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Phantom Killer: The Unsolved Mystery of the Texarkana Murders

In 1946, a sadistic killer dressed in a white mask terrorized the small town of Texarkana at night.

texarkana moonlight murders phantom killer

Texarkana, a small town that straddles the state line between Texas and Arkansas, is also known as The Town That Dreaded Sundown , thanks to the 1976 horror flick of the same name. Set in Texarkana and based loosely on a string of local slayings, the proto-slasher film came out just two years after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  and Black Christmas , and two years before Halloween .

Related: 6 Serial Killer Movies Based on Real Murderers

Yet the true story behind the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” is as chilling as anything seen on the silver screen—and made all the more unsettling because the case remains unsolved nearly 70 years later.

texarkana murders

The mysterious Moonlight Murders rocked the sleepy southern town of Texarkana in 1946. Police on either side of the state line struggled to work as one while the killings themselves possessed the iconic quality of urban legend. Young couples parked at the end of a lonely country road, savaged after the sun went down.

In fact, some claim that the infamous campfire tale of lovers who catch a report of a hook-handed killer on the car radio only to discover a bloody hook hanging from their back door can be traced to the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.

Related: 5 Urban Legends That Came to Life

The killer, described by witnesses as wearing a white mask or sack with holes cut for eyes, was dubbed the Phantom Killer or Phantom Slayer—a name that, like so much about the case, seemed ready-made for drive-in theaters.

Authorities believe he killed five people in ten weeks. Three others, including his first two victims, survived their attacks. The first attack took place on February 22, 1946, on a secluded road outside of town. The Phantom approached Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larrey, a young couple parked in their car. He blinded them with his flashlight upon approach, then held them at gunpoint and ordered them out of the vehicle. The Phantom then told Jimmy Hollis to remove his pants and proceeded to beat him severely, fracturing his skull.

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texarkana murders jimmy hollis

Jimmy Hollis, the Phantom Killer’s first victim who survived his attack.

The Phantom told Mary Jeanne Larrey to run. When she scrambled toward a ditch, he told her to change course and run toward the road. He then chased her down and sexually assaulted her with the pistol he carried before letting her run away again. In spite of the savagery of their attacks, both Hollis and Larrey survived. Others were not so lucky.

In March, Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore were found dead in their parked car at the end of a secluded road. The couple, who had only been dating six weeks, had had dinner with Griffin's sister and her boyfriend earlier in the night. Griffin, 29, was a veteran who made his living in carpentry and painting. He was shot fatally in the back of the head. Moore, only 17, was living in a nearby boardinghouse with her cousin. She was also fatally shot in the back of head.

Related: 9 Serial Killers and the Specific Way They Selected Their Victims

A few weeks later, they were joined by another young boy and girl, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker. Booker was the Phantom’s youngest victim, at only 15 years old. Martin and Booker had begun dating after a long friendship, dating back to kindergarten. Booker played the saxophone in a local band, and Martin came out to pick her up. Five hours later, Martin's body was discovered. Booker's body would not be found for another six, laying two miles from Martin.

In the first week of May, the Phantom Killer attacked what are his last official victims, a husband and wife, in their farmhouse northeast of town. Virgil Starks was killed by two shots to the back of the head, but his wife Katie survived, in spite of being shot twice in the face and having to run down the street to a neighbor’s house to get help.

texarkana murders

Youell Swinney, center, is believed by some to be the Phantom Killer.

While the Phantom was on the loose, Texarkana was like a city under siege. Residents armed themselves and curfews were set for local businesses. In spite of the involvement of the Texas Rangers, no conclusive arrest was ever made in connection with the Moonlight Murders.

Theories spread wildly about the Phantom Killer's identity. The killer's targeting of couples and lack of other identifiable motives, such as burglary or revenge, led many in the area to believe that the killer was some sort of "sex maniac". Nearly 400 people were arrested in connection with the killings.

Suspects included a University of Arkansas freshman who committed suicide in 1948, an escaped German prisoner of war, and an L.A. resident who believed that he may have committed the crimes while in a coma.

Related: Serial Killer Survivors: 5 People Who Lived to Tell Terrifying Tales

Many people believe that local man named Youell Swinney—arrested in 1947 for auto theft—was the Phantom. His wife confessed to as much at the time, but by law she could not testify against her husband. She later repudiated her confession. Swinney remained in prison as a habitual offender until 1973, and died in 1994, without ever implicating himself in the murders.

In 2014, James Presley, a Texarkana native, wrote what he considered to be definitive book on the murders, The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror . In it, he lays out enough evidence that he claims proves Swinney was responsible for all five Phantom slayings.

texarkana murders

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Others remain unconvinced. A 1948 cold case involving the disappearance of 21-year-old Virginia Carpenter from Texarkana is thought by some to have been the work of the Phantom Killer, though Swinney was already in prison by that time. And in 1999 and 2000 an anonymous woman contacted surviving family members of the Phantom’s victims to apologize for “what her father had done.” But Youell Swinney never had a daughter.

Regardless of the killer’s true identity, the town he traumatized has never been the same since the spring of 1946. Yet while other towns may have tried to forget such a gruesome legacy, Texarkana embraced it. When The Town That Dreaded Sundown was filmed there in 1976, locals were cast as extras. Every year around Halloween, the movie is screened at Spring Lake Park, near where one of the murders took place.

The Texarkana murders remain unsolved to this day. Whoever hid behind that white mask, chances are that after almost 70 years he no longer “lurks on the streets of Texarkana” as the tagline to The Town That Dreaded Sundown suggests.

Yet his legacy lives on, haunting the country roads of Texas and Arkansas beneath the glow of the moon.

[Via Texas Monthly ]

Featured Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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the phantom killer true story

Texarkana Moonlight Murders

An unidentified assailant often known as the Texarkana Phantom Killer committed a number of murders and assaults in Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas, and Bowie County, Texas) through the spring of 1946. Five people were killed, and three were wounded. While there was one major suspect, he was never convicted of these crimes. The attacks served partially as the basis for a motion picture, The Town that Dreaded Sundown .

On February 22, 1946, two young people, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, were parked on a secluded Bowie County road outside Texarkana. They were forced out of the car by an armed man, his face hidden by a burlap sack with two slits for eyes. The assailant beat Hollis with the gun, cracking the young man’s skull in two places. He then sexually assaulted Larey before fleeing when he saw the headlights of a car approaching. Both of these victims eventually recovered from their wounds.

One month later, on March 24, two more young people, Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore, were found on another Bowie County back road, both shot in the back of the head with a .32 revolver. Blood stains on the ground indicated they had been killed outside the car and then put back in it.

The following month, on April 14, teenagers Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were found dead in Spring Lake Park on the Texas side, with their bodies found some distance away from their car. Again, a .32 was the murder weapon.

The young women in both grisly killings had been tortured and sexually assaulted before dying. Police began patrolling secluded roads and “lovers’ lanes.”

The next month, on May 3, an isolated farmhouse in Miller County was the scene of another murder. Virgil Starks was shot twice and killed by an attacker standing outside the front window. When the dead man’s wife, Katy Starks, heard the shots and ran to the phone, she was shot twice in the face. Nevertheless, she was able to escape and run to a nearby farmhouse for help. Though a .22 pistol had been used in Starks’s death, tire tracks similar to those in earlier cases were found at the scene, and the crime was generally attributed to the same killer.

In all, two women and three men were killed. With each new murder, panic rose higher in Texarkana. Citizens bought weapons and stayed in their homes at night, literally dreading sundown. Law enforcement officials on both the Arkansas and Texas sides of the city worked the case. Texas rangers arrived, including the handsome and charismatic Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, and reporters from all over the country flocked to the town, adding a new level of chaos. When neighbors reported seeing strange lights from the Starks farmhouse, local police surrounded the home only to find Gonzaullas and a woman reporter from Life magazine taking photos of the crime scene with flash bulbs.

The murders were soon dubbed the “Moonlight Murders” by the news media, although the first two occurred a week after the full moon and the final attack occurred around the time of the new moon. Because he seemed to strike and vanish, the night stalker was also dubbed the “Phantom Killer” by the local newspaper, the Texarkana Gazette .

Numerous individuals claimed to be the Phantom Killer, while other citizens came forward with accusations against various local residents, including an agent of the Internal Revenue Service. One young man, a student at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) , who came from a prominent Texarkana family, killed himself in his room in Fayetteville, leaving a poem and confession. All turned out to be false leads.

The one suspect who was most often cited as the probable killer was a repeat offender named Youell Swinney, who had a record of car theft, counterfeiting, burglary, and assault. An Arkansas law enforcement official, Max Tackett, had noticed that before each murder, there were reports of a car being stolen and then abandoned. In July 1946, a stakeout of a reported stolen car on the Arkansas side led police to a woman who claimed to be Swinney’s girlfriend. She provided details of the murders that had not been released to the public. Subsequently, her story changed, and she married Swinney. Because of the unreliability of her testimony and the fact that she could not be forced to appear as a witness against her husband, law enforcement officials declined to prosecute. In 1947, Youell Swinney was jailed for life as a repeat offender for car theft but was released on appeal in 1973. While some sources say he later died in prison, others say he died in 1994 at a nursing home in Dallas.

In 1977, Arkansan Charles B. Pierce produced an R-rated horror film called The Town that Dreaded Sundown with the tagline, “In 1946 this man killed five people….Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Arkansas.” It starred Academy Award–winning actor Ben Johnson, Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island , and Andrew Prine. Though it purported to be based on the true story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, many people dispute its accuracy. It remains a minor cult classic.

To date, the identity of the Phantom Killer remains unknown. While theoretically still open, it is considered a cold case. In 1996, the Texarkana Gazette published a twenty-four-page special section called “The Phantom at 50,” and the crime was revisited extensively in 1996 and again in 2003 by the Dallas Morning News .

For additional information: Malsch, Brownson. Lone Wolf Gonzaullas: Texas Ranger . Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Newton, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers . New York: Checkmark Books, 2006.

———. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders: The Unsolved Case of the 1946 Phantom Killer . Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013.

“The Phantom at 50.” Special section. Texarkana Gazette . April 23, 1996.

Presley, James. The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror . New York: Pegasus Books, 2014.

Nancy Hendricks Arkansas State University

I was a kid in S.E. Texas when I saw the movie and was afraid to walk up the darkened hall to bed or in front of windows. Nor did I know how far away Texarkana was or anything about girls or why people parked on roads in the dark. Still dunno much.

I have a picture of the man who supposedly was the phantom killer. My eighty-four-year old mother tells the story that Mr. Keith from Cookville, Texas, was supposedly the Texarkana killer. The story goes that when the law started closing in on him, he committed suicide. Mr. Keith did kill himself.

From watching the original movie, I am intrigued. It would be good to see a movie or a documentary that actually follows the case exclusively. Since it is not solved, I put it up there with the Zodiac. I think that a very good documentary on it or a movie based on the facts would interest quite a few people, including me.

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the phantom killer true story

This Disturbing Murder Spree In Arkansas Is So Creepy It Inspired A Movie

the phantom killer true story

Daniella DiRienzo

Though Daniella was born in New York and has lived in a couple of other states, Mississippi has been her home for more than 30 years. After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi, Daniella began to hone her writing skills through various internships. In the years since, she’s had the privilege of having her articles appear in several publications, such as the Mississippi-based Parents & Kids Magazine. She’s also had the honor of interviewing actress Sela Ward for The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience.

More by this Author

A shadowy figure roams the streets, looking for his next murder victim… It sounds like the plot of a horror movie – and it is. But it’s also a true story that’s based on a disturbing killing spree, which happened in Arkansas decades ago. The story of the Phantom Killer isn’t as widely known as those of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, but he was definitely the most famous serial killer in Arkansas in the mid-1900s. He also left a few scars… and is still unapprehended. Here’s the story:

the phantom killer true story

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the phantom killer true story

Watch the video below to learn more about the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, the Arkansas killing spree that shook the region. 

Did you know about the Texarkana Moonlight Murders ? Or the fact that The Town That Dreaded Sundown was linked to an Arkansas serial killer? Know of another unsolved Arkansas crime? Tell us!

If you’re not creeped out enough yet, here are eight Arkansas urban legends  that will keep you up at night.

OnlyInYourState may earn compensation through affiliate links in this article. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

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Who is the most famous serial killer in Arkansas?

Like many states, Arkansas has had its fair share of serial killers, violent criminals, and still-unsolved mysteries. Here are a few well-known apprehended individuals and serial killers who visited, lived in, or committed gruesome crimes in Arkansas:

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The Famous Movie Inspired By The Texarkana Murder Mystery

man in dark forest

The residents of Texarkana have been haunted by the events known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders since 1946. That year, a masked murderer killed five people and seriously injured three others in a series of attacks that shook the town to its core. According to Texas Monthly , the presence of a serial killer (before the term was even coined) so spooked Texarkanans that they stocked up on guns and guard dogs, booby-trapped their homes, and even slept in hotels for safety after police failed for months to bring in the man the Texarkana Gazette christened the Phantom Killer.

Although some believe that a man arrested for stealing cars was most likely the person responsible for the attacks, most of which were carried out on couples looking for a little alone time on lover's lane, the case remains unsolved to this day. Perhaps because of this uncertainty, people have let their imaginations fill in much of what they fear about the unknown. For example, the murders are believed to have inspired an urban legend known as the "Hookman," in which a pair of high school sweethearts find a bloody hook hanging on the door handle of their car after a night on lover's lane. And three decades after they scared the bejeezus out of Texarkana, the murders were used as the basis for the 1976 thriller film The Town That Dreaded Sundown , much of which, like the Hookman legend, is more fiction than historical fact.

The movie is only loosely based on the Texarkana Murder Mystery

The Phantom Killer's crimes were indeed grotesque. For example, the New York Daily News reports that he used the barrel of his gun to sexually assault one of his first victims, a 19-year-old woman named Mary Jeanne Larey. She was one of the few to survive the attacks, but most were not so fortunate. The film is faithful to some basic details from the actual murders, such as the fact that the killer wore a white sack over his head, but even that one isn't pulled off exactly right. Larey said he had cut out holes for his eyes and mouth, but the filmmakers felt it would be creepier to leave the movie murderer's mouth covered. Naturally, they took a few other artistic liberties when bringing the events to the big screen.

Unlike the killer in the movie, the real Phantom Killer was not as over-the-top as his representation on the screen. In real life, he killed all his victims by shooting them at close range. But in The Town That Dreaded Sundown , the murderer gets a bit more theatrical when killing his victims. In one scene, he leaves a woman tied to a tree with her skin covered in bite marks. One of the victims was a young saxophonist, but in the movie they changed her to a trombonist and had the killer attach a knife to the instrument, stabbing her with it while pretending to play it.

Watching the Texarkana Murder Mystery movie has become a city tradition

Although the town of Texarkana initially had some qualms with the film based on the murder spree that occurred there — namely, that the poster claimed that the killer was still on the loose — time has proven to be the ultimate healer, and residents have a different view of the situation now. According to the Texarkana Gazette , people there have grown so fond of the movie that it has become a tradition to show The Town That Dreaded Sundown each year around Halloween . To make the viewing as creepy as possible, it takes place in Spring Lake Park, near the spot where the Phantom Killer killed two of his victims in April 1946. City recreational specialist LeShanda Mitchell said that "a lot of people look forward to it close to every Halloween."

The tradition has become so popular that it was the basis for a meta-sequel of the same name that was released in 2014. According to Cinema Blend , the remake is set in Texarkana in the 21st century during an annual screening of the original movie. A copycat killer ends up trying to recreate the murders from the original movie, once again plunging the town of Texarkana into a fear-fueled panic. The film was met with mixed reviews. Variety called it "too self-reflexive (and insufficiently scary) for the date-night crowd," adding that "it isn't artful enough to pass muster as cinephile-oriented specialty fare."

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The Town That Dreaded Sundown

2014, Horror/Mystery & thriller, 1h 25m

What to know

Critics Consensus

It may occasionally mistake more gore for genuine terror, but The Town That Dreaded Sundown is just stylish and clever enough to justify this second stab at the source material. Read critic reviews

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The town that dreaded sundown   photos.

A masked maniac terrorizes the same small community where a murderer known as the Phantom Killer struck decades earlier.

Rating: R (Language|Grisly Images|Brutal Violence|Strong Sexual Content)

Genre: Horror, Mystery & thriller

Original Language: English

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Producer: Jason Blum , Ryan Murphy

Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Release Date (Theaters): Oct 16, 2014  limited

Release Date (Streaming): Oct 6, 2016

Runtime: 1h 25m

Distributor: Orion Pictures

Production Co: Blumhouse Productions, Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Sound Mix: Dolby Digital

Cast & Crew

Addison Timlin

Travis Tope

Spencer Treat Clark

Veronica Cartwright

Chief Deputy Tillman

Edward Herrmann

Reverend Hardwood

Joshua Leonard

Deputy Foster

Denis O'Hare

Charles B. Pierce, Jr.

Anthony Anderson

Lone Wolf Morales

Sheriff Underwood

Wes Chatham

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Screenwriter

Ryan Murphy

Jeanette Volturno

Executive Producer

Jessica Malanaphy

Michael Goi

Cinematographer

Joe Leonard

Film Editing

Ludwig Göransson

Original Music

Hannah Beachler

Production Design

Stephani Lewis

Costume Design

Eileen Dennehy

Set Decoration

Elizabeth Humphrey

News & Interviews for The Town That Dreaded Sundown

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Critic Reviews for The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Audience reviews for the town that dreaded sundown.

It's not the first horror sequel/remake to engage in meta commentary, but it's probably the only one where the original film is unremarkable and mostly forgotten. As a result, the killer's desire here to be remembered takes on a unique significance. Obviously it all falls apart by the end, but the movie is still an oddity worth checking out.

the phantom killer true story

A meta-sequel to the first film in which Texarkana experienced a series of murders based on the film 65 years later. It was very well directed even though the acting was terrible, there were some plot holes but overall it served as a sequel worthy of the title.

Interesting, but not that great. I do like how it kind of breaks the fourth wall and plays off of the 1970s film, as well as the real events to some extent, and gives an idea of what it's like to live in a town whose history is overshadowed by horrible events.

The concept behind the film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, is actually a lot more interesting then the film itself. From the minds behind American Horror Story, comes a tale that is based on the true story of The Phantom Killer, who was active in Texarkana, Texas during 1946. The story was originally turned into a successful film in 1975, but rather than re-make it or do a sequel, the writers went in a totally different direction, one that I've never seen before. This film takes place in 2014 and acknowledges the story and even the previous film. In fact, clips of the original film are seen throughout this movie, and even the son of the original Director plays a part in this new film, which sees the Phantom Killer return after a nearly 70 year absence. Addison Timlin stars, following her leading role in Odd Thomas, and with new challenges comes experience. While I loved Odd Thomas, I thought she was terrible, but in this film it's a complete turn around, as Timlin is the strong female lead a film like this requires. As for the film itself, besides it's interesting play on the previous film, it really wasn't much more than your typical whodunit slasher film. Interesting to note though, unlike the first film, this movie was shot at the actual crime scenes from 1946. It also marks the last on screen appearances of both Edward Herrmann (Gilmore Girls) and Ed Lauter (Shameless, ER) who died shortly after filming. I love the concept of this film, it displays just how talented and imaginative the team behind American Horror Story and the upcoming American Crime Story really are, but overall, if you've seen one slasher film, sadly, you've seen them all.

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The Terrifying True Story Behind ‘American Nightmare’ on Netflix

Where to stream:.

  • American Nightmare

Where To Watch ‘The Playboy Murders’ Season 2 Online: Channel, Streaming Info

‘american nightmare’ victims denise huskins and aaron quinn are now married, stream it or skip it: ‘american nightmare’ on netflix, a docuseries about police accusing a woman of staging her own ‘gone girl’-style disappearance, ‘american nightmare’: where is denise huskins’ kidnapper matthew muller now.

A home invasion and kidnapping is one of the scariest things that could happen to a person. And it’s even worse when nobody believes you in the aftermath. Netflix ‘s new  true crime  docuseries American Nightmare dissects the crimes that Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn suffered, and the unjust response from police enforcement and the media.

Created by Felicity Morris and Bernadette Higgins from  The Tinder Swindler , the series consists of three episodes, all of which premiered January 17, 2024.

Huskins and Quinn, who penned the book Victim F: From Crime Victims to Suspects to Survivors in 2021, both appear in the docuseries and provide their recount of the events that occurred.

The case has often been referred to as the “ Gone Girl ” kidnapping as law enforcement suspected the victims of fabricating their story in light of the 2014 movie starring Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck .

Here’s everything you need to know about the terrifying true story behind American Nightmare .

The True Story Behind American Nightmare

On March 23, 2015, a masked intruder broke into the home of Aaron Quinn and his girlfriend Denise Huskins, and sedated them both. Quinn was blindfolded and disarmed with zip ties. When he woke up hours later, Huskins was gone. Quinn received a text message demanding a large ransom and cautioning him against contacting the police. But he did anyway, and would later say in the Netflix doc that he “trusted” them to help.

Quinn’s recollection contained many odd details, such as the assailant wearing a wetsuit and shining a light in their eyes. He also told police that he had an argument with Huskins the night before because she found text messages that he exchanged with his ex-girlfriend.

When Quinn finished his story, the police marked him as the prime suspect and subjected him to extensive questioning and a lie detector test. Quinn was told that he failed the test, despite later finding out that the results were inconclusive. 

During this time, Quinn sought out a lawyer. 

Two days later, Huskins was dropped off near her childhood home – after being raped twice – but wasn’t cooperating with authorities because the kidnapper threatened to harm her loved ones if she revealed any details.

In the aftermath, the police and media accused the couple of lying and wasting resources. The police said at a press conference, “Mr. Quinn and Ms. Huskins have plundered valuable resources away from our community and taken the focus away from the true victims of our community while instilling fear among our community members. If anything, it is Mr. Quinn and Ms. Huskins that owe this community an apology,” per CBS News . 

The police also likened the crime to the movie and book Gone Girl , which features a woman who faked her kidnapping as a revenge plot against her partner.

In June 2015, 39-year-old Matthew Muller, a Harvard-educated lawyer with bipolar disorder, was arrested for an unrelated crime and a police detective connected the dots between the evidence they found in his home and Quinn and Huskins’ case. NPR reported in 2016 that Muller pleaded guilty to the kidnapping and “agreed as part of his guilty plea to recommend a maximum term of 40 years,” which he received in full.

Since, the couple has filed a lawsuit against the Vallejo Police Department which was settled in 2018 and saw the city compensating them with $2.5 million.

American Nightmare is currently streaming on Netflix.

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the phantom killer true story

The Horrifying True Story That Inspired ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’

By Chrissy Stockton

[*] The Texarkana Moonlight Murders were a series of murders that happened in the twin cities of Texarkana, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946. That spring, an unidentified man known as the ‘Phantom Killer’ or ‘Phantom Slayer’ murdered five people and attacked eight total, mostly in lovers’ lanes.

[*] Police have investigated more than 400 suspects, but these murders have never been solved.

[*] If you’ve seen the (excellent) Netflix series Mindhunter you know that the term “serial killer” wasn’t around until the late 1970’s. Little was known about who these men were or why they killed but everyone assumed it had to do with “sex mania”.

[*] Here are the known attacks by the Texarkana Phantom:

February 22, 1946 — Jimmy Hollis (25) and Mary Jeanne Larey (19) were approached by a man while parked at a lovers’ lane. They were ordered out of the car and Jimmy was asked to take his pants off. Jimmy was then pistol-whipped so hard his skull was fractured. Mary was told to run. When the attacker caught up with Mary he sexually assaulted her. Both Jimmy and Mary survived.

March 24, 1946 — Richard L. Griffin (29) and Polly Ann Moore (17) were gunned down while at a lovers’ lane. It is believed that they were killed outside the car and then placed inside by the Phantom. Later that night

April 13, 1946 — Betty Jo Booker (15) and Paul Martin (17) were attacked somewhere after leaving Booker’s band performance at a VFW. Martin was found on the side of the road, shot four times. Booker was found 2 miles away, she had been shot twice.

May 3, 1946 — Virgil Starks (37) was attacked while sitting inside the living room of his farmhouse watching TV. He was shot twice from a (closed) window three feet away. His wife Katie Starks (36) was shot twice from the same window but managed to run to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor drove her to the hospital and she survived.

[*] The two survivors of attacks by the Texarkana Phantom describe him as 6 feet tall and wearing a white pillowcase with eye holes cut out. They do not agree on whether he was a dark-skinned white man or a black man.

[*] After the murders started the community of Texarkana went into a hysteria. The towns instituted a curfew and many citizens who used to not lock their door were buying supplies to secure their doors and windows. Local stores sold out of guns and ammo. The police were inundated with calls about minor clues or crimes.

[*] The name “the Phantom Killer” was literally invented by the media. The Texarkana Gazette started using the name after the double murder of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin.

[*] The Texarkana Phantom is one of at least seven known killers who targeted lovers’ lanes either for their remote locations, distracted prey, or a deeper psychological motive. The Zodiac killer , Son of Sam killer , and Monster of Florence also preyed on lovers’ lanes. The Zodiac and Monster of Florence are also unsolved crimes.

[*] Youell Swinney is considered the prime suspect for the moonlight murders. He was a known criminal and his wife confessed that he was the killer, though she refused to testify against him in court. Swinney was never officially charged and died in 1994 without confessing.

[*] When Swinney’s wife was initially told that the police were questioning her husband for murder, she responded “How did they find out?” She was able to lead the police to crime scenes and give information they believed only someone involved in the crimes would know.

[*] Officially, Youell always denied the allegations. Mrs. Swinney recanted her confession, and some police officers remained unconvinced that a low-life like Youell could commit more restrained crimes than petty theft and counterfeiting. He was imprisoned from 1947-1973 for auto theft.

[*] The Texarkana Moonlight Murders were immortalized in the horror movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown in 1976 and a remake in 2014, though both are heavily fictionalized. In Texarkana, the 1976 film is screened at a movies in the park event every Halloween.

Criminal Minds Wiki

  • Real Serial Killers
  • Real Life Rapists
  • Unsolved Cases
  • Unreferenced Criminals
  • Real Mutilators
  • Real Life Sociopaths
  • Real Life Sadists

The Phantom Killer

  • View history

The Phantom Killer , also known as "The Phantom Slayer" and "The Moonlight Murderer" , is a still-unidentified rapist and serial killer responsible for the so-called Texarkana Moonlight Murders , occurred during the spring of 1946 in and around the twin cities of Texarkana, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas.

  • 1.1 First attack
  • 1.2 First Double Murder
  • 1.3 Second Double Murder
  • 1.4 Final Attack
  • 2 Aftermath
  • 3 Modus Operandi
  • 5 Known Victims
  • 6.1 Prime Suspect
  • 7 On Criminal Minds

Case History [ ]

First attack [ ].

The first reported attack of the Phantom killer occurred at around 11:55 p.m. on February 22, 1946. Jimmy Hollis, 25, and his girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, 19, parked on a secluded road which was known as a lover's lane after having seen a movie together. A man wearing a white cloth mask with eye holes cut out (described later as a "bag" by Larey), and handling a flashlight approached their vehicle by the driver side and ordered them both out of the car. Subsequently, he ordered Hollis to take off his pants and pistol-whipped him twice, rendering him unconscious. Mary Jeanne was also hit, and was then ordered by the assailant to run up the road. After reaching an old car parked off the road, she was again confronted by her attacker whom, strangely enough, asked her why she was running, to which she replied he had ordered her to. Calling her a liar, the aggressor knocked her out and sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun. After the assault, Larey fled on foot and was eventually able to call in the police, while Hollis regained consciousness and was seen by a passer-by. Bowie County Sheriff W. H. "Bill" Presley and three other officers arrived on the scene. They found Hollis pants 100 yards away from the parked car. Later, both Jimmy and Mary Jeanne gave contradicting statements regarding their attacker's lookings, with Hollis claiming he was a white man in his 30s, while Larey described the man as being a light-skinned African-American, and added a detail: the mask that covered his face had also a mouth hole.

First Double Murder [ ]

Almost a month later, on March 23-24, the first double murder occurred. Richard L. Griffin, 29, and his girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore, 17, were found dead in Griffin's sedan, between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., by a passing motorist. The car was found on another lover's lane named Rich Road, close to a local bar named Club Dallas. They were both shot once in the head, while outside the car, then placed back inside. A .32 cartridge shell was found, possibly shot from a Colt. The police launched a citywide investigation along with other sheriff's departments in the vicinity and the FBI . The authorities interviewed around fifty to sixty witnesses, and posted a reward in an effort to gain new information on the case (which in turn produced more than a hundred false leads).

Law enforcement officers searching for evidence along Morris Lane

Law enforcement officers searching for evidence along Morris Lane, in the nearings of the Booker-Martin crime scene

Second Double Murder [ ]

On April 14, another double murder occurred. The victims were Betty Jo Booker, 15, a saxophone player, and her friend Paul Martin, 16. They were both found within three miles from Martin's Ford coupe, which was parked outside Spring Lake Park, with the keys still in it. Paul's body (found at around 6:30 a.m.) was lying by the northern edge of North Park Road, he was shot four times: once through the nose, again through his ribs, a third time in his right hand and finally through the back of the neck. Betty, whom was found five hours later than Paul, was lying behind a tree, clothed and with her right hand inside one of her pockets. She was shot twice: once through the chest and once in the face. The weapon used was the same of the first double murder, a .32 automatic Colt pistol. Sheriff Presley and Texas Ranger Captain Manuel Gonzaullas said that examinations of the bodies indicated they both had put up a struggle. Betty's saxophone was eventually recovered six months later, in the nearings of the spot where her body was found. A reward was again posted by the authorities, and rumors circulated regarding the apprehension of the murderer, which were later denied by Captain Gonzaullas. This further attack made the press nickname the murderer as the "Phantom Killer".

Texarkana Gazette front page reporting the Starks murder

Texarkana Gazette front page on May 4, reporting the Starks murder

Final Attack [ ]

Flashlight recovered on the Starks murder scene

On May 9, the Texarkana Gazette published its first spot-colored photograph, depicting the flashlight recovered on the Starks murder scene

On May 3, sometime before 9 p.m., Virgil Starks, 37, a farmer and welder, and his wife, Katie, 36, were attacked in their house. Virgil was shot dead from a closed window, while reading a copy of the Texarkana Gazette . Katie was shot twice from the same window, while trying to contact the police after witnessing her husband's death. As the killer was approaching her, she ran to her neighbors house, and was brought to Michael Meagher Hospital. Mrs. Starks survived the attack and, while in the operating room of the hospital, she was questioned on the event by Miller County Sheriff W. E. Davis. A flashlight without fingerprints was left by the killer underneath the window that Mr. Starks was shot from. Although the weapon, in this case, was believed to be a .22 caliber automatic rifle, the absence of an apparent motive led the investigators to link even this murder to the Phantom Killer. As the peak of the town's hysteria was reached, inquiries were implemented, rewards were increased and new ones were posted by the authorities and by the father of Virgil Starks. By November 1948, authorities no longer considered the Starks murder connected with the other double murders.

Aftermath [ ]

Still from the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown, depicting a fictionalized version of the Phantom Killer

Still from the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown , depicting a fictionalized version of the Phantom Killer

The consternation and panic caused by the murders lasted throughout the summer, eventually fading away three months later. The Texas Rangers left Texarkana in October without letting anyone know, in order to keep the killer from attempting another attack. In May 1946, a man was found on the Kansas City Southern Railway tracks north of Texarkana, near Ogden, Arkansas, lying face-down. It was later discovered the man was allegedly killed, with a sharp object, before being placed on the tracks. Earl McSpadden, the man, was widely believed to be either the Phantom whom finally committed suicide, or the latter's final victim. No other crime occurred in Texarkana was ever linked to the Phantom Killer.

A 1976 horror movie was loosely based on the 1946 events, called The Town That Dreaded Sundown . The movie was received with lawsuits from loved ones and friends of the victims for defamation and slander. A remake of the latter was released in 2014, with the same title but featuring a new fictionalized spree, taking elements from Earl McSpadden's death. Every October, near Halloween, the movie is the last shown during the event "Movies in the Park", which take place in Texarkana.

Modus Operandi [ ]

The Phantom Killer attacked young couples in lonely or private areas (some of which were well-known lover's lanes) just outside city limits. He would always attack on weekends, usually three weeks apart, and always late at night. In the Starks case, he shot an older couple of victims, from a closed window of their house, which he then invaded without taking anything.

During the majority of the murders attributed to him, the killer employed what was thought to be a .32 automatic Colt pistol. In the case of the Starks murder, he was thought to have employed a .22 caliber automatic rifle.

During his first reported attack, he wore a white cloth mask fitted with eye and mouth holes. It is not know if he wore the same attire during the other murders.

On one occasion, he sexually assaulted a victim with the barrel of his gun. There are no reports indicating sexual assaults, torture or even mutilations in the other cases, although contemporaneous rumors suggested so.

Profile [ ]

Dr. Anthony Lapalla, a psychologist at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, stated, during a 1946 newspaper interview, that he believed the killer to be a white man (because, as he stated, "in general, negro criminals are not that clever" ) between the ages of the middle 30s to 50 years old. He also considered the killer to be motivated by a strong sex drive and a sadist, at the same time being a cunning planner and a clever, intelligent, shrewd and dangerous individual, of the type that often remains not apprehended.

According to Lapalla, the killer knew at all times what was being done in the investigation, knew that the lonesome roads were being patrolled, and that's why he chose the Starks house. He also added that the killer was planning to continue to make unexpected attacks such as that of Virgil Starks on the outskirts of town.

Lapalla was also convinced that the same person killed Virgil Starks, Betty Jo Booker, Paul Martin, Polly Ann Moore, and Richard Griffin. Pointing out that his theories were based on a number of people whom committed similar crimes, he also stated that such criminals, in some instances, will divert attention to other distant communities where it is believed the crimes are committed by a different individual, or either manage to overcome the desire to kill and assault women.

Lapalla said that the murderer could have been leading a normal life, appearing to be a good citizen. He also said the killer was probably not a veteran, or else his maniacal tendencies would have been apparent while on duty. The Phantom was not necessarily a resident of the area, despite his knowledge of it, as, he claimed, he could well have been a resident of another community whom acquainted himself with Texarkana's surroundings. Due to the strenghtening of police force, the killer would willingly leave because of the difficulty of committing a crime in those circumstances. The Phantom may have also reasoned, in past crimes, that the only way to remain unidentified is to kill all persons at the scene.

Known Victims [ ]

Jimmy Hollis

Jimmy Hollis

Richard L

Richard L. Griffin and Polly Ann Moore

  • Jimmy Hollis, 25 (pistol-whipped, his skull was fractured; survived)
  • Mary Jeanne Larey, 19 (assaulted and raped with the barrel of a gun; survived)
  • Richard Griffin, 29 (shot twice; once in the back of the head)
  • Polly Ann Moore, 17 (shot once in the back of the head)
  • Paul Martin, 16 (shot four times; through his nose, ribs, in his right hand and finally in the back of his neck)

Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin

Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin

  • Virgil Starks, 37 (shot twice into the back of his head)
  • Katie Starks, 36 (shot twice in the face; survived)
  • Earl McSpadden (possibly; allegedly killed with an unidentified sharp object; placed in the path of an ongoing train)
  • June 1, 1948: Virginia Carpenter (possibly; disappeared)

Suspects [ ]

In addition to these suspects, many others were either arrested or questioned in relation to the crimes attributed to the Phantom. Several false confessions were also made.

Youell Swinney

Youell Swinney

Prime Suspect [ ]

  • He and his wife, Peggy, were arrested in June 1946 on charges of car theft. Peggy was found in possession of a car reported stolen on the night of the Griffin/Moore murders.
  • Swinney kept alluding to more serious crimes he allegedly had committed ( "[...] you got me for more than stealing cars" ). He asked, to one of the agents whom firstly arrested him, if he would have been given the electric chair, for what he had done.
  • When Peggy discovered her husband was held for murder, she exclaimed, "How did they find it out?"
  • Peggy took officers near the spot where Paul Martin's car was found, claiming of having been there. The officers found a woman's heel print in that area.
  • Both Peggy's family and Youell's brother-in-law believed he was the Phantom.
  • Police found a khaki work shirt in the suspect's room with a laundry mark of the word "S-T-A-R-K", which was read under a black light. In the front pocket of the shirt, slag was found, which matched samples found in Virgil Starks' welding shop.
  • Youell Swinney owned a .32 Colt automatic, which he had previously sold at a crap game.
  • While being accused of murder, Swinney remained silent instead of pleading his innocence.
  • Peggy Swinney confessed to her husband's actions, revealing detailed information, including things officers already knew and other things they did not.
  • Youell's fingerprints did not match any of the latent prints at the Booker/Martin crime scene.
  • Peggy Swinney recanted her confession.
  • The Texas Rangers and Sheriff Bill Presley were not convinced that Swinney was the Phantom.
  • Swinney denied being the Phantom and never made a confession.
  • Officers, including Bowie County Sheriff Presley, Miller County Sheriff Davis, Texas City Chief of Police Runnels, their officers and both State Police departments worked day and night for six months trying to validate Peggy Swinney's story of their whereabouts. They deduced that Peggy was not telling the truth and that, on the night of the murder of Booker and Martin, the couple was sleeping in their car under a bridge near San Antonio.
  • Unknown as either a sick prank or a true confession, an anonymous woman contacted family members of the victims, one in 1999 and another in 2000, apologizing for what her father had done. Youell Swinney was not known to have ever had a daughter.

The Arkansas High School class of 1948, with suspect H.B

The Arkansas High School class of 1948, with suspect H.B. “Doobie” Tennison

  • He played the trombone in the same high school band as Betty Jo Booker, but they weren't friends.
  • Confessed to the Booker-Martin and Starks killings in a note he wrote, among many others, just before swallowing rat poison in November 1948.
  • His fingerprints didn't match those found at the Booker/Martin crime scene.
  • A friend of his, James Freeman, provided him an alibi for the night Virgil Starks was shot.
  • Tennison's brothers stated he didn't know how to use weapons and learned to drive a car only in 1947. They also claimed the confession and suicide were induced by "reading too much comic books."
  • Earl MacSpadden, the man found on the Kansas City Southern Railway tracks north of Texarkana, near Ogden, Arkansas.
  • Emmett Daniels, a WWII veteran who was indicted for his involvement in the Lippach massacre in Germany in 1945, but the charges were dropped. The massacre involved the killings of around 24 German POW's and the mass rape of about 20 women. Daniels was alleged to have raped two women and penetrated another one with the barrel of his gun, similarly to the Phantom. He also brutally beat to death three German soldiers, and shot two more. Daniels was also alleged to have raped and strangled a woman to death in Germany during the final days of the Battle of Berlin.
  • An escaped German prisoner of war, although never recaptured.
  • A hitchhiker whom threatened to shoot a motorist in Kilgore, Texas, confessed to the killings, but Captain Gonzaullas was skeptical regarding the reasonableness of this boasts. The same hitchhiker was linked to the case of a peeping tom whom had scared a resident of Lufkin, Texas. However, it is impossible to determine if this was the same person.
  • in Atoka County, Oklahoma, a man threatened a woman of killing and raping her, also boasting of having already killed three or four people. A suspect was arrested in the case, although it was later deemed impossible, by the authorities, that he was the Phantom.
  • A Los Angeles war veteran said to the authorities he could have committed the killings while being in a coma. As the man was discharged for being a psychoneurotic, the reasonableness of this assumption is doubted, although the story convinced, to some extent, Captain Gonzaullas.
  • A black man whose tire tracks were found near the Martin-Booker crime scene was arrested. He failed a polygraph test, but was later cleared through the use of hypnosis.

On Criminal Minds [ ]

While the Phantom Killer was never directly mentioned or referenced on the show, the case appears to have been an inspiration for the following unsubs:

  • George Foyet (" Omnivore ", " To Hell and Back, Part 2 ", and " 100 ") - Both were serial killers who wore masks, attacked couples in their cars at night, shot them, were given nicknames for their crimes, and their investigations went cold (initially in Foyet's case). Foyet also appeared in Season Five .
  • James Thomas - Both were serial killers who targeted couples, attacked them in their homes or cars where they were found murdered, stalked them for the opportunity to blitz-attack them, shot them to death with at least one handgun, had some sexual element in their crimes (Thomas forced couples to have sex and stabbed his female victims to death with a knife, while the Phantom attacked couples after spying on them making out and raped a woman with the barrel of his gun), at least one of their attacks occurred at a place of sexual activity (the Phantom usually attacked places regarded as "lover's lanes", while Thomas committed a massacre at a swinger party), were hunted by the FBI and profiled as sexual sadists aggravated by impotence, and were given nicknames for their crimes.
  • There is some speculation that the Phantom Killer and The Zodiac Killer are the same killer, as they are both very similar - Both were serial killers who were of mixed classification, mainly killed by shooting, attacked couples in secluded places (mainly during the nighttime), on at least one occasion wore a mask, and they also killed a lone victim who was older than those whom characterized their classic M.O. once.

Sources [ ]

  • Wikipedia's article on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders
  • 1 Spencer Reid
  • 2 Jennifer Jareau
  • 3 Emily Prentiss
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The Town Afraid of the Dark: The Texarkana Moonlight Murders

There is something about an unsolved serial killer case that is both fascinating and frightening. Who was the killer? How did they get away with it? Is the murderer still alive and living in the town they tortured?

And, in one instance, how is a series of murders still unsolved after over 400 people were arrested and questioned as well as an investigation led by the FBI and Texas Rangers? When it comes to the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, these questions have remained unanswered since 1946. Will we ever discover the identity of the vicious Phantom Killer, who committed the Texarkana Moonlight Murders?

The Phantom of Texarkana

Texarkana is a city located along the border between the states of Texas and Arkansas in the United States, and is the name given to the surrounding area where the cultures of the two states blend together. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders occurred in Miller County, Arkansas, and Bowie County, Texas, for ten weeks between February 22 to May 3, 1946.

Eight people were attacked in total, and five of the victims were killed, leading to an investigation full of mistakes. Texarkana saw its share of violence, but these attacks shook the residents of Texarkana to their very core.

The first attack took place on the evening of Friday, February 22, 1946. A young couple, returning from a date to the movies, parked their cars in a popular lovers’ lane. Jimmy Hollis (25), and his date Mary Jeanne Larey (19), were approached by a strange man wearing a mask who shone a flashlight into the car at the pair. The man had a gun and demanded the two get out of their vehicle: the worst night of the pair’s life had just begun.

the phantom killer true story

The masked man ordered Hollis to take off his pants, and as Hollis complied, he was struck in his head twice with a pistol knocking him unconscious. Larey would later tell police that the man hit Hollis so hard in his head that she believed he had been shot.

Horrifyingly, that sound Larey heard was Hollis’s skull fracturing. In a panic, she gave the stranger Hollis’s wallet, thinking that the masked man was there to rob them. That was not the case, and the man told Larey to get up and run.

The terrified girl ran to a parked car she saw up the road only to find the car empty, and the man quickly caught her. He knocked her down and sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun, and took off into the night, leaving behind the seriously injured couple. Fortunately, Larey was able to run to a nearby house to phone the police.

The police questioned her, and she said the attacker was a black man wearing a white bag or pillowcase over his head with holes cut out for the eyes and mouth. When Hollis regained consciousness, he contradicted her however, saying the attacker was a white man.

The conflicting stories sounded suspicious to the police, and when they considered how brutal the attack was, they assumed that Larey was lying and that she knew her attacker but said he was black to cover for the mystery man. It is possible that the police didn’t believe the girl because of her gender and figured she was embarrassed about the sexual assault with an object and lied.

  • Who was the Mad Axeman of New Orleans?
  • The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Illinois

 The truth? The couple were traumatized and both had sustained head injuries . With that in mind, it is easy to see how they could have identified two men of different races when questioned later. Larey was so traumatized and upset that the police thought she was lying that she intended to move away from the Texarkana area.

The Second Attack 

A month later on March 24th, a motorist spotted a car with two occupants parked in a lovers lane near US Highway 67 West and thought the couple in the car had slept there overnight. When the good Samaritan got closer to the car, he noticed they weren’t sleeping but were dead.

the phantom killer true story

Police discovered that the man, Richard L. Griffin (29), had been shot twice in the car, and his girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore (17), was found shot in the backseat. Outside the car, the police found a blanket covered in blood and determined Moore had been killed on the blanket and then placed in the backseat of the vehicle.

Unlike the first attack, some evidence was found at the scene. A single .32 bullet casing had been left behind. The Texas Rangers and FBI analyzed the bullet and determined it was likely fired from a .32 Colt automatic pistol.

Strangely, the two victims were laid to rest before a pathologist could examine them, which was not standard protocol for police investigations. Some rumors around the time stated that Moore was not sexually assaulted, but other rumors said that she had been sexually assaulted. To this day, the truth about why the two were not autopsied and if Moore was a victim of sexual assault before her death remains unknown.

The Third Attack 

By now the killer was clearly quickening to his task. Three weeks later in the early hours of April 14, 1946, Paul Martin (17) had picked his girlfriend Betty Jo Booker (15) up from a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Club, where she was a member of the evening’s musical entertainment.

Booker’s mom grew concerned when her daughter didn’t stop by the house to drop off her saxophone before spending time with her boyfriend. Her mother called the couple’s friends, but nobody had seen them. Police were called and a search was started and Martin’s body was soon discovered just off the side of a road. He had been shot four times: once through his nose, once in the back of the neck, once in the right hand, and once through the ribs.

Booker’s body was discovered almost 2 miles (3.2km) away from her boyfriend. She was found behind a tree with two gunshot wounds: once in the face and again through her chest. Martin’s car was found an additional 3 miles (4.8km) from Booker’s remains with the keys in the ignition.

The police could not determine who was murdered first. Like the previous murder, a bullet casing indicated that a .32 Colt automatic pistol was the murder weapon.

The Fourth Attack

The final attack of the Phantom Killer occurred on May 3, 1946, in the evening, and was very different to the previous attacks. Virgil Starks (37) was shot twice in the back of his head through a window while he read the newspaper. When his wife Katie Starks (36) heard glass breaking, she rushed to see what happened.

the phantom killer true story

When she discovered her husband’s corpse, she ran to phone the police and came face to face with the killer. She was shot twice in her face, again through the same window, but managed to escape to her neighbor’s home across the street and was able to tell the neighbor her husband was dead before she lost consciousness.

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Katie Starks survived her injuries and fully recovered. Still, when police questioned her after emergency surgery, she couldn’t tell investigators who attacked her and her husband because they never saw who shot them outside their home. All that was left behind at the scene was a black and red flashlight that nobody could identify. 

The Phantom

In an attempt to solve the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, the police brought over 400 suspects in for questioning, but they were all cleared. The leading investigator, Texas Ranger Manuel Trazazas Gonzaullas, realized the attacks took place every three weeks and attempted to set a trap for the Phantom Killer.

Two undercover officers with mannequins posed as teenagers parked in lovers’ lanes . But the police had no luck: the Phantom never struck again. Residents in Texarkana began buying guns, guard dogs , and blinds for their windows. Curfews were set, and people locked their doors for the first time.

The killer was never identified, but two men were considered people of interest. The first possible Phantom of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders was 18-year-old H.B. Tennison. Tennison committed suicide in 1948.

He left behind a suicide note confessing being responsible for the Martin/Booker, and Starks murders. Tennison was in the same school band as Booker, but the two weren’t friends. #However, a friend of Tennison’s came forward to the police, telling them his friend did not kill anyone. They were playing cards at home when they heard the news reporting on the Martin/Booker murders.

the phantom killer true story

The second possible Phantom of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders was a notorious car thief named Youell Swinney (29). Police discovered that on the night of every attack, a car was reported stolen and later found abandoned by the thief.

Swinney’s wife was seen driving a stolen car, and the husband and wife were arrested. Swinney’s wife confessed that her husband was the killer, but her story was inconsistent, changing details each time she was subject to questioning.

She did mention a location where some of Martin and Booker’s belongings were left by Swinney, but other than her confession, and there was nothing solid to tie Swinney to the Moonlight Murders . His wife was determined to be unreliable as a witness and could not testify against her husband in any trial.

He was sentenced to prison for his habitual grand-theft auto charges, where he would die almost 50 years later in 1994. Many found it suspicious that Swinney and his wife got married in the days before they were arrested. Did Swinney use marriage to keep the only person who could send him to the electric chair silent?

To this day, the Phantom Killer responsible for the Texarkana Moonlight Murders has never been identified. The murders have become part of the morbid history of the area. Each year around Halloween, the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown (based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders) is shown in a local park as the finale of the annual “Movies in the Park” event hosted by the Texarkana Department of Parks and Recreation.

For a terrifying series of unsolved murders that sent residents of Texarkana deep into the throws of terror, the tradition of free public screenings of a film based on the murders is definitely just as creepy as a serial killer who disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.

Top Image: Despite a huge manhunt for the killer, the Texarkana moonlight Murders remain unsolved to this day. Source: Alex Corv / Adobe Stock.

By Lauren Dillon 

FBI. 2020. Texarkana Phantom Moonlight Murders Archives . Freedom of Information Act Archives. Available at: https://vault.fbi.gov/texarkana-phantom-moonlight-murders

Walsh, F. 2015. Phantom Killer Brings Terror to Texarkana 69 Years ago Tonight . Available at: http://txktoday.com/news/phantom-killer-brings-terror-to-texarkana-69-years-ago-tonight/

Thompson, E. 2018. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders . Available at: https://morbidology.com/the-texarkana-moonlight-murders/

Bovson, M. 2016. Murder Spree in Texas at hands of ‘Phantom Killer’ remains a mystery . Available at: https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/texas-murder-spree-hands-phantom-killer-solved-article-1.2554028

the phantom killer true story

Lauren Dillon

Lauren Dillon is a freelance writer with experience working in museums, historical societies, and archives. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Russian & Eastern European Studies in 2017 from Florida State University. She went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Museum Studies in 2019 from the University of San Francisco. She loves history, true crime, mythology, and anything strange and unusual. Her academic background has inspired her to share the parts of history not in most textbooks. She enjoys playing the clarinet, taking ballet classes, textile art, and listening to an unhealthy amount of true crime podcasts. Read More

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The True Story Behind ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’

In 1946, Texarkana was haunted by the presence of a masked killer who struck and then disappeared forever.

During the 1980s slasher craze, masked killers were all the rage, thanks to the likes of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface. Jason was arguably the biggest and baddest of the decade, but before he donned the infamous hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part 3 , he wore a burlap sack over his head in his debut, Friday the 13th Part 2 . The hockey mask became iconic, and the sack was never seen again. Still, for many, it was not forgotten, and never failed to be chilling, no matter how many times you saw it.

What Is 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown' About?

A lot of that fear is rooted in the reminder of reality, for Jason’s look in the second film is eerily similar to the real life killer dubbed The Phantom Killer, whose crimes inspired the creation of the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown thirty years later, as well as a part sequel, part meta remake in 2014. While the film wasn’t the hit that a similar feature like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was two years earlier, it still connected with audiences, providing a thrilling mystery and creepy atmosphere, along with some humor that worked in moments even if it was arguably inappropriate. What made it work, besides the great acting from Academy Award winner Ben Johnson , was its connection to true events and its open ending. In the finale, the killer is still on the loose, which was sure to have left 1970s theater goers frazzled and looking in the backseats of their cars as they left the cinema. In fact, the film even leans into this by including a scene where the killer is shown, filmed from the shins down, standing in line at a theater for a screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown .

The film isn’t entirely accurate. Liberties were taken for dramatic effect. For example, in the film, the killer is seen and chased. That never occurred in reality , but it would have made for a rather dull climax if the complete truth had been stuck to. Murders occur on different days, in different ways (including one disturbing scene that has a knife attached to a trombone), with different people finding the bodies. While this may have been done to make a more cohesive and exciting plot, it wasn’t needed. The real life story of The Phantom Killer and the havoc he caused, known as The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, are scary enough on their own without Hollywood’s involvement.

Who Was The Phantom Killer?

The Phantom Killer operated in 1946 for less than a three-month period in Texarkana, a town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. He first attacked on February 22 , near midnight, in a moment that would help create an urban legend. 25-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, had just been to the movie theater, and now sat together in Jimmy’s car on a secluded road to makeout. It was then that a man in a white, pillowcase-like mask stepped out of the darkness and ordered the couple out of the car. He beat Jimmy with a pistol, before raping Mary. Fortunately, both survived, but neither were able to identify their attacker due to his mask.

RELATED: The True Story Behind ‘The Amityville Horror’

A month later, on March 24, the attacker would grow more bold , leaving behind no breathing victims to speak about the man in the mask. It was then, in another lover’s lane area, that Richard Griffin and his girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore, were attacked in Richard’s car, both shot several times, and both left dead. The killer then disappeared into the night without a trace.

After getting a taste for blood, The Phantom Killer wouldn’t wait another month to strike. It only took three weeks for him to commit another double-murder . This time it was April 14, and involved another teenage couple, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, the latter who was only 15-years-old. Both were again shot, but this time the victims wouldn’t be found together. Booker’s body was found two miles away, posed propped up against a tree with a hand in her coat pocket.

Again, about three weeks later, on May 4, the killer would strike one last time . His last act had a different motif, for here he did not strike teens in their cars at night, but a couple in their 30s while they sat in their home. He had progressed from rape, to murder, to the posing of bodies, to now home invasion. As Virgil and Katie Starks sat in their farmhouse at night a shot rang out and the living room window shattered. Virgil fell, having been shot dead from outside. His wife was shot as well, and she ran for her life as the killer broke into her home, fleeing to a nearby residence. Katie would survive, but she never got a look at her attacker.

But Then The Phantom Killer Disappeared...

The area lived in fear, waiting to be struck again, but another attack never came. The killer had come in the night like a phantom, then disappeared just like one as well. A thorough investigation was conducted, suspects were named and interviewed, but no one was ever arrested. The most popular theory among many in law enforcement and journalism was that the killer was a local car thief named Youell Swinney . He denied any involvement, but in 1947 he was sent to prison for other crimes and the murders stopped.

No matter who it was, somehow The Phantom Killer had managed to not only get away, but to stay away. Within months, as it was evident that The Phantom Killer had for whatever reason stopped, tensions eased, but his atrocities were never forgotten. He became mythical, an almost urban legend. In the 1970s, serial killers became unfortunately commonplace in America, with similar murderers like The Zodiac Killer and Son of Sam using familiar motifs reminiscent of The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, but in the 1940s, it was just the Phantom that everyone talked about.

In 1976, two years before the white mask of Michael Myers in John Carpenter ’s Halloween changed the landscape of the horror genre forever, director Charles B. Pierce , most known for directing the 1972 Bigfoot feature The Legend of Boggy Creek , decided to revisit the scary stories he’d heard in his youth and make a movie about The Phantom Killer. Was it a great film? No. But it did have its impact in influencing the slasher genre. Most importantly, it didn’t need to be a great film. The fear was already ingrained in the audience before the opening credits even rolled. Nothing on the screen could live up to the hyped fear in the moviegoers' imagination, especially for those in Texarkana. It was leaving the theater, and driving home with your boyfriend or girlfriend in the dark, when the real horror began.

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Marc Hoover: Who was the Texarkana Phantom killer?

the phantom killer true story

Texarkana, Texas is a small-town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. For most people, it’s just another small, hot and dusty Texas town. But you might be familiar with the town if you’re a Texas resident, true crime follower or horror movie fan.

In 1976, a movie was released about a killer that terrorized Texarkana for roughly two months. The movie is titled The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Although fiction, it captured the fear of Texarkana residents inflicted by an unknown hooded stranger who brutally murdered five residents.

Today, the murders remain unsolved and no one has ever identified the hooded killer.

On February 22, 1946, lovebirds James Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey were parked on a secluded road outside town. A stranger with a flashlight approached the couple. He blinded them by shining it into their eyes. He pulled a gun on the couple and ordered them to exit the car. After making Hollis strip off his pants, the stranger beat him and fractured his skull. The stranger then forced Larey to run away. He then chased, captured and raped her. But he didn’t kill her.

The couple described the killer as either a white man or light-skinned black man. They couldn’t be sure because he wore a white hood with eyeholes. In March, the stranger killed Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore. The couple were both found murdered in a parked car in a secluded area. The next couple murdered was Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, 15.

The killer’s final victims were Virgil and Katie Starks. The killer shot Virgil in the back of head with two bullets. He died immediately. Katie Starks was shot twice in the face but managed to escape and get help from a neighbor.

The killings gripped the town in fear. Citizens soon became prisoners in their homes. A curfew was set and residents began buying guns to defend their homes. The Texas Rangers even came to town to solve the murders. Captain Manuel T. Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers swore he wouldn’t leave Texarkana until they solved the murders. A local investigator asked the Captain if he had bought a home in town yet. They weren’t able to capture the killer. So who was this killer?

At the time, a man named Youell Swinney was believed to have been the killer. Authorities arrested him for auto theft in 1947. Youell’s wife originally claimed he was the killer but later recanted her statement. Swinney was a habitual offender and spent much time in jail. Although authorities and townspeople believed Swinney was the killer, no one ever proved it.

An author named James Presley wrote a book about the crime titled The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Story of a Town in Terror. Presley is a Texarkana resident and his Uncle Bill Presley was Sheriff of Bowie County and lead investigator on the murders.

Based on conversations James Presley had with his uncle, both men believed that Youell Swinney was the killer. One reason was Swinney’s wife because she named her husband as the killer. Although she recanted, she knew too many details about the killings. It’s possible she may have even been at the crime scenes.

Additionally, after Swinney went to jail, the killings stopped. Authorities considered the case closed after he received a life sentence for stealing cars. Unfortunately, Swinney was eventually released. He never admitted to the killings and if he did, he took his secret to the grave with him when he died in 1994. And since the crime happened so long ago and evidence no longer remains, the case will likely remain unsolved.

Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page at http://www.lifewithgrandpa.com . He also wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on Amazon.com .

the phantom killer true story

Happy Face Killer: What was Keith Hunter Jesperson convicted of?

By Debangshu Nath

Disclaimer: The article contains mention of murder and assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Keith Hunter Jesperson , aka the Happy Face Killer, is a notorious Canadian American serial killer who was convicted of murder. Born in British Columbia, Canada, on April 6, 1955, Oxygen True Crime reports that he was abused and bullied as a child. Frustrated with his life, Jesperson soon turned to torturing animals and attacking other kids.

In 1975, he married Rose Hucke, with whom he had three children. Jesperson and his family settled in Selah, Washington, and he worked as a long-haul trucker for a living. Towering at six feet, six inches, Jesperson had to travel from state to state. As such, the nature of his job helped him to find his victims.

Keith Hunter Jesperson split from his wife in 1990, the same year he killed for the first time. According to Murderpedia , he killed eight people in Nebraska, California, Florida, Washington, Oregon, and Wyoming. His first victim’s name was Taunja Bennett, who he strangled to death after raping her. A cyclist discovered her body near the Columbia River, as reported by the New York Daily News .

Happy Face Killer: Did Keith Hunter Jesperson ever harm his children?

According to Melissa Moore, one of Jesperson’s daughters’, the serial killer never harmed his children. However, in an interview, she revealed that she knew something was not right with her father. According to Oxygen True Crime , she said, “I loved my dad, but I didn’t really enjoy being around him. He made me anxious. He never molested or beat any of us, it was just a feeling that something was building, seething beneath the surface.”

She further stated, “I had once tried to articulate it to a school counselor. But it didn’t come out right. He would leer at women in public, make lewd remarks about them, and harass them.”

For his crimes, authorities sentenced Keith Hunter Jesperson to life in prison for four consecutive terms. Furthermore, he is held in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Debangshu Nath

Debangshu watched a couple of Scorsese, Tarantino and Coppola films in seventh grade and developed an unhealthy obsession with criminals, psychopaths and serial killers. Fueled by his passion for Death, Thrash and Black Metal, he finds solace in writing about some of the most deranged people and incidents in human history. He also thinks he is a combination of Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute, Ron Swanson and Travis Bickle.

Thank God for Cats and Prairie dogs.

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the phantom killer true story

Wicked Horror

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.

See Also: Nine Beloved Horror Movies That Are Kind of Overrated

The Town that Dreaded Sundown

The First Attack

On February 22 nd , 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.

See Also: This Sinister True Story is Reminiscent of Don’t Breathe

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

Thirty days after Larey and Hollis’ attack, on the morning of March 24 th , 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.

Bessie Brown’s motherly intuition had woken her up, on the morning of April 14 th , 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 20 th , 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 16 th , 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 20 th 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.

See Also:  The True Story of the Real-Life Devil’s Rejects

On May 3 rd 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

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.

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 of the case behind The Town that Dreaded Sundown . 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!

Updated December 01, 2023*

the phantom killer true story

Remember Me

The True Story Behind The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Written by Joey Altherr

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a 1976 horror film based on the infamous murders committed by the still unnamed Phantom Killer (also called the Phantom Killer or Phantom Slayer). The film was directed and produced just thirty years after the crimes were committed in the Texarkana metropolitan statistical area, an area sandwiched between Texas and Arkansas. The series of attacks have now been coined the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, as the killer struck the victims on weekend nights between February and May. As the movie title says, Texarkana truly became a town that dreaded sundown. While the true culprit is yet to be named, there is much lore and theories pointing fingers at various suspects. With almost 400 total suspects brought forward during this case, there was a lot of evidence and statements for the police to parce through.

The film follows the real timeline closely, only taking some artistic liberty in certain areas and changing the names of the victims for privacy. Like reality, the film ends without the Killer being caught. The changes that can be noticed in the film were subtle, often involving a small shift in date or time from the actual event. Its world premier took place in Texarkana, an eerie setting that surely had its audience on the edges of their seats for days. The showing of the film is now a tradition in Texarkana, playing near Halloween at the end of a series of weekly movie showings.

The events led to the production of much more than just the 1976 film, including another 2014 film with the same title, a song by The Bad Detectives titled “Texarkana Moonlight”, numerous books and novels, and more. The 2014 sequel was initially intended to be a remake, but soon became its own film containing references and nods to the original piece. Attention was brought to the case at the local, state, and national levels as communities worked together to catch the killer. Some even tried to trap the Phantom Slayer, baiting him or her into a setup.

If you’re looking for a new horror film to watch, The Town That Dreaded Sundown will haunt you with its chilling storyline. After the movie, be sure to watch the 2014 sequel and read up on the community lore!

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Screen Rant

The town that dreaded sundown: true crime & real killer explained.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown was a 1976 docudrama based on actual crimes committed in Texarkana in 1946. The real killer was never found.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown was a 1976 docudrama that was based on actual crimes committed in Texarkana in 1946. A hooded killer terrorized citizens in rural areas surrounding the border between Texas and Kansas. Dubbed the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” by the press, eight people were attacked and five were murdered within the span of three months. The film purported to be a true depiction of the crimes, with only the names of the victims changed. However, Charles B. Pierce’s film was not an accurate depiction of what occurred, and took many liberties with the facts. A “meta-sequel” produced by Jason Blum in 2014 only helped to further blur the truth.

Screenwriter Early E. Smith follows the basic outline of the crimes, but adds exploitative elements to the narrative which undercut the film’s credibility. The writer also created completely fictional scenarios, including a chase between law enforcement and the killer, which have colored the public’s perception of the truth for many years. Unlike popular crime films such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), which was loosely inspired by a variety of events , and David Fincher’s Zodiac , which focused on one man’s obsession with a real serial killer , Sundown carried the weight of crimes that affected real people.

Related: The Town That Dreaded Sundown: Every Difference Between The Original And Remake

The attacks began on February 22, 1946 when a young couple, parked in an area known as “lovers’ lane” were confronted by a hooded stranger yielding a flashlight and gun. The driver of the car, Jimmy Hollis (25) and his girlfriend Mary Jeanne Larey (19) were ordered out of the car after being told by the intruder that he " did not want to kill them ". After fracturing the skull of Hollis with the gun, Larey was also hit in the head but, bizarrely, also told to run away by the assailant. He caught up with her, sexually assaulted her, but let her go after the attack. The hooded perpetrator’s behavior, at times erratic, seemed to suggest an uncertainty in his actions. He would show none of these signs in his next three attacks.

 The True Crimes In The Town That Dreaded Sundown

March 24, 1946 another couple was confronted in a different area also known as a “lover’s lane.” This time, both victims were not so lucky. Richard L. Griffin (29) and his girlfriend Polly Ann More (17) were found dead in his car from gunshot wounds to the head. Less than a month later on April 13 the killer took the lives of Paul Martin (17) and his friend Betty Jo Booker (15) – both shot with the same gun used as the previous double-murder, a .32 automatic Colt pistol. After Martin and Booker were killed, the Texarkana Daily News used the “Phantom Killer” moniker in a headline, which was soon used to describe him by the national media.

The final attack by the hooded killer took place on the night of April 13. Married couple Virgil and Katie Starks, both in their 30s, were shot in their home located on a 500 acre farm 10 miles northeast of Texarkana. Virgil was shot and killed while sitting in a chair in his living room. Katie was shot twice in the face while attempting to call the police. She survived the ordeal after running to a distant neighbor’s house for help. The Phantom Killer never struck again, and though there was a robust manhunt and investigation no one was ever convicted of the crimes. While The Town That Dreaded Sundown may have played with the facts of the actual case, it did keep the memory of the tragic events alive for decades. Even today the film is shown once a year around Halloween in an outdoor theater in Texarkana. It is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime .

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Killers of the Flower Moon Star Lily Gladstone Makes History as First Native American Best Actress Oscar Nominee

Gladstone made history when she won the Golden Globe for her performance earlier this month

PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty

Lily Gladstone is making history!

On Tuesday, the Killers of the Flower Moon star, 37, was nominated for Best Actress at this year's Oscars for her performance as Mollie Burkhart in the Martin Scorsese film that also stars Leonardo DiCaprio , Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons .

Gladstone, who is of Siksikaitsitapi and Niimiipuu heritage, is the first Native American actress to be nominated for an Oscar. She's the fourth Indigenous actress to ever earn a nomination in the category.

Merle Oberon was the first woman nominated in the category in 1935 for playing Kitty Vane in Sidney Franklin's The Dark Angel . More than 60 years later, in 2003, Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for playing Paikea, a young girl fighting for the respect of her family in Whale Rider .

Emma McIntyre/Getty

The last Indigenous woman to be nominated in the category before Gladstone was Yalitza Aparicio for her role in 2018's Roma. Aparicio played Cleo, a maid living in Mexico City in the 1970s.

Per Variety , Oberon, Castle-Hughes and Aparicio are British, Kiwi and Mexican, respectively.

Gladstone recently became the first Indigenous woman to win the Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture - drama category. The character of Mollie Burkhart is based on a real-life woman who was a member of the Osage Nation. Mollie's family members, including her mother and sisters, were killed by men over their rights to oil reserves located underneath their reservation in Oklahoma. The movie can be streamed on Apple TV+.

Frazer Harrison/Getty

In her Globes acceptance speech, Gladstone spoke briefly in the Blackfeet language (an Algonquian language spoken by the Blackfoot or Niitsitapi people) and noted in English, "This [win] is a historic one. It doesn't belong to just me. I'm holding it right now. I'm holding it with all my beautiful sisters in the film at this table over here and my mother, Tantoo Cardinal, standing on all of your shoulders. Thank you."

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In October 2023 ahead of the film's premiere, Gladstone told The Hollywood Reporter that she considered quitting acting before she got cast in Killers of the Flower Moon .

“I had my credit card out, registering for a data analytics course," she said, adding that she worried an acting career wouldn't be sustainable for her. She was applying for seasonal work at the Department of Agriculture when she got an email from Scorsese about the role.

The 96th Academy Awards, hosted by  Jimmy Kimmel , will air live on Sunday, March 10, from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

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COMMENTS

  1. Texarkana Moonlight Murders

    The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a term coined by the contemporary press, was a series of four unsolved serial murders and related violent crimes committed in the Texarkana region of the United States in early 1946.

  2. The Creepy Truth About The Texarkana Murder Mystery

    In 1946, the town of Texarkana, which straddles the state line between Texas and Arkansas, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks that ultimately left five people dead and three gravely injured.

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    In 1946, a sadistic killer dressed in a white mask terrorized the small town of Texarkana at night. By Orrin Grey | Published Nov 13, 2018 Texarkana, a small town that straddles the state line between Texas and Arkansas, is also known as The Town That Dreaded Sundown, thanks to the 1976 horror flick of the same name.

  4. Texarkana Moonlight Murders

    On February 22, 1946, two young people, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, were parked on a secluded Bowie County road outside Texarkana. They were forced out of the car by an armed man, his face hidden by a burlap sack with two slits for eyes. The assailant beat Hollis with the gun, cracking the young man's skull in two places.

  5. Texarkana Murder Mystery

    Photograph from the Tillman Johnson Collection. I n 1946 four brutal crimes occurred in less than three months in Texarkana. Three were violent attacks on young people parked on lovers' lanes on ...

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    In the spring and summer of 1946, a serial killer, who would later be dubbed the Phantom Killer, terrorized the residents of Texarkana, a town that straddles the state line between Arkansas and Texas. Jimmy Emerson Dalton/Wikimedia The Phantom Killer struck for the first time on February 22, 1946. Public Domain/Wikimedia

  7. The Famous Movie Inspired By The Texarkana Murder Mystery

    During 1946, police failed to catch the man christened the Phantom Killer, and in 1976, the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown based on the events.

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    Huskins was kidnapped for ransom and sexually assaulted. Days later, just before the $8500 ransom was due, Huskins was released by one of her captors near her parents' home in Orange County, CA ...

  9. The Town That Dreaded Sundown

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  12. Texarkana Murders: "Phantom Killer" Case Still Unsolved

    The violent crime spree of the Phantom Killer started on February 22, 1946 at 11:45 p.m. Jim Hollis, 25, and his date Mary Jeanne Larey, 19, had gone to the movies, and afterwards, they parked their car on a secluded road that was considered a local "lovers' lane" area.

  13. The Phantom Killer of Texarkana: Hunting a Cold-Blooded Murderer

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    February 22, 1946 — Jimmy Hollis (25) and Mary Jeanne Larey (19) were approached by a man while parked at a lovers' lane. They were ordered out of the car and Jimmy was asked to take his pants off. Jimmy was then pistol-whipped so hard his skull was fractured. Mary was told to run. When the attacker caught up with Mary he sexually assaulted her.

  15. The Phantom Killer

    The Phantom Killer, also known as "The Phantom Slayer" and "The Moonlight Murderer", is a still-unidentified rapist and serial killer responsible for the so-called Texarkana Moonlight Murders, occurred during the spring of 1946 in and around the twin cities of Texarkana, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas. Contents 1 Case History 1.1 First attack

  16. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014 film)

    Plot On October 31, 2013, in the city of Texarkana, the local drive-in theater is hosting the Halloween annual showing of the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown, based on the true story of the Phantom Killer who murdered several people in Texarkana in 1946.

  17. The Town Afraid of the Dark: The Texarkana Moonlight Murders

    Major Crimes in History The Town Afraid of the Dark: The Texarkana Moonlight Murders by Lauren Dillon September 17, 2022 0 There is something about an unsolved serial killer case that is both fascinating and frightening. Who was the killer? How did they get away with it? Is the murderer still alive and living in the town they tortured?

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  19. The Town That Dreaded Sundown: The True Story

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  20. Marc Hoover: Who was the Texarkana Phantom killer?

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  21. The Phantom Killer of Texarkana

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  23. The True Story Behind The Town that Dreaded Sundown

    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.

  24. The Town That Dreaded Sundown

    The Town That Dreaded Sundown may refer to: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976 film), a horror film loosely based on the 1946 Texarkana Moonlight Murders. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014 film), a horror film and loose sequel of the 1976 film. This disambiguation The Town That Dreaded Sundown. If an internal link.

  25. The Phantom Killer

    The Phantom Killer, exhaustively researched, is the only definitive nonfiction book on the case, and includes details from an unpublished account by a survivor, and rare, never-before-published photographs.Although the case lives on today on television, the Internet, a revived fictional movie and even an off-Broadway play, with so much of the ...

  26. The True Story Behind The Town That Dreaded Sundown

    Written by Joey Altherr. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a 1976 horror film based on the infamous murders committed by the still unnamed Phantom Killer (also called the Phantom Killer or Phantom Slayer). The film was directed and produced just thirty years after the crimes were committed in the Texarkana metropolitan statistical area, an area ...

  27. The Town That Dreaded Sundown: True Crime & Real Killer Explained

    The real killer was never found. The Town That Dreaded Sundown was a 1976 docudrama that was based on actual crimes committed in Texarkana in 1946. A hooded killer terrorized citizens in rural areas surrounding the border between Texas and Kansas. Dubbed the "Texarkana Moonlight Murders" by the press, eight people were attacked and five ...

  28. Lily Gladstone Makes History as First Native American Best Actress

    Killers of the Flower Moon. Star. Lily Gladstone Makes History as First Native American Best Actress Oscar Nominee. Gladstone made history when she won the Golden Globe for her performance earlier ...