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.
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.