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Unsolved! The Phantom Killer of Texarkana

Posted by thedarwinexception on November 26, 2007

I really liked reading all of the comments about your favorite Crime Novels and True crime books. When I was taking some of your suggestions, and adding books to my Amazon Wish List, I noticed that, like me, a lot of you listed “Unsolved” or “controversial cases” as some of your favorites. These are always my own personal favorite “true crime cases”. I like the mystery of these cases, the internal debate you can have with the known clues – and the glimmer of hope you have when you know that maybe *you* can figure it out, even though detectives, sleuths, private eyes and scores of people studying the case before you haven’t been able to.

There are some “unsolved” cases that I am really interested in that have been written about extensively, and some that I really am fascinated by that haven’t received nearly as much coverage or press, or are so old and dusty that no one remembers them. So I figured every once in a while I would throw out some of my favorite “unsolved” or “controversial” cases, see if you had any thoughts on them, or if you might have already solved the case in the comfort of your living room, or maybe you can check some of the source material and solve it for me so I can stop obsessing about it!  And since I am always looking for new books to add to the wish list at Amazon, and for new cases to be obsessive about and devour all material on, please leave a comment with some of your favorite cases that I might include in future posts for us to look at. 

The Phantom Killer

The Phantom killer was a serial killer of the early 1940’s in Texarkana, Texas. He killed at least 5 young people usually in “lover’s lane” settings and despite 40 years of active investigation and a feature film about the case, the Phantom has never been identified. His total victim count remains as mysterious as he is, mostly because some killing were attributed to him which didn’t fit his usual MO, and other killings in nearby areas which may have been “The Phantom” were not thought until years later to be his victims. He was sometimes called the “Moonlight Murderer”, because he seemed to surface at three-week intervals to murder when the moon was full.

The killings and the journalistic frenzy they engendered brought hysteria and rampant fear to the area, causing the residents to fortify their homes with boards and bars, flee the town entirely, and to arm themselves with rifles and handguns, sparking incidents of violence when innocent deliverymen and neighbors came upon homes.

The killer’s first attack, although not tied to the subsequent attacks for several weeks, took place on February 23, 1946.  Both the targeted victims, Jimmy Hollis, age 24, and his 19 year old girlfriend, Mary Larey, managed to survive their ordeal. They were parked on a secluded road near Texarkana, when a tall masked man approached their car with a 32 caliber gun in his hand. He ordered Jimmy Hollis from the car and beat him to the ground with the gun and his fists, until Hollis was incapacitated. The gunman then turned to Mary Larey, and raped her with the barrel of the gun until she begged him to kill her. Instead, he beat her with the gun in the head and upper body until she was unconscious, and then turned back to Hollis, as he was regaining consciousness, allowing Mary Larey to escape. 

No one would escape the next attack.

On March 23, 1946, 29 year old Richard Griffin and 17 year old Polly Ann Moore were killed as they, too, were parked on a secluded Texarkana road. They were found inside Griffin’s car, both with gunshots to their heads, although there was some evidence suggesting that they may have been shot outside of the car and then placed back inside. Both bodies were fully clothed, and there were reports at the time of sexual abuse, torture, and mutilation inflicted on Polly Moore, although later investigations and books written on the case say that these reports may have been exaggerated by the hysterical journalists of the day.

Three weeks later, with another full moon, 17 year old Paul Martin and 15 year old Betty Jo Booker were attacked in Spring Lake Park as they were parked there in Martin’s car after leaving a nearby late dance at the local VFW hall. Martin had been shot 4 times, again with a 32 caliber gun. Booker’s body was not found until the next day, a mile away, shot in the face and the heart. She had been sexually assaulted.

The next two attacks commonly attributed to the Phantom killer bear little resemblance to his usual MO. Virgil Starks was sitting in his kitchen reading a newspaper, his wife was in their bedroom. Virgil was shot as a blast came through the kitchen window. Hearing the breaking glass, his wife emerged from the bedroom only to be wounded twice before she was able to flee to a neighbors house to summon help. The killer then entered the home and went through the house leaving bloody footprints in nearly every room. Police rushed to the scene with bloodhounds, but they were unable to track the killer.

Two days after this attack a man’s body was found on the railroad tracks outside of town. There was speculation at first that this may be the Phantom killer himself, who threw himself under a passing train. That speculation was abandoned when the coroner revealed that the victim, Earl McSpadden, had actually died of multiple stab wounds before he was hit by the train. Since he was determined to not be the Phantom, instead he was listed as another victim of the Phantom.

Several FBI lawmen brought into the case considered the case solved with the questioning and arrest of Youell Swinney, a 29 year old car thief with a long police record for crimes such as counterfeiting, burglary, and assault. Swinney and his wife were arrested on charges of car theft in Texarkana in July 1946. Swinney’s wife, looking to get out from under the car theft charges, told police that she had “other information” about her husband that she would be willing to tell them in exchange for her own charges being dropped. She then told police that her husband was the “Phantom”, and that she had been with him when he committed the murders. But she changed the details of the killings each time she was questioned. She was  quickly dismissed as “unreliable” by most of the investigating officers. Swinney was eventually convicted of car theft and, as a repeat offender, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Captain M.T. Gonzaullas, in charge of the Texas Rangers’ investigation of the Phantom killer, said in 1973 that he was still working on the case, and that the  “moonlight murderer” was his most baffling case. He also vowed that he would never stop hunting the killer as long as he lived. M.T. Gonzaullas died in 1977, and the case remains unsolved.

Web Sources:

Books on the Phantom Killer

Lone Wolf Gonzaullas: Texas Ranger by Brownson Malsch

Newton, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Checkmark Books, 2000.

Rasmussen, William T., Corroborating Evidence II


24 Responses to “Unsolved! The Phantom Killer of Texarkana”

  1. mbmb said


    I’m sorry I can’t be of any help with this post. At least not at this time. Personally, I’m not over the OJ thing, which is really sick. Then there are all the others that I’m NOT over. Jayson Williams, Robert Blake, & Michael Jackson. Oh well, that’s our justice system. I do still obsess about the Jayson Williams case. Still waiting for the retrial. Don’t think it’s ever going to happen, though.

    I know this totally off subject, but did you ever get into the HBO Show “Six Feet Under”? I’m so into this show. Been watching it via Netflix. Was so hooked, I went to Blockbusters to see if I could get the rest of it. They only had Seasons 1 through 3. I was so mad when they didn’t have seasons 4 & 5. But, I pulled myself together and said just wait. It wouldn’t be so bad, but I going to Fla. before I get to view season 5. Maybe, I can get my husband to forward it to me. Enough about my crap. What’s up with Zombie Lady? What did you do with all the flannel? I went to Joanne’s on Sunday. It was still a friggin Zoo in there. You are lucky that you got in and out of there on Friday.

  2. Val Dalton said


    Do you happen to have that movie? I would love to watch it, it sounds soo interesting. I have no time to read books with my two jobs and Luke. But a movie I can sneak in after he goes ot bed 😉

  3. Val Dalton said

    Oh I found a trailor of the movie, now i want to see it even more!

  4. Personally, I’m not over the OJ thing, which is really sick.

    I know what you mean – personally, I’m not even over OJ’s first trial, let alone OJ 07. OJ is one of my favorite, favorite cases to debate, although it’s the one case where I could imagine strangling someone who doesn’t “get it”. I used to hang out in an OJ usenet group, until it just got to the point where there were so many OJ apologists who refused to answer questions and discuss the evidence and instead would just reply “How do YOU know? The police could have PLANTED that…” to every honest attempt to get them to explain their position that I finally just gave up and don’t even bother anymore.

    OJ is easy to discuss, though, there’s been so much made public and so much written and I know the case well enough to really be able to debate it. Hell, I can probably say the same thing about the Kennedy Assassination. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books on that “case” – it was the first “unsolved” case I was ever interested in and probably fueled my appetite for the law.

    I do still obsess about the Jayson Williams case. Still waiting for the retrial. Don’t think it’s ever going to happen, though.

    I’m eagerly awaiting that one, too. That’s a case of “interesting via the legal principles”. Almost as good as a straight out “did he or didn’t he”.

    did you ever get into the HBO Show “Six Feet Under”?

    Nope, never did. Hell,I’ve never even seen an episode of the Sopranos.

    Actually, even though I am one of those people who has the TV on 24/7 “for the background noise”, there’s few shows I actually watch. “Lost”, “Heroes”, “House”, “Project Runway” and whatever flavor of “Can you sing/dance/ice skate/cook or do something else to make good TV” series that’s on that season are really all the TV shows I watch. And even then I have to be doing “something else” at the same time – I can’t just sit and watch TV – bugs me. I have to be knitting or sewing or reading or doing SOMETHING besides just sitting there – except for Lost – for that show, no one can breathe, the phone goes off the hook and God help you if you knock on my door.

    What’s up with Zombie Lady?

    Well, in my never ending quest to intrude in her life and be a nosy neighbor, I called National Grid. I asked the girl on the phone if they had some sort of Community Outreach person, or a manager or a public liaison officer or someone who could help me get this fool’s lights back on. I explained that she’s been without electricity for 6 months, that it’s fucking cold out and that she was in her house with a gas grill that was either going to kill her or blow up the street. I also explained that it’s not a financial thing, that it’s a mental health issue and asked if there was some policy they might have to make concessions for obviously mentally ill people, hinting that I couldn’t believe they just routinely terminated services of mentally ill people who might not understand their statements and didn’t pay them.

    She said that they do have a “customer advocate” and that she could send one out. Although she couldn’t say when that might be. I told her to please write down my name and address, because Zombie lady was unlikely to open the door for anyone, and that the customer advocate could come and talk to me and I could explain the situation, point out some of the more obvious signs of zombie lady’s mental illness,(curtains, flowers, mailbox on the back of the house, Big Bird in the doorway), and maybe get zombie lady to open the door.

    Hopefully this will help.

    What did you do with all the flannel?

    The flannel is still sitting in the huge lawn and leaf sized bags I got from Joann’s on the cutting table. I’m not kidding when I say I HAVE NO ROOM FOR THIS. I really don’t. Every nook, cranny, box, drawer, shelf, cupboard and corner is full up with yarn and other fabrics. I don’t know what to do. Paul came into the sewing room and started yak yak yakking about “You have no room in here – this whole room is going to have to be rearranged…Jesus H. Christ – you have two fucking rooms up here and already those are crammed with shit….You have half the goddamned bedroom loaded with boxes of shit that won’t even fit in the two rooms you already have….I might as well just move into the Harley shed and let you have the whole fucking house – we’ll see how long it takes you to run out of fucking room…”

    And I don’t know which I need LESS of – Paul bitching that I have too much shit or more fabric.

    I went to Joanne’s on Sunday. It was still a friggin Zoo in there.

    OOOOhhhh!!! What did you get good at Joann’s???


  5. I have no time to read books with my two jobs and Luke.

    I’m surprised you have time to read stop signs for God’s sake.

    And thanks for the trailer, but no I don’t have this movie. I did see it a while back, and I’m quite sure that I had never heard of the case before seeing the movie – when I saw that it was “a true story”, I had to find out more and that’s when I dug around and looked for more information about the case.

    I don’t know if Movie Gallery has it – I’ll have to check. I saw it years and years ago in Florida.

    If you find the movie – let me know.


  6. Holy Toledo said

    Hey Kim, is it Texarkana, Texas or Arkansas? Not that it really matters, I don’t live either place. It was released on DVD 1995; looks pretty scarey to this wus.

    I have a comment about ZL. Do you suppose you could talk her into a wood burning stove? Someone already mentioned it as a good idea. The more I think about it, the more realistic it seems because people who are paranoid often are most suspicious of electricity. And think about it, who really understands it so it becomes a perfect target for their paranoia. I worked in rehab and heard it many many times. Houses were bugged, people were listening in, etc., all through the electricity. Usually it was the brighter people who developed this irrationality. So even if the Grid Good Fairy does come and try to work out something, I don’t think ZL is going to change her mind. So for whatever it’s worth…


  7. Ashlee said

    i live in texarkana,arkansas and my mom was alive when all this happen.She said it was scary back than but now that you think of its really interesting. i would love to know more.

  8. pml said

    I need to know if the rumor that the killer had a built up shoe is true. This with the other clues is haunting me, along with the mask. I hope that I have misunderstood.

  9. younglearner said

    I think the killer may have been someone who didnt have anyone 2 love so he was jealous and killed lovers?!

    • Eilene said

      Actually he had a girlfriend with him on his killing sprees. Someone once said that if Sweeny got the electric chair, Peggy Stevens ought to be sitting in his lap. He married Stevens right before his arrest so she could not testify against him.

  10. russ said

    It isn’t unsolved around here in Texarkana . I asked my grandmother about the killings because I wasn’t born untill 1959 in Texarkana. She was a hairdresser and knows everything going on around town. She said it was common knowledge that it was the sheriff’s son doing the killing. When the sheriff had him committed to an insane house, the killings stopped.

    • Holy Crap!! That’s AWESOME. Thanks for posting.


      • Eilene said

        Actually Russ, the Texas Rangers have a signed confession and a lie detector record with Peggy Stevens… The Phanotom Killer… Yull Sweeny’s girlfreind who was with him. Also the two locals accused of the crime were not the the Sheriff’s kids but were related to very prominant families. If your grandmother would like to come up to the University, we would love to get her version of what happenned on camera for our documentary though.

  11. Lou Dickson said

    This man was MY DAD



    • Eilene said

      Actually I am part of the Mass Comm Program here at Texas A&M of Texarkana and we are shooting a documentary of the the true Phantom Killers Yull Sweeny and Peggy Stevens. If any one was knows someone who is still alive in Texarkana back then or if you know any living relatives of the victims or Sweeny or Stevens… please let me know. It is important to our research.

  13. Eilene said

    Anyone who knows someone who was alive and living in Texarkana during this time period or relatives of the victims and/or Yull Sweeny and/or Peggy Stevens… Please contact me.

  14. speedenforcer said

    I have the original Town That Dreaded Sundown movie on VHS. I have not been able to find it on DVD, in fact I read somewhere that it was never re-formatted for DVD. It is a very low budget and hammy film that will still give you chills. If this movie would be re-filmed with modern technology and with a large budget, it would probably be one of the most goose bump raising movies based on true events. I am not a scary person at all, and I have worked in Law Enforcement my entire life and this case spooks me like nothing ever has.

  15. James Griffin said

    As the former Police Chief of Texarkana College and a distant relative of one of the victims this case interests me very much. I have talked to two Officers who were in service then and got differing opinions . Please keep me informed. Also I have two friends at Miller Counter S.O. and I asked one of them what it was they had received from the State crime lab recently. I was told they believed it to be a bullet but the evidence could only be un-sealed in court.

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