Phantom Memories

How four murders brought the town of Texarkana to its knees in 1946—and how the town copes with its past today

Illustrations by Gino Pambianchi

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In the heat of June, Christmas decorations went up in downtown Texarkana. Wreaths adorned the poles of streetlights in front of the old Hotel Grim, where tattered curtains waved from paneless windows in the upper stories. Semitrailers filled with movie-making equipment rolled into town, and MGM film crews spilled out. They set up base in the Four States Auto Museum on the Texarkana side and ventured out to shooting locations across the city. Activity swirled around the tilting and panning eye of a movie camera as it swept in light like a vacuum, recording every image it saw.

The scenes they shot will appear in a remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a horror film loosely based on real events that happened in 1946. To see Texarkana as it looks today, it is difficult to imagine how it was in that era, when social and economic activity buzzed around the railroad downtown instead of the interstate off to the north. It was a time before the boxy, modern Bi-State Justice Center literally overshadowed historic downtown storefronts, when State Line Avenue—Arkansas on the east side, Texas on the west—ran all the way to the tracks. Union Station was still new and pristine and filled with people instead of ghosts, and the Hotel Grim was a bustling jewel of the city instead of the boarded-up eyesore it has become.

It was a time of hopefulness after four dark years during which virtually the entire U.S. population had fought, in one way or another, the second world war. With the specter of an almost incomprehensible evil defeated, a generation of American men and women was reuniting, about to flood the land with babies. But from beneath this optimistic veneer, a different kind of evil was about to surface.

***

Spring had not arrived on the night when the trouble began, but its promise could be felt in the mild weather that February evening in 1946. Beside a quiet country road at the edge of town—a lover’s lane—a vintage Plymouth sat parked, with two silhouettes visible through the window. Jimmy Hollis, 24, and Mary Jeanne Larey, 19, had stopped on the way home from a double date during which they’d watched John Carradine star in House of Dracula.

Parking was a common practice for couples, a mobile extension of the old-fashioned porch swing where earlier generations had courted. To young people, it was more than just a chance to neck; it was their time alone for talking, arguing or dreaming. The image could be a snippet from our collective cultural memory, a scene from American Graffiti or an episode of Happy Days. A flashlight beam, unexpectedly piercing the interior through the driver’s window, would not seem out of place, either, except in this case, the man holding it was not a uniformed officer. It was someone in a white hood with eyeholes. It was someone with a pistol.

On the man’s order, Jimmy and Mary Jeanne climbed out the driver’s side door. The man made Jimmy take off his pants, then slammed the pistol down on his head twice. The young man’s skull cracked so loudly that Mary Jeanne thought the gun had fired. The masked man told Mary Jeanne to run, so she did, tripping awkwardly in her heels as the man beat and stomped Jimmy. Then he stopped to chase Mary Jeanne, eventually knocking her down and sexually assaulting her with the pistol.

She told him to go ahead and kill her.

Instead, he left abruptly, perhaps seeing car lights along the road. Mary Jeanne ran to the nearest house she could find, where her screams roused the inhabitants. Both Jimmy and Mary Jeanne survived, though Jimmy would spend months recovering. The attacker escaped.

As awful as the crime was, it amounted to just another story on the following day’s news page, something over which resident would quietly shake their heads. Texarkana was a nice town, but young. Founded in 1874 at a railroad junction connecting Texas with Arkansas, in 1946 the city was still close enough to its frontier days not to be shocked by an isolated burst of violence. There were plenty of young male laborers in the timber and oil industries that dominated the region, as well as trains coming through Union Station, bringing soldiers home. At the juke joints and roadhouses scattered about, fights with fists or knives were not unusual, and shootings were not unheard of.

The nice parts of town were a different story, though. In what was a golden age for American neighborhoods, doors remained unlocked and windows open all night. Families often spent pleasant evenings on the front porch speaking to passers-by. One assault on a deserted roadside offered little reason to change that.

***

It had been raining all night on March 24, 1946, as a passing motorist took note of a 1941 Oldsmobile sedan parked close to a railroad spur near the western edge of town. He could see the forms of a man and woman inside who appeared to be asleep. Thinking they might be stuck, he stopped to help but soon realized the blood-soaked scene was something far more sinister. He went for police.

Richard Griffin was a 29-year-old ex-Navy Seabee, and Polly Ann Moore was a 17-year-old high school graduate who worked at the sprawling Red River Army Depot just west of town. Richard was on his knees in the front seat, pockets turned out. Polly Ann’s body sprawled across the back seat. Both had been shot to death. Rain continued to fall as police arrived and combed the dismal scene for any clues not already washed away.

The double murder was the leading story in the next day’s Texarkana Gazette. Law enforcement from both sides of State Line Avenue joined the investigation. Within days, more than 50 people had been questioned, more than 100 leads tracked down. But every trail eventually left authorities scratching their heads.

***

While the double murder received considerable local news coverage, little connection to the prior assault seemed to have been drawn by either law enforcement or townsfolk. Life continued as before.

A few weeks later, on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1946, a cool dawn broke to reveal the body of 16-year-old high school senior Paul Martin lying beside a road near Texarkana’s Spring Lake Park. He had been shot four times. More blood was found across the road, making it appear that Paul had been gunned down while trying to run away. About a mile away was his abandoned car.

Alerted to the grisly scene—once again, by a passing motorist—authorities quickly pieced together events from the previous evening. Paul Martin had been at the VFW Hall downtown. It had been a USO during the war and was now the scene of a Saturday-night dinner and dance. The Rhythmaires, a big-band-style group made up of local high school students, were the evening’s entertainment. Paul’s friend Betty Jo Booker, a 15-year-old junior at Texas High, played saxophone.

Betty Jo was popular and pretty in a girl-next-door way, an A student and officer in the high school marching band. She and Paul had been friends since kindergarten, when they both lived on the Arkansas side of town. Normally the band leader, Jerry Atkins, or the other saxophonist, Ernie Holcombe, drove Betty Jo home from gigs, but on this night Paul was scheduled to pick her up and take her to a friend’s slumber party. They were seen leaving the VFW Hall together.

As the sun climbed the sky that Sunday morning, word of Paul’s murder spread through town, and a crowd formed in the park and swelled until radio bulletins advised against any more people showing up. One question was on everyone’s mind: Where was Betty Jo? She had never arrived at her friend’s house.

Volunteer search teams combed the area. One, a small group of men and boys, had left Sunday School at the First Methodist Church to join the search. Around noon they found Betty Jo’s body lying in a grove of trees over a mile from where Paul was found. She had been shot in the face and through the heart.

***

It was obvious that a serial killer was at work, though at the time no one knew the term. People were more likely to refer to the unknown killer simply as a “maniac.” One thing everyone understood was the urgent need to stop him. The investigation quickly shifted into a higher gear on both sides of State Line Avenue. In Austin, Texas, Gov. Coke Stevenson dispatched enough Texas Rangers to quell half-a-dozen riots, led by a captain who looked like he had stepped from the screen of a Saturday-morning Western.

Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, wearing a white cowboy hat and packing pearl-handled revolvers, was by then in his mid-50s and a living legend. One of the most famous law enforcement officers of his time, it is easy to imagine his storied exploits as a black-and-white Western: tracking outlaws alone through Texas oil fields; manacling prisoners to a long chain like an angler’s catch; gun muzzles flashing as he shoots down a pair of ex-cons trying to rob a hotel. He took charge of the investigation.

“We’re up against a clever, intelligent killer,” he told the newspaper reporters who were starting to appear in Texarkana from across the country. He pledged to stay until the case was solved.

Until it was, people had little choice but to worry about their own safety and that of their families. Especially when, on a Friday evening less than three weeks after Paul and Betty Jo’s murder, another attack came. At an Arkansas farmhouse east of town, a man was shot dead through a window while sitting in his recliner. His wife, also shot, narrowly escaped to a neighbor’s house as the killer broke into her home. Law enforcement from local, state and federal jurisdictions swarmed to the scene only to find the assailant gone. Arkansas State Police brought in a pair of bloodhounds from Hope. The dogs picked up a scent trail at the house and followed it more than half-a-mile down rural U.S. Highway 67 until, like the other leads in the case, the scent vanished, leaving the dogs casting vainly about alongside the highway. By this time the press had given the criminal a name befitting his elusiveness—the Phantom Killer—and the city of Texarkana was almost paralyzed with fear.

***

In an era when walking was still common, streets virtually cleared at sunset. The popular pastime of “visiting”—going to friends’ homes unannounced—fell out of fashion. As darkness deepened, people did something they were not accustomed to: They locked their doors and windows.

With home security systems not yet widely available, families hung quilts over windows, installed floodlights outside and invented strange booby traps. A photo in Life magazine shows one Texarkana woman posing next to a blanket nailed over a glass door in her home. A table is leaning against the door, ready to fall if the door is opened, spilling pans of nails across the floor as the pans crash against carefully placed vases.

Some people, particularly women whose husbands were away, moved from their homes into hotels. This included the daughter of one of the town’s most prominent citizens, the late Sen. Morris Sheppard, father of U.S. Prohibition. With her husband out of town, she is shown in Life leaving home with two small boys in tow.

Downtown’s three major theaters—the Strand, the Paramount and the Princess—played to skeleton audiences at night. Guns, ammunition and door locks disappeared from store shelves. Approaching someone’s home in the evening became a matter of delicacy, and men who worked late shifts and were walking home were frequently stopped and questioned by police.

The fear spread like a virus into surrounding areas. One small community west of Texarkana got a special dose of terror in the form of graffiti spray-painted on a building—a large “X” with the words “This place is next.”

Ordinary citizens followed the investigation closely. A Dallas reporter noted an average of 25 “curious persons” standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the office that served as headquarters for the investigation, hoping to hear news before the rest of town.

Rumors of the killer’s identity ran through town like rivers—a lawman had done it, a forgotten German prisoner of war, or the son of a family so prominent that his guilt was being kept secret by authorities. The truth was, the investigation was digging up nothing but dry holes.

***

The investigation remained stymied until an Arkansas state trooper named Max Tackett noticed something odd. On the days of both double murders, a car had been reported stolen and then later found abandoned. An eyewitness to one of the thefts claimed to know who had done it—Youell Swinney, a small-time local criminal. The 29-year-old’s rap sheet stretched all the way back to puberty and included burglary, car theft and counterfeiting. He was soon collared but, while undergoing questioning, proclaimed his innocence in regard to the murders. An attempt to get the truth out of him in Little Rock with sodium pentothal only put him to sleep.

The questioning of his girlfriend was more productive. Swinney was the Phantom, she said, and backed it up by passing her polygraph and telling police things about the murders that had not been released to the press. Unfortunately, the woman’s story changed with each new telling. And when investigators learned she was not Swinney’s girlfriend, but his wife (the two had been recently married), they knew they could not compel her to testify against him in court.

Investigators were sharply divided regarding the new suspect. Gonzaullas, in particular, did not think Swinney was the Phantom. At any rate, without a case to make a murder charge stick, Swinney was tried and convicted of car theft. As a habitual criminal, he received a life sentence, though he would later be paroled but would eventually end up spending more time behind bars for subsequent small crimes. He was interviewed shortly before he died in 1993 by Mark Bledsoe, one of a number of people to study the case over the years. Swinney was in a Dallas nursing home at the time, bound to a wheelchair by a stroke. He still professed innocence. While opinions regarding his guilt continue to vary, Swinney’s arrest did mark the end of the Phantom killings, at least the official ones. As summer 1946 arrived and wore on, the town slowly returned to normal. Today, Swinney remains the closest thing the case has to an answer, the closest thing the Phantom has to a face.

***

Perhaps because she was the youngest victim, Betty Jo Booker’s death seems to stand out among the Phantom’s crimes, as if it crystallized the fear and anguish the town experienced in a way that we can get some sense of today. Rain fell on Beech Street Baptist Church the day hundreds packed inside for her funeral. Her mother, Bessie, was left devastated. In a 1977 interview with the Dallas Times Herald, she spoke of feeling that she might actually have loved Betty Jo, her only child, too much.

“Time may help,” she said, “but it doesn’t heal.”

A 1996 retrospective of the crimes in the Texarkana Gazette also noted how deeply the crimes had impacted Betty Jo’s classmates at Texas High School. “We were all extremely frightened and extremely upset,” one said, “and in a way, we still are.”

In speaking to several surviving members of the class in 2013, it was easy to tell that the memories, though distant and fading, remained unpleasant. None seemed anxious to discuss the subject. Those who did spoke of it as something tragic that they had to push aside in order to go on with life. Burney Jones may have spoken for many in the class when asked how he felt about continuing interest in the crimes from Hollywood. “Personally, I’d just as soon leave it alone,” he said.

The 1947 Texas High School yearbook shows these students in their senior year, with graduation approaching. Their smiles seem to reflect a calm optimism. With an era of unprecedented American economic expansion just beginning, optimism was certainly justified. Billy Burkhalter, vice president of the class, went on to become a football star at Rice University. Best All-Around Boy Ted Asimos took over his family’s restaurant. Most Popular Girl Rose Mary Cunningham attended Millsaps College, became a schoolteacher and a mother of three. Business manager of the yearbook Ross Perot made billions of dollars and ran for president.

Sometimes memories, like celestial bodies, exert a gravitational pull. Not everyone escapes them. A large photo near the front of the yearbook commemorates Gloria Donaldson, who had recently died. She is wearing a checkered top, smiling. A thick mane of hair the color of a Hershey bar sweeps up from her forehead and hangs to her shoulders in a popular style of the day. On April 14, 1947, the one-year anniversary of Betty Jo’s murder, Gloria wrote out a suicide note at home and took a shotgun in hand. By this time, local police were focused on new cases. The lead investigator, Ranger Gonzaullas, had left Texarkana, though he would continue to follow up leads for years. And though the principal suspect, Youell Swinney, was safely behind bars, the Phantom, whoever it was, had claimed another victim.

***

Like many residents with roots in the area, Texarkana, Ark., Mayor Wayne Smith has family connections to the Phantom case. His wife is related by marriage to the late Youell Swinney, and he worked in two prisons where Swinney was incarcerated. Asked about how the city should remember the crimes, he admitted that they are somewhat glamorized today, but added that such attention has to be expected since the case was never officially solved.

Texas-side Mayor Bob Bruggeman also noted this dichotomy between the sadness of the events themselves and the breathless tales that have grown around them. He agrees with Smith that the case remaining unsolved elevated it into the realm of folklore: “It changed the cultural environment in which our citizens lived.”

“I think it will be there forever,” Mayor Smith said.

But those with actual memories of the events will not. Eventually, the crimes will move into the realm of story–a memory of a memory. To the people who lived through them, the events were anything but the basis for thrilling movies or a spooky tale to share around campfires. They were harrowing in a way that only those who have been marred by violent crime can know.

As filming progressed on the new version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the story of the Phantom captured Texarkana’s imagination anew. Front-page articles in the Gazette followed the shoot’s progress. Excited locals discussed the crimes, and some even mixed with the stars in small parts and as extras. Four States Auto Museum employee Robin Carter noted the military-like precision with which the crew worked. Shoots were tightly scheduled and executed. Takes were few. Lips were sealed to outsider questions about plot.

When shooting wrapped, yet another telling of the legend of the Phantom was captured in cameras, ready to be taken to Hollywood, arranged and manipulated for maximum excitement, then distributed to a waiting public. In the meantime, crews filled six semitrailers with costumes, props and equipment, including a giant floodlight for turning night into day. After less than two hours, everything was packed, hitched and driven away, leaving nothing behind but memories.

Posted in News & Views

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