The Texarkana Moonlight Murders
Part Two: The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Following a series of violent murders in the region of Texarkana. The mysterious culprit had been nicknamed “The Phantom” by the press, but - as the years continued to pass - would go on to become an urban legend.
Walter Virgil Starks was born on April 3rd, 1909. He was born to a farming family in the area of Texarkana, Arkansas, and - over time - he would begin to go by his middle name, Virgil.
In his childhood, Virgil would meet a girl named Katherine Ila Strickland - who went by a nickname of her own, Katie. Like Virgil, she had been born in 1909, but a few months after him - on September 25th. The two would remain friends throughout their childhood. As they began growing through adolescence, their friendship took a more romantic took.
On March 2nd, 1932 - when both were 22 years old - they decided to marry. They became Mr. and Mrs. Virgil Starks, and - soon thereafter - would move to a modern ranch-styled house just northeast of Texarkana.
This home, which was on a 500-acre farm, would become the Starks marital home. Virgil worked primarily as a farmer, but would occasionally do some welding work for neighboring farms. The home they lived in was just across the street from Katie's sister, and was within two miles of both Virgil's brother and father.
The two would have no children, but lived a very comfortable life. They enjoyed one another's company, and grew to love each other dearly.
May 3rd, 1946, was just like any other Friday for Virgil and Katie Starks. Virgil, now 37 years old, called it quits in the early evening. Just before 9:00 PM, he was finally getting to unwind and relax after an exhausting day.
Virgil turned on his favorite weekly radio show, and then sat down in his favorite chair in the family's sitting room - located just off of the kitchen and bedroom. As he listened to the radio, he began looking through the day's edition of the Texarkana Gazette.
Katie brought her husband a heating pad for his sore back, and then kissed him good night. She was tired, and began heading to the nearby bedroom to lie down for the evening. She changed into her nightgown, and then laid down in bed.
Minutes pass. As Katie lays there, she struggles to fall asleep. She hears some distracting sounds - which might have come from the backyard - and asks Virgil to turn down the radio.
He gets up to acquiesce, but is then stopped in his tracks.
Just seconds after asking him to turn down the radio, Katie - in the nearby bedroom - hears what sounds like the breaking of glass. She stands and rushes out into the nearby sitting room, where she sees Virgil standing, before immediately dropping back down into his armchair.
His face was covered in blood. He had just been shot, and Katie couldn't immediately tell how many times. Because - unbeknownst to her at the time - the killer was standing on the other side of the window just behind Virgil's armchair, standing on their front porch.
Katie rushes over to her husband, Virgil, to try and help. But almost instantly she is hit with the crushing realization that there is nothing she can do. He is dead.
As such, she rushes over to the telephone, to try and at least call the police. She manages to ring the wall-crank twice before she is shot twice. The shots are fired from the same window that Virgil had just been sitting in front of; where this mysterious killer has been lurking and - seemingly - waiting.
One of the shots enters Katie's right cheek, exiting just behind her left ear. The other hits just below her lip, instantly breaking her jaw and splintering several teeth. The bullet lodges underneath her tongue, nearly-crippling Katie in pain and fear.
She drops down to her knees, ending her phone call before it ever started.
However, as we'll learn about Katie - she is a survivor. The pain to her facial nerves is enough to cripple anyone weak-of-heart, but Katie perseveres. She crawls to the nearest cover she can think of: the bedroom she had just left moments beforehand. There, she takes a brief moment to collect her thoughts, and thinks to herself about protection. Virgil and her kept a pistol in the living room, and she begins making her way towards that: the only thing that can protect her at the moment.
As she stumbles into the living room, though, Katie is overcome with a dreadful realization: she is blinded by her own blood. She struggles to make out her own house, seeing little more than shapes and shadows. As she begins to look for the pistol, she can hear someone trying to tear loose the screen from a window or door.
The killer, who had originally shot Virgil and Katie through a window at the front of the house, has now run towards the back of the house, and up a small set of stairs towards the back door. There, he or she began trying to tear the screen out from the kitchen window, which would allow them access inside - which would lead them straight to Katie, who was now struggling to see through her blurry vision, and leaving a trail of blood and broken teeth behind her.
After hearing this killer attempting to break in to the house, Katie gives a brief consideration to leaving a note for her relatives to find. However, like I said - she is a survivor - and she quickly abandons that idea.
Realizing that the killer has now gone towards the back door, Katie decides that escaping out the front of the house is the best option for her survival. She turns and runs through the dining room and bedroom, down a hallway, and towards the front door. Investigators would later note that there was a "virtual river of blood" left in her wake.
Barefoot and still wearing her nightgown - which was now soaked in blood - Katie runs across the street to her sister and brother-in-law's home. Unfortunately, no one was home at the time, so Katie runs another fifty or so yards, to the home of neighbor A.V. Prater.
Thankfully, Prater was at-home and awake. He rushes out to help Katie, who manages to get out the words "Virgil's dead" before collapsing in his yard.
Prater grabs one of his rifles, and fires it into the air to alarm some of the other neighbors. Elmer Taylor, one of these neighbors, responds to the call.
Prater tells Taylor to bring his car and come help, because both Mr. and Mrs. Starks had been shot. He also relays the message that Virgil was dead, and that Mrs. Starks - Katie - needed immediate help.
Prater, as well as his wife and baby, travel with Taylor and Katie to Michael Meager Hospital - which is now known as the Miller County Health Unit. On the trip there, Katie struggled to remain conscious. In her dazed state, she even yanked out one of her broken teeth - which contained a gold filling - and gave it to Taylor as compensation for his help.
