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 6. Check out Part 5 here.
The last of the Texarkana Phantom attacks has taken place and we pick up a the police are trying to track down the Phantom. Special thank to C. Harden for this week’s part.
While the Phantom was busy terrorizing Texarkana, a string of auto thefts and subsequent abandonment of the stolen vehicles was simultaneously taking place. Arkansas State Trooper, Max Tackett noticed the link in the timeline of the stolen, then abandoned vehicles and the murders that were being committed elsewhere. His suspicions were confirmed when a complaint was called in from a Murfreesboro, Arkansas farmer Jim Mays, who was also a landlord.
He claimed that his tenant, Youell Swinney, had failed to pay his rent for a few weeks, which was considered a criminal offense in Arkansas, and had presumably skipped town. Mays was able to provide State Trooper Tackett with a license plate number from a car that he had seen his tenant driving. Upon running the plates, Tackett learned they belonged to a car that had been stolen on the night of March 24, the same night Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore were murdered.
Leads on the location of the stolen automobile were followed to no avail. Then, a peculiar yet promising clue emerged. A minor relative of Swinney recalled his habits, which included leaving the car parked in a certain Texarkana lot. Trooper Charley Boyd, with no other leads, occasionally drove by the lot to keep an eye out for the vehicle, not expecting to see much of anythinng.
One day in late June, the stolen Plymouth was noticed and confirmed as the same vehicle for which the police were looking. Upon finding the car, Boyd decided to begin a stakeout on the parking lot. After some time, a woman by the name of Peggy Stevens Swinney, newly married that same day to Youell Swinney, turned up to claim the vehicle. She stated that she was not sure where her new husband was located at that particular time.
Peggy was arrested and taken to Miller County Jail to await the arrival of her husband, the apparent non-paying tenant, car thief, and quite possibly the prime suspect for the Texarkana murders. It was apparent through her statements regarding her husband that he was the Phantom Killer and she knew of certain information that would have been exclusive knowledge only to the killer and any accomplices he might have.
In her first statement to police, Mrs. Swinney was unable to account for her husband’s whereabouts during the times the crimes were being committed (on February 22, March 23, April 13, and May 3, 1946). In fact, on February 26, 1946, Peggy revealed to police that, after a spat with her husband, she went back to her mother’s home, which was situated on Richmond Road, not too far from where the February 22 assaults occurred.
It was at this time that Peggy’s friend called to inform her that her husband was in town looking for her, armed with a .32 caliber pistol. Unknowingly, Peggy also placed her husband in Texarkana during the time of the Martin-Booker murders on April 13, as she stated that they were staying with her mother for “about two days” during that weekend.
On May 3, 1946, Peggy’s sister and Youell Swinney had an argument over money that the couple owed to her. That same night, Peggy and Youell rented a hotel room where Youell left Peggy for at least 5 hours, returning after midnight. This was the same night the Starks’ murder occurred. Peggy later stated that, when Youell returned to the hotel, he was covered in blood, which she wiped away with a towel that was later found by investigators under the mattress, exactly where she said she had left it.
While searching his clothes, Swinney’s sister found a shirt, obviously too large for Swinney with the laundry mark “STARK” on the inside of the collar. The shirt was almost identified by Virgil Starks’ wife, however, she could not be sure. Upon inspection, she remembered repairing a button on the shirt that she was able to point out and there were metal fragments found on it that were similar to fragments also found in the Starks’ workshop.
In her second statement to police, Peggy stated that her husband told her that he had stolen a saxophone from the car after the Booker-Martin murders. However, it was in her third statement to police that Peggy Swinney further elaborated on the Booker-Martin murders. Peggy Swinney stated that on the night of April 13, 1946, she and Youell Swinney had left the hotel they were staying at and drove to Spring Lake Park, where Youell told her that he was going to find someone there to rob. For these murders, she claimed she was present.
Afterwards, Youell told his wife that he had got rid of the .32 caliber gun, which would explain the change in caliber for the gun in the next murder, of the Starks. When she was later taken to the crime scene, Peggy Swinney was able to identify the exact location where Paul Martin’s car was parked on the night of April 13, 1946. She also knew about a datebook taken from Martin’s pocket, which he threw into the bushes and was later secretly retrieved by Sheriff Bill Presley.
This proved that she knew details that could only be recalled by someone who was present during the murders. There was one limitation to her statements, though—she was married to the suspect and therefore protected by privilege not to testify against him. She was later released from the Miller County Jail on December 19, 1946.
If he were to be charged with the murders, evidence against Swinney would be circumstantial at best. So, instead of charging him with murder and having a jury possibly dismiss the case, authorities on both the Texas and Arkansas sides decided to get Swinney off the streets. In order to do this, they would have to charge him as a habitual criminal under Texas law.