Longform

The Phantom Menace

Page 3 of 8

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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers