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 6 here.
This week we finally wrap up the Texarkana Phantom Killer in our concluding part. Special thanks to C. Harden, A. Green, and D. Cathey for their valued help!
On Monday, July 15, a man drove a brand new car onto Ed Hammock’s lot. Approached by Cleon Partain, a knowledgeable car trader, the man stated that he was interested in selling his vehicle due to unemployment and an inability to make the payments. Upon inspection, Partain asked the apparent owner if he had the title for the car. The potential seller replied that he did not have the title at that time but he could get it. Mr. Partain advised the seller that he should return once he had the title in his possession, and that they might then reach an agreement. Suspicious of the man, Partain memorized the license plate number, which was unusual to that area, and sent a coworker, Hibbett Lee, to report to Homer Carter, an Arkansas Marshal of the town of Atlanta, Arkansas.
Carter subsequently notified Texarkana police to be on the lookout for a potentially stolen car. Upon arriving in Texarkana, Carter, along with Hibbett Lee, who could identify the vehicle, learned that it was, in fact, stolen. Carter reported to Max Tackett at the Miller County Sheriff’s Office, who had a hunch that this suspect was the same man who had just married Peggy Stevens less than a month earlier. Tackett decided to take Lee with him to search for the stolen car and made plans to have Lee appear in various establishments to see if he might be recognized by the suspect–and he was. A slender man dressed in a white shirt spotted Lee and abruptly fled the scene. It was then that Tackett knew then that he had found his suspect.
Upon capture, the suspect made several strange comments such as, “‘Please don’t shoot me!’ to which Tackett replied ‘I’m not going to shoot you for stealing cars.’ ‘Mister, don’t play games with me. You want me for more than stealing cars! I will spend the rest of my life behind bars this time!’” the suspect replied, hysterical. The car thief was identified as Youell Lee Swinney and was subsequently booked and taken to a cell at the Miller County Jail. Upon arrest of Swinney, the murders abruptly stopped.
So, who is this Youell Swinney?
Youell Swinney was born the youngest of five children to a homemaker mother, Myrtle Swinney, and a strict Baptist preacher father, Stanley Swinney, who had an alcohol problem. Even though Youell was the youngest, his low birth order garnered no sympathy from his parents and he was often forgotten and set aside in favor of his siblings.
After the sudden divorce of his parents at the age of nine, Youell was forced to move in with his father full time and only occasionally stayed with his mother. One of the accounts of abuse recalled Youell having to stay outside while the family ate dinner inside, for unknown reasons.
However, from accounts of neighbors and friends of the family, Stanley was a cold father who did not particularly care for his own children. His grandchildren called him Mr. Swinney, not Grandpa or Grandfather. After Youell was moved from his father’s to his mother’s repeatedly his older brother Cleo and his wife finally took Youell in, to offer stability to the troubled young man.
However, Youell started acting out and committed his first burglary, stealing candy from a local business, while living with Cleo. This was the first of many petty crimes to come, with Youell’s teen years plagued with him being troubled and constantly running into law enforcement.
When the trouble first started, he was moved repeatedly again, but this time between his brother, his mother, and his grandparents, despite his father still legally retaining full custody. Youell started escalating his crimes and by the age of fifteen he was interviewed by the Secret Service after being caught counterfeiting nickels.
As an adult, Youell Swinney was described as a Caucasian man, 5’11”, weighing 166 pounds with a tattoo of a heart and skull that spelled the word “revenge” on his arm. He had grown up rough and looked it, with a scar on the left side of his upper lip and another near one of his eyebrows.
His long history of theft earned Youell several stints in both jails and prisons, but by 1940, Youell had changed his M.O. to stealing cars. Although he had been caught early into this decision, the start of WWII got him released from jail until he violated parole months later. By 1944 he was familiar to U.S. marshals, but by 1946 was known to Texarkana as the main suspect in the Phantom Murders.
On January 13, 1947, Youell Swinney was indicted for felony theft as his previous convictions were also recognized by the Bowie County Grand Jury, making him a habitual criminal, a charge that could result in a life sentence. A prison sentence was the goal of the lawmen, as there was not enough evidence to convict him of the Phantom Murders, but they could at least ensure he would not be back out on the streets if convicted as a habitual criminal.
Appearing before the Court without an attorney, the defendant advised the judge that he wanted to represent himself. He pled guilty to the charges, but the judge entered a plea of not guilty because the defendant was not permitted to plead guilty under the Habitual Criminal Act. Regardless of the judge’s recommendation, the jury still found Youell Swinney guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison on February 11, 1947.
However, 26 years later, after filing and withdrawing appeals and being extremely persistent, Youell Swinney was released from prison as a result of a habeas corpus proceeding. On September 15, 1994, Youell Lee Swinney died a free man in a Dallas nursing home. He was 77 years old.
Thirty years after the attacks of the Texarkana Phantom, a horror movie entitled The Town That Dreaded Sundown was released in theatres, on December 24, 1976. According to the film, it portrayed a true story depicting accurate events with only the names changed. While there were some similarities that can be tied to the events of Texarkana, there are several inconsistencies between real-life events and the film. However, The Town That Dreaded Sundown did upset many of the residents and even resulted in an (unsuccessful) lawsuit from one a brother of one of the victims.
While the town of Texarkana was initially rocked and rattled by the tragic events of 1946, the film has now grown into a longstanding tradition. It was initially met with resistance towards some of the imagery depicted of the town, while the language of the promotional posters was met with defiance since it stated that the Phantom Killer was still lurking.
Although the tragic events of the Phantom Killer are still in the minds of many in the town, the film has been able to serve as a festive event. In 2003, the Texas Parks & Recreation department has started showing the original film in Spring Lake Park in Texarkana, TX.
The annual showing of the film attracts a crowd of several hundred people who anxiously wait for the show as a Halloween tradition (something that features in the 2014 remake of the same name). Ironically, the real-life location of the showing is not far from one of the actual attack sights of the Phantom…
Thank you so much for joining us on this journey of our cold case analysis. Did you enjoy this? What do you think? Do you think that the murders were committed by Youell Swinney? How do you feel knowing these are the murders that inspired The Town that Dreaded Sundown? Let us know in the comments below!