The Phantom Killer

Ladies, gentlemen and people who through some expression of deep emotional turmoil express themselves on the internet as a talking animal, I would like to take a break from the regularly scheduled articles this Halloween and tell you a story – the rather appropriately named tale of The Phantom Killer. Before reading this it should be made clear that everything in this tale is true and it is thought to be the basis of most American urban legend serial killer stories out there, from the hook-handed man to the escaped maniac who also happened to have a missing limb that had been replaced with a prosthetic able to rend flesh from bone.

Picture the scene if you will, as the early Spring of 1946. America, still sore from the Second World War, was recovering slowly and looking to its youth for the energy it needed to continue with daily life. It began on the surprisingly warm night of February 22nd. The Long Telegram was sent from the US Embassy in Moscow to the Department of State on that day, and would become the basis of American foreign policy for nearly fifty years – a containment strategy to keep the Soviet Union from spreading Communism further without going to war with America. In the growing city of Texarkana, which at that time housed merely forty thousand people, darker things were about to begin.

Nineteen year old Mary Jeanne Larey went to the local movie theatre with her “friend”, twenty-four year old Jimmy Hollis. When the movie was over the couple drove down to Richmond Road, a popular “Lover’s Lane” in those days, and parked the car. They arrived somewhere around 11:45 PM and had been there only ten minutes when a man approached the car. He was a tall man, at least six feet tall, wore a white hood with holes for his eyes and mouth cut into it and was pointing a torch directly at them. This being the 1940s and in the South of America, Mary and Jimmy thought nothing of the Klansman, until he pulled a gun and pointed it at them alongside his torch.

“I don’t want to kill you fellow, so do exactly what I say.” he grunted in an uneducated voice before ordering them out of the car. The two frightened youngsters clambered out and stood facing the gunman. The man looked them up and down, before giving an order for Jimmy to “take off your fucking britches”. Naive Mary pleaded with a hesitant Jimmy to oblige the gunman, thinking that if he did so they wouldn’t be hurt, and Jimmy obediently removed his corduroy trousers in front of the gunman. The man rewarded Jimmy by hitting him hard enough on the side of the head that his skull cracked and the sound convinced Mary that he’d been shot. The terrified girl then picked up Jimmy’s trousers and pulled out his billfold, showing the gunman that they had no money to take but he didn’t believe her. He insisted that Mary had brought a purse with her despite her denials and demanded the contents. As she again denied having any money, the man hit her with his gun.

It was at this point that Mary heard a voice, one that she swore came from the man himself but that didn’t sound quite right. The voice, quite simply, told her to run. Thinking the man was letting her go she ran as fast as possible, heading into the woods, when she heard the voice again shouting after her to go towards the road and look for help. She had made it a little way down the road towards the town when the man caught up to her and demanded to know why she had run away from him. Mary said to him that he’d told her to do so, but he denied this and called her a liar, hitting her and sitting on top of her. To this day we don’t know whether the man had told her to run as some sort of game, if her own sense of self-preservation had made her hear the voice or if it was some other personality within the man or even some ancient protective force out in the woods. All we can do is guess.

The man didn’t exactly rape Mary but he did abuse her awfully, committing sexual acts upon her with the barrel of what she had to think was a loaded gun at the time, to the point that she begged him to kill her. He laughed and left her alive and sobbing, turning back towards Jimmy Hollis as she escaped on foot. We don’t know if anything was done to Jimmy and he reported nothing else in his eventual statement to the police. In these statements only one fact was different – Jimmy thought they had been attacked by a dark tanned white man while Mary maintained it was a light skinned black man. Two things would soon become clear – that whatever skin colour the gunman had, he wasn’t finished, and that Mary and Jimmy had been luckier than they thought that night.

