Horror movie classic The Town That Dreaded Sundown featured a masked killer murdering young people with reckless abandon in a small town and then disappearing without a trace. This was based on a true story so grisly in many ways the film downplayed...
Horror movie classic The Town That Dreaded Sundown featured a masked killer murdering young people with reckless abandon in a small town and then disappearing without a trace. This was based on a true story so grisly in many ways the film downplayed it. Who was the Phantom Killer and where has he been since his murders stopped all those years ago?
We are telling that story today, on Terrifying & True
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Original Theme by Ray Mattis
Music by AudioBlocks
Produced by Daniel Wilder
Executive Producer Rob Fields
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In 1946, the town of Texarkana was jolted by a string of cruel attacks in less than just three months. At the end of the spree, three people had been severely injured and five victims were shot dead, execution style. Three of the violent attacks were carried out on young teenagers who were enjoying their evenings on lovers’ lanes on the Texas side of town. The fourth attack was the shooting of a middle-aged couple in their farmhouse on the Arkansas side.
In each incident, the survivors were traumatized and gave the police little to go on. The assailant always fled the scene in just enough time, earning the name “The Phantom Killer.” The small, southern town of Texarkana was sent into a state of mayhem and panic and many residents checked into neighboring towns’ hotels, security systems were put in place, guard dogs were purchased, and many slept with multiple guns beside them–ready to attack if necessary.
76 years later and no one has ever been convicted of the series of attacks and brutal murders, leaving the victims and their loved ones with no justice for themselves.
The First Attack
On February 22, 1946, close to midnight, 25-year-old Jimmy Hollis and 19-year-old Mary Jeanne Larey had just finished watching a movie together, on a double date, at the local drive-in cinema. They dropped off their friends and then the two drove to lovers’ lane. Jimmy parked the car and they both were enjoying a calm, romantic evening. At one point, Jimmy exited the car to get a closer look at the stars above, while Mary stayed in the car.
Suddenly, a bright flashlight blinded Jimmy’s view. The man holding the flashlight ordered Jimmy to take his pants off while threatening him with a pistol. Jimmy claimed he must have had the wrong guy, to which the man told him he didn’t want to kill him, but he needed to take his pants off. After Jimmy removed his pants, the man bashed Jimmy’s head in with either a led pipe or the pistol he had been carrying. Jimmy fell to the ground and the man repeatedly kicked him and stomped on his chest.
Meanwhile, Mary was unsure what to do as she sat in the car terrified. Later she reported that she remembered hearing a sudden cracking noise, which she learned had been Jimmy’s skull cracking against the man's boot.
Mary exited the car, dug in Jimmy’s pockets to find his wallet, and asked the man to take whatever money was inside of it. The man then suddenly struck Mary in the head with the same blunt force object and she fell to the ground. Still conscious, Mary heard the man, strangely, scream in her ear “RUN.” Somehow, she was able to get to her feet and, wearing heels, she booked it up the road.
As she ran, she peeked behind her and watched as the man continued to beat Jimmy mercilessly. However, he stopped and ran towards Mary again. After he caught up to her, he crushed her skull in with the weapon. The man then removed her underwear and sexually assaulted her with the barrel of the pistol he had just threatened them with. Mary begged the man to just kill her. Instead, though, the man quickly fled into the night, like a phantom.
Mary fought hard, though. She picked up her bloodied, brutalized body and ran to the nearest home for help. Meanwhile, Jimmy was regaining consciousness next to their parked car and was, miraculously, able to crawl to the main road. Oddly enough, an older couple stopped but refused to allow his bloody body in their car, so they told him they’d drive to get help. However, Mary had already gotten help and the ambulance rescued him on the road.
After being questioned by investigators, Mary and Jimmy gave two very different descriptions of the perpetrator. Both of them said the man was very large and wore a burlap sack over his head, with eye and mouth holes cut out. However, Mary claimed the man's voice sounded as if he was african-american. But Jimmy claimed he sounded to be a young white man less than 30 years old. These descriptions weren’t of any help to the police.
The Second Attack, First Murders
Just a month after Jimmy and Mary were assaulted, the phantom attacked again. On March 23rd, 29-year-old Richard Griffin and 17-year-old Polly Moore were also enjoying their romantic night of intimacy. The two had also just finished a movie, went to a local cafe until nearly 2:00 a.m, and then parked Richard’s car in lovers’ lane. Just as before, a masked man approached the car and pointed a gun at the couple through the window. He ordered Richard to remove his pants and then shot him twice in the back of the head.
Either the man forced Polly out of the car, or she attempted to run, but he shot her twice in the head on top of a blanket, outside of the car, that was later found soaked in blood. The assailant then picked up Polly’s body and staged her back in the car, next to Richard. Their bodies were found the following morning by a passing motorist who thought the passengers in the 1941 Oldsmobile were sleeping.
Investigators were able to determine the gun was a .32 semi-automatic pistol and connected this case to the first attacks. However, this was the only evidence they had and nothing else came from it. The Phantom Killer struck again the following month.
The Third and Fourth Murders
On the evening of April 13, 1946, 16-year-old Paul Martin picked up his girlfriend Betty Jo Booker, who was 15 years old. At the young age of 15, Betty lived a busy life. She made amazing grades, was a dancer, belonged to a sorority, and played the saxophone with the band called His Rhythmaires. She was well-liked as a junior at Texas High and her mother was her best friend.
She and Paul Martin had known each other since kindergarten and were believed to be dating at the time. Paul was also a well-liked guy who was described as being a sweet kid with no enemies. He’d traveled the 100 miles from his new home in Kilgore, Texas to visit his friends, and Betty, in Texarkana for the evening.
The two planned to watch a midnight movie, but Betty’s weekly Rhythmaires gig as the alto sax player ran late. Paul didn’t care, though, and he picked her up around 2:00 a.m at the VFW in his 1946 Ford.
Since they weren’t able to watch the movie as they planned, they decided to grab a bite to eat and then just hang around town, maybe stopping by a friend's sleepover party later. But, before they could do anything, Betty requested they stop at her house to drop off her saxophone. She hated being responsible for it, lugging it around places, as it was expensive and her prized possession. Apparently, she would drop it off after every gig she played before doing anything else.
However, Paul must have convinced her to just make a quick pit stop at Spring Lake Park in Texarkana just before they went to her house. The two pulled in and parked their car. As they sat, a car pulled up next to them. A man got out, walked over to Paul's side of the car, and pointed a gun at him through the window.
The next morning before 6:00 a.m, a couple stumbled upon Paul’s body on the edge of North Park Road, lying on his left side. He’d been shot four times; once in the head, once in his face, once on his right hand, and once on his left shoulder.
The police searched for his car and found it about a mile away at the park, keys still in it. Initially, they weren’t aware Betty was with him. After friends and family told them they were together the night before, they searched for Betty. She was found six hours later, two miles from the park. Her body was propped and staged up against a tree, her coat was buttoned up to her chin, and her hand was in her pocket. She had been shot once in the chest and once in the head and it was clear she’d also been sexually assaulted. Her saxophone wasn’t in Paul’s car and has never been found.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown
The police determined the gun used to shoot Paul and Betty was also the .32 caliber gun used to murder Richard and Polly. The town went into complete hysteria at this point. Random young couples were being murdered while just enjoying their romantic date nights and the suspect left behind little evidence and seemed to just disappear. This is when the town referred to him as the Phantom Killer.
The Texas Rangers attempted to lure the killer to lovers’ lanes by disguising themselves as a young couple in an unmarked car, however, he never showed up. Roadblocks were put in place and locals were being questioned one after another in an attempt to find any sort of clues. They came up empty each time, though.
Residents purchased guns to use as protection, couples were no longer taking their nightly cruises, and a curfew was put in place. The entire town was so on edge that if neighbors entered their homes unannounced, as this was common in 1946, homeowners would immediately point their loaded guns at them before thinking twice. Window shades, locks, and other security measures quickly disappeared from local stores as if Texarkana was preparing for war.
Two Final Victims
On Friday, May 3, Virgil Starks and his wife, Katie Starks, both 36 years old, were relaxing in their small farmhouse on their 500 acres of land. They lived ten miles northeast of Texarkana, in Miller County, Arkansas.
Virgil was described as a progressive farmer and Katie was known as a popular, well-liked woman. The two didn’t have any children of their own, but they had plenty of nieces and nephews and cared for them deeply.
This evening, the married couple wasn’t worried about the crazed killer on the loose. They were well in their 30s and were sitting quietly in their home. They weren’t spontaneous teenagers parked in lovers’ lanes in the early morning hours. The last thing they expected was a serial rapist and murderer to destroy their lives.
Virgil was sitting in his chair with a heating pad up against his back, relaxing. He calmed himself for the evening by listening to the news on the radio and reading the newspaper. His wife, Katie, was lying in bed, ready to fall asleep when she heard movement in their yard. Curious, she asked Virgil to turn the radio down so she could hear better.
Suddenly, a man pointing a .22 automatic gun appeared in the window and shot Virgil in the back of the head as he sat in his easy chair. Katie, terrified, ran to the living room, not knowing what just happened. She immediately saw her bloodied husband slumped over his chair and so she rans to the hand crank phone. But before she could dial, the perpetrator shot her twice in the head. One shot went into her cheek and the other in her mandible. Her teeth exploded onto the floor.
Surprisingly and miraculously, Katie survived. But she knew she needed to play dead, so she laid on the floor until she felt it was safe enough to get up. She crawled to her bedroom looking for the gun they kept closed away, but was unable to locate it. She went back into the living room and noticed the man who’d just shot her and her husband crawling through their kitchen window.
After he left, she was able to get to her feet, run across a highway, and into her nearby sister and brother-in-law's home, all while being half-blind and in her nightgown. Neither her sister nor her brother-in-law were home, but a neighbor heard her screams and came out of his house to help her.
He then fired his rifle into the air to alert the rest of the neighbors, which was preplanned if the phantom had been spotted in the area, or if they needed immediate assistance. Neighbors poured from their homes and rushed Katie to the hospital. Katie was so with it and aware, that on the drive to the hospital her gold-filled tooth fell from her mouth and she picked it up, handed it to one of the passengers, and told them she “really didn’t want to lose this.”
Earlier in the evening, state troopers noticed an unknown car parked outside of their home. They found it strange, as they knew the Starks very well, but were too busy with their tasks at hand to stop and check it out. When they drove past later, the car was gone.
Other than spotting the car, which the police just reported as an older model car, there were no clues for them to act on. The town, again, was in a complete frenzy. Now the killer was shooting through windows and entering homes. Security systems and gun sales skyrocketed, many guard dogs were purchased, and people were boarding up their windows at night. Even businesses were now required to close before sundown, along with the curfew previously put in place.
Every single resource was pulled into the case. Authorities from neighboring jurisdictions were patrolling the town and the FBI was brought in to assist. And over 400 people were detained or arrested in connection with the case.
In 1947, 29-year-old Youell Swinney was arrested for car theft. His wife, Peggy, confessed in great detail that her husband was the Phantom Killer. However, her story changed after several interviews and police believed she was withholding information. She recanted her confession, was considered an unreliable witness, and couldn’t be compelled to testify against her husband.
Youell is still greatly considered a suspect, unofficially, because when he was arrested for the car theft, he told authorities, “Hell, I know that you want me for more than just stealing cars.” He was in and out of prison for most of his life and later died in 1994 at the age of 76. It’s believed the crimes stopped after he went to prison.
In 1976, the original movie titled The Town That Dreaded Sundown was released. The largely fictionalized movie was based on the Texarkana murders. A remake of the film was released in 2014 and a handful of books have also been written about the case.
The famous “Hookman” urban legend that begins with a young couple parked on a lovers’ lane and ends with someone discovering their bloodied bodies along with a hook hanging from the car door handle, is said to have been inspired by the Texarkana murders, though the real murderer never had a hook.
The case of the Phantom Killer is now referred to as the number one unsolved murder case in Texas history. It is likely told among teenagers parked at lovers’ lanes, 76 years later, or surrounding a campfire, awaiting the Phantom Killer’s return.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown seems to be tolerable of sundown, today. Even going as far as showing the movie every Halloween at Spring Lake Park, where Paul and Betty had their last date. Instead of turning away from fear, they’ve completely steered into it, making it almost like a tradition.