By the time they arrived at the hospital, Katie had lost a significant amount of blood - as the crime scene photos would later prove - but she was, thankfully, not in any real danger of going into shock. Her vitals looked normal, and she would enter surgery that evening to repair the damage done to her face.
Back at the home, though, police would find a troubling crime scene. It felt suspiciously related to the crimes that had been plaguing the area - which included three assaults on young couples in lovers' lanes and a total of four murders - but stood out in a number of aspects. The following morning news headline in the Texarkana Gazette read, in all caps:
"MURDER ROCKS CITY AGAIN; FARMER SLAIN, WIFE WOUNDED"
Yet, despite the panic put into the headline, police would struggle to connect this case to the crimes attributed to Texarkana's "Phantom." In the following months, investigators would struggle to connect this brutal shooting to that crime spree... however, the stories have remained linked in the following decades.
This is the story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.
Following the reports of a shooting out at the home of Virgil and Katie Starks, Miller County Sheriff's deputies and Arkansas state police were the first to arrive at the scene.
Because the incident took place on the Arkansas side of town, the call was forwarded to the nearby Hope, Arkansas city police, who then forwarded emergency services to the Starks farm, as well as to Micheal Meager Hospital - where Katie Starks had just been admitted.
Arkansas State Police officers Charley Boyd and Max Tackett were the first officers to arrive at the scene, after hearing the call come over the radio. They approached the house cautiously, and entered inside - finding the trail of blood leading down the hallway towards the sitting room, where Katie and Virgil Starks had been shot.
The body of Virgil Starks was still there, but there have been contradictory reports in the decades since about the condition of his remains.
One of the two Arkansas State officers said that they found Virgil sitting in the blood-soaked chair he had been shot in, while another said that the officers found Starks lying across the floor.
However, a couple of facts were later confirmed by investigators. Virgil had been shot twice, in the back of the head, and the chair he had been sitting in had since caught fire. You see, Katie had brought her husband a heating pad before heading to bed, and - following the shooting - the heating pad had set the chair ablaze. Thankfully, the fire didn't spread by the time investigators arrived.
A short time after Officers Boyd and Tackett arrived at the Starks' farmhouse, Miller County Sheriff W.E. Davis arrived, with a swarm of deputies and other county officials in-tow.
Despite this being the first of the shootings to take place in Arkansas, the entire area had been panic-stricken and fearing an incident like this crossing over. Miller County was going to respond in-kind.
Sheriff Davis called upon officers from the surrounding area - including those in Texas and the Arkansas State Police - to set up a blockade along Highway 67. Their goal was to apprehend, detain, and ultimately question any suspicious individuals leaving the area.
This blockade would result in twelve suspects being detained, but only three were kept for in-depth questioning. Following that, they were all cleared of any potential involvement.
The crime scene, which investigators began to look over, was a troubling mix of the Starks' normal marital life and a "virtual river of blood," as described by Captain Manuel Gonzaulles of the Texas Rangers, who remarked about Katie Starks:
"... it is beyond me why she did not bleed to death."
Investigators could only find two bullet holes in the window, which looked out from the Starks' sitting room to the front porch. This led Sheriff Davis and the other investigators to theorize that an automatic rifle had been used, which allowed the shooter to fire multiple shots through a single hole, without having to re-aim. After all, four shots had been fired - two at each of the victims - but there were only two holes in the glass.
It was believed that the shooter had shot and killed Virgil Starks, and then patiently waited for Katie Starks to run out from the couple's bedroom. Once she had done so, the killer then shot her, creating the second bullet hole in the front window.
At the crime scene, investigators were able to learn several things about the attack and the potential perpetrator, but struggled to connect them to what they knew about "The Phantom" - the person or persons that had been terrorizing young couples over in Bowie County.
For starters, there was the obvious outlier: this was the first attack to happen at a couple's home, instead of on an isolated lovers' lane. That, in addition to this being the first - and only - attack to happen on the Arkansas side of town.
Then, there was the difference in the ammunition used. The first attack, on Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, had involved no bullets, just clubbing with an iron pipe or flash light. But the next two attacks resulted in double-murders; each time, the ammunition used was a .32-caliber round. This led investigators to think that a Colt pistol was used.
This time, though, the ammunition used were .22 caliber rounds, leading to the belief that this might be a different shooter entirely. Perhaps, even a copycat, who was trying to use the recent slayings to confuse detectives and muddy the waters of the investigation.
Sheriff W.E. Davis remained hesitant to claim that the murders were related, saying at one point:
"... it is possible that the killer is one and the same man."
Meanwhile, his Chief Deputy, Tillman Johnson, voiced his own concerns some time later:
"I felt like (the Phantom Killer) didn't do the Starks murder. It would be hard to tie him to the Starks murder."
Tire tracks were found near the family's home, but police struggled to connect them to any suspects or persons-of-interest. And, following the Friday evening murder of Virgil Starks, bloodhounds were brought out to the farmhouse in the early morning hours of Saturday, May 4th, 1946. These bloodhounds were able to pick up two different scents - which tracked throughout the house, out the front door, and towards the nearby highway - but both trails ended there. That was where the killer had likely stashed their car and made a getaway, somehow evading or eluding the blockade that Sheriff Davis had set up.
Within 24 hours, Sheriff Davis and other investigators were questioning Katie Starks in her operating room at Micheal Meagher Hospital, as she recovered from the two gunshot wounds to her face. They learned about how the shooting had unfolded, from her perspective, and that informed a lot of their decisions moving forward. They would return four days later to speak to Mrs. Starks, after trying to gauge the community for any leads.
There had been mounting rumors that Virgil Starks had been harassed in the days before his murder, but Katie Starks discounted those entirely. There had been no build-up to the attack that took the life of her husband, which made it all the more tragic and terrifying.
Sheriff W.E. Davis would later tell the press:
"This killer is the luckiest person I have ever known. No one sees him, hears him in time, or can identify him in any way."
The area had already been at high-alert, anxiously awaiting news of another shooting or double-murder. But the fourth violent incident to happen in as many months began to spin the region of Texarkana into a frenzy.
Tillman Johnson, the Chief Deputy of Miller County, was with Sheriff Davis at the crime scene on the night of the Starks shooting. He would later remark to reporters about that first night, and the local tension they encountered:
"We tried to secure the crime scene and we were in and out of there all night long. We were running around, trying to find leads and gather what evidence we could. We tried to interview some people and question some suspects.
"We went to other peoples' homes in the area to see if they had heard or had seen anything. People would stand out near the front of their homes and yell at you to identify yourself before you got too close. You had to (identify yourself) or you would get shot."
As the media began to run with the details, this type of behavior would only continue to escalate. In the following days, groups of vigilante groups would begin to patrol quiet, isolated areas of Texarkana - while worried residents began guarding their homes like mob bosses or drug dealers.
The lack of any significant motive in the police investigation did not deter some police officials from making guesses, which ultimately ended up in the local news headlines. After all, it did not seem like robbery had been a motive in the most recent shooting, since no jewels or money were stolen from the Starks' home. But a flippant statement from an unnamed police officer led to the May 5th all-caps headline in the Texarkana Gazette:
"SEX MANIAC HUNTED IN MURDERS"
The unnamed officer had stated that they believed "... a sex pervert is responsible" for the string of murders. This would become the prevalent theory moving forward, although some investigators continued to think that the Starks murder was separate from the lovers' lanes attacks perpetrated by the mysterious "Phantom."
By the evening of Virgil Starks' murder, the reward fund for the Phantom Killer investigation had eclipsed $7,000. That total would continue to rise in the coming weeks and months, with an additional $2,500 being raised for Virgil's case alone.
On May 29th, 1946, the Texarkana Gazette ran a front-page story on a new lead being developed by investigators, which focused in on a flashlight.
The flashlight was featured on the front-page, in the Gazette's first ever color photo. It looked like a normal flashlight, but both ends had been painted red, making it rare for the area. A limited number had been sold in the Texarkana region, and police were hoping that someone would be able to identify it.
This flashlight had been discovered in a hedge underneath the Starks' front window - the same window that they had been shot through.
In the three weeks since the shooting had unfolded, the flashlight had been sent to an FBI crime lab in Washington, DC, where it had gone through extensive fingerprint analysis. Unfortunately, those tests had failed to come back with any results, and the flashlight itself seemed to not contain any fingerprint samples.
Because of this, police felt comfortable floating this lead to the press, as a diversion from the more extravagant stories being spun about "sex maniacs" and "perverts."
Ultimately, this was unsuccessful in identifying any persons-of-interest in the investigation.
Following the murder of Virgil Starks, the investigation - headed by both the Texas Rangers and now the Arkansas State Police - was given additional resources to combat the threat identified as "The Phantom Killer."
State-of-the-art police equipment was shipped from Austin Texas, which was described as "the best in the country" by flamboyant Texas Ranger Captain Gonzaullas. This included a mobile radio station, which allowed officers to communicate with each other in their vehicles via two-way radios. We now know this as standard police equipment, but in 1946, this was revolutionary.
In addition, a teletype machine was installed in the Bowie County Sheriff's Office, which allowed for easier communication between jurisdictions and departments.
Just days after the murder of Virgil Starks - between May 7th and May 8th - this technology allowed for the spread of information about a red-haired man that was being hunted as part of the probe into the Phantom slayings. He was apparently a former German prisoner-of-war, who wore a GI jacket, who was rumored to have weapons in his possession. He had threatened several of the area's residents, including one while hitchhiking through the area - so it was possible that he was a vagabond.
Ultimately, nothing came of this lead - but the new technology allowed departments and investigators to share the information with ease.
Rumors continued to proliferate the case of the Phantom Killer, which had now extended to include the shooting of Virgil and Katie Starks, as well as the February assault of Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey.
One of the most popular theories throughout Texarkana was that each of the victims had personally run afoul of the shooter, who was now attempting to scare or hunt them down in revenge. Police discounted this outright, because there was nothing linking together the victims, other than being in an isolated place during a weekend evening.
Then, there was the theory that the killer was a sex-crazed maniac run amok - which seemed popular with investigators. After all, the first three attacks contained evidence of sexual assaults, and it seems like that might have been the attacker's motivation.
Finally, we have the theories that regard specific people. Every suspicious individual throughout the area was being tossed around as a suspect, their name being dragged through the mud as a sexual sadist.
In fact, when one of these individuals left town for a short period of time, it became a topic of discussion that police had captured him. Rumors spread that he was being held by the Texas Rangers in a secret jail cell, shackled to the floor and guarded with sub-machine guns 24/7. When this resident returned, he had to downplay the allegations in an attempt to salvage his reputation.
Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley had to ask citizens to remain calm in the wake of this violence, and refrain from making broad accusations. In the May 19th edition of the Texarkana Gazette, a story titled "Newspapers Will Tell Public If Killer Is Caught" included a statement from Sheriff Presley, which read:
"These rumors positively are not true. We can understand why the people believe them. All of us are tense and hopeful that at any hour officers will announce they have the killer in custody. The people must not become so anxious to rid themselves of the killer, however, that they brand innocent persons as the murderer and believe unfounded stories. The investigating officers have announced that when and if the killer is apprehended or killed the public will be given the full story through the newspapers. We reaffirm this statement. The newspapers are kept posted on developments in the investigation and they will announce all news immediately. We believe that the people have a right to know if the killer is caught or killed and we pledge ourselves to let the public have this information."
Even Texas Ranger Captain Manuel Gonzaulles, who was found of showmanship and embellished himself at every turn, found himself having to give a public statement about the rumor mongering. In a radio interview, he described the area's gossip as harmful.
"These (rumors) only take the officers from the main route of the investigation. It is so important that we capture this man that we cannot afford to overlook any lead, no matter how fantastic it may seem."
Following the May 3rd murder of Virgil Starks, Texarkana residents were eagerly awaiting answers from law enforcement. After all, since February there had been four violent incidents, which had resulted in five people dead and three others hospitalized, and the media made it seem like the killer could strike any any moment.
The day after the shooting at the Starks' farmhouse, stores in the region began selling out of locks for doors, latches for windows, firearms, ammunition, and all manner of household items which pertained to security and privacy.
Residents - who had been comfortable leaving their front doors unlocked just months beforehand - were now renovating their homes out of distrust. Many only ventured outside during daytime hours, beginning a nightly routine that involved locking all doors and windows, pulling down shades, and even booby-trapping entrances to the house.
Some propped up items against windows and doors, which would cause a good amount of noise if anyone tried to get in.
Paranoia was taking over Texarkana.
W.E. Atchison, a 16 year old resident of the region at the time of the murders, later told a reporter:
"If you wanted to go to someone's house after dark, you had to call them first and let them know you were coming. The big wonder for everyone back then was whether the killings were done by someone who lived among us, and I still wonder who did it."
As the police would learn, over the course of their lengthy investigation, residents were on-edge, and continued to report anything that they perceived as the mysterious "Phantom Killer." This included noises, and things that go bump in the night.
For several weeks after the most violent incident - that of Virgil and Katie Starks - police were flooded with reports of prowlers. Tillman Johnson, the then-Chief Deputy of Arkansas' Miller County, later recalled:
"We were constantly getting calls, mostly at night, about prowlers. People would call about any noise they heard at all."
Virtually all of these prowler reports were imaginative, with police stating that there was no substance to any of them. These prowler calls included things like a cat jumping around in an upstairs trash can, in one family's home, and then a man stepping onto a neighbor's porch during a rainstorm while waiting for a bus.
The police - who were complaining about the prowler calls - were at least partially responsible for the fear gripping Texarkana. Not because of their lack of any leads, per se, but because of the public comments they had made about the Phantom Killer. In addition to referring to the killer as a "sexual sadist" that could strike at any moment, Captain Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers made a public address over the radio airwaves just days after the Starks shooting, on May 6th. In this address, he told Texarkanians to:
"... oil up their guns and see if they are loaded. Put them out of the reach of children. Do not use them unless it's necessary, but if you believe it is, do not hesitate."
This ultimately resulted in a random smattering of gunshots throughout the region, as worried residents began shooting at these perceived prowlers. Thankfully, this didn't result in any deaths, but at least one drunk patron was shot by a bar owner over a slight miscommunication, and the sound of gunshots became more than enough to send a neighborhood into a frenzy.
Just days after the public address by Captain Gonzaullas - in which he told residents to "oil up their guns" - the weekly Two States Press ran an article detailing this palpable bear.
"Texarkana people are jittery, plain frightened - and with reason. Within a period of six weeks, five people have been murdered in cold blood and a sixth seriously wounded, escaping death by a seeming miracle. The question in the minds of most of the citizens is, when, where and how soon will another tragedy shock the community, and who will be the victim or victims since two deaths seem to be the design of the killer?"
One of the biggest issues that investigators faced, in trying to track down this mysterious Phantom Killer, was weeding through all of the information given to them.
Not only were residents reporting every perceived social infraction by neighbors and colleagues, but police received multiple confessions from people claiming to be the Phantom. At least nine Texarkana residents tried to convince police and the media that they were the killer, including one alcoholic that used this confession to coax bottles of whiskey out of eager reporters.
Police knew that people confessed to crimes they didn't commit on a regular basis, and that is why so many details of the investigation were guarded closely. Max Tackett, a young officer with the Arkansas State Police, explained this in an interview:
"You don't tell everything you know about a case. When it gets into the paper, the real criminal finds out how much you know and the confession will fit those facts into their confessions. You keep yourself two or three pertinent facts to protect yourself from crackpots."
Police were on the lookout for these type of false confessions, and that's perhaps what guided them away from a young man that confessed to the murder, over a thousand miles away.
A man named Ralph B. Baumann confessed his involvement in the Texarkana murders to Los Angeles police. Baumann was an ex-Army Air Force veteran, who had red hair - much like some of the descriptions of an odd man reported by Texarkana residents.
Baumann claimed to have been in a subconscious coma for several weeks, before waking up and running away from "something bad." He said that after waking up, he learned about the killings, and felt he might be responsible. So, he hitchhiked out to the west coast, before eventually ending up in California and confessing to police.
He was viewed as a pretty realistic suspect, because he matched the physical description of the attacker. In addition, he was very good with firearms - having served in the military as a gunner. After waking up from his perceived coma, he couldn't find his rifle.
Investigators heard out this young man's confession, but felt that he offered up no new details. All of his information about the killings was stuff he could have picked up from radio and newspaper reporting. It was also discovered that he had been discharged from the military for being psycho-neurotic.
Police eventually cleared him of any involvement in the Texarkana slayings, believing that this man needed mental help.
As panic and paranoia tightened their grip around Texarkana, with businesses beginning to experience an estimated 20% drop in activity, some residents began to take the law into their own hands.
Teenagers from the area began camping out on lovers' lanes with pistols, in an attempt to bait the Phantom into attacking. Often times, they would have friends hiding out in the nearby brush, who were eager to trap the killer and become local heroes.
On more than once occasion, this nearly led to an altercation between these vigilante teens and police officers, who eyed these vehicles skeptically.
Eventually, police began using these tactics for decoys of their own; using local-area teenagers, younger-looking police officers, and even mannequins to sit in parked cars in an attempt to bait the Phantom.
Unfortunately, these tactics were perhaps too little, and too late. Whoever the Phantom was, they had likely moved on, and were no longer harassing Texarkana couples. No new incidents were reported over the next several months, and - just as he had arrived - the Phantom had disappeared.
Captain Manuel Gonzaullas, who had famously stated after arriving that he would remain in the region until the Phantom was brought to justice, left town less than three months after the murder of Virgil Starks. He would remain with the Texas Rangers until 1951, and would eventually take his flashy talents to Hollywood, where he served as a consultant and a producer for radio, TV, and even film projects. More on that in a bit.
By October of 1946, all of the investigating Texas Rangers had left Texarkana, returning to their regular posts. They had slipped out of town one-by-one, not wanting to attract unwanted attention... or to trigger the Phantom into action again.
A few FBI officials had been in the region, as well, assisting with the investigation and providing federal resources for what would later be defined as a primitive serial killer investigation. In time, they would return to their regular positions, leaving their work on the Texarkana case unfinished.
The investigation remained in the hands of local authorities, who continued to investigate for the next several years.
A suspect in the Texarkana Moonlight murders was hard to develop because - to put it bluntly - there was very little information for investigators to work off of.
The first two victims, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, gave conflicting physical descriptions of the person who had attacked them in February. Larey described him as a black male, and Hollis - who had only seen the hooded man for a few moments - described him as being white.
The only other surviving victim, Katie Starks, never saw her shooter. She was unable to confirm that the person who shot her was white or black, whether he wore a mask or not, or whether it was a "he" at all.
The scarce amount of evidence found at the other crime scenes - the two lovers' lanes shootings in March and April - made it impossible to confirm or deny investigators' suspicions. They were able to find some footprints and tire tracks, but those were hard to confirm as belonging to the killer.
Details they knew and could confirm about the shooter were few and far-in-between.
The killer's M.O. remained the same throughout the attacks. They always happened late at-night, during the weekend, in isolated areas. Three couples were attacked on desolate roads, while another was attacked inside their home. During the three lovers' lane attacks, the female victim was sexually assaulted, but it's impossible to know whether the same fate awaited Katie Starks, as she managed to escape.
Then, there was the type of ammunition used. In the first assault, nobody was shot, so it was impossible to prove what kind of firearm the offender was holding. In the second and third assaults - where both male and female victims were murdered - the type of ammunition used was .32-caliber shells... likely from a Colt pistol.
In the shooting at the Starks farm, .22-caliber ammunition was used. Again, this case seemed to be the outlier, so it was hard to investigators to positively link it to the other crime spree.
However, something that investigators would note was that each of the four crimes happened approximately three weeks after the prior assault. This perhaps pointed to a pattern of sorts for the offender, who had been nicknamed "The Phantom."
Dr. Anthony Lapalla was a psychologist at the Federal Correctional Institute in Texarkana, who was called upon by the Texarkana Gazette, following the murder of Virgil Starks. The paper wanted to gain a better understanding of the criminal's motivation, and Dr. Lapalla created an early kind of psychological profile for the Phantom.
Dr. Lapalla believed that the killer would continue to strike, at-random. He believed that this was his calling card, and he likely relished the thrill the random nature of the attack provided. Dr. Lapalla also believed that the four crimes were connected - as in, he believed without a doubt that the murder of Virgil Starks and the shooting of Katie Starks could be linked to the other three crimes.
Dr. Lapalla described the killer as being intelligent, clever, and shrewd, who was likely following the case closely in the media. He described the Phantom as being between his mid-30's and his mid-50's, who lived a normal life - appearing to be a good citizen in his personal life. He was likely motivated by a strong sexual component - indicating that he was a sadist of sorts - and that he was most likely NOT a veteran. Dr. Lapalla insisted upon this, stating that he had been in the war, his "maniacal" tendencies would have presented themselves differently.
In a statement that shows how far we've come from the 1940's, Dr. Lapalla stated that the killer was most likely white, because - in his words:
"... in general, negro criminals are not that clever."
Dr. Anthony Lapalla described the last attack - that on the Starks' farmhouse - as a natural outlier. He indicated that the killer had decided to strike a new type of target, because he knew that his usual hunting grounds, lovers' lanes, were being patrolled by police and local vigilante groups. This meant that he needed to find another avenue for his aggression, and focused in on a 500-acre farm.
In Dr. Lapalla's summation, the killer was a threat that needed to be neutralized immediately, before he continued progressing.
"This man is extremely dangerous. He works alone and no one knows what he is doing because he tells no one."
As the investigation struggled to gain a foothold in the weeks after the most recent crime, one young officer made a breakthrough.
33-year old Max Tackett was an Arkansas State Police officer, who had gotten involved in the case following the murder of Virgil Starks. He was actually one of the two officers that first responded to the crime scene, and he would remain entangled in the case in the following years.
Officer Tackett made the realization that, on each of the nights that the Phantom Killer struck, a car had been stolen from the area. And one of these cars - which had been stolen on the night that Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore were murdered, March 24th - had just been found in a parking lot, months later.
On June 28th, 1946 - a Friday - Officer Tackett decided to stake out the vehicle until the thief returned. He was surprised to find that the person coming to the vehicle was not a scary-looking man, but, rather, an innocent-looking young lady.
Peggy Stevens was 21-years old, and - upon being confronted - told Officer Tackett that she had just gotten back from Shreveport, Louisiana; where, he would learn, she had just married a man named Yuell Swinney. In fact, they had gotten married just hours before she was detained.
Her husband, she said, was in Atlanta, Texas, trying to sell another stolen vehicle.
Officer Tackett was able to follow this lead to Atlanta, where he learned more about this Yuell Swinney. He was eventually able to confront him at the Arkansas Motor Coach bus station, along Texarkana's Front Street, near Union Station.
At first, the suspect tried running away. He ran out the back of the building, and tried to escape via a fire escape. But there, he was cornered by police, and was quoted as saying "Please don't shoot me." When Officer Tackett told him that he wasn't going to get shot for stealing cars, Swinney allegedly responded:
"Mister, don't play games with me. You want me for more than stealing cars."
This suspect would make several similar comments in the coming hours and days, including while he sat in the back of a police cruiser, en route to the station. He lamented potentially getting the electric chair, certain that police were onto him for violent crimes he had committed.
Yuell Lee Swinney was 29 years old, and would become the primary suspect in the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. The man had a checkered past, with prior criminal convictions for car theft, counterfeiting, burglary, and assault, and - the more that police learned, the more they liked him as their guy.
Swinney's young wife, Peggy, would later confess on three occasions that her husband was the Phantom Killer. When told by police that he was being held for murder, she stated:
"How did they find it out?"
She would confess on three separate occasions, with the most illuminating parts being gleaned from her first confession, on July 23rd, 1946. During this confession, she stated:
"He and I were at his sister's house at 220 Senator Street. We were discussing the murders in Texarkana. I asked him who killed these people. He told me that it was someone with a brilliant mind, someone with more sense than the cops."
Peggy then recalled a memory of hers from months prior, in which she had gone out to dinner and a movie with Yuell - then her boyfriend - and on their way home, he had stopped along the side of the road to take a leak. This happened to be near Spring Lake Park: the same place that Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were parked before their assault.
"(Yuell) was gone from the car about one hour when I heard something that sounded like two gunshots. I do not know whether they were pistol or shotgun shots. It was just getting daylight when he came back to the car and started driving out of the park at a rapid rate of speed. When he came back to the car, I saw that his clothes were wet up to his knees and damp on up to his waist."
The day after this first confession - July 24th, 1946 - Peggy Swinney confessed yet again, but changed up her statements ever-so-slightly. She described herself as less of an ignorant girlfriend, and more as a bystander to the various crimes perpetrated by her new husband. She claimed to be a bystander to the crimes, and said she had witnessed the murders of Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker - murders she said came as a result of a robbery-gone-wrong.
Peggy Swinney would confess on one more occasion - on November 22nd, 1946 - but she would provide law enforcement with several details that pointed towards her telling the truth. She took police out to the spot where Paul Martin's vehicle had been found, and told them that she had been there, in the woods, watching the crime take place. Sure enough, police had found a woman's heel-print at the crime scene, and were shocked to hear this new detail.
She then gave police details that had not been made public - including information about Paul Martin's datebook. She told police that this datebook had been thrown into some bushes nearby the crime scene, and sure enough, it actually had been. Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley knew about this detail, and had not released it to the press nor other jurisdictions.
It was beginning to look like police were on the right track, and Yuell Swinney was looking guiltier with every passing day.
In addition to the three confessions offered up by his 21-year old wife, police were able to find a few other pieces of evidence that incriminated Yuell Swinney.
It was discovered that the 29-year old suspect had, at one point, owned a .32 Colt automatic pistol, which he had sold somewhat recently in a game of craps.
Investigators were also able to find slag in one of Swinney's pockets, which matched samples taken from Virgil Starks' welding shop.
However, faced with a potential death sentence, Yuell Swinney refused to confess to the murders. He claimed his innocence, and refused to falter. In addition, fingerprint testing had failed to come up with anything conclusive, and even though police would spend over a year trying to validate the confessions of Peggy Swinney, even that began to fall apart.
Several holes were discovered in her confessions, including her ever-changing involvement in the crimes she alleged were perpetrated by her husband. She was deemed to be an "unreliable witness," and her confession was basically all that police had to operate on.
To make matters worse, as a trial began to come to realization, Peggy Swinney recanted her confessions. And, because she was married to Yuell Swinney, she could not be forced to testify against him.
It was basically a losing situation for investigators, and they were forced to drop all murder charges against Yuell Swinney, having little more than very circumstantial evidence against him.
However, he wouldn't exactly become a free man again. Police still had car theft charges they could press against Swinney, and - because he was a "repeat offender," extreme sentencing guidelines would apply. He was given a life sentence for the car thefts, which would only last about 26 years.
In the early 1970s, Swinney would appeal his life sentence, and be released in 1973. He continued to deny his guilt in the Texarkana murders, and - despite police believing he was their Phantom Killer - he was never charged with any of the murders.
He eventually died in a Dallas-area nursing home in 1994.
The investigation to find Texarkana's Phantom Killer faltered in the following months and years, eventually becoming an important component of the area's history. The killing spree later dubbed the Texarkana Moonlight Murders would be voted both Texas and Arkansas's #1 most-followed news story for 1946.
Then, two years later, the case made headlines once again when a second prime suspect was identified by police. However, unlike Yuell Swinney, this suspect wouldn't have to endure a lengthy investigation... because they had already taken their own life.
Henry Booker Tennison, more commonly known by his abbreviation H.B. or his nickname "Doodie," was an 18-year old freshman at the University of Arkansas. On November 5th, 1948 - two-and-a-half years after the Phantom Killer had last struck - Tennison was found dead in his bedroom in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The local police official, Washington County Sheriff Bruce Crider, would discover that just two days before - on November 3rd - Tennison had purchased cyanide of mercury. He said, at the time, that it had been purchased as a rat poison.
Inside Tennison's bedroom was a confusing note, which contained a riddle for investigators to solve. It pertained to Tennison's lockbox, which contained a sturdy lock:
"The opening to my box will be found in the following few lines. In a tube of paper is found, rolls on colors and it is dry and sound. The head removes, the tail will turn, and inside is the sheet you yearn. Two bees means a lot when they are together. These clues should lead you to it."
Investigators quickly learned that the riddle pointed to a B.B. fountain pen, which contained a note inside. The note contained the combination for the lockbox, and police would also discover that the cap of the pen contained the cyanide of mercury that Tennison had used to kill himself.
Police forced open the lockbox, not wanting to wade through another myriad of riddles, and discovered a number of hand-written letters; one of which claimed responsibility for the murders in Texarkana, and stated that this responsibility is what had driven the young man to suicide.
An excerpt of the letter, which ran for nearly three paragraphs, read:
"Why did I take my own life? Well, when you committed two double murders you would too. Yes, I did kill Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin in the city park that night, and killed Mr. Starks and tried to get Mrs. Starks. You wouldn't have guessed it, I did it when Mother was either out or asleep, and no one saw me do it. For the guns, I disassembled them and discarded them in different places."
H.B. Tennison had been a teenager at the time of the murders, being just 15 or 16 when the four assaults took place. He had never been suspected in any of the killings, likely because of his age. Even today, it's rare for young men to be that methodical in terms of killing, as they often don't have the time, freedom, or resources to make it happen.
Investigators would discover that Tennison had played in the same high school band as murder victim Betty Jo Booker, but they weren't friends. They both played brass instruments - with Betty playing saxophone and Tennison playing trombone - but they weren't really acquainted with one another.
Other than this, police could find nothing linking Tennison to the other victims.
The emergence of this young man as a suspect was a revelation for investigators, but - over time - they would begin to doubt the suicide note left by Tennison. Police found other notes in the lockbox, which seemed to blame his lifelong depression for his suicide, and made it seem like Tennison had an overactive imagination. He liked to take credit for things that just weren't possible, and made fanciful claims about his young life... things investigators could easily disprove.
H.B. Tennison's brothers agreed with this assertion, that "Doodie" - as they called him - liked to tell stories. His family also told police that he didn't have access to the weapons which were used to kill the five victims, and none of Tennison's fingerprints proved a match for those recovered at the crime scenes.
In addition, James Freeman - one of Tennison's childhood friends - said that on the night of Virgil Starks' murder, he had been with Tennison. They were at home, playing games, and Freeman only remembered because it was that night they found out about the assault, together.
Just like some of the other leads developed in the aftermath of the killing, H.B. Tennison's suicide letter was later deemed irrelevant to the investigation.
In January of 1949, a 26-year old black man was arrested in relation to a violent double-murder, and soon found himself suspect of involvement in the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. I would include this man's name, but it wasn't included in any of the reporting I found, so apologies.
This man had been arrested for killing a young black couple in Waco, Texas, and in the execution of the crime, he had sexually assaulted the female victim.
At the time, he had reportedly confessed to the crime, giving police details that confirmed he was the responsible party. However, in the following investigation, police discovered that this young man had worked for Virgil Starks - the last murder victim of the Phantom Killer. In fact, he had actually been living on the Starks property when the crime was committed, which raised some eyebrows.
No charges were filed against this young man for the Texarkana crimes, but he was eventually given a life sentence for the other crimes he had confessed to.
Over a decade after the Phantom Killer had disappeared, one of the most peculiar incidents unfolded near one of the crime scenes.
The date was July 9th, 1956, and workers were tearing apart a school near Spring Lake Park - the area where Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were killed by the Phantom in April of 1946. The school was actually near the railroad tracks where Paul Martin's vehicle had been found, putting it in close proximity to the events that unfolded that weekend.
While deconstructing the building, a bag containing what looked to be blood-stained clothing was found in the attic of the school. The articles of clothing, which were white linens, were covered with dark red stains - which the workers viewed suspiciously.
The police were informed, and - eventually - the clothing was sent off to the state crime lab for a closer examination. When the results came back, it originally read that there were blood samples found, but it was later determined that the report meant to say there were NOT blood samples found.
A simple misunderstanding, really. The dark stains on the clothing was nothing more than paint, a test would show.
However, this clothing has become a part of the Phantom's legend, with many in the area thinking that the killer had sneaked into this schoolhouse following his second double-murder. There, he had stashed these articles of clothing in the attic, and either promptly forgot about them or left them there to be discovered years later.
This is, of course, nothing more than a silly rumor, which was disproved several times by investigators.
Between 1968 and 1969, a serial killer named the Zodiac emerged from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he haunted - and hunted - his victims in isolated areas, such as lovers' lanes and quiet parks.
The Zodiac Killer has a reputation that precedes him, and I just covered his story a few months ago on this very podcast. However, to make matters short, the Zodiac was a killer that enjoyed the media attention his crimes allowed him, and he mostly targeted couples... for some unknown reason. In at least one of his crimes, he used a bright flashlight to disorient his victims, and one of his survivors described him wearing a hooded costume, very similar to that seen in comic books.
Many have pointed to these two similarities - the flashlight and the hood/mask - as a potential link between the Zodiac and the Phantom. Both were killers that operated at-night, in isolated areas, but were separated by nearly twenty-five years.
