In the spring of 1946, someone shot eight people in the Texarkana, Texas area, of which five were killed. Many of the victims were young couples in cars looking for an isolated area to be alone. Dubbed the Phantom Killer by the media, he usually attacked in three-week intervals, and then only on the weekend, late at night. This method inspired another nickname for the killings, the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. Local residents were terrified and many nailed their windows shut and purchased firearms. Every weekend, the city would basically shut down at dusk, becoming a virtual ghost town.
Many suspects were rounded up, some even confessed, but no evidence was ever found to corroborate any of their statements. It is widely believed that the Phantom Killer is the inspiration for the urban legend about the killer with a hook hand preying on teens making out in parked cars. The real killer didn’t have a hook for a hand but he was just as scary. The first two victims, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey, survived and described the killer as a tall man with a white sack over his head, with holes cut out for his eyes. This maniac’s killing spree lasted ten weeks causing widespread panic, gaining national media attention, and then the murders just stopped. Texarkana later became known as The Town That Dreaded Sundown, after the 1976 horror movie inspired by the savage killings. To this day, the case remains unsolved. Join us as we take a look at 15 shocking details about these horrifying murders.
15 The Murders Have Been Forever Ingrained In Popular Culture
Aside from the aforementioned urban legend believed to be based on the murders, the events have turned up throughout popular culture. In 1976, a Texarkana native, Charles B. Pierce, made a movie, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, based on the infamous murders. In 2014, a reboot/sequel of the same name was also released in theaters. There have been theatrical plays, songs, and even mentions of the killings in unrelated films. In fact, every Halloween, the City of Texarkana holds an outdoor screening of the film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), as part of their “Movies in the Park” series. It’s been a tradition since 2003. Residents at the screening swarm to try to purchase copies of the film, which was discontinued on VHS years ago, and only released on Blu-ray since 2013. As many as 600 people, or more, show up for the screening memorializing the town’s horrific past.
14 The City Fights Back
Once it became clear that a serial killer was in their midst, over 150 police officers took to the streets of Texarkana. The Texas Rangers joined in the investigation, including the famous M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas. As two students were among the victims, area school teens were incensed and began conducting their own searches for the killer. Some were arming themselves and purposefully parking on secluded roadways in hopes the maniac would approach them. One particular evening, a patrolman saw a lone vehicle parked on a secluded road. He quietly pulled in behind the vehicle and slowly walked up to the driver’s window. He identified himself to the single young female sitting in the car, saying “Aren’t you scared to be parked out here at night?” The girl replied, “You're the one that ought to be scared, Mister. It's a good thing you told me who you are," revealing that she had been pointing a small pistol at him the whole time.
13 The Murders Created A Hardware Business Boom
After the first murders, teens were warned by their parents about staying out late. After the second murders, the city was stunned and businesses began to observe curfews. Once the killer struck again, killing a man sitting in his home, Texarkana went into a panic with residents believing no one was safe. The killer could strike anywhere at any time. Residents began securing normally unlocked doors, closing shades, and barricading entryways. They were arming themselves with pistols and rifles. Hardware stores were inundated with customers and they began flooding in to purchase nails to secure windows, clearing shelves of firearms and ammunition, buying locks, chains, window blinds and shades. Stores were selling out of window sash locks, chicken wire, screen door hooks, security latches, and just about any protective device you could think of.
12 Texarkana Became A Ghost Town After Dark
With the city gripped with fear, residents were hesitant to leave their homes once the sun went down. Farmhouses and neighborhood homes were all lit up with lights, but local business were dark. Restaurants, cafes, theaters and bars were losing customers as street traffic slowly dwindled down to nothing as people rushed home after work. Because of the lack of business, liquor stores began closing at 9:30, one even posting a statement in the newspaper, “We fully understand the state of mind in which Texarkana is now gripped. And we are selling no liquor to persons who already have been drinking. We do not wish to add further to the troubles of the police. Any person who drinks whiskey at this time to get drunk and wander about the streets of Texarkana is further complicating the works of the police and is placing himself in grave danger of being shot by people whose nerves are on edge from the recent murders."
11 Hysteria Took Over The Town
With the city already in a panic, Texas Ranger Captain Gonzaullas only added to it with his radio address to the city where he advised that all citizens should, “Oil up their guns… Do not use them unless it’s necessary, but if you believe it is, do not hesitate!” Police were flooded with emergency calls regarding prowlers, most of which were just cases of overactive imaginations. Residents began creating makeshift booby traps or moving out of their homes and in with relatives, for safety in numbers. Officers had to turn their sirens on full as they drove up to homes and then even stand in front of their headlights, announcing themselves to keep from getting shot by jumpy homeowners. If you wanted to go someone’s house, you had better call ahead, otherwise you could end up with a rear full of buckshot. A nervous bar owner even shot a customer in the foot that happened to wander in late at night just to grab a quick beer.
10 Many Suspects Confessed To Being the Phantom Killer
As with any famous crime, the police are going to speak to many suspicious individuals looking to make a name for themselves by falsely confessing to the crime. Police in Shreveport, Louisiana, had a man in custody proclaiming to be the murderer. The man was arrested at a bar after he confessed to an undercover news reporter. The reporter promised the man a fifth of whiskey if he would tell his story. When Texarkana police arrived in Shreveport, they immediately recognized the suspect as a local alcoholic. The Texarkana police, who knew him by name, asked why he would confess to something he knew he didn’t do? The man replied, “Well, hell, I got a fifth of whiskey out it.” In every case of suspects making confessions, their stories never seemed to match the facts. Some of their details would align with information publicly available in the newspapers, but not with the secret details that were withheld for just this reason.
9 The Texas Rangers Recruited Teenage Decoys
Police were at a loss in trying to identify the elusive Phantom. They were open to trying anything that might get them a lead. Texas Ranger Gonzaullas decided it might be worth it to try to recruit some teenagers to act as decoys. Many had taken it upon themselves to conduct such activities anyway. He figured they might as well get some police coverage. These teens could park in cars on lonely roads with police officers hiding nearby. Gonzaullas was able to get some volunteers, some of which were the children of other Rangers. Police officers volunteered as well to act as decoys, some bringing along their partners, while others used mannequins. Some officers hid in trees overlooking the remote vehicle left alone on the secluded road. Despite their planning, the Phantom Killer never fell for it and he remained at-large and unidentified.
8 The Saxophone Lead
When the killer murdered young Betty Jo Booker, she was carrying with her a saxophone. Since no saxophone was found at the crime scene, police were hopeful that it would eventually lead to the killer. A few weeks after her murder, a man was arrested in Corpus Christi, Texas. He had gone to a music store and inquired about selling a saxophone to them. The store clerk claimed the man appeared nervous and he eventually fled the store without ever producing the sax. The man was eventually tracked down to a nearby hotel where he was taken into custody and identified. The saxophone wasn’t located but police did find a bag of bloody clothing. The man claimed the blood was from a bar fight he was recently involved in. Police thought for sure this could be the break they needed. However, after several days of questioning, Ranger Gonzaullas was convinced that he was not the Phantom Killer and he was released.
7 Almost 400 Suspects Were Arrested
Throughout the investigation, local authorities arrested a total of almost 400 suspects! In one double-murder, over 200 persons were questioned and released. Just about the same number of false leads were tracked down and checked. Three suspects were taken into custody due to suspicious bloody clothing; two were eventually released once their explanations were verified. The third was being held in Vernon, Texas, and was questioned further but he too was eventually released. In the case of one of the murders, a taxi cab was seen in the vicinity of the crime scene and the driver rapidly became the prime suspect. As the investigation continued, he ended up being quickly eliminated. The Bowie County building was being used for interviewing and interrogation. The building was full of friends and acquaintances of the victims, as well as suspects, all being questioned by officers working around the clock in overlapping shifts.
6 The Hypnotized Suspect
Across the road from where a victim was found, police located some fresh tire tracks. They were able to trace the tracks to an African-American male in his 30s. He was taken in for questioning and failed a polygraph exam. Officers decided to have him hypnotized. The suspect was taken to area psychiatrist, Travis Elliott. Dr. Elliott conducted a session with the man, where he admitted he was in serious trouble but that he was innocent. Dr. Elliott proved to the police that the man was hypnotized, by removing the sense of pain from him, through suggestion, and touching his arm with a burning cigarette. The man had absolutely no reaction. The man said he was nervous because his alibi was that he was pursuing an affair with a married woman; which is what he lied about on the polygraph. After an extended session with the suspect, Dr. Elliott presented his findings to the police. He explained that, in his professional opinion, he was innocent of being the murderer.
5 A Comatose Veteran Wakes Up And Confesses
In May 1946, ex-Army Air Force veteran Ralph B. Baumann told the Los Angeles Police Department that he might be the Phantom Killer. He said that he had been in a coma for several weeks and that when he woke up, he felt he was running from something; something bad. He claimed his rifle was missing and heard that the suspected killer matched his description. The police agreed that it was possible Baumann could have been the killer but that there was just no evidence affirming it. An investigation revealed that Baumann had been discharged from the military for being psychoneurotic in 1945. He was an expert shot and very good with weapons, having served as a gunner on a B-24. Ranger Gonzaullas reviewed his file and dismissed any chance of Baumann being the killer.
4 An Escaped German POW Is The Killer?
Soon after the murders, an escaped German prisoner of war was known to be in the area. He was immediately considered the prime suspect. The escaped prisoner was described as a tall, stocky, red-haired man with blue eyes. He was known to have stolen a car in nearby Arkansas. Then, in east Texas, a hitchhiker flagged down a man and asked for a ride to a nearby town. While driving, the hitchhiker pulled a pistol and claimed that he had already killed five people in Texarkana and would do so again if the man tried anything. The hitchhiker made the man drive him to Lufkin before releasing him. The hitchhiker, believed to be the escaped German, was wearing khaki trousers and an army jacket. Though the German was never captured, many don’t believe he was the killer, because why would he admit to his crimes and then leave any witnesses alive?
3 The Oklahoma Suspect
On Friday, May 10, in Atoka, Oklahoma, a man went up to a woman’s home asking for some food and money. Mrs. Harmon was home alone and told the man she didn’t have any to give him. He then grabbed Mrs. Harmon and dragged her onto the porch, saying that he might as well kill her since he had already killed people in Texarkana. Hearing someone approaching, the unknown assailant ran off. Mrs. Harmon immediately notified the police. She described the man as middle-aged, tall, medium build, with dark hair. She claimed he was unshaven and brandishing a five-inch bladed pocket knife. A few days later, police arrested a suspect closely matching the description and Mrs. Harmon was able to identify him. The police were able to verify that the man was actually in Colorado when the murders occurred and he was quickly dismissed as a suspect.
2 The Cryptic Suicide Confession of “Doodie” Tennison
Henry Booker “Doodie” Tennison was an 18-year old student at the University of Arkansas. On November 5, 1948, he was found dead in his Arkansas home, apparently swallowing a lethal dose of poison. Near him lay a cryptic note in rhyme that led the police to another note with clues to the combination of a lock box. Rather than unraveling more clues, they forced the lock box and found a letter confessing to being the Phantom Killer. In the letter, Tennison claimed responsibility for the murders, saying he snuck out of the house to commit the crimes and disassembled the gun before discarding the pieces in different locations. Police were shocked as Tennison was never a suspect. His fingerprints were taken and were found to not be a match for another set believed to belong to the killer that were found at a crime scene. The ensuing investigation found that Tennison was actually with friends during many of the murders and could not have been the killer.
1 The #1 Prime Suspect
Arkansas State Policeman Max Tackett realized that on each night a murder occurred, a car had been reported stolen while a previously stolen car was found abandoned. Believing it all to be connected, he thought he might be on to something when, on June 28, 1946, he entered a parking lot and found a car that had recently been reported stolen. Tackett staked out the car and arrested a woman returning to it. The police were able to locate and apprehend the woman’s husband, Youell Swinney, also in connection with auto theft. When arrested, Swinney thought he was facing the electric chair. When told that they don’t execute for stealing cars, he replied, “you got me for more than stealing cars.” Swinney refused to talk, but his wife confessed that he was the killer. She gave details that only the police knew; however, by law, she couldn’t be made to testify against her husband. With only circumstantial evidence, Swinney went to prison solely for auto theft. Many believe he was the Phantom Killer.
Sources: howlingpixel.com, texasmonthly.com, the-line-up.com, encyclopediaofarkansas.net