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. This week, we bring you Part 5. Check out Part 4 here.
When we last left off, it was April 1946, immediately after the Phantom’s third attack. We pick up on the fourth, and final, attack.
On May 3rd 1946, Virgil Starks, a 37-year-old farmer, and his wife of fourteen years, Kate (36), were settling down for the night after a long day. The Starks lived on a 500 acre farm that housed Virgil’s welding shop, which had a reputation for helping his neighbors repair broken farming equipment when needed. His wife Katie was a stunning brunette woman who was devoted to her husband (‘Assassin’s Bullets Kill Virgil Stark’, 1946).
On the date in question, Virgil was sat in the front room of their house, the curtains still wide open, reading with a heating pad resting on his lower back. Katie was in the other room, in bed, waiting for her husband when a clatter arose her suspicions. Convinced that Virgil had dropped something and broken it, Katie left the bedroom to attend to her husband, but found that Virgil was slumped dead in his armchair, blood seeping down his neck.
Katie judged that Virgil had been shot from the outside of their living room window from the holes in their glass. The killer was at a distance of about 18-22 inches from the window where he could have clearly seen the back of Virgil’s head. Virgil had been shot twice in the back of the head and once in the lower back, which short-circuited the heading pad he was using.
His wife immediately ran to the telephone, but before she could use it the assailant fired two more shots, both entering her face. One of the rounds ripped through the skin beside her nose and exited by her ear while the other entered her lower jaw. Both bullets tearing through her teeth, the bullet to the front of her lower law had actually lodged itself under her tongue.
Still in shock, Katie dropped to the floor to avoid any more bullets and then fled to the bedroom to search for the personal firearm that Virgil kept there. However, before she could arm herself, she realized her attacker was breaking down the back door to come after her inside the house. Katie gathered her courage and miraculously was able to run out of the front door to a neighbor who took her to the hospital.
This attack on the Starks was 19 days after the Martin and Booker double homicide, so as soon as the call was made to the police department, officers rushed out to investigate the scene. When they entered the Starks’ home, they found Virgil’s slumped over body, the smoke of the short-circuited heating pad, and numerous bloody handprints all over the furniture and the walls. The killer had dipped his hands in Virgil’s blood and made a pretty vile scene.
The officers immediately secured the house in order to prevent previous mistakes that had been made by this investigation. However, their work had been overridden by the numerous other officers that arrived a short time later. They preserved the crime scene on the inside, but not the outside which was trampled, making any chance at tracking the killer impossible.
This also meant that bloodhounds, who were brought in to track the attacker’s path, were unable to follow a single distinct scent. The only evidence that was preserved was a set of latent fingerprints inside the house, the mark of a size 10 shoe outside the window, and a two cell red flashlight that was dropped where the Phantom would have stood.
As the Texarkana Gazette reported the following day, “Murder Rocks City Again Farmer Slain, Wife Wounded” (1946), the Lone Wolf and other law enforcement ran an ad in the newspaper desperately trying to link the flashlight to the crime scene. The ad pleaded for anyone who owned, or knew of anyone who owned, one of these lights to please report to the Sheriff.
However, while law enforcement did attribute this attack to the Phantom, there were doubts if this was really the work of the elusive serial killer. For one, the M.O. had changed from attacking couples on Lover’s Lane to brazenly attacking people in their own home. Also, the Starks did not exactly fit into the Phantom’s usual victims; they were married, older, and well established in the community. Furthermore, Virgil was shot with rounds from a .22 rifle, not a .32 caliber handgun as the other victims had been.
Regardless if the Phantom was behind the killings or not, the public’s already tense mood had broken out into outright hysteria. Local and federal law enforcement seemed to be kicking everything into high gear, but nothing was reassuring the people of Texarkana. In the two months that followed, 1,300 suspects were dragged to the police station and interviewed before being released.
Soon, no one was venturing out after dark, as many residents were terrified and shut themselves into their houses at night. Even those in Little Rock, about two and half hours away, were locking themselves in their houses, afraid that the Phantom would start to move where he killed.
The panic occurring throughout Texarkana inspired reporters to flock to the small country town, attempting to get the latest scoop on what was causing it to turn itself inside out. The media also exacerbated this when the local newspaper ran a story in which Mary Larey, of the first attack, claimed that her attack was perpetrated by the Phantom.
This anxiety was in full swing coming into June 1946, when Life magazine featured a massive spread about the ensuing panic. They titled their article “Texarkana Terror, Southern City is panicked by the killer who shoots according to schedule” a fact that was only true in one instance, but mostly the article covered the reaction of the citizens in the wake of the murders.
While one photograph depicted an empty restaurant open after sundown, another shows a wealthier woman taking her family to a local hotel as her husband was away on business. Yet another photograph illustrated a family relaxing in their front room, with the windows and doors sealed tight and their rifle just within arm’s reach.
However, the main focal point of the article, and its accompanying photos, was that the citizens were so scared by the attack on the Starks, they were booby trapping their houses in order to protect themselves. The featured picture described the trap of Mrs. Rochelle:
“A blanket was nailed over a glass door next to a table that was teetered on an ashtray which would fall over if the door was opened. When the table teetered it would also spill loose nails onto tin trays and pots would smash against vases on the floor, which would wake up Mr. and Mrs. Rochelle, who kept a rifle next to their bed.” (Life, 1946)
Residents also began to blame the Phantom for such instances as their telephone service being shut down and a .22 caliber bullet that smashed through the window of a home near a local high school. Texarkana residents were also at odds with their neighbors, calling the police about “suspicious persons” who turned out to be the mailman or, in one case, a drunkard that was shot in the toe.
Tensions between the press and the public started to sprout also, when reporters were allegedly inappropriately fondling waitresses in bars and getting into physical altercations with locals. Texarkana residents also turned on the Texas Rangers and the FBI, claiming that they were “ten thousand dollars’ worth of cowboy boots and big, white hats and fifteen cents worth of brains.”
This attitude was not helped when the Lone Wolf himself was caught ‘reenacting’ one of the crime scenes in a local man’s barn in the middle of the night without the property owner’s permission. The man happened to glance at his barn, where he saw several flashes, and after calling the police and arming himself with a shotgun, he alongside law enforcement were about to lit up the barn with gunfire.
When the Lone Wolf emerged, along with a female reporter, he claimed that he was helping her to report, but many shook their heads at the instance, which further increased the tension between residents and law enforcement in the town.
Stay tuned to Wicked Horror for the continuation of our analysis!