The Phantom Menace
TEXARKANA--The enduring legend began not with death, but with a frightening and vicious attack on two young lovers who managed to survive.
On a February night in 1946, 24-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his girlfriend Mary Jeanne Larey, 19, had attended a downtown movie, then decided to prolong the evening with a romantic visit to a secluded lane on the edge of town. They had, according to the story the young woman would later tell authorities, been parked no more than 10 minutes, when a man, his face hidden beneath a white hood, approached the car, pointing a flashlight and pistol at them.
She would recall the assailant telling her boyfriend, "I don't want to kill you, fella, so do what I say." He then ordered both of them out of the car, angrily demanding that Hollis remove his trousers. Then, with the young man clad only in his boxer shorts, the attacker hit him twice in the head, knocking him unconscious. When Larey tearfully tried to convince the gunman that they had no money, even pulling a billfold from her date's discarded pants to show him, she, too, was struck in the head. Bleeding and dazed, her screams echoed through the woods as the man then sexually assaulted her with the barrel of his gun.
It was when Hollis began to regain consciousness that her attacker's attention was diverted long enough for the young woman to get to her feet and run. The intruder quickly caught up to her and hit her in the head again. "I remember looking up at him and saying, 'Go ahead and kill me,'" she later said. Then, for reasons she would never know, the masked man suddenly turned away and disappeared into the darkness.
Though badly injured, Hollis managed to make his way to a main road and flag down a passing car. Larey, meanwhile, had run to a nearby house, where she pounded on the door until a farmer woke, let her inside, and telephoned the sheriff.
After receiving medical attention--Larey needed stitches to close her wounds; Hollis was hospitalized for several weeks with two severe skull fractures--the victims could only describe their attacker as "thin and approximately 6 feet tall." Neither had recognized his voice or seen the face hidden behind the mask.
Today, more than a half-century later, that event is looked back on as the precursor of a nightmare that would long terrorize this quiet East Texas railroad center. In the weeks following the attack on Hollis and Larey, five murders would occur in its rural shadows, prompting one of the most intense manhunts in the state's history. Twice, on moonlit nights, an unknown assailant interrupted young lovers, leaving them brutalized and dead. On another evening, a farmer sitting in his living room, reading the newspaper before retiring, was shot through a nearby window.
The city became paralyzed by fear, its citizens wondering if yet another attack would come before an arrest was made and calm restored. Elsewhere, a safe-distance fascination quickly grew as law enforcement searched for the person the media had begun calling the "Phantom Killer."
The story--which long screamed from newspaper headlines and the pages of such magazines as Life and Time, even ultimately earning the attention of Hollywood--never reached a conclusion. While the lone surviving law enforcement officer involved in the investigation believes he knows the identity of the man responsible for the crimes, they officially remain unsolved. Next month, in fact, cable television's The Learning Channel will begin a series it has tentatively titled "Famous Unsolved Serial Murders in History." Among those on the list are the Green River killings in the Seattle area, London's historic Jack the Ripper murders, the still-controversial Boston Strangler case, and the infamous terror reign of the Texarkana Phantom Killer, a man whose deeds have haunted many to this day.
For the residents of this geographically unique city, half of which sits on the Texas side of the border, the other on the Arkansas side, it was a time of bright new hope. The war had finally ended, and jobs were still plentiful at the local munitions plants despite peace. For this Bowie County hamlet, known for its tall pines and tangled ropes of honeysuckle and lantana, prosperity loomed. It was a more gentle time, when people sat on their front porches in the evenings; on warm nights, people slept with their doors unlocked and their windows raised.
If not idyllic, it was about as close as a city of 40,000 could hope to get. At least that's how Dallas forensic psychologist Dr. James Grigson remembers it. Now 69, there is a lilt to his voice as he fondly recalls a Texarkana boyhood that included weekend visits to the double features being shown at the downtown Paramount or Strand, a quarter all that was needed for bus fare, admission, and a large box of popcorn. Two of his childhood buddies--Bobby McClure and Mitchell Young--were even featured on the cover of Life magazine after it was determined they had earned more merit badges than any other U.S. Boy Scouts.
All of that changed when the killings began. In a nightmarish period in 1946, spanning the end of March through early May, the five brutal homicides gave rise to fear and suspicion. Residents bought guns and locked their doors. Wives of men who worked evening shifts at the Lone Star Arsenal assembled their children and took up nightly residence in the downtown Grim Hotel. The local Western Union office suspended after-dark delivery of telegrams when shots were fired at an employee as he approached a residence. Suggestion of a curfew met with little argument. Law enforcement officials from throughout the state came running. Heading the investigation was legendary Texas Ranger captain, M.T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas.
"There was a kind of mass fear that I've not seen since," says Grigson, who was 14 at the time. "The murders were all the adults talked about. And while the kids didn't read the paper much or listen to the news on the radio, we heard what our parents were saying."
Saying and reading, for close behind the law enforcement came the nation's fascinated media. Wrote Kenneth Dixon, a columnist assigned to chronicle the case for the New York-based International News Service, "I have arrived in Texarkana, the home of the Phantom Slayer, and the hair is rising on my neck."
In the wake of the traumatic February attack, Mary Jeanne Larey's attempts to sleep were routinely interrupted by bad dreams, reminders of the horror she and her boyfriend had experienced. Fearful that her assailant might again seek her out, she talked of leaving Texarkana to live with relatives in Oklahoma. It was, in fact, a second "lovers lane" attack, even more horrifying than her own, that convinced her to make the move.
On March 24, just a month after she and Hollis were assaulted, the legend of the Phantom Killer began to take its ugly form.
A heavy rain was falling that early Sunday morning when a motorist nearing the Texarkana city limits noticed an Oldsmobile sedan parked on a dirt lane near U.S. Highway 67. Thinking that someone was stuck in the muddy ruts the rains had created, he slowed and drove close enough to see that two people were in the car. It looked as if they might be asleep.
What he would soon learn was that Richard Griffin, 29 and recently discharged from the Navy, and Polly Ann Moore, a 17-year-old employee at the Red River Arsenal, were dead. Griffin's body lay awkwardly in the front seat, his hands still over his face. The pockets of his trousers were turned inside out, indicating a robbery had taken place. He had been shot twice in the head.
Moore's body lay facedown on a blanket in the back seat, her opened purse beside her, a ring signifying that she had recently graduated from nearby Atlanta (Texas) High School still on her finger. Noting a pool of blood in the damp, sandy loam 20 feet away, investigators concluded that she had likely been killed there, her body then placed back inside the car.
Yet, aside from several shell casings from a .32-caliber pistol located near the murder scene, investigators found little evidence. The rains, which continued throughout the day the bodies were found, had washed away footprints and made it all but impossible to locate any fingerprints on the exterior of the car.
"It was not until the first murders occurred," says Texarkana's 71-year-old Dr. James Presley, a lifelong student of the dark episode in his hometown's history, "that people in law enforcement began to put the attack on Mary Jeanne Larey and Jimmy Hollis and the deaths of Griffin and Moore together." Sixteen at the time of the homicides, Presley, author of six nonfiction books, notes that his uncle--Bill Presley--was the Bowie County Sheriff at the time. "He was involved in the investigation from the start. But he rarely spoke about it in his later years. What I was able to determine was that neither he nor anyone else initially thought the first attack was that extraordinary. While Texarkana in the '40s was a great place to live, it did have its share of violent crime--Saturday night shootings, bar stabbings, those sorts of things. So, what happened early on wasn't something that turned the local law enforcement world upside-down.
"That came after the first double murder. And it got much worse in the weeks that followed."
Fifteen-year-old Betty Jo Booker was among Texarkana's best and brightest, a high school junior with a straight-A average, a gift for music, and aspirations to one day be a hospital technician. Additionally, she played alto saxophone in a local dance band called the Rhythmaires.
On Saturday night, April 13, the band made its regular appearance at the local VFW Hall, playing its final number just before 1 a.m. Normally, an adult band member would escort Booker home, but on that night, she had been invited to an all-night slumber party, and a former classmate named Paul Martin, 16, had agreed to pick her up and drive her across town to the party. First, however, they stopped off at Spring Lake Park, then a popular "parking" spot among teen-agers.
They would become the third and fourth murder victims of the Phantom Killer. Though the term had not yet entered the American vernacular, a serial killer was on the loose.
The following morning, Martin was found by a family taking a shortcut through the park en route to Prescott, Arkansas. Seeing the young man's body lying beside the road, the travelers sped to a nearby house and alerted those living there to phone the authorities. When Sheriff Presley and several deputies arrived, they saw that Martin had been shot four times--in his neck, face, chest, and shoulder, apparently with a .32-caliber pistol.
Immediately, a search party was organized to locate Betty Jo Booker. It was shortly before noon when her body was found in a grove of trees, a mile away from where Martin had been killed. Fully clothed and wearing an overcoat that was still buttoned, she had been shot in the chest and face.
Martin's car was found another mile away, parked near a railroad crossing, the keys still in the ignition. Miss Booker's saxophone was missing.
Even before the funerals for the popular teen-agers were conducted, a reward fund that would eventually grow to more than $5,000 had been established, and a half-dozen Texas Rangers, led by the flamboyant Gonzaullas, were in town to join the investigation.
In the lobby of the downtown Grim Hotel, the nattily dressed Ranger regularly met with the growing number of reporters in town to chronicle the investigation, vowing it would soon successfully end. His display of confidence was apparently overshadowed only by the colorful--and by today's measure, outrageous--quotes given to members of the media. According to a Texarkana Gazette article written years later, former editor J.Q. Mahaffey recalled a radio interviewer asking what advice Gonzaullas would give to the city's apprehensive citizens. His response: "I'd tell them to check the locks and bolts on their doors and get a double-barreled shotgun to take care of any intruders who tried to get in." He reportedly ended each interview with a vow that he would not leave Texarkana until the murders were solved. "I remember him telling me that one time," ex-deputy Tillman Johnson recalls, "and I asked him if he'd thought about checking out the real estate market for a house to buy. He didn't think I was very funny."
Very little was at the time. Townspeople, remembers Dr. Presley, were aware that the murders of the two couples had occurred exactly three weeks apart. Then, shortly before 9 o'clock on a Friday night--20 days after the previous murders--36-year-old Miller County farmer Virgil Starks sat in his living room, a heating pad pressed against an aching back, reading the newspaper. His wife, Katy, already in her nightgown, was in the bedroom, listening to the radio when two quick shots interrupted the rural quiet.
Fired through a window, both shots struck the back of Starks' head. Mrs. Starks entered the living room to find her husband slumped in his chair and ran for the phone. Before she could dial the number of the sheriff's department, two more shots rang out. One bullet struck her in the cheek, exiting behind her ear; another hit her in the lower jaw, splintering several teeth on impact and lodging beneath her tongue. In shock and bleeding badly, she became aware of the assailant breaking a kitchen window in the back of the house.
Fleeing through the front door, she ran to the safety of a neighbor's house less than 100 yards away.
Even before she had been taken to the hospital for treatment, state, county, and city officers had made the 10-mile trip to the Starks farmhouse. Although the details of the crime were far different from the murders of the local youths, the death of Virgil Starks was immediately attributed to the notorious Phantom Killer.
For the first time, clues had been left behind. Bloody footprints had been left in the living room where Starks' body had fallen from the chair onto the floor. It appeared the assailant had even stopped to rub a hand through the pool of blood that had collected near Starks' head before leaving through the front door. Bloodhounds, brought to the scene from Arkansas State Police headquarters in Hope, Arkansas, followed the killer's scent to the nearby highway, then lost it a half-mile from the Starks house. Crime scene investigators, meanwhile, located spent .22 cartridges and bullet holes in the window near where Starks had died. The shots, they determined, had been fired from only a few feet away.
Additionally, the killer had apparently dropped a red-handled flashlight while making his retreat.
A few days later, the Texarkana Gazette, eager to help with the investigation, would mark its place in newspaper history when it published a color photograph of the flashlight. Journalism historians would later point to it as the first time color had ever appeared in a daily newspaper. While there had been no evidence that anyone other than Mary Jeanne Larey had been sexually assaulted during the crime spree, the Gazette's headline read, "Sex Maniac Hunted in Murders."
Despite the public outcry, weary investigators soon found themselves back at square one. "My uncle had known Virgil Starks well, had gone to school with him," Dr. Presley says, "and because of that, he took his death very personally. And like everyone else involved in the investigation, he became very frustrated. He was quoted in the paper at the time, saying 'This killer is the luckiest person I've ever known about. No one sees him, hears him in time, or can identify him in any way.'"
The only good news was that the killings abruptly ended after Starks' death.
Questions bred questions. Would the Phantom strike again? And what kind of man could commit such crimes?
Dr. Grigson, who has interviewed and studied hundreds of murderers during his lengthy career, recently reviewed the facts of the crimes that occurred in his boyhood back yard and offered his thoughts: "The first three attacks," he says, "were obviously committed by someone with a psychopathic personality.
"The attacker was not only cold-blooded but obviously very angry. I suspect a great deal of that anger had to do with rejection he felt from women and, very likely, hostility toward males who had accomplished more with their lives than he had. And while there was apparently a degree of sexual abuse in at least one of the cases, these were not the traditional sex crimes. The killer wasn't in search of sexual gratification. He was venting an incredible degree of anger."
It is, he says, highly unlikely that the same person committed the murder of Virgil Starks. "That one," Grigson surmises, "was either a copycat killing or done by someone with some kind of personal grudge against Starks or his wife."
The greatest difficulty faced by investigators in 1946, he suggests, was that they lacked much of the sophisticated crime-detecting equipment and forensic knowledge now routinely applied to investigations. "I seriously doubt crimes of this nature would go unsolved in today's law enforcement atmosphere," he says.
Back then, however, lawmen had no expertly produced "profiles" to suggest who they might look for. Still, rumors of suspects ran rampant, and hundreds of dead-end leads were investigated. The son of a prominent Texarkana family was abruptly sent off to boarding school, causing whispered speculation that he was being hidden from law enforcement. That the murders ceased after he left only fueled gossip that he was responsible for the crimes. Calls even came in suggesting that a local policeman--and a downtown feed-store owner, and a gas-station attendant--might have committed the crimes. A German prisoner of war was questioned. One disgruntled taxpayer phoned to suggest that a local agent for the Internal Revenue Service had committed the murders. Virtually, anyone walking the streets after dark was stopped by police and interrogated.
And, of course, there was a steady stream of "confessions." Among the confessors was a Missouri Pacific section hand who wrote to the governor, admitting to the killings--and also challenged FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and President Harry Truman to duels. An 18-year-old University of Arkansas student took his own life, leaving a note confessing to the Texarkana murders. Investigators were never able to link the teen-ager, who had suffered from mental problems for some time, to the crimes.
Late one spring evening, Tillman Johnson remembers, he received an urgent call from the police chief in Shreveport, urging that he get there as quickly as possible. An out-of-town patron of one of the city's bars, the deputy was told, had just admitted to the Phantom murders. The man had been talking about the crimes throughout a boozy evening, unaware that among his drinking companions was a reporter from the local newspaper. Seeing the possibility of the story of a lifetime, the journalist had begun buying the man drinks. Finally, in response to the generosity, the stranger had told, in detail, how he had committed the crimes. The reporter then telephoned the police, and the man was soon arrested.
Excited about the prospect of seeing the killer who had so terrorized his community, Johnson drove immediately to Shreveport and raced to the jail. Behind bars, smiling at him, was a man he had known since childhood. Reeking of whiskey, the prisoner called out the deputy's name as he approached.
Clearly angered, Johnson demanded an explanation. His old friend only shrugged. "I was in this bar, and my money ran out," he said. "There was this young fella there... really interested in all this Phantom Killer stuff... so, what the hell, I figured if I told him a good story, he'd keep buying the drinks."
The deputy did not share in the laughter that erupted from inside the cell. Turning to the police chief, Johnson said, "Let him sober up, then turn him loose. He's not our man."
"Who the hell is he?" the bewildered Shreveport officer asked.
Johnson replied as he turned to walk away: "He's our town drunk."
False hope plagued the investigation for weeks. "One evening," Johnson recalls, "we got this call that there was someone prowling around out at the Starks house. Thinking maybe the killer had decided to return to the scene of the crime, we took off out there."
What they found upon their arrival was the publicity-loving Ranger, Gonzaullas, inside the house, posing at the crime scene for a Time magazine photographer.
Finally, as weeks passed with no apparent progress in the cases, the media began checking out of the Grim Hotel, off to other stories in other places. Lone Wolf Gonzaullas and the other Rangers left after spending three unsuccessful months working on the case. While local authorities continued to assign manpower to the investigation, the Phantom Killer quietly disappeared from the local headlines. Slowly, life in Texarkana returned to normal. In time, the fear of darkness began to wane.
"One of the things we kept doing long after the killings ended," says Johnson, "was to patrol the country roads where youngsters continued to go parking, despite all the warnings we'd been giving. One night, around midnight, I was driving down this dirt road and came up on a couple. I walked up to their car and tapped on the window and said, 'Don't you kids know that you could get yourselves killed being out here this time of night?'
"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."
In the half-century that has passed, the Phantom killings have taken on an urban-legend quality. In the retelling, the story has become a mixture of myth and fact. There are, for instance, those in Texarkana who are now wrongly convinced that each of the murders occurred on the night of a full moon. Despite little proof at the time, the attacks are today generally remembered as a series of perverted sex crimes. It's not difficult to find someone who still believes a mysterious, unnamed hobo jumped into the path of a passing train, taking the secrets of the Phantom to his gruesome death, when the truth is that the man, Earl McSpadden, had actually been stabbed to death and his body thrown onto the tracks. Theories are now cheap in Texarkana if you're in the market. Mostly, though, it is forgotten--or at least blurred--history. Today, there are no files on the cases in either the police or sheriff's departments in Texas or Arkansas.
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.
"What very few people knew at the time," Johnson says, "was that a small date book belonging to Martin had been found in a washed-out area not too far from his body." The woman also recalled her husband tossing Booker's still-missing saxophone from the car as they'd driven back toward town. It was later recovered in the area she had described.
Although polygraph exams had only recently become an investigative tool and were still viewed with considerable skepticism, the woman was taken to Austin, where she was administered a test. Results indicated she had been truthful in her description of the events in Spring Lake Park.
What authorities had, then, was an interesting circumstantial evidence case but, since law prohibited a wife from testifying against a husband if she did not wish to, very little that would attract the genuine interest of a prosecutor. "The only way we were going to close the case," Johnson says, "was with a confession."
Even when told what his wife had said, the suspect refused to talk. "Then, one night, out of the blue, he says, 'OK, I'll tell you all about it.' But by the time we got everything ready to take his confession, he'd changed his mind."
It was then, Johnson remembers, that the decision was made to take the suspect to Little Rock, where he would be injected with sodium pentothal (truth serum) and questioned. "That was the biggest mistake we ever made," he says. "We got him there, and the doctor injected him with too much of the stuff, knocking him out cold."
Thereafter, the suspect never spoke of the murders again. Ultimately, he was tried for the car theft and, since he'd had two previous convictions, was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual criminal.
Then in 1973, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that he'd not received adequate representation by his attorney during an arraignment on a 1941 auto-theft charge, and he was paroled. A year later, however, he was back behind bars, this time convicted in Dallas of counterfeiting quarters and half-dollars, which he was passing off as collector's items. Sentenced to a two-year prison term, there was a twist of irony attached--he was assigned to serve his time in the Texarkana federal correction facility. His sentence served, he was again released and returned to Dallas.
"Max was always sure he was the man we were looking for," Johnson says. "And I've always been convinced that he killed the Booker girl and her boyfriend. What we did back then was everything we could think of to prove that he wasn't guilty, and we were never able to."
Quietly looking at the old files that have been a part of his life for so long, Johnson shakes his head as the memories rush back. "I guess," he says, "that since he's dead now, there's no reason you can't say who he was." And with that, he acknowledges the name of the man he believes created such terror more than a half-century ago.
Youell Lee Swinney, son of a local lay minister, had been in trouble with the law since the time he was a teen-ager. In the years immediately preceding his arrest, Swinney had earned his living stealing cars, then driving people to destinations throughout the United States. (In wartime, it had become common for people to share rationing stamps for gas and pay the driver a modest fee for providing transportation.)
Texarkana realtor Mark Bledsoe, a 37-year-old former probation officer who began researching the case in the early '90s with thoughts of writing a book, agrees with Johnson. "I am at least 99 percent convinced that he did the majority of the murders credited to the Phantom," he says. On the other hand, he notes that he has good reason to believe that the man who killed Virgil Starks was a local serviceman who had just returned to Texarkana in '46. "The last I heard of him was that he was residing in a mental institution in Milwaukee," Bledsoe says.
It was after hearing from several retired law enforcement officers, including Johnson, that the prime suspect in the historic case had been Swinney, that Bledsoe took advantage of his contacts in the Department of Pardons & Parole and began his own search for the Phantom. In 1992, he discovered that Swinney was still in Dallas, living at a Lemmon Avenue halfway house. "I was up there on business one day and, before heading home, I went by the address," he remembers. "As I approached the house, there was this old man, frail and bent over, standing in the yard, wearing a big cowboy hat. We nodded at each other as I passed.
"Inside, when I asked for Youell Swinney, the lady in charge said he wasn't in but could usually be found walking around outside. She told me he wouldn't be hard to find since he always wore a cowboy hat."
Racing outside in search of the man he'd seen only minutes earlier, Bledsoe couldn't find him. "I looked for him for quite a while, and it was like he'd just disappeared." The alleged Phantom, it seemed, was still eluding his trackers. "Since I was pressed for time that day, I decided I'd just come back on my next trip to Dallas."
By the time Bledsoe returned later that year, Swinney had suffered a stroke and was wheelchair-bound, residing in a rest home. "I did talk to him for a while," Bledsoe says, "and he spent some time bragging about his counterfeiting days and talking about being in and out of prison. But when I asked him about the Phantom murders, he became angry and denied that he'd had anything to do with them. He even refused to admit that he'd ever been married."
A year later, at 76, Youell Swinney died.
For the aging Johnson, the case is rarely far from mind. "Over the years," he says, "people have gotten in touch with me about things they thought might be of interest." The most recent contact came in February 1999, when he learned that the brother of Phantom victim Paul Martin had received a strange phone call at his Kilgore home. "Actually, it was his wife who took the call," Johnson says as he looks over his notes. "She said a soft-voiced woman who sounded like she was in the late '40s or early '50s asked if her husband had a brother murdered in Texarkana back in the '40s. When she said he had, the caller said, 'Please tell your husband that I want to apologize for what my father did.'" Then the caller hung up.
At Johnson's request, a retired Texas Ranger living in Kilgore was contacted. The Ranger attempted to determine the origin of the call but was unsuccessful.
"It was almost a year later that I heard virtually the same story again," Johnson says. "I was in church one morning, and someone came up to me after the service and mentioned something about my having been involved in the investigation of the Phantom Killer cases. A nephew of Virgil Starks was a member of our congregation and obviously overheard the conversation. He came over and began telling me how his mother had received virtually the same call. He said she'd not paid much attention to it, figuring it was just some sick prankster."
Perhaps she was right. Nowhere in Johnson's faded records or the research conducted by Bledsoe or Dr. Presley is there indication that Youell Swinney, so long pointed to as the prime suspect, ever had a daughter. Thus those strange and belated calls are legitimate cause to wonder if, in fact, Swinney's lifelong insistence that he had not committed the murders might have been the truth after all.
Those who wish to argue his innocence often point to a night in October 1946--while Swinney was in jail, being questioned about the Texarkana murders that had occurred months earlier--when a young couple was slain while parked on a secluded oceanside road near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Just as with the "lovers lane" victims in Texas, they, too, had been shot with a .32-caliber pistol. Like the Phantom, the killer simply vanished; the case never was solved.
Maybe, it is suggested, the long-ago terror that visited Texarkana, sparking fear and frustration, dark secrets and discomforting memories, abruptly ended only because the person responsible for it had simply decided to move to new hunting grounds. Such speculation, of course, continues to enhance the legend.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Margaret Hunt Hill's Heirs Are Still Fighting About Money, Making Judge Sad
- Downtown Dallas Inc. Says There Aren't Enough Cops Downtown, Asks For More
- I'll Eat Crow for Calling West Dallas "Nowhere," but that Bridge Is Still Stupid