both worked on the farm harvesting cotton, corn and feedstock, whilst Virgil also welded on the side in the shop that sat on the 500 acre property. They had no children and lived in relative comfort in the spacious, six roomed, farmhouse.
The farmhouse itself sat about 10 miles Northeast of the Texarkana city limits, though the couple would certainly have heard of the killings. Katherine’s family lived nearby and their social lives, including their church were all located within Texarkana proper.
On the evening of Friday 3rd May, Katherine was already in her nightgown, relaxing in the bedroom, whist Virgil turned on his wireless radio and sat in the living room chair to read the paper. He didn’t get far through it however, before he was shot twice in the back of the head through the living room window. He slumped forward in the chair as Katherine came into the living room to see what the noise was, when she saw her husband, she ran straight to the telephone on the wall and went to pick up the mouthpiece. There were two more cracks as she was shot through the same window, once in the face with the bullet entering through her cheek and exiting by her left ear, the second broke her jaw, shattering her teeth. She dropped to the floor and in a horrific state, but alive, she crawled to the bedroom to collect their gun. Not sure of where the gun actually was in the bedroom, she changed direction and instead headed towards the kitchen, just in time to see the shooter climbing into their house through the kitchen window. Bloody and afraid, she clambered to her feet and stumbled through several rooms, leaving behind a trail of blood to the front door and out into the yard. Barefoot, blinded by her injuries and functioning purely on adrenaline, she ran across the yard to the highway, she could only think to keep looking ahead and run as fast as she could to her sisters house who lived about 200 yards away, on the opposite side of the highway. She stared ahead and reached the front door and thumped as hard as she could. The lights in the house were all off though and no reply came from her hammering on the door. No one was home. Katherine turned and ran next to her sisters neighbours house, another fifty yards away. This time she had more luck and the neighbour, a Mr Praytor was home. Praytor went inside to grab his rifle, fired it into the night sky to alert any nearby residents. Elmer taylor, another nearby resident came to their aid after hearing the gunshot and the pair drove katherine to the Michael Meagher Memorial Hospital. When they arrived, she was immediately taken into the operating theatre to be operated on.
Whilst they drove to the hospital, police had been called and Arkansas state officers Max Tackett and Charley Boyd were the first officers to respond to the radio call out as they were out on patrol in the nearby area. Earlier, Tackett had seen a suspicious car parked up but hadn’t the time to check it out, They now guessed that it likely belonged to the attacker. They roped off the house and protected the scene as best they could, before upwards of thirty more officers descended on the scene. Though they had tried to protect evidence as best they could, in the commotion it was all largely for nothing.
Miller County Deputy Sheriff was also one of the first officers to arrive, though by the time he got there, there was already a great deal of hustle and bustle. In a later interview, he told of the scene
“We tried to secure the crime scene and we were in and out of there all night long. We were running around, trying to find leads and gather what evidence we could. We tried to interview some people and question some suspects. We went to other peoples’ homes in the area to see if they had heard or had seen anything, people would stand out near the front of their homes and yell at you to identify yourself before you got too close. You had to identify yourself or you would get shot.”
A blockade was erected on highway 67 and all the neighbours were briefed on the events at the farmhouse, along with over a dozen arrests made, though almost all were released immediately and had only been taken in for being in the area. Police found money in the house, along with a purse containing cash and jewellery on the bed, which lead them to believe robbery had not been a motive for the invasion. In the trail of blood leading through the house, bloody footprints were found and initially believed to be from the killer, though in truth, no one could be quite sure as so many officers had traipsed through and the sheer amount of blood left by katherine as she ran made it difficult to keep the area clean with so many officers coming and going. Nevertheless, the area of floor with the footprint was pulled up and sent for analysis. A red metal flashlight was also found in the bush by the window that had been shot through and .22 calibre bullets were retrieved from the walls of the house. This struck an immediate wrench in the theory that the phantom had struck again, the bullets had been fired from a different gun. This time the attacker was deemed to have used a .22 calibre rifle, a gun that was so common, it wouldn’t have been unlikely that almost every house in Texarkana had owned one.
For the first time in the Phantom killings, tracking dogs were used to attempt to follow any trails, however they were chasing shadows in many regards. The police had nothing solid to give them to track and with so many trails leading in and out of the house from all the officers, they could have lead the police almost anywhere. Footprints were lifted from the mud in the yard, out by the welding shop and in the field, however the ground was so loose they were in a relatively poor state. They had however been lifted from the field opposite of where Tackett and Boyd had spotted the parked car earlier and cigarette butts were found on the ground where it had been parked, along with tyre tracks that appeared to have come from the Southerly direction of Texarkana. If they had been the killers, a picture formed of a man smoking cigarettes and mulling over his coming spree of violence until dark enough for him to cross the road and walk across the field to the house under cover of dark to carry out pre-meditated murder.
The next morning, Saturday 4th may, the Texarkana Gazette ran with the headline “Murder rocks city again, farmer slain, wife wounded. Assassins bullets kill Virgil Starks.”
Virgil Starks funeral was held on Monday at the First Methodist Church with over 500 people in attendance. On the same day, the flashlight was sent via airplane to the FBI Headquarters in Washington for extensive fingerprint work, including both the flashlight and it’s batteries. On Tuesday, Katherine was deemed well enough by doctors to be questioned in hospital. She had suffered a horrific ordeal but remained stalwart in her personality throughout. She told the police that during the attack, she’d first thought to fetch a gun from the bedroom to defend herself, but could not see well enough through her own blood. She could not provide any more detail on the killer though and once again, it seemed there had been a murder in Texarkana by a criminal that left very few, if any leads and no motive whatsoever. Local stores were checked for stockists of the flashlight and though it turned out to be a relatively rare model, the shopkeeper could not recall who he had sold that particular light too, nor how long ago. A detailed description of the light along with a large, colour composite picture, a first for the gazette, was printed in the Texarkana Gazette appealing for any information on the light to be reported to police.
“Have you seen this two cell flashlight? You may be the one to aid in solving the phantom slayings”
Upon its return from the FBI however, the flashlight was found to be entirely clean of prints inside and out, suggesting the killer had been savvy enough in his crimes to have cleaned the light and worn gloves on the night of the attack. Likewise the results from the footprints lifted from the house, four in total, three from the floor and one from the kitchen window curtain, came back as inconclusive.
And still the rumour mill continued to turn. Motives, MO’s and suspects were thrown out casually by all who would have the opportunity to give their piece on the subject and to anyone who might lend an ear. Suggestions the crimes were sexually driven began gaining pace throughout the community and the press followed suit, printing headlines such as “Sex maniac hunted in murders”, from the front page story on Sunday the 5th March.
The Gazette also took to interviewing Dr Anthony Lapalla, a psychiatrist from the Texarkana federal correctional institution on a possible profile for the killer. It was a move that might seem fairly normal by today’s standards, but at the time profiling was in its infancy and was a remarkably forward thinking move by the Editor, Mahaffey. They printed the profile in the May 7th Edition of the Gazette, alongside an introduction to the process that read:
“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”
Lapalla’s profile however, was not to be reassuring and it’s unlikely that anyone in the community thanked the Gazette for informing them just who they were dealing with. Indeed, it might be said that after reading the profile, no one was any the clearer anyway and only worked to stoke the paranoia already endemic in the community. Lapalla believed the same criminal was linked in all attacks, was a male in his mid thirties to fifties. Possibly a local cue to his knowledge of the area, though not necessarily as he could have come from another area and “acquainted himself with the situation before he struck.” It was possible he would change his “hunting grounds” and never return to Texarkana, but also would have known “what was being done at all times with the investigation” and therefore may simply be laying low for a while. He “may appear to be a good citizen and may be a good citizen in some respects.” At one point he decides the killer was probably not mentally unstable and certainly not a “Jekyll and Hyde” type figure, though it might have been worth checking mental institutions for recently released suspects all the same, then later decides that he may well be “insane”.
“This man is extremely dangerous. He works alone and no one knows what he is doing because he tells no one.”
People around texarkana were drawing their own conclusions as to who the killer may or may not be not everyone, including many police officials believed all the attacks to be linked. The use of a different weapon in the Starks attack, along with the fact it was made inside a home were not missed by most and serious doubts began to arise. On the other hand, perhaps it was possible that the killer knew too much about the investigation, perhaps he knew the lovers lanes were too high risk, or that the curfews and general air of fear throughout the cities that drove people to stay at home, or act with high levels of caution if they were out, had driven the phantom to kill inside homes to get his fix. In short, no one appeared to know much of anything and anyone and everyone was a potential suspect.
On the May 11th, Sheriff Presley and Chief of Police Jack N. Runnels appealed for any information on missing persons on the nights of the murders.
“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.”
The pooled reward for information on the killer now sat at a tidy $10,000, yet still no information was forthcoming. The tension in the area now reached a tipping point. In the days that followed, groups of residents patrolled the streets by night, whilst others locked themselves indoors, afraid of their neighbours. A teen at the time, William Atchinsin later told of the atmosphere in the days following the Starks attack:
“If you wanted to go to someone’s house after dark, you had to call them first and let them know you were coming. The big wonder for everyone back then was whether the killings were being done by someone who lived among us.”
The hype of a serial killer, attacking the vulnerable, named the phantom proved too much for national press to ignore and there was an influx of journalists into the area, looking to get in on the good copy that Ranger Gonzaullas was consistently offering up. Published a month later on June 10th, 1946, LIFE magazine published an article on the case titled “Texarkana Terror” with the byline “Southern city is panicked by killer who shoots according to schedule.”
In an exercise in what might have seemed hyperbole from outside, the article spoke of a “town gripped by terror” and of “Terrified housewives” who kept shotguns by their sides as they read. All the while Police, FBI and Rangers “snuffled down cooling trails”.
The article contained an image of a local woman named Mrs Henry Rochelle, standing next to a homemade booby trap:
“Blanket is nailed over a glass door. Table teetering on ash tray will fall over if the door is opened, spilling nails onto tin trays and waking up Mr & Mrs Rochelle, who keep a rifle next to their bed. If doors open pots will smash against vases on the floor.”
Evocative language aside, the article was not far from the mark. Police investigations slowly continued the laborious work of trawling through the hundreds of false leads, hoax calls and questioning the arrested suspects, which would eventually total into the hundreds, possibly even over a thousand. Almost all were arrested on tenuous links or false tip-offs but with no DNA testing, no detailed autopsies, minimal preservation of crime scenes and fingerprinting both cursory and often interfered with by the commotions at each crime scene, the police had very little to work with.nightlife and shopping economies were struck heavily as people stayed at home more and more. Sales of guns and ammunition. however, flew and sales were placed on backorder across Texarkana. This wasn’t helped by Ranger Gonzaullas who, in an effort to ensure the public they were safe and protected, was brought on to local radio for an interview. This didn’t go quite to plan as Gonzaullas told the city:
“My advice for everyone would be to lock up their houses as tight as they can and oil up their guns and see if they are loaded or get themselves a double barreled shotgun. Put them out of reach of children. Do not use them unless it’s absolutely necessary, but if you believe it is, do not hesitate to shoot.”
This wasn’t quite the calming influence the editor of the Gazette, who arranged the interview, had intended.
Mercifully for the police, they found their forces bolstered by redirection of manpower from various sources, 10 extra patrol cars were drafted into Texarkana with modern radios, along with a teletype machine that would connect the Texarkana police force to other stations throughout Texas, 24/7.
Meanwhile, the Gazette had flown a reporter out to Mary Jeanne Larey to hear her story again and on Friday 10th May, ran a front page story linking the initial attack on herself and Richard griffin with the later murders and attacks. The police were yet to publicly link them, though Mary herself said in the interview with the paper
“I believe now that the officers connect all the crimes.”
For the population of Texarkana, it was just one more attack to worry about. The days ticked by and the countdown to another three week period tightened the screws on the town and then, the weekend passed without incident. Texarkanians breathed a sigh of relief. There had been an earlier scare, one week after the attack on the Starks house, but it had seemed inconclusive at the time and eventually discounted by officials. It was the story of Earl McSpadden, whose body had turned up mutilated by the train tracks, sixteen miles North of Texarkana. The coroner had concluded that the mutilation, which had occurred after being hit by a train, had happened at least two hours after his death, meaning he’d been dumped on the tracks to disguise his murder. Instead it was found that he’d been stabbed to death citing evidence of deep stab wounds and defensive wounds on his hands. Whilst the death of McSpadden did nothing to aid the investigation and only heightened the level of rumour in the city, which by now was tagging Virgil Starks as anything from an adulterer killed by an angry husband to his being a moonshiner, or gang bootlegger. The murder of Mcspadden, however, was ultimately not considered as being linked with the Phantom and as weekends came and went without incident, finally things in texarkana began to settle back to their normal ways.
During the period after the attack on the Starks farmhouse, investigations continued to “Snuffle on”. There were numerous suspects picked up and tracked by police, some with more credence than others. On May 8th police reported that they were tracking an escaped German prisoner of war, but after some excitement, he appeared to have “vanished into thin air”. More modern analysis of this story has tended to veer towards the idea that he very possibly did not exist at all and was merely a product of post-second world war propaganda.
Hoaxers and fantasists continued too, as with the story of Ralph Baumann, a war veteran, living in Los Angeles who had attempted to sell his story to a newspaper of his Texarkana murder spree. When they didn’t go in for the story, he took it straight to the police telling them that he lived for danger, how he’d previously been in a coma and how he was running from something, maybe murder. If it turned out he hadn’t committed the crimes, he hoped instead that he could settle down working as a stuntman in Hollywood. One assumes his future, glittering film career went about as well as his confession.
But there were solid leads too, two of which that have persisted after decades of scrutiny.
Peggy and Youell Swinney
In June of 1946, with the investigation faltering, any and all leads were being followed in the hopes a breakthrough might come from somewhere. Max Tackett, the Arkansas State Police officer who had earlier seen a parked car on the side of the road on the night of the Starks farmhouse attack, made a link that he thought was worth looking into. He’d been looking through records of stolen cars when he noticed something that he thought constituted a pattern. On each night of the murders, a car had been stolen and a previously stolen car had been found abandoned. In the slow moving times of the investigation, it was worth something to look into. On the night of Friday, June 28th he found a car that had been reported stolen in a parking lot and decided to stake it out and ait for the new “owner” to come pick it up. If he’d been expecting a violent car thief, he was to be surprised as instead, the car was approached by a young, 21 year old girl. The girl was named Peggy Swinney freshly returned from Shreveport, where she’d married her now husband Youell Swinney, just two hours previous. Youell, she said was back in Atlanta, selling on another car he’d stolen. Peggy was taken into custody, whilst Tackett tracked Youell in Atlanta, eventually catching up with him outside the Arkansas Motor Coach Bus Station, on Front Street. When Swinney saw the officer, he fled out the back of the station and through a fire exit, but was eventually cornered. As Tackett approached him, he told the officer not to shoot, to which Tackett replied, “I’m not going to shoot you for car theft.” “Mister, don’t play games with me, you want me for more than stealing cars.” came Swinney’s reply.
He didn’t stop incriminating himself there either, in the patrol car on the way back to the station, he asked the officers strange questions like if they thought he might get electrocuted this time and admitting that he’ll be spending “the rest of my life behind bars this time.”
As it turned out, Swinney had lead quite the life of crime. He’s been arrested before on charges of car theft, violence and counterfeiting. Despite his earlier incriminating questions, however, he wasn’t ready to confess to the phantoms murders. Aside from that, Tacketts pattern of theft and car abandonment were not quite matching up either. It was true that Swinney had stolen a green 1941 model Plymouth, but that had been until the night after the murder of Richard griffin and Polly Ann Moore and Swinney still had the car three months later. He also hadn’t stolen a car on the night of the attacks on Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, in fact, in Tacketts own notes on the case, police couldn’t even prove if Swinney had had a car at all on the night of the Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey attacks, there had been reports of witnesses seeing him take a cab the day after and he was also seen walking through the streets at 2am.
Peggy Swinney was held in custody, accused of being an accomplice in the murders of Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, but had been remaining tight lipped. It took her almost a full month to give a statement, at which point she then gave three statements, spanning two days. Her first statement came on the morning of July 23rd and confessed to taking the Saxophone of Paul Martin’s coupe. Although at the start of the statement, she gave contradicting information, suggesting that Swinney had already had the Saxophone earlier that same day, apparently given to him and alludes to him selling it for $20.
As her statement changed however, it provided a lot more juicy details for the police.
“Swinney asked me if I wanted to go to spring lake park and I told him I would if he wanted to. Swinney was driving and he drove out to the park. After getting into the park, Swinney drove on around the park until we came to a dairy over beyond the park. We had seen several cars parked around on the road in the park. Swinney stopped the car near the dairy and we drank four bottles of beer that we had. Swinney got out fo the car and I asked him what he was going to do. He said “I’m going to take a leak”. Swinney left the car and I was alone. Swinney was gone from the car about one hour, when I heard something that sounded like two gunshots, I do not know if they were pistol shots or shotgun shots. It was just getting daylight when Swinney came back to the car, He had been gone four or five hours. Swinney got into the car and started driving out of the park at a rapid rate of speed. When Swinney came back to the car I saw that his clothes were wet up to his knees and damp on up to his waist. Before getting out of the park, we passed a car which I remember as being a coupe, I don’t remember what colour it was. Swinney stopped by the car, he got out, went back to the coupe parked on the side of the road. I saw him look into the car to get something out of it. He bought a large black case which looked like a hard leather black box and put it into the trunk of the car we were in. I asked Swinney what he was doing getting something out of this car, Swinney replied that a friend told him to come out there and get it. We then left the park and drove to my mothers on Richmond Road.”
At first sight, the statement might have seemed exciting for any officer reading the report. Finally a breakthrough! Some of it seemed strange though and it was unsigned by Peggy. Fortunately, the next afternoon at 2pm, she would give a second statement. This time her statement switched it up a little. She included more details, like the time they had got to the park, 1am and of how as they passed the coupe, Swinney stopped the car and told Peggy how he wanted to rob the people in it. “He shot the boy two times” she added, she also refined her earlier statement, saying that she’d lied and that the car had been up on a gravel road. Agaiun the statement was unsigned by Peggy.
The problem with both statements were many, not least that the details she was giving police simply weren’t matching with the facts of the case. She told police that the pair had driven to the park at 1am, but Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker hadn’t even left the Veterans of Foreign Wars club by that point, so how could they have been in the park? The area where she had told police the shooting took place was also not the same as the true facts of the case. Aside from this, there were several contradictions between each statement. Had Swinney left her alone in the car, or had they robbed the couple together? Had Swinney pulled over at the side of the road to change his wet clothes, or had he stopped into a restroom to change his bloody clothes?
She gave a third statement eight hours later at 10pm. In this statement, she gave a third, once again different, account of the evening. The robbery played out much the same, only this time, Swinney she said, took off with Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, leaving her behind to dump them. This time his clothes weren’t wet upon return but covered in blood. They pulled over in the parks restroom to change and then burned the clothes in Dallas.
On July 28th, Miller County Sheriff Davis drove Peggy to Dallas to find the spot she and Swinney had burnt the bloody clothing but after hours of searching, she was unable to find any place with evidence of a fire. Eventually she gave in and admitted this part of her statement had been a lie and that she’d given her statement after “extensive questioning”.
Still although the evidence was highly circumstantial, the police thought it was enough for now and at least the attacks had stopped. Life in Texarkana could return to normal.
On October 24th, fence repairers working in Spring Lake Park stumbled across the next big piece of evidence. They found Betty Jo Bookers sax as they had been digging out a fencepost. It had been dumped in the long grass, tossed over the fence. The Gazette ran a front page story that ran for four days on the find. People in texarkana were hopeful.
If you’re keeping up, this provided police another hurdle in Peggy Swinney’s statement however. Peggy had told police that Youell had dumped the sax in the trunk of his car, yet there it was, back out in the park. Fortunately for police, Peggy was willing to give another statement a full month later on November 22nd. This time, they entered the park at 3:30am and the sax case was tossed over the fence. At least, she said the case was tossed over the fence after police asked her which it was, tossed by the fence or over it? On the plus side for officials, she’d signed this statement finally.
Swinney’s own statement was giving nothing away, he maintained that he’d been out drinking in a club with peggy and some friends on the night of the Hollis and Larey attack and later slept alone, on the night of the other attacks he claimed he’d spent various nights alone with Peggy, denying anything to do with the murders, only ever admitting to stealing cars. Fortunately for police, the statements from Youell and Peggy weren’t the only thing that was linking Swinney to the phantom and in the five months between Peggy’s first and final statement, they’d uncovered a few other pieces of information which appeared to nail Swinney home as the prime suspect in the attacks.
Swinney had been known to own a .32 calibre Colt automatic pistol, though he’d lost it in a game of Craps at some point in the past. Alongside this, a khaki work shirt had been handed in to police by Peggy’s sisters husband. She’d found the shirt in her home where Youell and Peggy had stayed previously for a time and it appeared to have the laundry mark with the name STARK. The shirt was sent to the FBI, who examined the laundry mark confirming it to say STARK, it missed the final S of Virl Starks surname, but it was close enough. During their examination, they had also found slag in the front pocket, which came from a welding shop. The two slotted nicely into place. Katherine Starks wasn’t sure if it had belonged to her husband or not, however and whilst she confirmed it at first, the day after she felt she could not be sure enough to say for certain. Police thought this might have been due to her not wanting to condemn a suspect to the chair.
Their was one other key piece of evidence at the time, that of the datebook taken from near the body of Paul Martin that Sheriff Presley had pocketed. He had since never made it public and when they took Peggy to the scene and asked her if she’d seen Youell take anything from the dead boys pockets, she replied,
“I saw him take some papers and stuff.”
This was close enough apparently, to constitute as a datebook, though the book was never sent for fingerprinting and no direct questions stating the datebook explicitly were ever brought up in her questioning, not even when she sat a polygraph. Once again, it was more circumstantial and vague evidence that fell onto the pile.
The real problem with Peggy’s statements lies in the fact that, aside from her contradictions and ever changing story, saying that she knew details that she only could’ve known if she’d been there was not quite true. The Texarkana gazette had themselves printed a map of locations of the attacks in Spring Lake park two months before Peggy’s arrest and given the sheer amount of onlookers that crowded the crime scenes after the attacks, half of Texarkana likely knew several details which might incriminate them if that was all it took. This was after all, the most talked about and reported news story of 1946. The saxophone is another thorny issue. Up until it was eventually discovered, by accident, was it brought up in detail in any of Peggy’s statements. In her earlier statements, it had simply been tossed in the trunk of the car. So which was true? Had they tossed it over the fence or driven off with it in the car? If they had driven off, this would suggest that Youell Swinney drove back to the crime scene and dumped it over the fence at a later date, a move which one might consider risky at best and outright stupid at worst. By the time of her fourth statement, police knew many details about its location however and it had ran for four days in the gazette. One might begin to wonder if she had been asked leading questions during her interrogations or worse, how “extensive” her questioning had been. She had been interrogated by twelve officers by the time of her fourth statement and some were commented on as “old skool” in their operations, which leaves little to the imagination.
To top it off, she later recanted her statement and in a letter to her parents, told them of how she’d lied to police after exhausting questioning. Further to this, the only proof that Swinney himself had even been in Texarkana on the night of the 13th and 14th of April was from a statement made by Peggy’s parents, a statement which they too later recanted. Even the khaki shirt leaves us with some confusion, as there are three different documents, each telling a slightly different story of how it came to be in the polices possession and one claimed it had come from a motel, which police could never prove Swinney had ever stayed in.
As quickly as evidence stacked up against Swinney, it fell down under hard scrutiny. Eventually police were found to not have enough hard evidence on him for the murders. Peggy refused to testify against him in court and by law, as his wife, could not be forced into doing so. Instead, he was tried for car theft and since he’d been a repeat offender, was sentenced to life all the same. Had they got the right man? Some seemed to think so but others were never so sure. Mahaffey, the editor of the gazette told the Dallas Morning News years later that he was never convinced by Swinney, and Sheriff Presley’s Nephew spoke in a 50th anniversary article on the attacks in the Texarkana Gazette of how he never quite believed his uncle had been 100% sure.
“I got the impression that my uncle was not 100% certain that the evidence they had on the leading suspect was conclusive enough. He had deep feelings for people and he knew that because of the emotions of the time that whoever was convicted probably would be electrocuted. He wanted to be absolutely certain.”
Nevertheless, Swinney was undeniably a criminal and the prime suspect, the killings had stopped and the fear that had gripped Texarkana had finally dissipated. Life was getting back to normal.
Henry Booker “Doodie” Tennison
On November 5th 1948, the body of Henry Booker Tennison was found lying in his bed in his room in Texarkana on the Arkansas side. Henry Booker was eighteen years old and a University of Arkansas freshman. He’d had a keen interest in music and played Trombone for the school marching band in Arkansas High along with previous phantom victim Betty Jo Booker. Described as someone who “Never fit in” and living with an inferiority complex, he had shown difficult signs for several years in High School, staying in his room and rarely socialising. Henry Booker had committed suicide by ingesting Mercury Cyanide that he had bought the day before his suicide from a local store, telling the shop clerk he intended to use it for rat poison. Instead, he used it upon himself on the 4th November, 1946.
Along with his body, police also found on his desk two notes. The first, in a brown folder, was a page he had titled “My final note”.
“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 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.
- B. Tennison
For the record, Belva Jo was 12 years old at the time. Alongside this folder was a second note, a pen and to the right of this, a lockbox, securely locked. The note in the middle of the desk was a page that read:
“In a tube, a paper is found.
It rolls on colour and it is dry and sound.
The head removes, the tail will turn
And inside is the sheet that you yearn.
Two bees mean a lot when they are together. These clues should lead you to it.”
The riddle referred to the pen, also in the middle of the desk. It was printed with two capital letter B’s and inside was a further series of clues to the lockbox code. Unamused by the initial riddle, police only found this third paper later and instead broke open the lockbox by force. Inside they found many further notes, drafts of the final note, along with versions of his own epitaphs. One note was of particular interest concerning the earlier confession as to who made the killings. It 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 wherever 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”
The Texarkana Gazette ran the story, though over the weekend, Saturday 6th November, Betty Jo Bookers mother was reported to have visited Henry Bookers mother to offer her condolences and to ensure her she thought her son was not involved with the murder of her daughter. On Sunday the 7th, James Freeman, a long time friend of Henry Bookers went to see the Deputy Prosecutor, Robert Hall to tell him that he was with Henry Booker on the night of the Stark attacks, the two were apparently together in Henry’s house and therefore, cannot have been out at the farmhouse.
By Monday, the Gazette had reported that a second note, denying any part in the crimes had been found and by the 10th, had outright stated that Henry Booker had been eliminated as a suspect entirely. Evidence that the note was a mere fantasy seemed to continue to stack up. His sister commented that she was unsure Henry Booker even knew how to drive. His elder brother confirmed that he had actually taught him to drive in the summer of 1947. He also mentioned that he had never shown any interest in guns and he doubted he even knew how to load one. A fact his sister confirmed.
Henry Bookers body had its fingerprints taken and compared against the fingerprints found on Paul Martin’s car, though it contained no match. This appeared to be the final nail in the coffin and the case against Henry Booker falls apart. Or does it?
In a talk given at Texas High on November 8th 2014, Forensic Psychiatrist, John Tennison, a lose relation of Henry Booker Tennison himself argues quite a different story. During this talk, Tennison argues that the note confessing to being the killer was only intended to be seen by his family. That the note reported at the time as a “denial” of confession was in fact, not a denial, or that the final note was a false confession at all, rather, in this interpretation, he is merely clarifying that the killings should be disregarded as a reason for suicide. He also disputes the fingerprint evidence, stating that whilst no prints matched those found on the car, they had also failed to match the 12,500 other suspects in the case that they had been tested alongside, including those of Swinney. In fact, he argues that with the mistreatment of the handling of the car, it’s unlikely that the fingerprints were of the phantom at all.
As for shooting guns, he discovered a rather damning series of photographs that showed Henry Booker, at a young age handling a .22 calibre Winchester rifle, with an empty box of ammunition at his feet. As for driving, it was well known that Henry Booker visited his sister in Roberts Courts, outside the Western boundary of Texarkana, around ten miles from his home on the Arkansas side. Tennison argues that it is unlikely that she would not have known how he got to her house on those occasions.
Tennison continues to dispute other facts reported over the years too. In regards to Henry Bookers friend, James freeman, he questions why he went to see the Deputy Prosecutor, who happened to be friends with Henry Bookers elder brother, rather than the police, and why, when he was asked how the pair found out about the Stark farmhouse attack, he could not recall, stating only that they had “Heard it over the radio or someone came in and told them.” He argues that it’s far more usual to remember exactly where and how you found out about such a large, or shocking event.
Mahaffey, he argues, who was on friendly terms and well acquainted with Henry Bookers mother, as the editor of the Gazette, had no reason to include the report in the paper of Betty Jo Bookers mother ensuring Henry’s mother that she didn’t believe he had anything to do with the murders, other than to evoke an emotional response from readers and that, in fact, as Betty Jo’s mother had no inside knowledge nor was an expert, her comments were factually irrelevant. He also questions what had led the later report to be published announcing him as having been eliminated from suspicion with no reason given, despite the fact that decades later, officials still stated the opposite.
Perhaps most interesting in his argument is the fact that Henry Booker lived in close proximity to all of the victims. Some are tenuous links, with victims working at relatives factories, but others are slightly tighter. He schooled and played in the marching band together with Betty Jo, Richard Griffin lived in the same housing as his sister where he routinely visited to babysit for his sisters children and all three couples visited the paramount theatre before the attacks, though in the case of Paul Martin, he had visited with his friend Tom Albritton, not Betty Jo. What would that have to do with Henry Booker? He worked at the paramount as an Usher during the times of the attacks. Are these just coincidences that emanate naturally from a small town, or is there more to it, that in one way or another, Henry Booker was linked to every single victim and would have lived and worked among each and every one of them.
He posits that all of this, alongside the fact that he was known to have shown signs of poor mental health, an inferiority complex, had never really seemed to fit in with others and eventually killed himself and that these are all traits that exist with far higher than average rates among known serial killers, keeps him high up on the list of phantom suspects.
After all this, the killings had at least stopped in texarkana and the story had slipped quietly away, into the past. Youell Swinney served 26 years in prison and after an appeal due to being inadequately represented during his trial, he was released on parole in 1973. He maintained his innocence for the crimes undertaken by the Phantom of ‘46 until the day he died, which came upon him whilst he resided in a nursing home in Dallas in 1994.
In the end, we are left with nothing for either suspect but circumstantial evidence. It is likely that Swinney was the phantom, but absolutely impossible given the sheer amount of botched evidence and conflicting statements to secure a 100% certainty and most definitely would not have been enough for a conviction. The story of Texarkana has lived on for many years, retold twice in film and suggested as a prime contender for the hook handed killer of urban legend who killed people in their cars, parked on lovers lanes. Could the killer have been Swinney or Tennison? Or could he have perhaps been some other drifter who disappeared into the night never return? More frighteningly, could he have been a resident of texarkana who felt the situation to hot to continue his spree and who then went on to live, work and socialise amongst the families of his victims for the rest of his life unbeknowingly? It is more than anything else, a story of its time, destined to be retold for years to come and maybe, one day, the truth will out.