Thirty days later, on March 24th a second couple was found out on Highway 67, a mile from the city. Seventeen year old Polly-Ann Moore had been stepping out with twenty-nine year old local war hero Richard Griffin and the pair were found murdered in their car not far from the Club Dallas nightspot they’d been frequenting the night before. Both Griffin and Moore had been shot in the back of the head with a .32 calibre handgun, with evidence suggesting the executions took place in front of the car on a blanket laid out as if for a picnic, and the bodies had been posed in the back seat of the car. The couple had last been seen on the previous Saturday night at about 10:00PM when they ate dinner with Richard’s sister Eleanor, before heading out to the club. An autopsy showed that Polly-Ann Moore had not been molested in the same way as Mary Jeanne Larey had been but the police reports noted the similarity to the case with Mary Jeanne Larey and posited a theory that someone had stalked the couple from the nightclub before killing them. The national press who would eventually pick up on the story erroneously attributed the same kinds of molestation to this case as in the previous one.

Another fifteen days passed and another set of bodies was found on April 14th. Betty Jo Booker had been playing her saxophone with the high school orchestra at a local charity dance with the proceeds going to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The dance was for young people and, considering the horrific events that had been happening in the town, they needed the distraction. At half past one in the morning Betty Jo was picked up by her boyfriend, sixteen year old James Paul Martin who drove her home. They were found later on the 14th having both been shot in the head with a .32 calibre pistol. Betty Jo was found a mile and a half away from James’ body and her saxophone was missing. Unlike Polly-Ann, Betty Jo had been raped and abused. She was fifteen years old. An anonymous tip-off told police they could find the saxophone in the marches near where Betty’s body had been found and this turned out to be true. The police reports note that they had begun to look into the possibility that someone attending the dance (which had a cut-off age of sixteen) had been the killer, stalking their classmates and taking advantage of their friendship to get close to them.

The local police were stumped. The evidence was slowly adding up but each part of it seemed to point in different directions. The killer had been using .32 calibre rifle bullets but fired them through what appeared to be a Colt handgun. The testimonies of the two survivors of the first attack conflicted on the point of the man’s skin colour.

The city began to crumble under the pressure of the murders. The trust once shown to neighbours turned to a deep mistrust. Locks and bolts for windows and doors sold out in the local hardware stores while guns and ammunition reached record sales in the city. In a time when burglar alarms and security systems were still thirty years away, the residents turned to home-made booby traps for home security. Pots and pans were strung up and filled with loose nails, nuts and bolts that would clatter and clang if disturbed by anyone. After the second double murder became public, gangs of heavily-armed vigilantes roamed the streets looking for the killer and keeping an eye on the safety of their classmates. Some groups even populated well known lovers lanes and waited in their cars for an attack, armed to the teeth. This bravado against the darkness was ultimately futile as the gangs more often than not interfered with legitimate police investigations and stakeouts.

As more and more people became aware of the murders and reacted to them, the police had to contend with more bad leads and misleading reports. Each time someone took it upon themselves to carry a gun around openly, someone else would report it and the police would have to investigate. In all, over three hundred suspects were brought in for careful questioning, but none were detained. In early May two women were found murdered, both shot in the head with the murder weapon left behind near their bodies, and this diverted resources away from the case. Eventually this was determined to have nothing to do with The Phantom Killer, but the similarities must have concerned the police. Finally the police called in the help of the Texas Rangers and the FBI, although by this time investigations were becoming overworked. Too many officers with different jurisdiction and working methods were working the case and some leads fell by the wayside while others were followed up multiple times. While horse riding troopers patrolled the city alongside those on foot and in cars, keeping an eye on all of the places the killer might strike, the investigation itself was a mess.

Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas was in charge of the Texas Rangers called in to help with the investigation and his name and reputation earned him a spot in every news story of the time. Gonzaullas set himself up as a spokesperson for the investigation and was a reporter’s delight as a living cowboy, the last sign of the Old West in a white ten gallon hat with two pearl-handled revolvers at his hips. While Manuel was the perfect spokesman that the newspapers needed, his involvement in the case was minimal, acting more as a spokesman to the press than an investigator. Unfortunately Manuel had the tact of a charging rhinoceros and, when asked during a live radio show to offer local listeners some words of wisdom that might help calm them down, he replied “Sure. Check the locks and bolts of your doors and get a double-barreled shotgun to blow away any intruder who tries to get in.” The interviewer quickly changed the subject and sought to speak to other officers from that moment onwards, while press from around the country flocked around the charismatic cowboy.

Lone Wolf Gonzaullas had a name that could “sell papers anywhere in the world” and the press took an interest in everything he had to say during the case.

It soon became apparent that the only person who could benefit from the confusion surrounding the case was the killer and so a curfew was set up in retaliation. The killer wouldn’t be able to stalk the lovers lanes around the city any more. In reality the second double murder had caused most people to stay indoors anyway, except for those who were armed to the teeth and ready to follow the sage advice of the the Lone Wolf. The curfew didn’t stop The Phantom Killer though and he would strike one more time.

On May 3rd, thirty-six year old farmer Virgil Starks sat at home reading his newspaper with his wife Katy. As Virgil read, The Phantom Killer stalked up to his porch and pointed a .22 calibre automatic pistol through the window not three feet from Virgil’s head. The killer fired twice into the back of Virgil’s head and Virgil died instantly. Katy, understandable shocked and distraught, rushed to her husband’s side as the killer began to rattle the door handle. Seeing he was dead and hearing the killer attempting to enter the house, she ran to the telephone and tried to call the police. She was hit by a bullet that went through her right cheek and shattered her jaw, causing her to drop the phone in shock. How Katy escaped is unknown but she soon showed up on her neighbour’s doorstep and the police were called. Evidence at the scene included fingerprints on shell casings and a partially obscured footprint outside the window, which managed to distinguish this as being the work of The Phantom Killer, despite the use of a different firearm.

And that was the last that anyone ever heard of The Phantom Killer as he never struck again. Over time the tale has taken on some legendary aspects with the people of Texarkana insisting that all of the murders took place on the night of a full moon and many of the copycat and similar murders being wrapped into the legend, sometimes even going as far as to include a similar murder in Florida from later that year (the October murder of Edythe Elaine Eldridge and Laurence Overman Hogan with a .32 calibre handgun) as part of the series of murders that struck Texarkana. The involvement of Lone Wolf Gonzaullas had caused many of the aspects to become part of the public impression of serial killers and the idea of the madman stalking lovers lane became the basis of cautionary tales and horror movies all around the country for years to come.

Most disturbing is the fact that many people involved believe that the killer ended up committing suicide to finish his killing spree, taking the secrets of The Phantom Killer to his grave as he leapt in front of a train. This particular theory stems from Earl McSpadden, who on May 7th was stabbed to death and his body thrown onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train. Like the better-known murders of 1946, this case remains officially unsolved, and was easy to wrap itself into the ongoing narrative of The Phantom Killer.

The case of The Phantom Killer remains one of the most fascinating murder stories of all time, up there with the tale of Jack The Ripper as the basis of so many urban legends that surround serial killers. So many of the details have been lost to time and legend that it has taken me a good month to check and double-check facts from different sources, documents and witnesses in an attempt to present the story accurately.

We may never know who committed the murders and the case to this day remains unsolved, but we do know enough facts to posit a guess at the identity of the killer. Youell Lee Swinney was a well known car thief in the area and was being arrested for a string of car thefts when he insinuated to the police that they wanted him for more than just the thefts. He was then linked to the murders by statements made by his wife which included some information never released to the public and some information which the newspapers had misreported. Swinney was born in 1917 was the son of a Baptist minister and grew up in Cleveland County, Arkansas. As part of his wife’s statement, she claimed that he had never been the same since returning from the war, and she implied that this was the reason for the killings. Swinney never confessed to the murders and his wife invoked her right not to testify against her husband so he was never officially charged with the murders. In 1947, he was convicted of auto-theft and, as a repeat offender, he received life in prison. A technicality let him out in 1973 and he died peacefully in 1994. Although two of the local officers working the case went to their graves believing that Swinney was the murderer, only circumstantial evidence beyond his wife’s statement linked him to the murders.

However, we do know that at the time of each of the confirmed attacks of The Phantom Killer, a car had been stolen from a neighbouring house…

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