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Moonlight Murders & The Town That Dreaded Sundown

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 7 16

Terror In Texarkana

Twilight

Silvery, cold moonlight and night conspire to create an eerie sense of foreboding and terror. 
 
For the night stalkers of the world – the serial killers, the sexual predators – a moonlit night provides just enough illumination to see the prey, but not so much light that the victim can easily identify the assailant.

Presuming the victim remains alive, of course.

Deep in the Moonlight

Dawn
Texarkana was a throwback village in the mid 20th Century.  The town not only straddled two state lines (Texas and Arkansas) it also straddled two distinct states of mind: the wild, lawless Texan and the hillbilly fussin’ of Arkansawyers. 

Hernando de Soto marched through the area, occupied in 1542 by a group of Native Americans called the Caddo.  The area remained in Caddo care for decades afterward.  These natives were sedentary and worked the lands for crops.  They were also mound builders.  They even hosted La Salle's Expedition in 1687.  By 1719, though, the French had pushed into the territory, setting up a fort and trading post; the Caddos, feeling the pressure, began migrating westward. 

Caddo Indian village life
By 1840, a small settlement developed within a few miles of the town’s present site.

Railroading opened the area even further for exploitation and settlement.  The Caddo lands were favorably located for east-west traffic from St. Louis via Little Rock, and then into Texas and other points west.  The Cairo & Fulton Railroad built track across Arkansas starting in the late 1850s; by the early 1870s this company had crossed the state line at the Red River into Texas.  Another railroad, the Texas & Pacific, married its rail line to the existing one – that connection point was believed an ideal spot for a town.  The Texas & Pacific Railroad sold off the very first lots for its new town – Texarkana – on December 8, 1873.

Four centuries after de Soto passed through, the town of Texarkana had grown to about 30,000 in 1940.  By the mid 1940s, there were over 50,000.  It was a crossroads to the

Texarkana State/Town Line
Southwest, and post-World War II saw the town racially divided (as was most of the country) – roughly 28% of the town was African-American.

Texarkana had not let the modern age touch it much.  Although some industry thrived, especially during the boom years of World War II, there was still an air of the backwoods about it. 

The most modern thing to hit town in Texarkana made its presence known in February 1946.  The arrival of a sexual sadist and serial killer set the small city on edge in terror for the next 72 days.

One Moonlit Night
On the Texas side of Texarkana, the late night of Friday, February 22, 1946 found a youngish Lothario trying to put the make on his teenage girlfriend on an isolated lovers’ lane.  Jimmy Hollis, a 24-year-old insurance agent and gal pal, 19-year-old Mary Jeanne Larey, were snuggled up in his car.  Earlier that evening the pair had doubled at a movie with Hollis’ brother and his date.

Burned Out Woods
At a few minutes before midnight a stranger blinding them with a bright light accosted the couple.  At gunpoint he ordered the two from Jimmy’s car; they slid out through the driver’s side door.  The gunman wore a terrifying mask of burlap with eye holes and a mouth hole cut in it, giving him the look of a scarecrow.  Strangely, he told Jimmy to take off his pants.

Hollis refused.  Mary thought the ploy was meant to emasculate Jimmy in the assailant’s eyes, a clear psychological move to humiliate the man, and to make him distracted and feeling vulnerable.  She urged Jimmy to comply, thinking the masked man wanted to only rob them.  She fished in Jimmy’s discarded pants, and pulled out his wallet.  She handed it to the stranger, telling him there was no money in it.  

Without warning the attacker lay into Jimmy, pistol-whipping him while Mary stood by terrified.  With Hollis subdued, the masked man turned on Mary and told her to hand over her purse.  She said she had not brought one with her; angry, the man struck her in the head with his gun, knocking her to the ground.

Dazed, she staggered to her feet – the gunman told her to start running.  She weebled off in her high heels on the bumpy road surface.  As she blundered away she could hear the thuds of Hollis being struck again.  Soon afterward, she heard pounding footsteps behind her, and found the stranger was chasing her down.  She ran past an older model car parked in the area but there were no occupants, so she kept running.

He caught up with her easily and then bizarrely asked her why she had run.  She replied that he had told her to run.  At that point he called her a liar, struck her, and knocked her to the ground.  He then raped her with the barrel of the gun.  Mary was certain she would be killed and didn't care by then.  The pain of the gun rape was horrific, and after a lull she gained her feet and told the assailant to simply kill her and be done with it.  He did not respond, and she took off running again, certain he would either shoot her in the back or chase her down and torture her further.

He did neither. 

After running for about half a mile she discovered he was nowhere to be found.

He had simply disappeared into the night.

The Lucky Ones
While the sadist ran after Mary, Jimmy collected himself enough to crawl away from the scene of his beating. 

He was disoriented and in pain but he made it to a busier thoroughfare (Richmond Road) and caught the attention of a passing motorist.  This Samaritan drove to the nearest funeral home that also provided ambulance service.  An ambulance peeled out for the area to which Hollis directed them.

Mary, in the meantime, had found a residence on Blanton Street (near the isolated area).  She managed to awaken the residents who then called the police.

Both Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey were badly injured but each gave (conflicting) descriptions to the police of their attacker.  Hollis was sure the man was a dark complected white man about six feet tall; Mary was equally certain the attacker was a light complected “colored” man (predicating her belief in his race by his pronunciation of certain words).

Mary’s wounds were not very severe.   She was taken to a hospital, examined, had her head wounds stitched, and was released. 

Jimmy Hollis did not do so well.  He had two skull fractures from the pistol-whipping, and he had to stay in the hospital for several months in recovery.

A search of the area led police nowhere – no suspicious characters lurking about, no witnesses, and no evidence.  With some reservation they chalked it up to an isolated incident and hoped it was over.  

Discharged: Permanently
About a month later on March 23, 1946, the moon was out and so were the denizens of Texarkana.  

Richard L. Griffin, aged 29 and a recently discharged US Navy Seabee, and his teenage girlfriend, 17-year-old Polly Ann Moore (recently graduated from high school with a job at an

Richard Griffin (29) & Polly Ann Moore (17)
arsenal), went out for a late dinner with Polly’s sister Eleanor.  

That Saturday night they dined at about 10 PM at a café on West Seventh Street in Texarkana.  Later, Richard and Polly took leave of Eleanor and drove off together.

A motorist spotted what he thought was an abandoned 1941 Oldsmobile the next morning (Sunday) drawn up in a grove of trees roughly 100 yards from the nearest roadway.  Thinking there was a problem the man stopped and hiked over to the vehicle. 

He spotted a sleeping figure slumped over the car’s steering wheel.  He drew the conclusion the vehicle was either stuck, disabled in some way, and with the occupants having no way of knowing how close to a motel they were (where they could get a room to sleep instead of roughing it out in the open).  He found the man that was slumped over the wheel was dead with his pockets turned out.  Furthermore, there was a dead girl lying face down on a blanket in the back seat.  Her purse was open and had obviously been rifled.

He summoned authorities; an on-site inspection gave a partial story of what probably happened.  Shell casings from a .32-caliber were found on the scene.  Twenty feet from the victims’ vehicle police discovered a few puddles of blood.  They concluded the man behind the wheel had been killed and the girl had been raped and murdered outside the car (where the blood was found) away from the Oldsmobile.  It had rained heavily overnight, so no footprints were noted; however, drag marks from the bloody exterior site supported the fact at least one of the victims had been killed outside the car then placed back inside it (most likely the girl).

The dead driver and the girl were Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore.  Both had been shot in the head.  Polly had been sexually assaulted and tortured before her murder.  [It is unclear if Griffin had consensual or forceful sex with the girl before the attacker arrived and finished them off, inflicting further indignities upon her before plugging her with a slug.  The presence of the blanket in the back seat of his car suggests that he either expected to have, or already had, sex with Polly before the shooting.]

Investigators made a quick connection to this “lover’s lane” killing to the assault on Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey a month earlier.  A pattern had emerged, and it was only dumb luck (or a skittish killer’s botched first attempt at murder) that had saved Hollis and Mary.  

Richard Griffin and Polly Moore did not benefit from such a misstep on the killer’s part.

Phantom
As with the brutal assaults on Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey, police had no physical evidence or leads in these new murders.  Two victims, seemingly randomly selected, had

Texarkana Terror newspaper article
been caught out by a madman while trying to find a quiet place for sex.

Interstate and inter-county agencies banded together to work on the case from Texas and Arkansas.  The FBI was called in as well.

Terror spread quickly through the community; people in Texarkana began locking their doors (something rarely done).  Sales of firearms increased dramatically and many elected to abandon their homes and move into hotels.  The streets of Texarkana became almost deserted as most decided it was safer to stay in behind secured doors with their weapons within easy reach. 

A paranoia set in among the citizens as they pondered which among them might be the night stalker, a sexually sadistic killer motivated by the phases of the moon.

Phantom Killer (Hollywood version)
The Press gave the faceless figure a name: The Phantom Killer.

Assumptions
There was no way of knowing that the person who killed Richard Griffin and who had raped and murdered Polly Moore was the same one who attacked Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey.  It was, however, a reasonable place to start the investigation.

In the wake of the second attack in March (that resulted in the first murders) the first surviving victim Mary Larey grew anxious that the Phantom Killer would return to finish the job on her.  She left Texarkana and moved to Franklin, Oklahoma (roughly 300 miles to the northwest).  

Local police stepped up patrols into remote areas and made a point of routing teens and young adults hunkered down on remote back roads for a night of groping.  Unfortunately, they could do little else – there was no helpful description of the attacker other than that he was a six-foot-tall white male (or, possibly, a light-skinned black man).

Police did not rest on their laurels; revisiting both crime scenes turned up nothing of merit, though.  As there were no new assaults or murders the town breathed a bit easier after a couple of weeks but the tension was still in the air.  

Teen-O-Rama
Betty Jo Booker was a 15-year-old sax player with a good enough lip that she had a steady weekly gig with a group called the Rhythmaires.  Their regular slot was Saturday nights at a VFW on the corner of West 4th and Oak Streets on the Texas side of Texarkana.  

In the evening of Saturday, April 13, 1946, Betty showed up for the show at the VFW as usual.  She played through while the locals danced.  Normally, the band’s leader (Jerry Atkins) or another band member saw to Betty’s transport, but she advised she was going off with her friend, Paul Martin (age 16), who was in town and offered her a lift, instead.  She’d known Paul since they were in kindergarten together, so she readily accepted his offer.   The dance ended at 1:30 AM on Sunday, April 14 – an exhausted Betty bundled her sax into Paul’s car and the two left the VFW.

The Rhythmaires leader, Jerry Atkins, took a call at his home a few hours later at 6 AM, rousing him from a sound sleep.  A woman (presumably Betty Booker’s mother) asked where Betty was: she had yet to come home.  Jerry told the woman he had no idea as Betty had been given a ride by a friend, and Jerry himself hadn’t seen her since about 1:30 AM.

A family with the last name of Weaver was cruising on their way out of town at about 6:30 AM.  They spotted a strange bundle on the road’s north side.  A quick inspection showed it was a body, and police were contacted.  The body was found to be that of Paul Martin, the boy who had given Betty Booker a ride from the VFW several hours earlier.  

Paul had been shot to death.  Four rounds had been pumped into him: one in the face, another through a rib, one in the hand (an obvious defensive wound), and also a shot in the neck (this exited his skull near the right ear and was probably the fatal wound).

A sweep of the crime scene revealed blood on the other side of the road near a fence row.  Again, police decided this spot was the kill location, and the boy had either crawled or been dragged to the north side of North

Backroads search (Texarkana, 1946)
Park Road.  No sign of Betty was found there, however, and a search party was organized.

Three search party members (all friends of Betty’s family) stumbled upon Betty’s corpse about six hours after Paul’s body was found.  She was discovered behind a tree from what is now Moores Lane (between Cooks Lane and Fernwood Lane). 

She was fully clothed and wearing her overcoat, her right hand stuffed inside the coat’s outer pocket.  Betty had taken two bullets: one hit her in the fifth rib on her left side, and the fatal shot had been fired into her left cheek near her nose. 

A coroner’s examination later showed she had been sexually assaulted before her murder.  [Again, it was surmised the killer did this.  Though unlikely, Paul Martin may have raped Betty or engaged in consensual intercourse with her in an isolated area before The Phantom Killer found the pair.]

Analysis of the bullets and wounds indicated the murder weapon was a .32-caliber revolver.  It was the same size as the gun that had killed Richard Griffin and Polly Moore in late March.

Paul’s car, with the keys still in the ignition, was recovered about three miles from where Betty’s body was found and about a mile and a half from where Paul’s body was discovered. 

The car’s resting-place was a few hundred yards from the entrance to Spring Lake Park.  [The presence of the car near this secluded park’s entrance tends to suggest

Victims Betty Booker & Paul Martin (April 1946)
that Paul may have driven it there with or without Betty’s consent in the hopes of perhaps engaging her sexually.] 

