The Phantom Menace

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Thereafter, the suspect never spoke of the murders again. Ultimately, he was tried for the car theft and, since he'd had two previous convictions, was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual criminal.

Then in 1973, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that he'd not received adequate representation by his attorney during an arraignment on a 1941 auto-theft charge, and he was paroled. A year later, however, he was back behind bars, this time convicted in Dallas of counterfeiting quarters and half-dollars, which he was passing off as collector's items. Sentenced to a two-year prison term, there was a twist of irony attached--he was assigned to serve his time in the Texarkana federal correction facility. His sentence served, he was again released and returned to Dallas.

"Max was always sure he was the man we were looking for," Johnson says. "And I've always been convinced that he killed the Booker girl and her boyfriend. What we did back then was everything we could think of to prove that he wasn't guilty, and we were never able to."

Quietly looking at the old files that have been a part of his life for so long, Johnson shakes his head as the memories rush back. "I guess," he says, "that since he's dead now, there's no reason you can't say who he was." And with that, he acknowledges the name of the man he believes created such terror more than a half-century ago.

Youell Lee Swinney, son of a local lay minister, had been in trouble with the law since the time he was a teen-ager. In the years immediately preceding his arrest, Swinney had earned his living stealing cars, then driving people to destinations throughout the United States. (In wartime, it had become common for people to share rationing stamps for gas and pay the driver a modest fee for providing transportation.)

Texarkana realtor Mark Bledsoe, a 37-year-old former probation officer who began researching the case in the early '90s with thoughts of writing a book, agrees with Johnson. "I am at least 99 percent convinced that he did the majority of the murders credited to the Phantom," he says. On the other hand, he notes that he has good reason to believe that the man who killed Virgil Starks was a local serviceman who had just returned to Texarkana in '46. "The last I heard of him was that he was residing in a mental institution in Milwaukee," Bledsoe says.

It was after hearing from several retired law enforcement officers, including Johnson, that the prime suspect in the historic case had been Swinney, that Bledsoe took advantage of his contacts in the Department of Pardons & Parole and began his own search for the Phantom. In 1992, he discovered that Swinney was still in Dallas, living at a Lemmon Avenue halfway house. "I was up there on business one day and, before heading home, I went by the address," he remembers. "As I approached the house, there was this old man, frail and bent over, standing in the yard, wearing a big cowboy hat. We nodded at each other as I passed.

"Inside, when I asked for Youell Swinney, the lady in charge said he wasn't in but could usually be found walking around outside. She told me he wouldn't be hard to find since he always wore a cowboy hat."

Racing outside in search of the man he'd seen only minutes earlier, Bledsoe couldn't find him. "I looked for him for quite a while, and it was like he'd just disappeared." The alleged Phantom, it seemed, was still eluding his trackers. "Since I was pressed for time that day, I decided I'd just come back on my next trip to Dallas."

By the time Bledsoe returned later that year, Swinney had suffered a stroke and was wheelchair-bound, residing in a rest home. "I did talk to him for a while," Bledsoe says, "and he spent some time bragging about his counterfeiting days and talking about being in and out of prison. But when I asked him about the Phantom murders, he became angry and denied that he'd had anything to do with them. He even refused to admit that he'd ever been married."

A year later, at 76, Youell Swinney died.

For the aging Johnson, the case is rarely far from mind. "Over the years," he says, "people have gotten in touch with me about things they thought might be of interest." The most recent contact came in February 1999, when he learned that the brother of Phantom victim Paul Martin had received a strange phone call at his Kilgore home. "Actually, it was his wife who took the call," Johnson says as he looks over his notes. "She said a soft-voiced woman who sounded like she was in the late '40s or early '50s asked if her husband had a brother murdered in Texarkana back in the '40s. When she said he had, the caller said, 'Please tell your husband that I want to apologize for what my father did.'" Then the caller hung up.
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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers