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.
Books on the Phantom Killer