Longform

The Phantom Menace

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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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers