Texarkana is a sleepy town that is split between both Texas and Arkansas. Over the spring of 1946, a ruthless serial killer held the citizens of Texarkana in a state of perpetual fear. Even to this day, even the thought of the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” sends a chill down the spine of the residents. This elusive killer predominantly targeted young couples parked on lovers’ lanes; their final attack, however, was committed against a middle-aged couple in their own farmhouse. Despite an abundance of theories and suspects, the identity of the “Phantom Killer” still remains unknown.
It all began on the night of February 22, 1946, when Jimmy Hollis, 24, and his girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, 19, were parked in a secluded corner on a lonely road just off Richmond Road in Texarkana. The young couple had spent the evening at the cinema and decided they would stop down the lovers’ lane for some alone time before Jimmy dropped Mary back home. Out of the darkness, a man wearing a white cloth mask – presumably a pillowcase with eye holes – appeared at the car window and shone a flashlight into their eyes.
He shoved a gun at the terrified couple and ordered them out of the car where he proceeded to pistol-whip Hollis to the ground. “The noise was so loud I thought Jimmy had been shot,” said Larey. 1 The noise, however, was Hollis’ skull fracturing three times from the violent blows. After attacking Hollis, he turned his attention on Larey. The hooded figure smacked Larey across the head with the butt of his gun before telling her to run. Larey, who was wearing high heels, attempted to run towards the road but she was chased down by the assailant and hit over the head once again. She fell to the ground and the man sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun – this gruesome act wasn’t initially reported in the media at the time; police thought it was too vulgar to mention and thought by leaving it out of the media, they could weed out false confessors. “Go ahead and kill me!” she spat.2 Moments later, headlights from an oncoming car scared the attacker away. Both Hollis and Larey were rushed to the hospital where they miraculously both recovered from their injuries but not without psychological trauma that would plague them for the rest of their lives.
Around a month later, on the 24th of March, Richard Griffin, 29, and his girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore, 17, were found shot dead in Griffin’s car which was parked on an isolated road called Rich Road. Griffin, a WWII veteran, was slumped over in the front seat, dead from two bullet wounds. Moore was sprawled out in the back seat of the car; she had been raped and then shot in the head. A bloody patch of land nearby suggested that the couple had been shot outside the car and then placed back inside, ready to be found. Rain had washed away any potential footprints but police found .32 slugs, possibly from a Colt. Following this attack, people realised that a sadistic killer was on the loose in their quaint town. As citizens were reeling from his gruesome murder, they would by rocked another just three weeks later.
Betty Jo Booker, 15, was an A student and an avid saxophone player and played each Saturday night with a group called the Rhythmaires and that Saturday night was no different. At around 1:30AM, Booker’s friend, Paul Martin, 16, who she had known for ten years, picked her up. The friends stopped at Spring Lake Park which was just a few minutes from Booker’s Sussex Downs home. The following morning, Martin’s body was discovered on the edge of North Park Road. He had been shot four times; one bullet entered the back of his neck and exited through the front of the skull, one entered through the left shoulder, one went through his right hand and the final one went in his face. A search party was assembled to look for Booker. Six hours later, her body was discovered behind a tree around two miles from Martin’s body; she had been shot once through the chest and once in the face.
It was theorised that the crime scene had been staged; her coat was buttoned up to her chin and her hand was in her coat pocket. “Official reports would say Miss Booker was raped in the same manner as Miss Moore” noted Sammy Wacasey, researcher at the East Texas Historical Association. Ballistic tests showed that they were killed with the same .32 caliber weapon used in the first killing. Martin’s car was found around 3 miles away from Booker’s body with the keys still in the ignition.
As the days went by with the killer remaining on the loose, fear overran the area. A voluntary curfew was put in place and businesses closed early; nobody wanted to be caught outside as sundown approached. Terrified citizens raised thousands of dollars which could be offered to whoever could provide information that would lead to the arrest of the perpetrator. Gun sales went through the roof. The town was truly on edge and fearful for another attack and they had every reason to be; the killer was still lurking, eyeing up his next victim.
On the 3rd of May, Virgil Starks, 37, was sitting down to listen to his favourite weekly radio show in the ranch-style home he shared with his wife, Katie Starks, 36. Suddenly, two shots were fired into the back of his head; the shots came through a closed window. Katie – who was upstairs – came rushing down where she saw her husband standing up with blood rushing down his body. Moments later, he slumped back into his chair. Virgil was dead. Katie ran to grab the phone and call the police but as she reached the phone, she was shot twice in the face from the same window. Despite her injuries, Katie managed to pull herself up and grab a pistol which the couple kept in the living room. Blinded by her own blood which was now streaming down her face, she heard the killer enter the home. Knowing he was coming to kill her, she got up and ran for her life. Katie made it to a neighbour’s home who then alerted the police. Miraculously, Katie survived. An investigation at the scene turned up a flashlight and unidentified bloody footprints. Despite the fact that a different gun was used – .22 caliber shells were found at the scene – and the modus operandi was different than the previous killings, police announced that the couple were victims of the so-called Phantom Killer.
Following the attack on the Starks, the killer faded back into the shadows and never struck again. Eventually, life in Texarkana drifted back to a semblance of normality. Over the years, there have been plentiful theories on the identity of the elusive killer. Hollis and Larey described their attacker as being around 6 feet tall. Hollis said he was a young dark-tanned man under 30-years-old while Larey said he was a light-skinned African-American. As is the case with high profile murder cases, there were numerous false confessors, one of which was University of Arkansas freshman, 18-year-old H.B. “Doodie” Tennison, who committed suicide in November of 1948. Tennison left behind a suicide note in which he confessed to the string of murders.3
The prime suspect in the slayings was Youell Swinney, who came to police’s attention after an Arkansas trooper – who was looking at car theft reports in the area – realised that on the night of each attack, a car had been stolen and a previously stolen car abandoned. Weeks after this revelation, a farmer complained that his tenant hadn’t paid rent.
He gave the officer the tenant’s name and license plate number. The tenant was Youell Swinney and a run of his plates showed the car he was driving had been stolen on the weekend of the Griffin-Moore murders. Swinney’s wife, Peggy, would subsequently implicate him in the Texarkana Moonlight Murders and described the murder of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin in great detail. Following the confession, however, Peggy made conflicting statements and changed her story. With no physical evidence against him and with Peggy claiming her lawful right to refuse to testify against her husband, Swinney was never prosecuted for the murders. In 1947, Swinney was sentenced to life imprisonment for repeated auto-theft but was released in 1978. Whether or not Youell Swinney was Texarkana’s “Phantom Killer” is debatable but there was never another attack following his arrest.4
Over the ensuing years, hundreds of people were questioned and numerous suspects were interrogated. Thousands of clues have been followed yet all led to a dead end. Despite the extensive investigation into the murders, the elusive figure that made Texarkana dread sundown still remains unidentified.
- Abilene Reporter-News, 11 May, 1946 – “Texarkanians Tell of Brutal Beating”
- The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders, James Presley
- The Camden News, 6 November, 1948, “Was University of Arkansas Freshman Really Texarkana’s Notorious “Phantom Killer”?
- The Tampa Tribune, 14 december, 2014 – “Recounting the Chilling Details of Texarkana Serial Murders”