The Phantom Murders of Texarkana

Urban Legends are stories passed down generation to generation. The relate tails of a warning nature about murders, crimes that are meant to scare you. They are considered not real, but as I have been learning, many Urban Legends have some roots in real crimes. They may have been altered or morphed into something similar but different over the years, yet they have an element of truth. Including the one I always heard as a teen, “The Hook”.

It was a story that went on for decades, and really was part of the “going to lover’s lane to park and have sex” scenario.  It got its start in the 1950’s.  I am not sure teens even park anymore. So, this couple of teenagers are parked making out, and the radio announces a mental patient has just escaped the institution and is dangerous. The girl hears something freaks out and demands to leave. The boy takes her home and when he gets out to open her door, there is a bloody stump of an arm with a hook at the end, hanging off the door. There are a couple of other versions, one where the guy goes out to relieve himself and the girl keeps hearing a thud, thud on the roof of the car. She finally gets out and sees the boy, dead, hanging upside down from a tree branch above the car. His knuckles are thumping against the roof of the car.

Now here is where I think something like this started. It is not exactly the same, we are minus the hook, but it fits pretty well.  It was the spring of 1946, in the town of Texarkana, Texas. The war is over, and country is thriving, soldiers coming home starting families, building homes.  Texarkana is thriving, the downtown robust with 5 highways converging into downtown. There is plenty of work with 4 railroads in town. It still had that small-town feel, people left their doors unlocked at night, and the windows open to let the cool air circulate through the house.

1946 saw all that change, Texarkana lost its innocence when 5 people are viciously murdered and 3 more barely escape with their lives. The media called it the Moonlight Murders, later dubbing the killer, the Phantom.  The towns people were terrified.  One woman said her friend rigged a rope from the foot of her bed

It was February 22, 1946, Jimmy Hollis (25) and Mary Jeanne Larey (19) were on a date. They had doubled for dinner with Jimmy’s brother and his girlfriend. Later Jimmy took them into town and dropped them off. On the way to take Mary Jeanne home they stopped and parked on a secluded road. It was about midnight. They were off Richmond road north of the Beverly Addition. A man approached the car and flashed a light in Jimmy’s eyes. Then pulled a gun out and flashed it at him… Jimmy kept telling him that he had the wrong guy, but was ordered at gunpoint out of his car. The couple got out, and the man told Hollis to take off his pants. When Hollis complied, the man hit Hollis in the head a couple of times with the butt of the gun.  He told the Larey to run away…. So, she did.  She could hear him beating Hollis as she ran away. (1)

Later he caught up to Larey and beat her. He sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun. She ran away to a house nearby and got help. Interestingly, Hollis survived and the two disagreed on the appearance of the man when questioned by the police. Larey thought he was a light skinned black man, and Hollis thought he was a dark skinned white man. Larey went on to say he had a white mask on his face with cut outs for eyes.  The police tried to coerce Larey into saying she knew the man, but she stood firm on the fact she did not. You see both Hollis and Larey were married, but not to each other. Her husband was at school, and quickly cleared. At first, Police thought this was a disgruntled lover of some sort. Since it rained that night there were no real clues and the man was never caught.

March 24, 1946 Richard L. Griffin (29) and Polly Ann Moore (17) were found dead inside his 1941 Oldsmobile. A passing motorist found the two. He thought at first, they were asleep, both had been shot in the head. They were parked on a lover’s lane named Rich Road (now Robison road) near a night club called ‘The Dallas’.  They were both fully clothed. Richard was in the front seat, in the center kneeling with his head down. Polly was in the back-seat face down. (2)

State Trooper Max Tackett was the lead investigator for the Phantom murders, and stated Moore had been killed outside the vehicle and placed back inside. In a mistake, Moore’s body was picked up and taken to Texarkana Funeral home so it was never determined if she was sexually molested. The police interviewed over 200 suspects and yet there was little evidence to go on. At this point the famous M. T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, the captain of the Company B Texas Rangers came in from Dallas, Texas and took over the case.

