Home » ‘The Town that Dreaded Sundown’: The True Story Behind the Film

‘The Town that Dreaded Sundown’: The True Story Behind the Film

True Story The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Is The Town That Dreaded Sundown based on a true story? Well, yes. But with some creative listen taken. Keep reading for the full rundown on the Texarkana Phantom and the feature film adaptation based on the harrowing murders.

The Cold Case That Would Eventually Inspire 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.

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, and The Town That Dreaded Sundown came out in 1976, these books were published fairly recently.

The First Attack on the Town of Texarkana Would Be Followed by a Series of Murders Loosely Reenacted in The Town That Dreaded Sundown 

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.

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

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.

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 called her a liar, punched 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

The Violence Continues in 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.

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 were unable to control the crowd that gathered 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.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

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.

In April of 1946, Police Respond to More Violent Deaths and Evidence From The Crimes Suggests the Same Perpetrator

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 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. These real-life 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.

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. While processing the scene and putting the pieces together, 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, 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. Betty Jo had been shot twice, once in her chest and once in her face. 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.

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.

In May of 1946, a Horrifying Home Invasion Unfolds in the True Story That Inspired The Town that Dreaded Sundown 

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. Katie was 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 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.

When officers 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 contamination. 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.

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.

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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.

In June of 1946, Auto Theft is on the Rise 

While the Phantom was busy terrorizing Texarkana, a string of auto thefts and subsequent abandonment of the stolen vehicles was 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 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.

True Crime

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.

In July of 1946, a Suspect is Arrested 

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.

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.

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.

His long history of theft earned Youell several stints in both jail and prison, but by 1940, Youell had changed his M.O. to stealing cars. Although he had been caught early on, 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.

In January 1947 an Indictment is Underway

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.

True Crime

How Closely Does The Town That Dreaded Sundown Parallels the True Story on Which it is Based?

Thirty years after the attacks of the Texarkana Phantom, a horror movie based on the crimes called The Town That Dreaded Sundown was released in theatres. According to marketing material for The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the film portrays a true story depicting accurate events with only the names changed. While there are some similarities that can be tied to the Texarkana Phantom, there are several inconsistencies between real-life events and those depicted in The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

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. The Town That Dreaded Sundown was initially met with resistance regarding 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.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown Has Since Been Accepted by Texarkana, the Town Where the True Story Behind the Film Took Place

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 that takes inspiration from the real-life murders. In 2003, the Texas Parks & Recreation department has started showing The Town That Dreaded Sundown 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 Town That Dreaded Sundown to air as a Halloween tradition (something that features in the 2014 remake of the same name). Ironically, the real-life location where The Town That Dreaded Sundown is show is not far from one of the actual attack sights of the Phantom.

Well, there you have it, the true story that inspired the feature film The Town That Dreaded Sundown. While the film took some creative liberties, the picture does stay somewhat true to the source material.

Updated May 1, 2024*

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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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