Longform

The Phantom Menace

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"Max Tackett," Johnson recalls, "picked up on the fact that every time the Phantom struck, a car had been stolen, then later abandoned. In fact, on the night Betty Jo Booker was killed, a car was stolen from a friend of her parents, and a witness had come forward with the name of the man who drove it away."

In late June 1946, Tackett had staked out a downtown Texarkana parking lot where another stolen car had been abandoned and ultimately arrested a 21-year-old woman recently married to the man he was looking for--a local ex-convict with a lengthy record of burglary, counterfeiting, and car theft.

"She told us that he was over in Atlanta [Texas], trying to sell another car he'd stolen, so we notified the police there to keep an eye on him," Johnson says. "It wasn't long before they contacted us to say he was headed back to Texarkana."

On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in July, Tackett arrested the man in the downtown bus station.

"When we got him into the car," Johnson recalls, "he looked at me and asked if he was going to the electric chair. I laughed and told him we didn't execute people for stealing cars. That's when he said, 'Hell, I know what you guys want me for. You want me for more than stealing a car.'"

Reasonably certain the rail-thin 29-year-old was alluding to the Phantom murders, they took him to the Miller County (Arkansas) jail in hopes that he might soon confess to the crimes. Night after night, Johnson, Tackett, and Sheriff Presley took turns grilling the high-school dropout without success.

Frustrated, the officers turned their attention to his wife, who told them a frightening story of how Martin and Booker had been murdered in Spring Lake Park: She and the man in custody had just returned to Texarkana from a visit to Dallas and had stopped in town to see a movie and purchase beer. Then, they had driven out to the park to "get drunk and rob somebody." She told of watching as the terrified young couple were forced from their car at gunpoint and taken into the nearby woods. Later, she admitted, she heard a quick series of gunshots.

"Sheriff Presley wanted to take her out to the park and see if she could show us where the murders had taken place, and she agreed," Johnson remembers. "She couldn't locate the exact spot, but got pretty close. Once we got her back in the car, the sheriff asked her if her husband had robbed Martin. She acknowledged that she remembered him taking some things out of the boy's pocket and then tossing them away in a nearby ditch.

"What very few people knew at the time," Johnson says, "was that a small date book belonging to Martin had been found in a washed-out area not too far from his body." The woman also recalled her husband tossing Booker's still-missing saxophone from the car as they'd driven back toward town. It was later recovered in the area she had described.

Although polygraph exams had only recently become an investigative tool and were still viewed with considerable skepticism, the woman was taken to Austin, where she was administered a test. Results indicated she had been truthful in her description of the events in Spring Lake Park.

What authorities had, then, was an interesting circumstantial evidence case but, since law prohibited a wife from testifying against a husband if she did not wish to, very little that would attract the genuine interest of a prosecutor. "The only way we were going to close the case," Johnson says, "was with a confession."

Even when told what his wife had said, the suspect refused to talk. "Then, one night, out of the blue, he says, 'OK, I'll tell you all about it.' But by the time we got everything ready to take his confession, he'd changed his mind."

It was then, Johnson remembers, that the decision was made to take the suspect to Little Rock, where he would be injected with sodium pentothal (truth serum) and questioned. "That was the biggest mistake we ever made," he says. "We got him there, and the doctor injected him with too much of the stuff, knocking him out cold."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers