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Texarkana Moonlight Murders

An unidentified assailant often known as the Texarkana Phantom Killer committed a number of murders and assaults in Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas, and Bowie County, Texas) through the spring of 1946. Five people were killed, and three were wounded. While there was one major suspect, he was never convicted of these crimes. The attacks served partially as the basis for a motion picture, The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

On February 22, 1946, two young people, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, were parked on a secluded Bowie County road outside Texarkana. They were forced out of the car by an armed man, his face hidden by a burlap sack with two slits for eyes. The assailant beat Hollis with the gun, cracking the young man’s skull in two places. He then sexually assaulted Larey before fleeing when he saw the headlights of a car approaching. Both of these victims eventually recovered from their wounds.

One month later, on March 24, two more young people, Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore, were found on another Bowie County back road, both shot in the back of the head with a .32 revolver. Blood stains on the ground indicated they had been killed outside the car and then put back in it.

The following month, on April 14, teenagers Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were found dead in Spring Lake Park on the Texas side, with their bodies found some distance away from their car. Again, a .32 was the murder weapon.

The young women in both grisly killings had been tortured and sexually assaulted before dying. Police began patrolling secluded roads and “lovers’ lanes.”

The next month, on May 3, an isolated farmhouse in Miller County was the scene of another murder. Virgil Starks was shot twice and killed by an attacker standing outside the front window. When the dead man’s wife, Katy Starks, heard the shots and ran to the phone, she was shot twice in the face. Nevertheless, she was able to escape and run to a nearby farmhouse for help. Though a .22 pistol had been used in Starks’s death, tire tracks similar to those in earlier cases were found at the scene, and the crime was generally attributed to the same killer.

In all, two women and three men were killed. With each new murder, panic rose higher in Texarkana. Citizens bought weapons and stayed in their homes at night, literally dreading sundown. Law enforcement officials on both the Arkansas and Texas sides of the city worked the case. Texas rangers arrived, including the handsome and charismatic Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, and reporters from all over the country flocked to the town, adding a new level of chaos. When neighbors reported seeing strange lights from the Starks farmhouse, local police surrounded the home only to find Gonzaullas and a woman reporter from Life magazine taking photos of the crime scene with flash bulbs.

The murders were soon dubbed the “Moonlight Murders” by the news media, although the first two occurred a week after the full moon and the final attack occurred around the time of the new moon. Because he seemed to strike and vanish, the night stalker was also dubbed the “Phantom Killer” by the local newspaper, the Texarkana Gazette.

Numerous individuals claimed to be the Phantom Killer, while other citizens came forward with accusations against various local residents, including an agent of the Internal Revenue Service. One young man, a student at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), who came from a prominent Texarkana family, killed himself in his room in Fayetteville, leaving a poem and confession. All turned out to be false leads.

The one suspect who was most often cited as the probable killer was a repeat offender named Youell Swinney, who had a record of car theft, counterfeiting, burglary, and assault. An Arkansas law enforcement official, Max Tackett, had noticed that before each murder, there were reports of a car being stolen and then abandoned. In July 1946, a stakeout of a reported stolen car on the Arkansas side led police to a woman who claimed to be Swinney’s girlfriend. She provided details of the murders that had not been released to the public. Subsequently, her story changed, and she married Swinney. Because of the unreliability of her testimony and the fact that she could not be forced to appear as a witness against her husband, law enforcement officials declined to prosecute. In 1947, Youell Swinney was jailed for life as a repeat offender for car theft but was released on appeal in 1973. While some sources say he later died in prison, others say he died in 1994 at a nursing home in Dallas.

In 1977, Arkansan Charles B. Pierce produced an R-rated horror film called The Town that Dreaded Sundown with the tagline, “In 1946 this man killed five people....Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Arkansas.” It starred Academy Award–winning actor Ben Johnson, Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island, and Andrew Prine. Though it purported to be based on the true story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, many people dispute its accuracy. It remains a minor cult classic.

To date, the identity of the Phantom Killer remains unknown. While theoretically still open, it is considered a cold case. In 1996, the Texarkana Gazette published a twenty-four-page special section called “The Phantom at 50,” and the crime was revisited extensively in 1996 and again in 2003 by the Dallas Morning News.

For additional information:
Malsch, Brownson. Lone Wolf Gonzaullas: Texas Ranger. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Newton, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. New York: Checkmark Books, 2006. 

———. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders: The Unsolved Case of the 1946 Phantom Killer. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013.

“The Phantom at 50.” Special section. Texarkana Gazette. April 23, 1996.

Presley, James. The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror. New York: Pegasus Books, 2014.

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 11/24/2014

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