Betty’s saxophone was not in Paul’s car, and its disappearance suggested someone (maybe the killer) had stolen it (with, perhaps, the intention of hocking it later).  Consequently, all pawn shops in the area were told to be on the lookout for anyone attempting to move a sax through them.  The serial number of the instrument was passed around to area music stores as well on the off-chance the killer might try to sell it through other channels.

The earlier reward of $500 for information on the previous assaults and murders was upped to $5000.

The Lone Ranger
The Texas Rangers, the best known of the Southwest’s law enforcement groups for their tenacity and dogged investigative skills, were summoned to the scene. 

Captain M.T. Gonzuallas led the Rangers’ group that took over the scene near Spring Lake Park.  Gonzuallas’ nickname was “Lone Wolf” for his preference for solitude (on and off the job), and he was the commanding officer assigned to the Phantom Killer case. 

Lone Wolf Gonzuallas already had a colorful career under his belt – his presence in Texarkana stirred up the local press into a fervor.  The arrival of the Texas Rangers, however, did not sit well with Arkansas State police and other local authorities that’d been handling the case already—petty jurisdictional squabbling developed.

M.T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzuallas, Texas Ranger

All of the attacks up to Lone Wolf Gonzuallas’ arrival had been in Texas’ part of Texarkana.  That changed dramatically with an incident that did not fit the mold of The Phantom Killer.

Virgil Starks, a soon-enough headline, sat quietly in his living room reading a newspaper, a heating pad applied to his lower back.  The 36-year-old farmer and his 35-year-old wife, Katy, were enjoying a quiet evening at home on Friday, May 3, 1946.  Their house was 12 miles northeast of Texarkana out on Highway 67, and they had no reason to believe The Phantom Killer or any other violator would disturb their peace that night.  

Suddenly, the living room window shattered, two slugs slammed into the back of Virgil’s head, and he flopped over dead.  Katy heard the sound of breaking glass and rushed into the living room.  She saw her husband lying on the floor in a pool of blood – she went straight to the phone to call police.  The gunman stood outside the broken window and shot her twice in the face (in the cheek and lower jaw).  He then raced around to the back porch.  

Despite her wounds Katy ran out of the front door, crossed the road, and tried to find help at her sister’s farmhouse.  No one was home, so she hastened on another fifty yards and found help at a neighbor’s.  Sheriff’s deputies responded, and Katy Starks was taken to the hospital for treatment.  She arrived in critical condition, but she recovered eventually.

This time the killer left some physical evidence behind.  A red flashlight had been dropped at the scene (a color image was printed in the next day’s paper, the first time that process had been used in a local rag).  In the Starks’ home police found muddy footprints, as if the killer had fired shots, then entered the house looking for Katy to finish her off. 

The back door had been smashed in by force, and the killer had put his hand in Virgil’s blood, leaving smudgy fingerprints and a palm print behind.  [These were never matched to anyone suspected in the slayings.].  Canines were called in but the dogs lost the scent after about 200 yards, leading police to conclude the intruder had escaped in a waiting vehicle.

That was it.  No strangers were about, Katy Starks did not get a good look at her attacker, and this victim turned out to be the last police placed definitively at the feet of The Phantom Killer.  [This is in despite of the facts that the modus operandi and the murder weapon – a .22-caliber – were significantly different from the lovers’ lane assaults and slayings.  However, all other factors considered (attack on a Friday night – not a weekday – isolated place, gunshots) led police to decide to lump Virgil’s murder in with the rest.  In reality, a modern investigative force would not include this slaying in the canon of those of The Phantom Killer.]

Never Heard the Train Coming
The case was cold almost before anything but more deaths could rise. 

Virgil Starks’ murder threw law enforcement into a quandary – he had been home, not out in the country making time with a single girl.  He had not been in a car.  He was older than the other victims were.  He was married.  

Nothing else happened for two more days when another shocking event may have closed the case for police quickly.

Texarkana Train Trestle
On May 5, the body of a man was found on the Kansas City Southern Railroad tracks about 16 miles north of Texarkana.  A Social Security card found nearby identified him as Earl Clifton McSpadden.  Because the body was on railroad property police had to involve the company’s in-house detectives in their investigation.  [Even though the railroad detectives had no legal authority behind them nor any jurisdictional claims, it was considered politic to include them as the railroad owners still carried a lot of political clout then.]

Supposition ran rampant in the wake of the find – it was naïvely believed that McSpadden had been The Phantom Moonlight Murderer and in a fit of remorse had committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.

A more reasoned approach by the Coroner’s office, however, yielded a different conclusion: McSpadden had been stabbed to death before his body was thrown on the train tracks.  [Blood was later found on the highway near the dump site – this was believed to be the spot where McSpadden was killed].  This red herring was in all likelihood set up by the real killer to mislead police into thinking the killer was dead.  Or, it could have been a coincidentally unrelated murder.  Regardless, McSpadden’s death was the last in the case, though his was never proven as part of the same crime spree as that of The Phantom.

Driving a Stolen Car
Eighteen suspects were investigated and cleared during the follow-up inquiries after McSpadden’s death.

Arkansas State Police Chief Max Tackett, however, made an intuitive connection that provided the team with its first true direction.  Checking through local calls, Tackett

Max Tackett (Arksansas State Police Chief, 1946)
discovered that coincidentally before each of the attacks—every one of them starting with the Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey assualts—a car had been reported stolen.  The stolen car in each case was later found abandoned elsewhere.

Minimally, this certainly explained how The Phantom Killer could summarily approach his victims; he simply drove near, parked his stolen vehicle, did his dirty work on foot, and then disappeared into the night by driving away.  [Mary Larey reported seeing headlights about the time she noticed the masked rapist had stopped pursuing her.  She did not see him and assumed the headlights had scared him off.  It is more reasonable to conclude that the headlights she saw were those of The Phantom’s stolen getaway car.]

On the same night of the slayings of teenagers Paul Martin and Betty Booker, the Booker family recalled that a car had been stolen from a friend of theirs.  A man was seen driving the stolen car – his name was Youell Lee Swinney (born: March 9, 1917).  The 29-year-old Swinney was a two-bit small-timer with a long history of burglaries, car thefts, assaults, and counterfeiting behind him.  He lived on a dirt road accessible by Highway 82 just south of Texarkana.  Swinney had recently married a 21-year-old woman. 

Posed hpoto of law officers surrounding a railroad detective (in chair)

Unable to lay their hands on him immediately, they took his wife in and detained her instead (in the days before anyone had Miranda Rights) on June 28, 1946.  She told police that Swinney was out of the area, in Atlanta, Texas (coincidentally, the town where Polly Moore graduated from high school) in fact, selling a car he had stolen. 

Arkansas State Police contacted Atlanta’s police department.  They advised they’d be on the lookout for him and would let him leave town freely to avoid extradition bureaucracy.  When Swinney hopped a bus out Atlanta police called ahead to Arkansas and gave Chief Tackett the bus schedule.

Because of his wife’s allegations about his activities in Atlanta, police were immediately able to arrest Swinney on suspicion of auto theft.  When he was taken into custody after stepping off the bus in Texarkana, he seemed none too surprised at the attention.  As he was bundled into the squad car he remarked, “Hell, I know what you guys want me for.  You want me for more than stealing a car.”  He also asked them, bizarrely and without any provocation,  if he might get the electric chair.

He was processed into the Miller County Jail on the Arkansas side of Texarkana, officially charged with auto theft.  While in custody police questioned him about activities relating to the recent spate of killings in the area.  Swinney professed ignorance of those crimes and gave away nothing under interrogation.

Youell Lee Swinney (center) surrounded by captors (August 1946)
Rather than waste more time with Swinney interrogators leaned on his wife again.  This time she related a story that fit with police views of Swinney as the Phantom Killer.

She claimed she and Swinney had just come back from Dallas on the night of April 13, 1946 (the night Betty Booker blew her last sax note for the Rhythmaires).  Swinney and his wife had gone to see a movie, bought some beer, and decided to head up to Spring Lake Park to get drunk and “roll” (rob) somebody.  She said Swinney had forced the two teens from their parked car near the park’s entrance at gunpoint and had marched them off into a wooded area out of her sight.  She claimed she then heard gunshots.  [This in no way explains how Betty was found three miles away from Martin’s car or how it was that Paul Martin was over a mile away.  It seems impossible Swinney’s wife could have heard gunshots from so far a distance – he also certainly did not drag the bodies those distances.  She was either complicit in removing the bodies to their dump sites where they were found or she lied to police about the whole event.]

The sheriff of Bowie County, Texas, suggested taking Mrs. Swinney out to the park for a walk-through of the crime scene.  Although she did not lead law enforcement to the exact spot of the crimes, she brought them close enough to make her story seem plausible.  [Never mind that the details were splashed over every newspaper in the area, details she could have easily regurgitated to police.] 

Police laid her inaccuracies off to the fact that it had been dark and she likely had been drinking beer.  When asked if Swinney had robbed Paul Martin she said he had taken things from Martin’s pocket and tossed them in a ditch.  Among the effects she claimed were removed and discarded was a small address book of Martin’s.  [Police had found a small address book near the boy’s body but had not released that piece of information to the public].  They latched onto it as information that only someone close to the crime could have known.  [Almost everyone in those days carried such an item and it could have been guesswork on Mrs. Swinney’s part that the teen had carried such an item.] 

Betty Jo Booker’s missing saxophone was mentioned.  Mrs. Swinney claimed Youell Swinney had stopped along the road as they left the scene and tossed it from their car (she did not say how far along “the road” or where exactly).  Later, Mrs. Swinney was polygraphed in Austin, Texas;.  She passed her polygraph exam (but the results are meaningless after so much time had elapsed since the event, her coaching from investigators, and contamination of any testimony she might have given because of her visit to the crime scene).

Despite all the holes in her story and the nonsensical and spurious motive to “get drunk and rob somebody” police accepted her narrative and mentally slotted Swinney into the role of The Phantom Killer.  However, the rubs were many – barring Mrs. Swinney’s flimsy accounting of events there was absolutely no evidence to support Youell Swinney as a suspect for the Moonlight Murders.  He was a car thief, and violent perhaps, but random sexual assaults and murder did not fit his profile or known crimes.  

At pains to bring the case to a close, police knew Mrs. Swinney (under spousal privilege) could not be forced to testify against her husband in court.  They asked her, however, if she would do so voluntarily, and she refused.  She had reason to – she was a convicted felon herself, and her credibility on the stand would certainly be suspect.  

Youell Swinney was told by police his wife had rolled over on him, sold him out.  He made an oblique statement about “coming clean” but then clammed up.  He was taken later to Little Rock and shot full of sodium pentothal (the “truth serum”).  However, too much was administered and he fell into a deep sleep before any questions could be put to him.  Afterward, he remained silent and refused to speak on anything related to the murders.  Youell Swinney, the car thief, sat in jail awaiting trial for those crimes only – nothing could be brought to bear to tie him to the Moonlight Murders.

Sax & Violence
Two locals were out repairing a fence on the morning of October 24, 1946 (on what is now Moores Lane, the site where Betty Jo Booker’s body was found against a tree with her hand in her coat pocket).  The yokels spotted what they thought was an old piece of luggage in the underbrush just beyond the fence they worked. 

Because of all the publicity of the recent murders the two recognized the “luggage” as Betty’s sax case – the instrument was still inside it.  [Ready to believe anything, police made this locale “fit” Mrs. Swinney’s earlier tale of where the sax had been tossed.  This was some miles from where she said Swinney tossed the piece, however.  On the other hand its proximity to Betty’s body could mean Mrs. Swinney was a witness to the body’s disposal as well as that of the sax, and she fudged the details to avoid implicating herself.]

In 1947, Youell Lee Swinney went to trial for his charges of auto theft.  He was a repeat offender, and with two prior felony convictions a “guilty” verdict meant a long stretch in prison, possibly life.  Unfortunately for Swinney that is exactly what happened, and in the wake of this newest conviction he was incarcerated at the Texas Correctional Facility in Huntsville, Texas, serving a life sentence.

His case was brought before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1972.  Going back to his 1947 conviction for auto theft the court found Swinney had not been properly represented or advised in that earlier case; therefore, the 1947 conviction was set aside, and his “three-strike" status (reached with his 1947 conviction) was invalid. 

The 55-year-old Youell Swinney was released on parole in 1973.  About a year later he was back in court on charges of counterfeiting for which he was found guilty.  He did two years in the Texarkana Federal Correctional Facility.  After his release, he returned to Dallas.  He was in residence at a halfway house in 1992, and later died in a nursing home on September 15, 1994, age 77.

Sundown Strangers
Law enforcement worked the case, off-and-on, over the next decades to no avail.  Lone Wolf Gonzuallas had made it a personal crusade of his to solve.  Copycat cases – most notably in Florida – shook some of Gonzuallas’ belief in Swinney, but he held relatively firm otherwise.  He died in 1977 at the age of 85, however, never getting his man. 

Arkansas Chief Max Tackett went down believing Youell Swinney was The Phantom.  Another Arkansas police officer, Tillman Johnson (the last surviving lawman in the case, he died in 2008, aged 97) also believed Swinney was the killer, but felt that the Virgil Starks’ shooting did not belong lumped in with the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.

Many cranks have harassed authorities over the years with letters claiming knowledge of the real killer, etc..  One of the more interesting crackpot calls was a woman who claimed to be

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (movie poster)
Youell’s daughter – she left a mysterious message saying that she was sorry for “what daddy done”.  [Youell Swinney was not known to have ever had a daughter.]

Considering the grotesque elements – masked sexual sadist, random killer, weekends only – of the Moonlight Murders it is surprisingly untouched as a case of interest in the popular culture of today.  [The same can be said of the horrifying Wineville Chicken Coop Murders of the late 1920s.  It lay in the twilight of consciousness for decades before recent resurrection by Clint Eastwood in his movie The Changeling.]

Interest in the case revived briefly when Youell Swinney’s appeal came up in 1972.  It was only in 1976 that a low-budget, big screen film (a fictional work based loosely on the case) hit theaters.  This movie, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, was presented with narration and a mock serious tone.  It featured Dawn Wells (“Mary Ann” from the mid 1960s’ Gilligan’s Island TV sitcom) as “Helen Reed” (the fictionalized version of Katy Starks, Vigil Starks’ wife).

The film has a moody setting, and the costuming of The Phantom Killer was unsettling: the image has reached cult status in America (the burlap hood with the eye and mouth holes).  The movie was hard to take seriously, though, and since then no effort had been made at a credibly dramatic treatment of the subject.  [Although a sequel came along with the same title in 2014, set 65 years after the original case from the first movie.  This film’s biggest stars are Gary Cole (of Office Space fame) and Veronica Cartwright (from the 1978 remake of the 1956 sci-fi/horror classic, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and its newer retelling, The Invasion, from 2007.]

The Strangers (promo still, 2008)
The Strangers (DVD case artwork)

The “hood” sprang up again in 2008’s The Strangers (a film about a trio who show up at a random residence, and torment, torture, and kill the occupants).  One of the male characters wears the hood of The Phantom Killer as a paean to that case.

The Zodiac Killer (a shooter in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s similar in modus operandi as The Phantom Killer) also donned a cloth hood with eye holes cut out.  It is an unsettling thing to see such a person approach; the visual impact terrorizes the victim.

Like the Zodiac case, the Moonlight Murders of Texarkana remain unsolved.  Though cold, the case is still technically open.  Perhaps someday a real suspect can be brought forth from the moonlight into the daylight.

Phantom Killer

***

Author's Note: Almost every source, even the most authoritative, references the “fact” that once Swinney was in custody the Moonlight Murders stopped.  Much has been made of this statement, but the conclusion reached is a blatant fallacy.  

The attacks stopped clearly and with finality on May 5, 1946, upon the discovery of Earl Clifton McSpadden’s body on the lonely railroad tracks in Texarkana.  The killings all took place on weekend nights – Friday, Saturday, or early Sunday mornings.  From this, one could infer the killer had a regular job that kept him occupied during the week. 

As a car thief, Youell Swinney had no such clock to punch – if he were the killer he could have gone out any day of the week to commit his atrocities.  Swinney, had he really been the killer, had more than two months of freedom to murder again before he was taken into custody by police.  He could have murdered indiscriminately had he been the true killer.  He was not a suspect in the interval from McSpadden’s death; it was the statements police coaxed from Mrs. Swinney (probably to deflect from her own guilt in other crimes) that sealed his fate.

The fact that in those two months there were no more deaths tends toward absolving him of being The Phantom Killer.  Police only had the statements (full of errors and ambivalence) from Swinney’s felon wife to make a case against him. 

It should be clear to even the most amateur armchair detective that Youell Lee Swinney was not the Phantom Killer.  The real killer is most likely long dead by now, beyond the reach of justice.

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Comments

Jul 5, 2012 12:25pm
askformore
Thank you for a great "twilight story".
Jul 5, 2012 12:47pm
vicdillinger
Not the "twilight" I guess you'd thought it'd be, but this is one of my all-time favorite cases and I couldn't resist the nocturnal allusion. Thanks for reading.
Jul 9, 2012 7:25am
JudyE
It's amazing how the police make the facts fit sometimes. Two notable cases in West Aust were Andrew Mallard and [another whose name I've forgotten ;)]. Enjoyable read as always.
Jul 9, 2012 11:12am
vicdillinger
One of these days, Judy, I'm gonna make you believe that Martha Rendell didn't do it!!

