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1946: The Texarkana Moonlight Murders

Discussion in 'Historical Cold Cases - Pre 1950' started by Lily, Jul 22, 2015.


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  1. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    An unidentified assailant often known as the Texarkana Phantom Killer committed a number of murders and assaults in Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas, and Bowie County, Texas) through the spring of 1946. Five people were killed, and three were wounded. While there was one major suspect, he was never convicted of these crimes. The attacks served partially as the basis for a motion picture, The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

    On February 22, 1946, two young people, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, were parked on a secluded Bowie County road outside Texarkana. They were forced out of the car by an armed man, his face hidden by a burlap sack with two slits for eyes. The assailant beat Hollis with the gun, cracking the young man’s skull in two places. He then sexually assaulted Larey before fleeing when he saw the headlights of a car approaching. Both of these victims eventually recovered from their wounds.

    One month later, on March 24, two more young people, Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore, were found on another Bowie County back road, both shot in the back of the head with a .32 revolver. Blood stains on the ground indicated they had been killed outside the car and then put back in it.

    The following month, on April 14, teenagers Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were found dead in Spring Lake Park on the Texas side, with their bodies found some distance away from their car. Again, a .32 was the murder weapon.

    The young women in both grisly killings had been tortured and sexually assaulted before dying. Police began patrolling secluded roads and “lovers’ lanes.”

    The next month, on May 3, an isolated farmhouse in Miller County was the scene of another murder. Virgil Starks was shot twice and killed by an attacker standing outside the front window. When the dead man’s wife, Katy Starks, heard the shots and ran to the phone, she was shot twice in the face. Nevertheless, she was able to escape and run to a nearby farmhouse for help. Though a .22 pistol had been used in Starks’s death, tire tracks similar to those in earlier cases were found at the scene, and the crime was generally attributed to the same killer.


    By November 1948, authorities no longer considered the Starks’ murder connected with the other double murders and another person was eventually arrested and convicted. At the time though the murder marked the height of hysteria in Texarkana.


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

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

    Texas Ranger Captain Gonzaullas was said to have stated that he and officers were dealing with a "shrewd criminal who had left no stone unturned to conceal his identity and activities,"[23] and that his efforts were both clever and baffling.[46] He also stated the man he was hunting was a "cunning individual who would go to all lengths to avoid apprehension."[47] After the murder of Virgil Starks, the majority of the 47 officers unofficially believed that the killer's motives were that of "sex mania". One of the officers stated, "I believe that a sex pervert is responsible."[30] The headline of the May 5, 1946 edition of the Texarkana Gazette read "SEX MANIAC HUNTED IN MURDERS". At the murder scene of Virgil Starks, Bowie County Sheriff William "Bill" H. Presley said, "This killer is the luckiest person I have ever known. No one sees him, hears him in time, or can identify him in any way." Officers have said that the killer is apparently a maniac who is an expert with a gun.[48] Victim and survivor Jimmy Hollis said, "I know he's crazy. The crazy things he said made me feel that his mind was warped."[11]

    The Texarkana Gazette stated:

    If one and the same man is responsible for the five murders that have been committed in this vicinity since March 24, the Gazette feels that the public should know the type of man with which the community is dealing. With that thought in mind, the newspaper asked Dr. Lapalla for the following interview. This interview was sought and was given only in the interest of the public and the intent is not to alarm unduly anyone, but to give everyone the benefit of what is considered an expert opinion as to the mental behavior of the man sought in these crimes.[48]

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

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


    Strong similarities between the cases of Texarkana Moonlight Murders and Zodiac started the theory that it might have been the same killer. Both attacked the couples, usually in their cars on lovers lanes, both used the gun and the knife, both wore similar masks on their heads and both were committed their last known crimes in completely different way than the previous ones (Phantom attacked family in their home, Zodiac killed the cab driver). For unknown reason both simply stopped the killing without any explanation (at least we don’t know about any further attacks).

    All of the similarities and the fact that both cases are separated by 20 years, makes the theory plausible (if Phantom was 20-30, the Zodiac would be 40-50). But there are also the strong psychological differences between both killers: Zodiac was concentrating his attacks on women (making sure they are dead), Phantom on men (making sure they won’t disturb his attack on women). Phantom was attacking only during the night while Zodiac also attacked young couple during the day. Zodiac have left notes and sent letters to the police, made several contacts with people involved in the investigation, while Phantom never made any contact.

    Of course it is possible that Phantom evolved into Zodiac during the 20 years pause (he "improved" his modus operandi), but it is also possible that Zodiac was different person, who knew about the Texarkana Moonlight Murders and used it as a model to what he was about to do. Also it is possible that they were completely different people and all the similarities between Zodiac and Phantom were just pure coincidence.

    Akoya, Kimster and GarAndMo49 like this.
  2. WindStorm

    WindStorm Bronze Member

    I just watched a documentary on this a couple weeks ago. Thanks for getting some cold cases listed!
    Akoya, GarAndMo49 and Lily like this.
  3. CrimeDog22

    CrimeDog22 New Member

    All of the hard evidence in the Texarkana 1946 murders points to Youell Swinney as the best suspect. 1-Police found a bloody shirt that wasn't his own in his safehouse
    2-Swinney owned a 32. calibre pistol, the same calibre weapon used in some of the murders.
    3- Youell's girlfriend Peggy, told investigators about a little black address book that one of the victims had at the crime scene, something the public did not know.
    4- Peggy also gave police information on the EXACT location of a saxophone which victim Betty Jo Booker had with her at the scene of the crime.
    5-Youell Swinney was a career criminal with a history of violence
    6-Youell Swinney, although raised in nearby counties in Arkansas, moved to and frequented Texarkana later and he knew the areas where the crimes took place.

    There is no hard evidence that H.B. Doodie Tennison had any involvement in the crimes.
    GarAndMo49, Akoya, Lily and 1 other person like this.
  4. Kimster

    Kimster Director Staff Member

    Hello @CrimeDog22 and :welcome:

    Thank you for your input! Have you been following this case foe awhile?
    GarAndMo49, Akoya and CrimeDog22 like this.
  5. CrimeDog22

    CrimeDog22 New Member

    Yes since I first saw the original movie made about the true story in 1976. i am from the local area. My cousin Richard Griffin and his date that night were the Phantom Killer's first murder victims. I'm a professional researcher among other things and I've busted a few criminals myself in my career. But the ones I busted are not free.
    GarAndMo49, Akoya and Lily like this.
  6. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    Hi Crimedog22, and a warm welcome to you, I hope you'll stay around and share some of your insights on this case- and maybe some others to boot.

    A while back I found these excellent videos from the Phantom Killer forum held in Texarkana in 2014. Loads of great information, and I was glad to see one of my personal heroes Mark McClish get a mention in the one about Swinney. If I recall correctly, Swinney was also discussed in one of profiler John Douglas' books, in quite some detail. I'll have to go back and re-read that again, as it's been a while now.

    Anyways, here the videos, very interesting.

    GarAndMo49 and Akoya like this.
  7. CrimeDog22

    CrimeDog22 New Member

    Lily can members exchange private messages with each other here? if so I will give you some insights and my contact info
  8. CrimeDog22

    CrimeDog22 New Member

    Akoya likes this.
  9. CrimeDog22

    CrimeDog22 New Member

    THE PHANTOM KILLER CASE : TEXARKANA -1946 phantom_profile.jpg
    For a few months in the Spring of 1946, the sleepy town of Texarkana was terrorized by a mysterious, hooded maniac who preyed upon young couples parked in lovers' lanes. Throughout the duration of his nocturnal forays of murder and death, he remained elusive, sometimes boldly committing his crimes right under the noses of authorities. Careful not to be seen or apprehended, he was named the Phantom Killer. Frustrated local law officers sought the assistance of the Texas Rangers and FBI to help them snare the " Phantom ". Terrified that the killer remained on the loose, the citizenry of Texarkana and many towns in the surrounding area quickly armed themselves and retreated behind locked doors, curtailing their ventures outside and settling in for self-imposed curfews brought about by fear. Squads of enraged men and law officers were the only ones to be seen on the streets and dark back roads at night in a frenetic effort to hunt the Phantom down. The Phantom's victims were mostly in the flower of their youth, their whole lives ahead of them, or so they thought. There were 6 known victims of his reign of terror that fateful, bloody spring: Jimmy Hollis, age 24, survived; Mary Jean Larey, age 19, survived; Richard L. Griffin, age 29, murdered; Polly Anne Moore, age 17, murdered; Paul Martin, age 16, murdered; and Betty Jo Booker, age 15, murdered. Realizing that Texarkana was becoming too "hot" after his third attack, many believe the Phantom struck again, this time in a rural area outside the city limits, killing unsuspecting Virgil Starks and severely wounding his wife Katy at their relatively isolated farmhouse. In what might have been yet another attack by the Phantom, drifter Earl McSpadden was found stabbed to death and lying along the railroad tracks just outside of the city. The Phantom's spree brought national notoriety to the city of Texarkana, giving birth to a story that still bedevils investigators, researchers, and people alike. Interest in this case was revived with the release of the film The Town That Dreaded Sundown ( 1976 ), which saw long lines of moviegoers outside local theaters. Still to this day, many questions remain unanswered and many mysterious aspects of the case have left everyone to wonder... " Who was the Phantom ?" Although the real Phantom may be dead by now, his frightening spectre lurks out there somewhere on some lonely lovers lane, on a dark back road, or perhaps in the midst of a sleepy little metropolis, waiting for his next victims to come along...Lock your doors and windows !
    spike and Kimster like this.
  10. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    Hey there! I think PM's require a certain number of posts to activate? I can't remember. But anyway, PM if you like, that's fine, but I don't need your contact info, I don't really talk to people off site from places concerned with murders - call that a lesson learned - no offense at all intended and just so you know. :)

    I see you've provided some info in the post above this.. I didn't notice that the presentation was "biased", mainly as the first video I saw was all about how Youell dunnit? Maybe the rest of the forum was leaning heavy to the other suspect, but I haven't seen the whole thing to attest to that, myself. In any case, I don't see any harm in thoroughly exploring any and all suspects with a fine toothed comb... I try to keep open minded about unsolveds and look at cases from all angles, which on one level is infuriating (and not only to myself, hehehe) but I find it a useful way to be. more often than not. That said, I do find one-eyed screechers bent on proving their pet theory at all cost generally annoying, so if you've come across those you have my sympathy. :D

    I can't find my John Douglas books because I'm in the middle of packing.. but I'm fairly certain he made a good case for Youell being the killer...
    Akoya likes this.
  11. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

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  12. CrimeDog22

    CrimeDog22 New Member

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  13. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    Looking forward to the info! :)
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  14. Kimster

    Kimster Director Staff Member

    We don't have time limits here. :clap:
    Akoya and Lily like this.
  15. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

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  16. Kimster

    Kimster Director Staff Member

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  17. Jay

    Jay Well-Known Member

    Lily, GarAndMo49, Akoya and 1 other person like this.
  18. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member

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  19. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member

    Texarkana Murder Mystery
    Texas Monthly

    Arrested suspect Youell Swinney, third from left, surrounded by Arkansas state troopers Charley Boyd, second from left, and Max Tackett, fourth from left


    Youell Lee Swinney went to jail for stealing cars, but many believed he was the Phantom Killer.

    Jay, Lily and GarAndMo49 like this.
  20. Akoya

    Akoya Bronze Member


    Murder spree in Texas at hands of ‘Phantom Killer’ remains a mystery

    Sunday, March 6, 2016, 12:01 AM


    Seventy years ago, the small town of Texarkana became the stuff of horror movies.

    It began on Feb. 22, 1946, when Jimmy Hollis, 25, and Mary Jeanne Larey, 19, went to a movie. The evening ended with the young couple in a lovers’ lane near the town, which straddles the border between Texas and Arkansas.

    All of a sudden, a bright flashlight beam blinded Hollis and a male voice ordered him to take off his pants. Then the stranger stomped and clobbered the young man so savagely that his skull cracked, putting him into a coma for days.

    Larey tried to run away, but the stranger quickly caught up and beat her and sexually assaulted her with the barrel of a gun.

    Jimmy Hollis was beaten in the first reported attack by the "Phantom Killer," and he survived to tell the tale.
    Both Larey and Hollis survived to tell the story to police. Unfortunately, there were discrepancies in their descriptions. Larey insisted that the man was black, but also said that his head was covered with a white sack with holes cut for the eyes and mouth. Hollis couldn’t remember much, but told police that he thought it was a young white man.

    About a month later, there was an attack on another couple on a lovers’ lane near Texarkana — Richard Griffin, 29, and Polly Ann Moore, 17. Their bodies were found the next morning, both with fatal bullet wounds in the back of their heads.

    April brought a third attack, this one on high school sweethearts Paul Martin, 16, and Betty Jo Booker, 15. Martin had picked Booker up after a dance, where she had been playing the saxophone in a band. Martin’s body, spotted the next morning, had four bullet wounds. A search party later found Booker, who had been shot in the head and heart.

    Richard Griffin, 29, and Polly Ann Moore, 17, were attacked in a lovers' lane near Texarkana and found dead with bullet wounds to their heads.
    It would be decades before criminologists would coin the term “serial killer,” but by this time Texarkana police were certain the attacks were the handiwork of the same person. The FBI and the Texas Rangers, including the legendary Capt. Manuel Trazazas (Lone Wolf) Gonzaullas, came in on the case. Hundreds of tips poured in, and police interviewed scores of Texarkana lowlifes.

    But none of it stopped the violence. On May 3, Virgil Starks, 37, was reading a newspaper in his living room when two bullets crashed through the window, hit him in the head and killed him instantly. When Starks’ wife, Katie, rushed to help, she got two bullets in the face. Miraculously, her injuries did not kill her and, wearing just a blood-soaked nightgown, she fled across a highway to the safety of a neighbor’s home.

    By the time police arrived, the killer had vanished.

    The Texarkana Gazette printed a front-page color photo of the red-handled flashlight that the Phantom had dropped at the house of some victims, in hopes someone would recognize it.
    Swarms of reporters, who conjured up a terrifying nickname — the “Phantom Killer” — descended on the town.

    The Texarkana Gazette printed a front-page color photo of the red-handled flashlight that the Phantom had dropped at the Starks house, in hopes someone would recognize it. No one did.
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