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The True Story Behind The Town that Dreaded Sundown

The True Story Behind The Town that Dreaded Sundown

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 remain 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 which inspired the feature film The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

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.

Related: The Facts in the Case of John List: The True Story Behind The Stepfather Films

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 several 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.

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The Town that Dreaded Sundown

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.

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

The following day, the local newspaper, the Texarkana Gazette, ran a headline proclaiming Masked Man Beats Texarkanian and Girl and described the following events that Sheriff Presley and the other officers put together the previous evening.

Mary Jeanne Larey, a 19 year old, attractive, petite, dark-eyed brunette, and her boyfriend James Hollis, a 24 year old male insurance agent, wanted to end their date night with some private time. After catching a film at a popular movie theater, they parked on a secluded road known locally as Lover’s Lane. Sometime during the evening, the couple was blinded by a stranger’s flashlight.

They assumed it was a police officer making his nightly rounds, but instead they were confronted by an armed, masked man with a flashlight and a gun. The couple was told to get out the car and they followed the stranger’s instructions, believing that if they did, they would not be killed. Larey promised the attacker that Hollis did not have any cash on him and even opened his wallet for proof, but the suspect kept on telling her that she was lying. Once they were ordered out of the car, Hollis was ordered to take off his pants, but after he did, the Phantom proceeded to bash Hollis in the head with the butt of his gun causing two deep fractures in Hollis’ skull.

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The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Then, for unknown reasons, after Hollis collapsed from his injuries, the stranger told Larey to run. Once she got some distance from him, he caught up and asked her why she ran. When she answered that he told her to, he calls her a liar, punches her in the face, and proceeded to vaginally penetrate her with his gun.  He probably would have killed Larey, but luckily, some headlights appeared in the distance, which scared him off. However, before he escaped in the night he punched Larey in the face one last time.

The sheriff’s initial reaction was that this attack was conducted by Larey’s estranged husband, but the ex-lover was able to provide an alibi that placed him nowhere near the crime scene. Also, the police did not believe the victims at first and thought they were hiding the identity of the gunman, but pieces of evidence corroborated their story.

For one, Hollis’ pants were found approximately 100 yards from the crime scene, which would indicate that he abandoned his garments under the instruction of his attacker. Also, although Larey was not properly examined for rape at the hospital, there were reported signs of vaginal bruising.

Despite this, little was done, in the days following the attack, to find the suspect. The sheriff did not want to strain the already fragile town and create further racial tension based on Larey’s seemingly unfounded claims that the attacker was an African American man. A few days prior to February 22nd, an innocent black man was lynched and this stirred the town. The sheriff believed that the attack on Larey and Hollis was just a part of the normal criminal activity in Texarkana, or even an isolated event, so the police department did not believe that an active, involved search of the suspect was necessary.

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

March 1946

Thirty days after Larey and Hollis’ attack, on the morning of March 24th, a father and son discovered two bodies shot in a car that was parked on a quiet street. As soon as they saw the blood in the car and the bodies of a young couple slumped in the seats, they phoned the police. When first responders arrived to process the scene, the ambulance and law enforcement vehicles attracted a lot of attention from nearby citizens. Soon after, police appeared and a relatively large crowd subsequently formed to see what had happened.

Unfortunately, since Sheriff Presley and the Texarkana police department were not properly trained in collecting evidence, the crime scene was not adequately preserved and what evidence could have been collected was destroyed due to mishandling. For example, when the tow truck came to take the car away, officers failed to wear gloves and, in the process, muddled the possibility of collecting fingerprints of the suspect by adding their own.

Also, one of the spectators of the crime scene that lingered dangerously close to the parked car found the keys about 100 yards away and picked them up with his bare hands to turn them into the police. This would unfortunately be one of the many blunders that would occur in the course of this investigation.

At the horrifying scene the police unable to control the crowd gathered at the scene from interfering. However, in spite of this, there was some evidence found at the scene of the crime that came in handy. Both of the victims were shot in the back of the head twice with a .32 caliber gun executioner style. The bodies were identified as young couple Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore after law enforcement officers found the female’s class ring that had both the high school name and her initials on it.

Griffin was found on his knees behind the front seat, his pants pulled down to his ankles with the pockets turned out and his head resting on his hands, as if he were asleep. Moore was found face down in the backseat, her purse opened as if the perpetrator sifted through it for cash and valuables. Additionally, there was a lot of blood found outside of the vehicle, which led to speculation that both Griffin and Moore were outside of their car when they were shot.

Also, even though Griffin’s wallet and Moore’s class ring were found at the crime scene, the police suspected that this crime was a fatal robbery due to Griffin’s pockets being inside out and Moore’s purse being open. Future analysis by the FBI and the Rangers suggested that Moore could have possibly been raped that night, but there were conflicting reports and this information was never released to the public.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The following day, the Texarkana Gazette ran the headline, Couple Shot Dead in Auto. Based on the evidence that was preserved and the accounts of witnesses who had spotted Polly Ann Moore and Richard Griffin the previous night, a basic account of events was placed together. Moore, a 29 year old veteran, and Griffin, a 17 year old high school graduate, had been dating about a month and a half by that point and were on a date that fateful night. They had been on a double date with Griffin’s sister and her boyfriend, but after they dropped off the other couple, Griffin and Moore decided to go park on a street alone.

It was at this point that Sheriff Presley decided to call on the help of the Texas Rangers in order to identify the type of gun used in the murder from the casings that were left at the scene. Although the Rangers did not have specific educational requirements, they were trained in the latest techniques of navigating a crime scene, which included analyzing ballistics and fingerprints, communicating, and record keeping.

They also had access to a crime lab in Austin, that could handle evidence collected at the crime scene. The first Texas Ranger to arrive in Texarkana was Jimmy Greer. His first action was to scold the local police department for not securing the scene. However, when he did send the bullets extracted from Griffin to the Texas Ranger lab, it was concluded that both victims were shot with a .32 automatic pistol that was most likely to be a Colt model.

While Hollis and Larey’s attack had quickly left the minds of Texarkana residents, the murders of Griffin and Moore shocked the town and incited a thorough investigation that did not reveal anything–at least not before the killer struck again.

April 1946

Bessie Brown’s motherly intuition had woken her up, on the morning of April 14th, 1946, with a start. Her daughter from her first marriage, her beloved Betty Jo Booker, had not returned from her Saturday night gig playing saxophone at the VFW. Nor had she left the instrument behind, which would usually indicate that she would be staying with friends.

After her husband, and Booker’s stepfather, Clark Brown, dismissed Bessie’s anxiety as over-exaggeration, Bessie insisted that Clark start making phone calls in order to find her daughter. Clark humored his worrying wife and called Janann Gleason, the friend that Betty Jo was supposed to be staying with that night. The phone call not only gave legitimacy to Bessie’s suspicions, but also alarmed Clark when he learned that Betty Jo had never made it to the slumber party. Further to this, she had not been heard from all night.

That same morning, fellow residents of Texarkana and their young son found the crumpled body of a young man on the side of North Park Road at 6 a.m. Mortified, the family did not leave their car, but instead drove to the closest home to the crime scene, where the residents called the authorities.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Sheriff Presley and the Chief of Police of the Texas side of Texarkana received the call and were the first to respond to the scene. Presley arrived to a gruesome scene of a collapsed body which was reportedly lying on its left side, his head and the trunk of his body on the leaves and grass. His feet and legs jutted onto the dirt road. He was wearing a light-colored long-sleeved shirt, with his arms and hands in front of him (Presley, p. 52, 2014). These events are depicted in The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

At the scene of the third Phantom attack, Sheriff Presley identified the body as Paul Martin from the ID in his wallet. Martin had been shot four times; in the back of the neck, the shoulder, his right hand, and one final bullet in his face. Trails of blood crossing the street indicated that after Martin had been shot he had crawled across the unpaved road before finally succumbing to his injuries.

At the behest of Sheriff Presley, when other officers–and the Texas Rangers, who had arrived on the scene to help and find clues–arrived they found Paul Martin’s abandoned Coupe a mile away with the keys still in the ignition. However, around the same area by the vehicle Sheriff Presley then found a small black date book that he would later discover belonged to Paul Martin. Martin must have dropped it after abandoning the vehicle. For unknown reasons, instead of sharing the evidence with the others at the scene, Presley simply placed the date book into his pocket and carried on with his investigation.

This crime came after just 21 days after the murder of Griffin and Moore, so Presley quickly realized he needed more help. Later that morning he placed a formal request to the resident FBI agent in Texarkana to help process the crime scene.  This indicated the entry of the FBI into the Texarkana murders case, another large law enforcement agency to aid the small town.  While processing the scene and putting the pieces together of what happened, word of mouth spread like wildfire. Soon, Sheriff Presley and the rest of law enforcement were made aware that Paul Martin was the last person seen with Betty Jo Booker, who was reported missing.

After securing the scene with techniques taught to them by the Texas Rangers and the FBI agent, Sheriff Presley recruited Texarkana residents to search for Betty Jo Booker. Bessie and Chris Brown’s fears were realized when Betty Jo’s body was found 1.75 miles away from Martin’s corpse. She was fully clothed, her coat buttoned, and her body resting on her back with her right hand tucked inside her pocket. Her body was undisturbed and relatively untouched–she looked like she had just fallen asleep. However, Betty Jo had been shot twice, once in her chest that penetrated her heart and once in her face where the bullet passed through her left cheek near her nose. Later examination suggested that the murderer had faced her when he shot her at point blank range.

Texarkana Phantom 4

At the scene, .32 caliber shell casings were found near Martin’s car, the same that had been used in Griffin and Moore’s murders the previous month. The FBI also listed that they found six cartridge cases and four projectiles, which had markings that matched the weapon used to kill Griffin and Moore.

Even though, the following day, the Texarkana Gazette ran the unexciting headline Murdered Shot to Death (1946) there was little information given to the public besides everything that had already spread around the town. While most of the details had been shared with residents, local and federal law enforcement made the decision to keep a key detail out of the news.

On April 20th, after the FBI examined Booker’s body, they found that she tested positive for semen and her vagina had marked bruising which reportedly could have been from either penile penetration or penetration from a pistol grip.  However, when analyzing Martin’s genitalia for signs of seminal fluid he tested negative, so it is assumed that the two of them did not have sex.

Martin and Booker were both laid to rest on April 16th, 1946 and although their funerals were supposed to be private affairs, many showed up for the young couple. Some were grieving Texarkana residents, but many others were out of towners who retained morbid curiosity about the double homicide. As both Martin and Booker’s families buried their children, six more Texas Rangers arrived on the scene to help catch the elusive murderer who was newly named by the Texarkana Gazette. The newspaper’s latest headline gave the Lovers Lane murderer the title of The Phantom Killer, in their headline that ran two days after the murder: Phantom Killer Eludes Officers as Investigations of Slayings Pressed (1946).

Among the rangers who arrived was that of the infamous Ranger Captain Manuel Trazzazas Lone Wolf Gonzaullas, who brought 26 years of experience to Texarkana and had a reputation that preceded him. He pledged to the people of the town that he would stay until he jailed or killed the Phantom and supposedly earned the nickname of Lone Wolf since he had a nasty habit of taking on perpetrators in physical confrontations and exit the fight victorious.

Texarkana Phantom 3

Those around him gave him credit for killing 75 outlaws on his own, but he apparently insisted they were always justified shootings. Upon arriving to Texarkana and making his outlandish promise to the citizens, Lone Wolf Gonzaullas released a special notice which read that they were looking for the Phantom. The public announcement included important details such as where the bodies were found and the fact that Booker’s saxophone, whose absence had ignited Bessie Brown’s suspicion, was missing. The notice made a point that it was a gold-plated Bundy E-flat Alto saxophone, serial #2535” and urged pawnshops and music stores to please pay attention to anyone who may want to sell Booker’s instrument.

While Griffin and Moore’s deaths caused Texarkana to shake its head in disbelief and grieve, Martin and Booker’s murders sent the town into a spiral of panic. Local hardware stores were selling out of guns, ammunition, dead-bolt locks, and screen door braces. Curfews were placed for the all the residents and young people traveled in groups armed with self-defense pistols. The Lone Wolf even had to deal with the constant rumors that were typical of a small southern town, one of the most notable being that the Phantom Killer was gnawing the breasts of the girls he had murdered.

Simultaneously, local law enforcement as well as their FBI and Ranger cohorts had a revolving door of suspects who were constantly in and out of the station. They arrested locals, even a local African-American man named Sammy, who was known to the community as a gentle soul. However, hope came in the form of a suspect who reportedly asked a sales clerk at a music store on April 20th 1946 if the shop would be interested in buying an alto Bundy Saxophone.

Texarkana Phantom 2

The music store and the suspect were in Corpus Christi, 450 miles away from Texarkana, but the sales clerk was familiar with the public notice and was suspicious of the suspect’s odd behavior. He seemed nervous and skittish to her, so she reported the man. He was then arrested in front of a hotel and was found with a .45 caliber revolver as well as bloody clothing. However, when Lone Wolf Gonzaullas sent a Ranger to Corpus Christi, the man was cleared from the suspicion of the murders.

Law enforcement, along with the FBI and the Texas Rangers also unsuccessfully implemented traps on Lover’s Lane trying to lure the Phantom out to cars that looked like his victims. Local groups also offered up money for any potential leads totaling up to $4,280, which in today’s money is about $53,000. However, these efforts would be for nothing, since the Phantom would soon strike again.

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May 1946

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.

Texarkana 2

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.

Texarkana 3

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.

Related: Dennis DePue: The Real-Life Killer that Inspired Jeepers Creepers

June 1946

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 anything.

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.

Town that dreaded sundown

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.

Town that dreaded sundown

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.

July 1946

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.

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

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.

January 1947

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.

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Film Adaption

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 Town that Dreaded Sundown 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 The Town that Dreaded Sundown 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 Town that Dreaded Sundown 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. Special thanks to C. Harden, D. Cathey, and A. Green for all their help! Did you enjoy this? What do you think? Do you think that the murders were committed by Youell Swinney? How do you feel knowing a little more about the murders that inspired The Town that Dreaded Sundown? Let us know in the comments below!

Update July 01, 2023*

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Written by Syl
Syl is a professional criminologist who shamelessly spends her time listening to true crime podcasts, watching horror films, and bringing real life horror to her written pieces.
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