By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"This young girl just smiled at me and replied, 'Don't you know you could have gotten yourself killed?' And with that she raised this big ol' pistol to the car window."
This makes the memories of Tillman Johnson all the more valuable. Johnson, who will turn 90 in May, is now the lone surviving member of the massive investigative team that worked on the 1946 cases. Although he'd not been released from the Army to return to his deputy's position until shortly before the Starks murder, it was the death of Betty Jo Booker and her boyfriend that has always troubled him. He and Booker's mother had grown up together in Stamps, Arkansas, and had remained friends, regularly seeing each other in the courthouse, where she had worked before he went into the service.
Spread across the dining-room table of his Texarkana home are files on the case--everything from crime scene photos and field notes made by dozens of fellow officers to yellowed newspaper clippings and his own hand-written reports from the time. Someday, he says, the material he's kept might help to finally prove what he's known for more than a half-century: the identity of the Phantom Killer. It was Johnson who, along with then-rookie Arkansas state trooper Max Tackett, most likely arrested the man who committed the "lovers lane" murders. Like Dr. Grigson, Johnson remains convinced the death of Virgil Starks was the responsibility of someone else.
"Max Tackett," Johnson recalls, "picked up on the fact that every time the Phantom struck, a car had been stolen, then later abandoned. In fact, on the night Betty Jo Booker was killed, a car was stolen from a friend of her parents, and a witness had come forward with the name of the man who drove it away."
In late June 1946, Tackett had staked out a downtown Texarkana parking lot where another stolen car had been abandoned and ultimately arrested a 21-year-old woman recently married to the man he was looking for--a local ex-convict with a lengthy record of burglary, counterfeiting, and car theft.
"She told us that he was over in Atlanta [Texas], trying to sell another car he'd stolen, so we notified the police there to keep an eye on him," Johnson says. "It wasn't long before they contacted us to say he was headed back to Texarkana."
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in July, Tackett arrested the man in the downtown bus station.
"When we got him into the car," Johnson recalls, "he looked at me and asked if he was going to the electric chair. I laughed and told him we didn't execute people for stealing cars. That's when he said, 'Hell, I know what you guys want me for. You want me for more than stealing a car.'"
Reasonably certain the rail-thin 29-year-old was alluding to the Phantom murders, they took him to the Miller County (Arkansas) jail in hopes that he might soon confess to the crimes. Night after night, Johnson, Tackett, and Sheriff Presley took turns grilling the high-school dropout without success.
Frustrated, the officers turned their attention to his wife, who told them a frightening story of how Martin and Booker had been murdered in Spring Lake Park: She and the man in custody had just returned to Texarkana from a visit to Dallas and had stopped in town to see a movie and purchase beer. Then, they had driven out to the park to "get drunk and rob somebody." She told of watching as the terrified young couple were forced from their car at gunpoint and taken into the nearby woods. Later, she admitted, she heard a quick series of gunshots.
"Sheriff Presley wanted to take her out to the park and see if she could show us where the murders had taken place, and she agreed," Johnson remembers. "She couldn't locate the exact spot, but got pretty close. Once we got her back in the car, the sheriff asked her if her husband had robbed Martin. She acknowledged that she remembered him taking some things out of the boy's pocket and then tossing them away in a nearby ditch.
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