A cold case is an unsolved criminal investigation that remains open indefinitely pending the discovery of new evidence. There have been numerous unique cases throughout history, some of which still remained unsolved to this day, such as the Jack the Ripper killings, the Zodiac murders, and the Black Dahlia slaying. In this new, regular series, Wicked Horror’s resident true crime expert April Bennett takes a look at one of these cases in an attempt to better understand why it remains open. In this installment, April will be revisiting the infamous Tekarkana murders. This installment will unfold over several weeks.
The cold case of the Texarkana Phantom is a story unlike any other. This masked killer terrorized a small Southern city over a six month period in 1946. He claimed five casualties and heavily traumatized three others while simultaneously throwing an entire town into hysterics. The Texarkana Phantom’s attacks (which later inspired the classic horror movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown) took place between February 1946 and July 1946. They left five dead, three injured, and an entire town traumatized.
The majority of the information contained in this piece comes from the books: The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror by James Presley (the nephew of Bill Presley, the local Sheriff presiding over the case) and The Texarkana Moonlight Murders: The Unsolved Case of the 1946 Phantom Killer by Michael Newton. Although the murders occurred over 70 years ago, these books were published within the last three years.
So, what about Texarkana?
Texarkana was actually very diverse, with a massive wave of immigrants during the 1920s leading to a mixture of Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, Greek, French, and a sizeable African American population. With that, many different ethnic groups in a smaller southern town caused an inevitable increase in crime, as a result of different cultures clashing. During the 1940s there was also a significant increase in travelers coming through Texarkana, since four railways offered passenger service and two airlines had a couple of flights a day each. The rise in public transportation resulted in population growth and a subsequent increase in crime.
World War II also contributed heavily to the sudden skyrocketing population of Texarkana. People from all over the country flocked to the town, following the opening of the Red River Ordnance Depot and Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant. Although the population doubled and the economy was thriving, crime was also on the rise. However, the town was no stranger to violence. Texarkana had a string of murders take place years prior, which gave it a wild west sort of reputation. Aside from murder, Texarkana was also regularly the site of high-speed chases with police in pursuit of traffickers running liquor from Louisiana to Oklahoma, as well as shootouts, hold-ups, and knife fights. So, in the wake of the Phantom’s first attack, like the Sheriff, many passed this off as one of the many one time occurrences.
The First Attack
On February 22nd, 1946, Sheriff Bill Presley received a late night call that a young couple had been attacked on an unpaved road, known as Lover’s Lane. Texarkana, the border town straddling Texas and Arkansas, was having a typically quiet night for law enforcement, so Sheriff Presley and three patrolmen went out to investigate the site of the alleged attack. Presley, a 50 year old widower, had known tragedy personally himself, as ten years before this case, both his wife and oldest daughter had died in a car accident.
The officers tried to interview the victims who were identified as Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey at the scene, but Hollis was so badly injured he could barely retain consciousness. Sheriff Presley sent them to Texarkana Hospital while he and the other officers investigated the scene. They combed through the area surrounding the road, finding nothing except for an abandoned pair of pants which later turned out to belong to Hollis. The officers then took statements from the victims about the bizarre event, not realizing the journey that they, Texarkana, and the nation were about to embark upon.
Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey were a young couple both in the process of divorcing other people. While Hollis was rushed into emergency surgery for a severe injury to his skull, Larey spoke to the officers despite being shaken up. After Hollis awoke from a 15-day coma it turned out that the some of their testimony proved to be unhelpful since they provided conflicting descriptions of the suspect. Even though they both agreed that the person who attacked them was tall, approximately six feet, and male, they disagreed on the suspect’s race. Hollis claimed that he was a young Caucasian, but Larey was certain that the suspect was African American. They did both agree that the suspect had a mask over his face that resembled a pillow case with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth, but one thing was for sure, they had no idea who their attacker was.
Check out part two of our Cold Case Analysis next week, only on Wicked Horror