Texarkana’s Phantom Killer

This month’s Mystery Monday is about a series of murders that took place in 1946. Almost eighty years later, the mystery is still unsolved. Interested? Read on.

Texarkana is a city in Northeast Texas. Along with its twin city, Texarkana, Arkansas, it’s home to around 65,000 people. In the 1940s, the combined population was less than 30,000.

While there is some dispute about how the town got its name, most believe it’s a portmanteau of Texas, Arkansas, and nearby Louisiana. State Line Avenue is the demarcation line dividing the two cities. I couldn’t resist sharing this vintage postcard photo because of its humorous caption.

I stand in Texas with my ass in Arkansas.

Several famous people were born in the twin cities, including ragtime composer Scott Joplin, businessman/politician Ross Perot, and numerous NFL and MLB players.

But in 1946, Texarkana wasn’t thinking about politics or sports. Many of its residents lived in fear because a phantom killer was on the loose. And there was certainly nothing humorous about the series of horrendous crimes.

The first attack occurred on February 22, 1946, when twenty-five-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his girlfriend Mary Jeanne Lowry parked on a secluded road known as “Lover’s Lane.” A man wearing a white cloth mask resembling a pillowcase with holes cut for his eyes shone a flashlight in the driver’s side window.

The mysterious stranger ordered the couple out of the car, then struck Hollis in the head with a pistol, fracturing his skull. He then sexually assaulted Laney.

Hollis and Laney both survived the attack. Others weren’t so lucky.

On the morning of March 24, a passing motorist discovered the bodies of Richard Griffin and Polly Moore in Griffin’s car. Like with the first couple, Griffin had parked along a secluded road. His body was in the front seat, Moore was in the back. The killer shot both victims twice in the back of the head. A nearby blood-soaked patch of earth suggested the couple had been killed outside and their bodies placed in the car.

On April 14, around 1:30 in the morning, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker left a musical performance at the VFW club. Police found Martin’s body at 6:30 by the northern edge of North Park Road. He had been shot four times. They found Booker’s body almost two miles from her boyfriend’s. She had been shot twice. Martin’s car was located three miles away at Spring Lake Park with the keys still in the ignition.

Area stores sold out of guns, ammunition, locks, and other protective devices. Residents stayed inside their homes after dark, believing they would be safe. But that wasn’t the case for Virgil Starks and his wife, Katie, who lived almost ten miles northeast of Texarkana.

Around 9:00 p.m. on the night of May 3, Virgil Starks was sitting in an armchair reading the newspaper when someone fired two shots to the back of his head from a closed window. After hearing the sound, Katie ran into the room. When she saw her husband slumped in the chair, she rushed to call police, but the killer shot her in the face.

Katie tried to get a pistol but was blinded by her own blood. Hearing the killer at the back door, she ran out the front to a neighbor’s house to get help. Katie survived the shooting.

Several enforcement officers were involved in the investigation, including the sheriffs of Bowie County, Texas and Miller County, Arkansas, Texarkana police, Arkansas State Police, and Texas Rangers.

Police searching for clues. (Public Doman)

Hollis and Laney were the only victims that could describe their assailant. Both described him as around six feet tall. However, Hollis believed he was a dark tanned Caucasian. Laney thought he was a light-skinned African American. Police repeatedly questioned their accounts, believing they knew the attacker and were covering for him.

The “Phantom Killer” nickname came after the deaths of Booker and Martin.

Authorities questioned over four-hundred suspects during the investigation. At least nine people confessed to being the killer, but their statements didn’t agree with the facts.

Included in the list of suspects were a local car thief and counterfeiter, an 18-year-old university freshman who died by suicide in November 1948, an ex-Army-Air Force machine gunner, a hitchhiker, and a taxi driver.

On April 27, police in Corpus Christi, Texas, arrested an unknown man who tried to sell a saxophone to a music store. Victim Betty Jo Booker played the saxophone at the VFW the night she died. Her instrument was missing. After several days of questioning, authorities released the man for lack of evidence.

On May 7, someone found the body of Earl McSpadden on the Kansas City Southern Railway tracks sixteen miles north of Texarkana. A passing freight train severed his left arm and leg. The coroner’s verdict stated his death was “at the hands of persons unknown.” He further stated that McSpadden was dead before being placed on the railroad tracks.

Because McSpadden’s murder was never solved, many locals speculated he was the sixth victim. One rumor claimed McSpadden was the phantom, and he committed suicide by jumping in front of the train.

The Phantom Killings was the subject of the 1976 film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown as well as a 2014 remake.

40 thoughts on “Texarkana’s Phantom Killer

  1. I’m so glad you’ve shared this story, Joan! It’s one I know! I recently researched it myself & wrote about it. It’s such a crazy case! The fear that those people were living in is unimaginable. And to think, the killer got away without anyone ever knowing his identity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s so much I didn’t touch on. It would have taken three or four posts, so I tried to hit the highlights. Did you post on your blog? I’d love to know if you had any thoughts about the killer’s identity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree, Joan! There’s so many details, yet strangely also not enough. I do have a couple theories thanks to my crime-loving imagination. To me, the biggest puzzle is that the killer supposedly just stopped. That’s not really normal in cases like this.
        I posted on my Lore & Curiosities site. Occasionally, I’ll include a section with my thoughts/opinions. I looked back at this article and I think I shared the most I ever have of my own thoughts. lol I’m pretty opinionated on this one.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I didn’t know you had that blog! I’m now following. I love to read (and write) about legends and lore. I once wrote a post about the Sodder children, and I have an upcoming post about the Bell Witch Cave next month.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thank you, Joan! I started it some months back because I kept having that itch to write more. I haven’t promoted it very much, but I do enjoy researching the topics. Oh and the Bell Witch Cave… that’s an interesting story!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I always wonder what makes them stop killing unless they take their life. So scary when they are hunting their victims. Love the picture and caption too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It makes me suspect McSpadden since the killings stopped after his death. Or maybe the killer just moved on. I laugh every time I see that picture. There’s also a cartoon version with the opposite–the man was in Arkansas and his donkey was in Texas.


  3. How scary! I’ve been to Texarkana a few times, but I never knew of these incidents. Great research on your part, Joan. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What an awful tale, Joan! I can’t imagine how terrified everyone must have been. And I really hate it when people commit horrible crimes and are never held accountable for them. I like to believe that’s rectified after their time here on earth is over, but it would be heartbreaking to lose someone you love to something like this and never know who or why.

    Thanks for sharing this unsolved mystery. (Now go write a book about it! 😁 I know you could do it justice!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, a friend of mine wrote a book about the murders. It was fiction and she added her own twist to the crime. It’s been a while since I read it, but I believe it involved railroad tracks and a hitchhiker. Thanks for stopping by today, Maricia!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love these unsolved mysteries you dig up, Joan. I’ve been to Texarkana many times but never knew of these brutal murders. It’s a case that will never be solved but sounds like a deeply disturbed individual for sure! Thanks for sharing! Happy Monday!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Eeek. That’s a lot of murders in a small-ish town. If I lived there, I would have been freaked out too. A lot of murders don’t actually get solved. It’s not like TV, where they always figure it out. That’s kind of disheartening. Fascinating post, Joan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hollywood certainly glamorizes things, Diana. In the early 1980s, we had what was known as the KFC murders. Three or four employees of a Kentucky Fried Chicken were kidnapped and killed in an oil field. It took years for officials to solve that case.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m sure there are multiple stories like this one. I often speculate about those whose crimes go completely undiscovered. There was a time when rapid communication didn’t exist and plenty of missing persons could be sunk in a swamp somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have never understood why some people confess to something they didn’t do unless it’s to cover for someone. You’re right, Priscilla. It was sad for the victims. Some of them were teenagers.

      Liked by 1 person

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