Unsolved Casebook is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.This does not influence opinions within any content.

Texarkana Phantom Moonlight Murders

Over a span of ten weeks during 1946, an unidentified serial killer would haunt the twin cities of Texarkana, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas before seemingly vanishing into thin air. The Texarkana Phantom Moonlight Murders, on which the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown was based upon, were never solved.

Jimmy Hollis And Mary Jeanne Larey

On February 22, 1946, twenty-four-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his nineteen-year-old girlfriend Mary Jeanne Larey headed up to a secluded spot on Richmond Road at about 11:45 pm. The young couple had spent the evening at the movies on a double date with Jimmy’s brother but after dropping off their companions it was time to be alone.

The couple had scarcely had time to begin making out and enjoying a more intimate moment when their night of passion was brought to a shuddering halt.

A dark figure peered through the window. With a white cloth hood covering his face, with rough holes cut out for his eyes and mouth, and a pistol in hand the figure made his first demand:

“Come out of the car, NOW!”

Worried they would be shot dead if they failed to comply Jimmy and Mary did as they were ordered. Mary told the antagonist he could take all the money the duo had but just not to hurt them. The masked attacker shone a torch in the eyes of the young couple and gave his reply:

“Do as I say and I won’t hurt you”

The first request was a bizarre one. He ordered Jimmy to remove his trousers. After some hesitation, and Mary’s pleas to do as he was asked, Jimmy took off his pants. Despite satisfying the demand the attacker went back on his promise and struck Jimmy Hollis down into a crumpled heap with a blow to the head from the base of his pistol.

Suddenly, seeing the danger her life was in, Mary took the decision to make a bolt for safety. Her endeavour to escape was futile. Now on the ground, Mary cried in horror as her deplorable attacker sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun. Thankfully for Mary her ordeal came to an end before an even worse fate became of her when the headlights of a nearby car came into view. The perpetrator struck Mary several times across the face before finally disappearing into the night.

After Mary summoned help the young couple was rushed to the hospital. Mary had sustained several bumps and bruises but Jimmy was far worse. The blows to the skull he endured were performed with such ferocity that his skull was fractured. Jimmy, however, overcame his injuries and survived the horrific ordeal. Little did Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey know at the time how lucky they were to escape with their lives that night.

The couple offered up their account of events to the police. For the most part, both Jimmy’s and Mary’s stories were the same, however, there was one detail that differed, and an important one in narrowing down the hunt for the attacker. Both had said the man was around six foot tall with Jimmy saying he was a white man, Mary though was adamant the attacker was black. Authorities tended to believe Jimmy’s description, with some even pondering the idea that Mary may have actually known the true identity of the masked terror, a claim she denied until the day she died.

The police inquiry into the attack on Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey didn’t uncover any real suspects, with most of the opinion whoever committed the attacks was now long gone. The newspapers that covered the case also showed little concern, seemingly confident this was a one-off horrific incident. Locals were also largely unconcerned, of the belief, the attacker was someone passing by as opposed to being one of their own.

Tragically, they were wrong.

Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore

On March 24. 1946 a motorist was driving along Bowie County Highway 67 when he spotted a vehicle parked in an unusual spot along the side of the road. The area had suffered torrential rain and so thinking the occupant of the 1941 Oldsmobile may be stuck in the mud and in need of assistance he pulled over to offer his help. On closer approach, the passing samaritan instead saw the vehicle contained the bodies of a male and female covered in blood.

The identities of the occupants were soon discovered. The male was twenty-nine-year-old war veteran Richard Griffin, found kneeling behind the dashboard. The female victim found on the back seat was Polly Ann Moore, she was seventeen-years-old. Both had been shot with .32 calibre revolver. Although not reported by the police at the time, it was later revealed that Polly Ann Moore is also believed to have been raped. The FBI files on the case couldn’t confirm this as her body had already been embalmed before they could complete their investigation.

The bodies of the victims were found in the car but there was clear evidence they were placed there by the killer. Bloodstains and drag marks were located nearby. Due to the torrential rain in the area, however, little other clues survived the downpour including fingerprints.

The investigation determined that Polly and Richard had started dating six weeks prior to their murders. Despite the age difference, they found nothing to suggest anyone was concerned by it. Furthermore, they found no one had any desire to cause them harm, with neither having any known enemies. The last person to have seen the pair alive was Richard Griffin’s sister Eleanor. She had dined with the couple on March 23 and last saw them when leaving a West Seventh Street cafe at 10 pm that evening.

Despite questioning over fifty individuals in relation to the case they were no closer to finding the couple’s killer. Even the offer of a $500 reward proved fruitless, in fact, if anything this proved detrimental as it led to hundreds of false leads which police were obligated to follow up.

Officially no connection was made between the murders of Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore to the assaults on Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey. That, however, didn’t stop the residents of Texarkana making the connection themselves. Despite debate amongst locals that the two attacks may be related for the most part life went on as usual.

But not for long…

Betty Jo Booker And Paul Martin

On April 14, 1946, which was Palm Sunday that year, G H Weaver and his family were driving along North Park Road when they spotted a man laying on the shoulder of the road. The man’s clothing was covered in blood. The Weaver family quickly alerted authorities of their discovery.

The victim was soon identified as seventeen-year-old Paul Martin. A former Texarkana resident, Martin now lived in Kilgore, Texas and was only visiting for the weekend with his parents. He had been shot four times, once in the neck, once in the shoulder, once in the hand, and a final shot in the face.

The early investigation soon discovered that Paul Martin hadn’t been alone the previous night. The day before he had arranged to collect fifteen-year-old Betty Jo Booker from a dance where she was playing the saxophone for a local band called the Rhythmaires. Witnesses saw the two leave the party together at around 2 am but Betty Jo Booker hadn’t made it home.

Betty Jo Booker and an a picture of a young Paul Martin

A frantic search for Betty Jo Booker began. At 12 pm, six hours after Paul Martin’s body was found, the worst fears of every one were realised when the body of Betty Jo was also located behind a tree in woods near Fernwood. She was fully clothed laying on her back with her right hand in the pocket of her coat.

Found almost two-mile away from where Paul was discovered, Betty Jo had died from two gunshot wounds after a struggle (there was also evidence Paul too had put up a fight). One of the shots was to the face, the second went through her chest, with some reports saying the bullet hit her heart. There was also evidence Betty Jo Booker had been raped. Again this information was kept from the press.

Paul Martin’s car, a 1946 Ford Club Coupe, was finally traced. It had been abandoned with the keys still inside at the entrance of Spring Lake Park. This was about a mile and a half from the spot Paul’s body was found.

Latent prints were retrieved from the scene including one from the steering wheel. It was discovered the print didn’t belong to either of the victims or anyone who had been known to have used the vehicle. Like Betty Jo Booker’s rape, the fingerprint and information about bullet casings found at the scene, .32 calibre as found at the Griffin-Moore crime scene, were kept from the press.

Police linked the two double murders quickly, which was confirmed conclusively when ballistics revealed the casings found at both scenes came from the same gun. They also realised the attack on Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey back in February was highly likely to be the work of the same maniac.

Police had no idea how Paul Martin’s car ended up where it was found. Betty Jo and Paul were not believed to be romantically involved so they didn’t believe it was for a romantic liaison. They could find no reason the teens would have been at Spring Park Lake. Had they been lured or forced to the location? Had the killer himself driven the car to the entrance where it was discovered after the murders? Law enforcement just didn’t know.

At this point, the decision was made to put the highly respected Texas Ranger “Lone Wolf” Manuel Gonzaullas on the case. Gonzaullas issued the following bulletin as one of his first acts:

“WANTED FOR MURDER”:

“Person or persons unknown, for the murder of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin, on or about April 13, 1946, in Bowie County, Texas. Subject or subjects may have in their possession or may try to dispose of a gold-plated Bundy E-flat Alto saxophone, serial #52535, which was missing from the car in which the victims were last seen…This saxophone had just been rebuilt, replated and repadded, and was in an almost new black leather case with blue plush lining.

“It is requested that a check be made of music stores and pawn shops. Any information as to the location of the saxophone or description and whereabouts of the person connected with it should be forwarded immediately to the Sheriff, Bowie County, Texarkana, Texas, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin, Texas.”

The saxophone was finally discovered in bushes some six months later not far from where Betty Jo Booker’s body was found. Still inside its black case, the saxophone failed to lead to any help in identifying her killer.

The Phantom Killer

Police may have had no name for the man who was now sending a wave of terror throughout Texarkana but the press soon did. During the reporting on the most recent attack, the murders of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin, the killer was labelled as The Phantom by the Texarkana Gazette. It was a name that stuck, and in some ways only helped to build the rising hysteria within the community.

With the Texarkana Phantom Murders now very much public knowledge doors that were once left unlocked were bolted shut, a happy greeting to a stranger was now replaced with a suspicious glance, and at nightfall the sounds of children still playing was replaced with an eerie silence.

Law enforcement stalked the lover’s lanes and secluded spots were young teens and couples may go to be alone in the hope of catching the culprit they were seeking. In total over three hundred possible suspects were questioned, one by one they were let go without charge.

Despite the best attempts of the community to stay safe another attack was just weeks away. Less than a month after the murder of Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker fear within the area would be intensified.

Katy And Virgil Starks

On the evening of May 3, 1946, thirty-six-year-old Virgil Starks sat down in his chair to listen to his favourite show on the radio at 9 pm. His thirty-five-year-old wife Katy was upstairs in the farmhouse, laid on the bed in her nightgown reading a magazine.

The farmhouse the couple called home was located in Miller County, Arkansas in a remote area some twelve miles from Texarkana. Katy and Virgil Starks had been unaffected by the horrors and hysteria filling the nearby city with dread, sadly this was about to change in a horrific way.

As he sat listening to his radio show little did Virgil know that a figure had appeared stood at the window behind him. Two shots burst through the window pane shattering the glass and entering the back of Virgil’s head.

Katy came downstairs to investigate the sound of breaking glass she had heard thinking her husband had accidentally smashed something. Instead, she was confronted with the ghastly site of her husband slouched in his chair, both covered in blood.

Katy ran to the phone to immediately ring the police. As she picked up the receiver and began to ring the intruder unloaded two gunshots from the same window he had executed her husband Virgil. One bullet ripped through Katy’s right cheek, exiting behind the left ear. The second bullet entered through her jaw dislodging several teeth before the bullet lodged itself under her tongue.

Somehow Katy was still alive. Fighting through the exceeding agony of her ordeal Katy crawled towards the door in hope of escaping the same fate as her husband. As she did so she suddenly heard the assailant attempting to make his way through the very same door.

With every ounce of strength, Katy dragged herself through the house and out the front door across the street to her sisters home leaving a trail of blood behind her. To her horror, her sister wasn’t home but thankfully a nearby neighbour was. The police were called and Katy was immediately rushed to the hospital. Amazingly Katy Starks survived the attack after spending several days in a critical condition.

The Investigation

On arrival at the farmhouse, law enforcement found the assailant long-gone. The killer had managed to make his way into the home through the kitchen, muddy footprints showing he had searched the upstairs and living room before exiting through the front door and across the road hunting for the woman he had just shot.

A flashlight belonging to the killer was also found near the window from which he performed his horrendous act. More importantly, he had also left several fingerprints and bloody palm prints throughout the home.

Bloodhounds were brought in the following morning and picked up the scent of the perpetrator. The scent was traced for 200 yards running along the highway until it was lost, presumably this was where the attacker had left his vehicle during the attack.

Unfortunately, Katy Starks was unable to help once she was available to answer questions. She had never set eyes on her attacker during that horrendous night so could provide no description. The only descriptions they had remained those of Mary Jeanne Larey and Jimmy Hollis, who couldn’t agree on the race of the attacker. With no other witnesses police were at a loss.

Shortly after Virgil Starks murder police in Paris, Texas arrested a forty-six-year-old named Charles Coleman for suspected rape. They quickly discovered he had been in Texarkana at the time of the first two double murders and was investigated as a suspect. His alibi was soon checked and he was eliminated from enquiries. Coleman was able to prove he was in Colorado at the time of the Starks attack.

Was The Starks Attack The Work Of The Texarkana Phantom Killer?

The attacker once again had alluded investigators. The question was whether the murder of Virgil Starks and attempted murder of Katy Starks was the work of the Texarkana Phantom or an isolated vicious attack.

Opinion was split amongst law enforcement. Some officers argued the ammo used in the latest attack was from a .22 semi-automatic shotgun as opposed to the .32 calibre revolver used in the previous Texarkana Phantom Murders. The victims were also much older than the Phantoms previous victims and attacked in there home as opposed to a lovers lane.

Others believed it was foolhardy to dismiss the lastest attacks links to the previous ones. The attacks had grown in violence and in their eyes, this attack was the next natural progression. It could also be argued the hysteria and higher level of scrutiny and surveillance in Texarkana made it much harder to strike again. They believed this was the reason behind the slight change in modus operandi and location.

It seems the argument was never fully settled, even to this day. According to all known records available the prints found at the Starks home were not positively matched to those at the Martin-Booker scene. However, other than a file stating palm prints found couldn’t be compared to fingerprints no mention is made in the FBI files about the results of the fingerprint comparisons.

One thing we do know is that the Starks murders are continuously mentioned throughout the FBI files on the Texarkana Phantom Moonlight Murders. This to me points to the fact they had nothing within their files which could rule out a connection.

Other Possible Crimes Of The Texarkana Phantom

Earl McSpadden

On May 7, 1946, just days after the Starks attack a body was found on railroad tracks some sixteen miles outside of Texarkana. Initially, it was believed the man had killed himself or had a tragic accident but closer inspection revealed otherwise. He had been dead before a train had cut off his arm and leg due to a deep cut across the forehead. The man’s identity was Earl Cliff McSpadden.

Newspaper report linking Earl McSpadden’s death to the Texarkana murders.

Despite the confirmation from the coroner that Earl McSpadden had been murdered rumours soon spread amongst those living in Texarkana. Many claimed the man on the tracks was the Texarkana Phantom himself, he had simply taken his own life, unable to live with what he had done any longer. The rumours were helped by the fact Sheriff Jim Anderson openly questioned the coroner’s verdict.

Others, who believed the man was actually murdered started to ponder whether he was another victim of the Texarkana Phantom. Despite the change in modus operandi the murder of Earl McSpadden was never solved and thus cannot be entirely discounted. Some believe the change was caused as this attack was unplanned, possibly because McSpadden had information on the murders, however, this has never been backed up with any proof.

Lawrence Hogan And Elaine Eldridge

On October 8, 1946, another murder took place which bore an eerie similarity to the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. A young couple was killed by an unknown gunman whilst parked in a lovers lane spot near Dania Beach, Florida. Lawrence Hogan, 23, and Elaine Eldridge, 24, both died as the result of shots fired from a .32 calibre weapon, the same calibre used in the Martin/Booker and Griffin/Moore murders.

Neswpaper article on the murder of Elaine Eldridge and Lawrence Hogan

Several suspects were detained on suspicion of the murders of Elaine and Lawrence but all released without charge. No motive was determined for the killings, no evidence was left behind by the perpetrator.

Virginia Carpenter

On June 1, 1948, Virginia Carpenter, 23, was making the trip from her Texarkana home to Texas State College For Women in Denton, Texas. After departing from the train she then got in a cab to the Brackenridge Hall where she was staying, arriving at around 9 pm.

The cab driver returned the next day to deliver Virginia’s cases which he had collected for her from the train station as they had arranged the previous night. He placed the case on the front lawn of Brackenridge Hall as asked. Here the case set for three days until eventually it was investigated which led to the police being contacted.

The cab driver stated he had seen Virginia in the company of two young men who seemed to know her when he dropped her off on the night she was last seen. Police failed to trace the two men, however, two other men quickly came under suspicion. The cab driver and Virginia Carpenter’s boyfriend. Despite intensive questioning of both, no evidence could be found against either man. Virginia Carpenter was never seen again.

Been from Texarkana wasn’t the sole reason that Virginia is considered by some to be a possible victim of the Texarkana Phantom. Not only did she come from Texarkana but she personally knew three of the teenage victims.

Youell Swinney

Arrest

In the weeks following the murder of Virgil Starks several suspects were taken in for questioning in relation to the murders. All were eventually released without charge, the hunt for the Texarkana Phantom was going nowhere fast.

A police officer named Max Tackett soon gave the investigation new hope. He realized that before each murder a vehicle had been reported stolen before been found not long after the murders had taken place. On June 28 Tackett located a vehicle stolen just before the murder of Virgil Starks in a Texarkana parking lot. Tackett along with his partner Tillman Johnson decided to wait and see who came back to the vehicle.

When twenty-one-year-old Peggy Swinney returned to the vehicle from a nearby store she was arrested. Peggy Swinney informed officers that the car belonged to her husband Youell Swinney but she was driving it as he was in Atlanta, Texas.

Tackett soon found the reason Youell Swinney was in Atlanta, Texas was because he was attempting to sell a stolen car. On his return to Texarkana, Tackett arrested Youell Swinney after a brief chase at the Arkansas Motor Coach bus station. On arrest Youell Swinney was reported to have said something a little strange:

“Hell, I know what you want me for. You want me for more than stealing a car!”

Swinney had a history of getting in trouble. His police record included multiple charges for car theft, burglary, assault and counterfeiting. On searching the hotel room were Youell Swinney and his wife Peggy had been staying a shirt was found which was of particular interest. Found in the closet the pocket had the name STARK stencilled on it. In terms of possible evidence, this was nothing compared to the bombshell his wife would drop.

Peggy Swinney

During questioning, Peggy made the shocking confession that her husband was the Texarkana Phantom Killer. Peggy even confessed that she had been with her husband on at least one occasion, although she took no part in the attacks themselves.

She recanted the claim several times in the weeks following but each time she would then change her mind and once again blame her husband for the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, each time with a slightly different tale to tell.

Investigators wanted to believe they were being told the truth by Peggy Swinney. Parts of her story certainly at face value seemed to include details that hadn’t been fully divulged to the press. However, they had several problems.

The fact her stories were so inconsistent was the first major stumbling block. Her claims would already be taken with a pinch of salt by many due to her being a criminal but the altering stories she told would only exaggerate the problem. Peggy Swinney also refused to testify against her husband in court, and under law, she couldn’t be forced to.

On paper, some of the details she gave did give her statement more validity. The problem was that during her incarceration Peggy Swinney spoke to over a dozen different officers. Investigators couldn’t be certain the details Peggy gave were genuine or information she had garnered from her conversations with different members of law enforcement.

Another problem came in the form of a letter Peggy Swinney wrote just after her first confession intended for her parents but intercepted by police. In the letter, she states she lied in accusing Youell Swinney and only did so after repeated questioning.

Letter written by Peggy Swinney to her parents admitting she lied.

Was Youell Swinney The Texarkana Phantom?

Youell Swinney was never charged in relation to any of the murders. Max Tackett and Tillman Johnson believed they had caught the killer and by all accounts, they continued with that belief until their deaths. Most of the Texas Rangers working the case and Sherriff Bill Presley were unconvinced. “Lone Wolf” Manuel Gonzaullas, who headed the case, continued his hunt for the killer for years after Swinney was incarcerated, perhaps indicating he too was unconvinced Youell Swinney was the culprit.

The most conclusive proof for Youell Swinney not being the Texarkana Phantom are the fingerprints. His prints, like hundreds of other possible suspects, were checked against those taken from the Starks crime scene and various latent prints found at Spring Lake Park. None were a match for Youell Swinney or the countless others who were tested.

FBI Files stating Youell Swinney’s prints were not a match.

What Happened To Youell Swinney

Although never charged with anything in relation to the Texarkana Moonlight Murders Youell Swinney was given a life sentence. He was sentenced as a habitual offender and sent to serve out his sentence in Huntsville.

His conviction was overturned nearly thirty years later in 1973 after an appeal. However, Swinney failed to alter his ways and spent most of his remaining days in and out of jail for theft and counterfeiting before his death in 1994.

Youell Swinney always denied being the Texarkana Phantom.

H B Tennison

On November 5, 1948, the body of eighteen-year-old Henry Booker Tennison was found in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Henry, a freshman at the University of Arkansas and who was known more commonly as HB or Doodie, had taken his own life. His chosen method was to poison himself with cyanide of mercury.

Upon checking his room police made a surprising discovery, a note in which he claimed he had been responsible for the Texarkana Phantom Moonlight Murders. Although further notes were discovered refuting the claims made in his other letters law enforcement took the decision to investigate further.

Detectives soon found evidence that the teenager had been in Texarkana on the night Virgil Starks was murdered and his wife Katy attacked. However, a friend of Tennison’s was adamant that he was with him that night and the pair were together up until around midnight, with Tennison never leaving his sight.

HB Tennison’s prints were taken and checked against the latent prints found at the Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker crime scene. They were not a match. Ballistics checks on weapons Tennison had access to also came back negative.

hb tennison fingerprint texarkana
FBI record of HB Tennison fingerprints not been a match.

Conclusion

Rumours swirled around Texarkana following the horrific acts that the Texas Rangers and other law enforcement officers knew exactly who the Texarkana Phantom was. Some believe that man was Youell Swinney, but if it was they certainly spent a lot of time and effort following up on other suspects, including eliminating the fingerprints of hundreds of individuals, long after Swinney was safely locked up.

Some locals claim the killer belonged to a rich or influential family and this was why the Texas Rangers never arrested the person they knew was responsible. Again there is no proof that this was true.

Another rumour even persists that the killings stopped as the Phantoms family themselves kept the killer captive after finding out what he had done. These tales survive today without any proof to back them up. As is often the way in these old cases, it’s sad to say that the truth is that we will likely never know who took the lives of these unfortunate victims. The Texarkana Phantom will, unfortunately, remain anonymous.

Sources And Further Reading

FBI Files On The Texarkana Murders

The Texarkana Moonlight Murders

https://www.pressreader.com/usa/texarkana-gazette/20131128/282041914920622

https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth292695/m1/3/zoom/?q=%22richard%20griffin%22%20%22polly%20ann%20moore%22&resolution=3&lat=5577.000000000001&lon=2981.999999999999

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/48469553?searchTerm=%22virgil+starks%22

https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth132677/m1/6/zoom/?q=%22Lawrence%20o%20Hogan%22&resolution=3&lat=3589.5000000000005&lon=2812.5

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disappearance_of_Virginia_Carpenter