The Zodiac was described as being relatively young, so the timeline doesn't really match up. After all, if we assume that the Phantom was at least 18 when he committed the Texarkana killings, he would be in at least his early 40s during the Zodiac assaults - if not older. Then again, that timeline might actually work, with descriptions of the Zodiac ranging anywhere from his mid-20's to his mid-40's.
Most seem to believe that the Zodiac might have been inspired by the prior Texarkana attacks, having read or heard about them in the news. Perhaps he saw that the mysterious Phantom Killer had accidentally become a larger-than-life supervillain, and wanted to recreate that with his own moniker.
Nothing definitive has ever been found, linking the two together. But a discussion about the Phantom Killer remains unfinished without at least mentioning the Zodiac, and vice/versa.
In 1976 - thirty years after the murders - a film was released.
Titled "The Town That Dreaded Sundown," the movie was inspired by the true events that unfolded in Texarkana. It was loosely based on the investigation by Texas Ranger Captain Manuel T. Gonzaullas, who had retired from the Rangers in the early 1950's to pursue a career in show business. Many claim that Captain Gonzaullas took credit for several things he wasn't responsible for, but... that didn't really surprise anyone at the time.
The film changed names and expressed its artistic license throughout, but was actually filmed in Texarkana. In fact, many of the extras and supporting cast were Texarkana natives -some of whom still live there.
The director, Charles B. Pierce, had grown up in the region and was just a child when the Phantom Killer became the area's boogeyman. In return, Pierce decided to immortalize the events in a film that many credit for helping popularize the slasher genre of horror films.
"The Town That Dreaded Sundown" has become what Texarkana is perhaps most well-known for, and the film is shown annually at local film festivals and festive screenings. Every Halloween, residents of Texarkana gather near Spring Lake Park - the area that Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were killed - to participate in a showing. The popularity of the film even led to a 2014 meta-sequel, produced by Hollywood heavyweights Jason Blum and Ryan Murphy.
While many expressed displeasure at the original film, which they believe turned a town's real tragedy into schlocky horror, almost everyone agrees that it got several aspects correct. Namely, the panic that gripped tight around the region, and squeezed until the area earned the nickname given to it in the film: "The Town That Dreaded Sundown."
Following the first attack credited to the Phantom - which took place on February 22nd, 1946 - the two victims survived. Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey were out on a double-date, which was interrupted by the masked man that assaulted them.
From that day forward, their lives were forever changed. But, they continued living.
Mary Jeanne Larey, who had been assaulted by the Phantom, was released from the hospital the morning after. She struggled to overcome the emotional trauma inflicted upon her, and struggled with a lifelong assortment of fears and nightmares.
Jimmy Hollis recovered from his multiple skull fractures. Eventually, in time, those healed completely and he was able to return to his life. He was questioned several times by police, but - throughout each round of questioning - he was never able to recall any definitive details about his attacker. Nothing that could prove useful, anyhow.
Following his release from the hospital, Jimmy and Mary spent about a week together. Unfortunately, their burgeoning romance didn't last long, and they would remain linked only in their memories.
Jimmy moved away from the region. He moved about an hour south, to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he eventually started a family. He would marry, and ultimately have seven kids. It was rumored that he worked for NASA at one point, and he went on to live a normal and happy life. In 1974 - at the age of 54 - he would pass away in his sleep.
Mary's life was, sadly, cut short. She moved to Billings, Montana, where she would end up succumbing to cancer in 1965, at the young age of 38.
Meanwhile, Katie Starks - the third survivor - was widowed following the murder of her husband, Virgil Starks. She would survive the gunshots to her face, and would recover completely. Eventually, she remarried, becoming Katie Starks Sutton.
Katie was a true survivor, who would only be outlived by some junior police officials. When she died on July 3rd, 1994, almost all of the sheriffs and original detectives had passed away, making her one of the last living components of an investigation half-a-century old. She was survived by her husband, Forrest Sutton, who was later buried next to her.
On the other side of Katie was the first husband she had loved, Virgil, whose death brought an end to the Phantom's killing spree.
The case of the Phantom Killer - the investigation later dubbed the Texarkana Moonlight Murders - has yet to be solved.
Many believe it never will be. Most, if not all, of the original case files and documents have gone missing. Most information that journalists work off of is historical record at this point, with the murder spree's 75th anniversary fast approaching.
The perpetrator of this mysterious spree - the "Phantom" - has inspired films and TV shows for years now. Many believe that the urban legend of the hook man, haunting teenagers on a quiet lovers' lane, was derived from Texarkana in the 1940's. It's also believed that the Phantom is one America's earliest examples of a serial killer, a term that wasn't documented until the case had already gone cold.
Every now and then, rumors and gossip bring the case back into the limelight. Sometimes, it's based on something substantial - like a 2014 book, written by Texarkana Gazette reporter James Presley, the nephew of former-Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley. This book looked through the historical documents surrounding the case, and came to the belief that Yuell Swinney, the man investigators believed perpetrated the killings - who remained in prison for car theft until 1973 - was the Phantom Killer.
But for every worthwhile lead, such as this book, there are an endless amount of pointless theories, surrounding the Zodiac, blood-stained clothing found in an attic, etc. It's hard to determine whether or not police at the time stood a shot; whether they could have actually captured the Phantom, were it not for the media constantly hounding them for leads, and figures such as Texas Ranger Manuel Gonzaullas enjoying every second up the limelight.
Could investigators have solved this case back in 1946, without the distractions? It's impossible to say. Perhaps this was just one of those investigations that was doomed from the beginning.
The murders of Richard Griffin, Polly Ann Moore, Paul Martin, Betty Jo Booker, and Virgil Starks remain unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Originally published on September 30th, 2018
Other original music created and composed by Ailsa Traves