Also, recently, Lindy "The Dingo Ate My Baby" Chamberlain was finally exonerated -- she didn't do it, either.

Thanks for reading.
Jul 15, 2012 12:14pm
Marlando
WOW--Talk about good writing--well prepared research and an album of great photographs this is it!
As a devoted history buff this reading was a real pleasure for me. 5 stars!
Jul 15, 2012 1:37pm
vicdillinger
Glad you liked it. Thanks for the rating and for reading.
Jul 17, 2012 12:01pm
usedtoitall
You make me feel kind of scared to write! You are so good.
Jul 21, 2012 4:31pm
vicdillinger
Now, now, none of that -- just write, don't worry about what others do or don't do. Thanks for reading.
Jul 19, 2012 12:01pm
Case1worker
Very, very interesting and a good read- I suppose it is something known only to the killer!
Jul 21, 2012 4:32pm
vicdillinger
Thanks for reading.
Aug 31, 2012 6:12am
Ddraig
I watched the Hood and loved it. This is an amazing article, one I knew belonged to you as soon as I saw the title appear on the feature page.
Took me over an hour to read this, not because of my reading capabilities but because I was trying to do household chores and read inbetween.
You could turn your work into a book, I for one would certainly buy it.
Aug 31, 2012 1:33pm
vicdillinger
Thanks for the vote of confidence and for reading. Nuttin' but luv!
May 5, 2013 10:20pm
Rosenberg
Interesting... I had never paid much attention to the details of that case. I don't think I've made it all the way through that Dawn Wells movie.

It strikes me that Summerhill Road links all of the Texas side crime scenes, except, depending on the exact location, the body found on the tracks north of town. There is (or was, anyway) a backroad that connects Summerhill with State Line, north of town that crosses the KCS tracks. It also intersects Moores Lane, near Fernwood and runs into North Park, at Spring Lake Park. It runs parallel to Richmond Road for its entire length, straight into downtown near Seventh.

Very engaging piece! I enjoyed reading it!
May 16, 2013 8:40am
vicdillinger
What I really think sticks about this case is the horror-inducing sack-cloth mask. It striekd fear on so many levels. The one the Zodiac used is nothing compared to the psycho-scarecrow look THIS mysterious killer created. I wish this case could be solved but there were never any viable suspects and it looks as if it may continue to be a great mystery. Thanks for reading.
Dec 9, 2013 1:34pm
WriterJoanne
I've never heard of this story before. You are right that it is strange that it remains relatively unknown. A very interesting read, as always.
Dec 9, 2013 1:44pm
vicdillinger
It's a classic in the pantheon of unsolved murders. Thanks for reading.
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Bibliography

  1. Joseph Geringer "The Phantom Killer: Texarkana Moonlight Murders." trutv.com. 20/06/2012 <Web >
  2. Nancy Hendricks "Texarkana Moonlight Murders." encyclopediaofarkansas.net. 20/06/2012 <Web >
  3. "Texarkana Moonlight Murders." en.wikipedia.org. 20/06/2012 <Web >
  4. "Phantom Killer." en.wikipedia.org. 20/06/2012 <Web >
  5. "The 1946 Texarkana Moonlight Murders." jayssouth.com. 2/07/2012 <Web >
  6. "Youell Swinney." en.wikipedia.org. 2/07/2012 <Web >
  7. "The Town That Dreeded [sic] Sundown - The True Story." davidcampbelljr.tripod.com. 2/07/2012 <Web >
  8. "Unsolved! The Phantom Killer of Texarkana." thedarwinexception.wordpress.com. 26/11/2007. 2/07/2012 <Web >
  9. "Texarkana USA: History of Texarkana." texarkana.org. 3/07/2012 <Web >
  10. Wayne Adcock "Texarkana Historical Items: Bowie County, TX / Miller County, AR 1940 - 1949 A Chronology Of Events." rootsweb.ancestry.com. 3/07/2012 <Web >
  11. Lance "Youell Swinney." findagrave.com. 12/05/2012. 4/07/2012 <Web >
  12. Brett Hardel "Serial Killers: The Moonlight Murderer of Texarkana." helium.com. 17/01/2009. 4/07/2012 <Web >
  13. "The Town That Dreaded Sundown (sequel, 2014)." imdb.com. 17/11/2014 <Web >

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