In 1946, Texarkana, a town that straddles the border of Texas and Arkansas, was going through something of a boom. Lots of men were moving into the town to find work in the railyards, the Red River Army Depot, and other jobs. Most were perfectly law-abiding folks, but there were plenty of less-than-upstanding characters drawn in, too. Bars, gambling, and illegal prostitution, predictably, grew to accommodate them. As a result, the city was a bit more rough around the edges than most. The crime rate had escalated, and some even said that the town had become used to murders.
So there wasn’t a huge reaction when, on Feb. 22, 1946, police were called to the scene of a vicious attack. That night, 25-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, had gone to see a movie downtown. Afterwards, they went to a local lover’s lane, a secluded dirt road well away from traffic and houses. About 10 minutes after they arrived, just before midnight, a man approached the driver’s side of the vehicle, blinding them with his flashlight.
At first, Hollis thought it was a prank. But it became clear this was no prank when the man pointed a gun at the couple and ordered them to get out of the car, which they did. They could see the man was wearing a white cloth hood, like a pillowcase, over his face, with holes cut out for the eyes.
Once the two were out of the car, the man ordered Jimmy to take off his pants, so he did. The man then hit him twice with his pistol, cracking his skull open and knocking him unconscious.
Larey, thinking this was a robbery, tried to show the man Hollis’ wallet, to show him they had no money. But the man instead hit her over the head with a blunt object (possibly the gun).
He then ordered her to run. She fled towards a ditch near the treeline for cover.
But then he told her to run another direction. She obeyed and headed towards a nearby car, hoping to find help. But the car was empty.
The attacker caught up to her and, strangely, asked her why she was running. When she answered, “Because you told me to,” he called her a liar and knocked her down. He then sexually assaulted her with the gun.
Afterwards, Larey fled to a nearby house to get help. Hollis, meanwhile, had come to and flagged down a passing car for help as well. He had suffered multiple skull fractures and was in the hospital for several days.
When they recounted their attack to the police, there were a few inconsistencies between their stories. Hollis, who admitted he didn’t see the man very clearly, thought he was probably white, or maybe a light-skinned black man. Larey, who had been much closer to the attacker, said he was black.
Seizing on these inconsistencies, the police suspected the couple weren’t telling the truth — that they knew their attacker and were lying to protect him. The attack was chalked up to revenge.
Then, early on the morning of March 24, a motorist found a car parked at the end of Rich Road, another secluded lover’s lane. Inside, he saw the bodies of 29-year-old Richard Griffin and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore.
Griffin was between the front seats, on his knees, with his head resting on his crossed hands. His pockets had been turned inside out. Moore was lying face-down in the back seat. Both were fully clothed.
Both of the victims had been shot once in the back of the head; Griffin appeared to have been shot twice while he was still in the car. Blood, now sticky, had flowed out the floorboard of the car and over the running boards. Nearby was a patch of disturbed, bloody ground, implying a struggle. The police also found a .32 cartridge shell at the scene, most likely from a Colt automatic pistol.
There was at least a basic post-mortem examination done on the bodies, because it showed that Moore was, according to her father, the victim of a sexual assault. But because of the stigma attached to that crime, it was kept out of the papers (though not the rumor mill). However, the bodies weren’t examined by a pathologist — or at least, there aren’t any reports that would indicate they were.
Police launched a citywide investigation, along with the Texas and Arkansas city police, Miller and Cass County sheriffs’ departments, and the FBI. They interviewed dozens of witnesses, including customers and employees of Club Dallas, a bar near the crime scene. By the end of March, police had posted a $500 reward for information that would lead them to the killer.
But they couldn’t tie anyone to the murders.
Hollis and Larey insisted that the killer was probably the same man who had attacked them, but they were ignored.
Three weeks after the murders of Griffin and Moore, 15-year-old saxophonist Betty Jo Booker was getting a ride home from her longtime friend, Paul Martin, who was 16. She had been playing with her band at the local VFW, and the gig had gone long into the early morning hours of April 14. When Booker got into Martin’s car, it was the last time either of them would be seen alive.
A few hours later, just before dawn, some travelers who were driving through Texarkana saw a young man lying on his side on North Park Road. As they approached, they could see something was very wrong. The young man had been shot multiple times — once in the face, once in the hand, once in the back, and once through the back of his neck. The weapon used was a .32 Colt automatic pistol — the same kind used in the Griffin/Moore murders.
As police searched the area, they noticed a bloody area further down the road near a fence — again, pointing to a struggle. But they didn’t find Booker’s body until about 11:30 a.m., almost two miles away from where Martin was found. She was lying on her back, fully clothed, her coat buttoned up to her neck and her hand in one of her coat pockets — a strange position that most likely was staged. She had been shot twice — once in the chest and once in the face — with a .32.
Martin’s car was found another two miles away with the keys still in it. Booker’s saxophone, however, was nowhere to be found.
Forensic examinations of the bodies revealed they had both put up a struggle, and Booker had been sexually assaulted “in the same manner” as Moore.
Fear gripped the city. The whole town was put under a curfew, and businesses closed early. The reward fund grew to $1,700. Rumors about the killer’s identity circulated, both in the press and among the community. But no viable suspect had yet emerged. The press, seeing as how the killer was so elusive, dubbed him the Phantom Killer (or Slayer), and the murders were called the Moonlight Murders.
While many Texarkanians were worried about letting their teens stay out late or park in secluded areas, most still felt relatively safe in their homes. That is, until May 3, 1946.
Virgil and Katie Starks, both 36, lived on a large farm about 10 miles outside of town, on the Arkansas side. Virgil had been working hard that day, and in the evening, sat down in his chair to listen to the radio and read the paper. Katie gave him a heating pad for his back, then went to bed.
She said that she had a hard time falling to sleep that night. She said she thought she heard some noises outside, and told Virgil to turn down the radio.
That’s when she heard the sound of breaking glass. She ran into the living room to see what had happened, and that’s when she saw Virgil stand up, then fall back down into his chair. She ran to him and lifted up his head, which was covered in blood. He was already dead, shot twice in the back of his head.
Katie ran to the old crank phone in the kitchen to dial the police. But before she could make the call, two bullets caught her in the face, knocking several of her teeth out. Miraculously, she was still alive. And she heard the sound of someone cutting or tearing at the screen door, trying to come in.
In a panic, in pain and bleeding profusely, Katie ran away from the killer, first through the house and then out into the night. In only her nightgown, she ran across the highway to her sister’s house, only to find they weren’t home. Desperate, she ran another 50 yards down the road to some relatives’ house, where they were home. The relatives called neighbors, then the police.
What had been fear among the citizens of Texarkana turned into panic. Stores sold out of locks, blinds, and guns. People began nailing their windows shut, covering their windows with sheets and blankets, and making homemade booby traps on their doors and windows. Friends were warned not to go visiting without calling first for fear of being shot for an intruder.
Police investigations went into overdrive. They stationed undercover officers posing as lovers along secluded roads. They brought in a state-of-the-art radio system that allowed officers to talk to one another as well as with dispatch.
The newspapers ran a photo of the distinct flashlight the attacker left at the Starks’ farm. The reward fund ballooned to over $7,000. But still, no leads.
The Starks’ attack was pretty much immediately attributed to the Phantom Killer. However, there were some significant differences. First, these victims weren’t teens parked along a dark road; they were an adult couple at home. Then, there was the weapon used: in the previous attacks, the killer had used a .32 Colt automatic pistol. The Starks had been shot with a .22 rifle.
To this day, there is still a controversy around if these attacks were indeed perpetrated by the Phantom Killer. In fact, years later, a man facing execution in Texas confessed to the Starks’ attack, but it was never followed up on. The man (who wasn’t identified in the media) had actually worked for Virgil and lived on their farm at the time of the attacks.
Despite a massive police investigation, including the FBI, no one was ever definitively identified as the Phantom Killer. Several people came forward with false confessions, including a troubled young man who was attending the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, H.D. “Doodie” Tennison. In one of several suicide notes, he stated that he was the killer. But a friend of his knew that he couldn’t have done it, since they had been together playing cards the night of the Starks’ murder.
A criminal psychologist, Dr. Lapella, was brought in to create what we would call a criminal profile of the killer. Lapella stated that the killer was smart and methodical, and probably had military training. He described him as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” who would probably lead a normal life. And he thought that the killer was motivated by a “sexual perversion.”
But he dismissed the idea that the man could be black (based on nothing but his prejudice that a black man couldn’t be smart enough) or a veteran (on the grounds that if he had served, his “maniacal tendencies” would have become apparent). He also theorized that the killer wasn’t from Texarkana, despite his apparent knowledge of the area.
The police followed up on a couple promising leads, including a German veteran and a man who had tried to pawn a saxophone in Texas. But both were dead ends. Booker’s saxophone was eventually found not far from where her body was recovered.
The only lead that seemed promising came from a rookie Arkansas police officer. He noted that in two of the killings, the cars had been stolen before being abandoned. He was on patrol when he spotted a car that had been reported stolen on the night of the Griffin/Moore murders. He staked out the car, and soon, a young woman approached it. She was 21-year-old Peggy Swinney. She told the officers that she had recently gotten married to Youell Swinney, who was at that moment in Atlanta, Texas, trying to sell yet another stolen car. The officer got in contact with the Atlanta, Texas, police department, and indeed, they had a witness to Youell trying to sell a stolen car there. They brought the witness to a bus station, where a man in the crowd spotted him and tried to flee out the fire escape.
When he was arrested, he begged the officers not to shoot him. In the police car, he asked if he was going to get the electric chair. The officer said Youell wouldn’t get the chair for stealing cars. Youell responded, “Mr. Johnson, you got me for more than stealing cars.”
Back at the station, Peggy confessed that Youell was the Phantom Killer. Her confessions were quite detailed, and she knew things that were never reported in the news, such as the location of one victim’s address book, and which pocket it had been in. At one crime scene, she stated that she had walked into the woods while witnessing Youell murder his victims. There had been a woman’s heel print found at that scene.
It was also revealed that Youell had owned a .32 Colt automatic, but had sold it earlier. Police also found a workshirt at Youell’s home with the name “Stark” written on it.
But the law at the time stated that a wife could not be forced to testify against her husband. And Youell wasn’t saying anything. The police even tried using “truth serum” on him, but that only made him pass out.
Outside of Peggy’s testimony, the police had no real evidence against Youell. His prints didn’t match those at any of the crime scenes. No other witnesses could place him with the victims or near any of the crime scenes. And Peggy later recanted her testimony.
Without any firm evidence, police knew they couldn’t charge Youell Swinney with the murders. Instead, they added a “habitual offender” charge to his car theft charges, since he had indeed committed several car thefts and counterfeiting scams previously. This allowed the judge to give him the maximum sentence: life in prison. He was released in 1973, and died in a Dallas-area nursing home 20 years later.
The Moonlight Murders were one of the first modern serial killings in the U.S. The fact that the killer was never caught only made them all the more fascinating. Details of the case have become staples in urban legends and horror movie tropes: teens out late at night, necking at a secluded lover’s lane, have become the stereotypical victims in scores of horror movies since the 50s. So, too, has the masked killer become a horror-movie archetype. Some have even speculated that the Zodiac was inspired by the Phantom Killer.
The killings also inspired two movies: the first, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, was written and directed by Arkansas’ own Charles B. Pierce. Though it’s supposedly based on the true story, Pierce plays pretty fast and loose with the facts, embellishing the killings for shock value. Because it was so popular, some of the fictionalized scenes in the movie have become conflated with the real case. Then in 2014, Blumhouse Media released a meta-sequel of the same name, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Though it was inspired by the original case, it’s entirely fiction.
Despite its hold on both true-crime and horror-movie fans, there is little hope that the Moonlight Murders will ever be solved. What little evidence might have been gathered has long since been lost. And so, the killer has indeed become a phantom — never caught, never identified, and even though he is most likely dead, he lives on in nightmares, urban legends, and horror movies.