Paul Martin (16) and Betty Jo Booker (15) had been friends since childhood. Martin had moved away, but was back for a visit. Betty Jo Booker was playing a regular gig at the VFW with the Rythmaires, her band.  Paul was going to give her a ride home after she finished.  He was going to drop her off at a slumber party.  They were killed early Sunday morning, April 14th. They had stopped at Spring Lake Park.

Spring Lake Park was another place that young people liked to park. At this time, it was rural. A great place to spend private time with your girl.  Martin’s body was found by Mr. and Mrs. Weaver the next morning. He was laying on his left side, near the road away from the car. He had been shot 4 times, one was a defensive wound. He was shot through his hand.  Betty was not found until later that morning. A searcher, George Boyd found Betty behind a tree, 2 miles from Martin.  Martin’s 1946 coupe was 3 miles from Booker’s body and about 1.55 miles from his. Booker had been shot twice and raped. This case would be linked to the Griffin/Moore case as the same gun had been used, a 32 colt. There was little other evidence. (3)

Virgil and Katey Starks lived on a 500-acre farm off Hwy 67, 10 miles NE of Texarkana.  Virgil was sitting in a chair reading and Katie was in the lying on her bed when she heard breaking glass.  She went into the sitting area to see Virgil Standing up, then slump down into his chair.  She ran to him and could see he was dead. Virgil had been shot twice in the head through a closed window.

She ran to the telephone in the kitchen, began dialing the sheriff when she was shot once through the check, and once through the left side of her head. She was still conscious, she managed to make her way through the house as the murderer was breaking in the back. She ran to her neighbor leaving a trail of blood and teeth. Her neighbor A.V. Prater met her as she collapsed saying, “Virgil’s dead”.  Prater then fired a gun in the air to signal another neighbor to come help by the name of Elmer Taylor. Taylor, the Praters and their baby rode with Mrs. Starks to Michael Meagher Hospital. She repaid Taylor with a gold tooth that came out of her face.  She was conscious the entire time. (4)(5)

By this time the sheriff’s office was inundated with calls of people fearing for their lives and reporting prowlers. There was a curfew set on businesses and parents warned their children about going out.  Though people still parked, now they were packing.  People were buying guns, locking their doors and even patrolling lover’s lanes.  Trooper Charlie Boyd came up on a car to warn them. The girl in the car said, “Thank God you identified yourself, I had a gun aimed at you the whole time.”

The Starks were shot with a .22 rifle, authorities were not sure if was the same person, but they admitted it could be. By this time the town was frantic. The innocence was lost, it was the end of an era for many people, the modern world and its crime had entered Texarkana. No one was ever arrested for the murders, there are many theories.

A woman, Peggy Swinney, the wife of car thief Youell Swinney confessed her husband did it. Though there was only circumstantial evidence of his involvement and she later recanted her confession. Youell Swinney was arrested and sent to jail for 50 years for repeated car theft. He was interviewed later for a documentary called, “Killer Legends”, but denied he was the Phantom. The interview was stopped before many questions could be answered.  (6)

A movie was made based on the investigation led by Texas Ranger, “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas called, “The Town that Dreaded Sundown.” The First version was in 1977, it was remade in 2014.  Each year near Halloween, they show the movie on a big screen for the public. The movie is show at Spring River Park, which now at the north end of the city. (7)(8)

  1. Texarkana Gazette, Friday, May 10, 1946
  2. Texarkana Gazettespecial limited edition tabloid The Phantom Killer at 50: A Retrospective
  3. Ibid
  4. Texarkana Daily News, Saturday, May 4, 1946, front page
  5. Texarkana Daily News, Tuesday, May 7, 1946, front page
  6. Killer Legends, http://www.hulu.com/watch/699891, 2014
  7. Phantom Killer Rough Cut pt 1, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SirmXhpGg0
  8. Ibid
  1. The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders by James Presley (November 15, 2014)

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