Longform

The Phantom Menace

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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."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers