Texarkana, a small town that straddles the state line between Texas and Arkansas, is also known as The Town That Dreaded Sundown, thanks to the 1976 horror flick of the same name. Set in Texarkana and based loosely on a string of local slayings, the proto-slasher film came out just two years after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, and two years before Halloween.
Yet the true story behind the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” is as chilling as anything seen on the silver screen -- and made all the more unsettling because the case remains unsolved nearly 70 years later.
The mysterious Moonlight Murders rocked the sleepy southern town of Texarkana in 1946. Police on either side of the state line struggled to work as one while the killings themselves possessed the iconic quality of urban legend. Young couples parked at the end of a lonely country road, savaged after the sun went down.
In fact, some claim that the infamous campfire tale of lovers who catch a report of a hook-handed killer on the car radio only to discover a bloody hook hanging from their back door can be traced to the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.
The killer, described by witnesses as wearing a white mask or sack with holes cut for eyes, was dubbed the Phantom Killer or Phantom Slayer -- a name that, like so much about the case, seemed ready-made for drive-in theaters.
Authorities believe he killed five people in ten weeks. Three others, including his first two victims, survived their attacks. The first attack took place on February 22, 1946, on a secluded road outside of town. The Phantom approached Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larrey, a young couple parked in their car. He blinded them with his flashlight upon approach, then held them at gunpoint and ordered them out of the vehicle. The Phantom then told Jimmy Hollis to remove his pants and proceeded to beat him severely, fracturing his skull.
The Phantom told Mary Jeanne Larrey to run. When she scrambled toward a ditch, he told her to change course and run toward the road. He then chased her down and sexually assaulted her with the pistol he carried before letting her run away again. In spite of the savagery of their attacks, both Hollis and Larrey survived. Others were not so lucky.
In March, Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore were found dead in their parked car at the end of a secluded road. The couple, who had only been dating six weeks, had had dinner with Griffin’s sister and her boyfriend earlier in the night. Griffin, 29, was a veteran who made his living in carpentry and painting. He was shot fatally in the back of the head. Moore, only 17, was living in a nearby boardinghouse with her cousin. She was also fatally shot in the back of head.
A few weeks later, they were joined by another young boy and girl, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker. Booker was the Phantom’s youngest victim, at only 15 years old. Martin and Booker had begun dating after a long friendship, dating back to kindergarten. Booker played the saxophone in a local band, and Martin came out to pick her up. Five hours later, Martin’s body was discovered. Booker’s body would not be found for another six, laying two miles from Martin.
In the first week of May, the Phantom Killer attacked what are his last official victims, a husband and wife, in their farmhouse northeast of town. Virgil Starks was killed by two shots to the back of the head, but his wife Katie survived, in spite of being shot twice in the face and having to run down the street to a neighbor’s house to get help.
While the Phantom was on the loose, Texarkana was like a city under siege. Residents armed themselves and curfews were set for local businesses. In spite of the involvement of the Texas Rangers, no arrest was ever made in connection with the Moonlight Murders.
Theories spread wildly about the Phantom Killer’s identity. The killer’s targeting of couples and lack of other identifiable motives, such as burglary or revenge, led many in the area to believe that the killer was some sort of “sex maniac”. Nearly 400 people were arrested in connection with the killings.
Suspects included a University of Arkansas freshman who committed suicide in 1948, an escaped German prisoner of war, and an L.A. resident who believed that he may have committed the crimes while in a coma.
Many people believe that local man named Youell Swinney -- arrested in 1947 for auto theft -- was the Phantom. His wife confessed to as much at the time, but by law she could not testify against her husband. She later repudiated her confession. Swinney remained in prison as a habitual offender until 1973, and died in 1994, without ever implicating himself in the murders.
In 2014, James Presley, a Texarkana native, wrote what he considered to be definitive book on the murders, The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror. In it, he lays out enough evidence that he claims proves Swinney was responsible for all five Phantom slayings.
Others remain unconvinced. A 1948 cold case involving the disappearance of 21-year-old Virginia Carpenter from Texarkana is thought by some to have been the work of the Phantom Killer, though Swinney was already in prison by that time. And in 1999 and 2000 an anonymous woman contacted surviving family members of the Phantom’s victims to apologize for “what her father had done.” But Youell Swinney never had a daughter.
Regardless of the killer’s true identity, the town he traumatized has never been the same since the spring of 1946. Yet while other towns may have tried to forget such a gruesome legacy, Texarkana embraced it. When The Town That Dreaded Sundown was filmed there in 1976, locals were cast as extras. Every year around Halloween, the movie is screened at Spring Lake Park, near where one of the murders took place.
The Texarkana murders remain unsolved to this day. Whoever hid behind that white mask, chances are that after almost 70 years he no longer “lurks on the streets of Texarkana” as the tagline to The Town That Dreaded Sundown suggests.
Yet his legacy lives on, haunting the country roads of Texas and Arkansas beneath the glow of the moon.
By Orrin Grey