Longform

The Phantom Menace

Page 5 of 8

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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers