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.