The Phantom of Texarkana
Generally, the word “phantom” refers to a ghost or a figment of the imagination but what was happening to the people of Texarkana in the spring of 1946 was no illusion nor is it a story the locals can forget. Before the infamous Manson murders, before the Zodiac, and when John Wayne Gacy was only four years old, ….there was the Phantom of Texarkana. For several weeks between February and May 1946 Texarkana was under attack by an unknown psychopath the newspapers referred to as the “Phantom”, an assailant that bore a striking resemblance to a later more iconic and familiar villain.
Texarkana is divided between two states, Texas and Arkansas thus the name, “Texarkana”. It seems relatively similar to any small American community -quiet and uneventful but think back to say, Friday the 13th Part III specifically (starring Dana Kimmel from Texarkana) and know that what her character (Chris Higgins) went through was not that far off from what actually happened in Texarkana thirteen years before Kimmel was born.
On the evening of February 22, 1946 twenty-five -year-old Jimmy Hollis scored a date with the beautiful nineteen -year-old Mary Jeanne Larey. The two had a lovely time together. They caught a movie, probably grabbed a bite to eat, and on the way home at the end of the night -because it’s 1946 the pair made a stop down a secluded road on the outskirts of town the locals called “lovers lane”. Every town had a lovers lane and they were always on dark roads seemingly in the middle of nowhere usually on the way out of town. Hollis and Larey had made a stop on such a road and were about to get it on when a figure appeared at the driver’s side window. He flashed the pair with a flashlight and pistol and ordered them out of the car. After the couple were out the assailant beat Hollis over the head with the pistol cracking his skull in the process. The crunch was so loud Larey at first mistook the noise for a gunshot. As Hollis lay there seemingly lifeless, Larey began telling the perpetrator that the couple didn’t have any money but unbeknown to Larey, this guy wasn’t interested in their money -he was interested in the hunt. The assailant pointed his weapon at Larey and told her to run.
Larey took off on foot and spotted a parked car off the side of the road. With a glimmer of hope Larey fled towards the vehicle screaming for help but her heart sank when she realized the car had zero occupants and her attacker had caught up with her. Larey was forced to the ground where she was then sexually assaulted with the barrel of the assailant’s weapon. Larey only survived because her attacker fled when he spotted approaching headlights from down the road. Meanwhile, Hollis was spotted by another passing motorist who drove to a telephone to notify police. When police arrived, Hollis was found miraculously alive and taken to a hospital having suffered multiple skull fractures. Mary Jeanne Larey also survived and when asked what the assailant looked like the pair gave a bizarre description. Both told police the man was about six foot and wore a white pillowcase over his head with two eye holes cut out but were criticized when the two could not agree on the perpetrator’s ethnicity, -you know because you have time to worry about that when a man with a bag over his head is pointing a pistol at you. In any case what they described was something like this.
A month went by and while Hollis and Larey defended their story to the disbelieving police a call came in on March 24th. Once again there was trouble on lovers lane only this time, both victims -Richard Griffin and his date Polly Ann Moore were found dead having been shot to death in Griffin’s car. At the crime scene, the police quickly noticed their bodies had been tampered with. The killer, like the previous couple had forced Griffin and Moore out of the car. This time however, the assailant murdered his victims and placed their bodies back inside the car after the pair were dead.
Strangely, the police in Texarkana did not immediately correlate the two attacks as having been committed by the same person but a city-wide investigation was launched, over fifty people interviewed, and a $500 reward for any information was offered. Unfortunately, nothing but false leads ever came up.
On Saturday April 13th fifteen-year-old Betty Joe Booker was playing the alto saxophone with her band at the VFW Club. When the show ended around 1:30 am Booker caught a ride with her friend, seventeen-year-old Paul Martin who had agreed to take Booker home. Booker’s friends waved goodbye to Martin and Booker having no idea this would be the last time either of them would be seen alive. Neither Paul Martin nor Betty Joe Booker made it home that night. Like the previous attacks, Martin and Booker had been on a dark, secluded road and were found around 6:30 the next morning once again by a passing motorist that sounded the alarm.
Paul Martin was found outside of the car with four gunshots in his body – one in the nose, ribs, hand, and one in the back of his neck. Interestingly, Booker’s body was found two miles away from the car by a search party that had been put together to look for the missing teenagers.
Booker had been shot twice, once in the face and a second time in the chest. She was found lying on her back with her hand in the pocket of her coat. Once again, a shell from a .32 Colt pistol was found at the scene. The one thing that should have been there but was strangely missing from the crime scene was Betty Joe Booker’s saxophone. The area where Booker’s body was found was searched yet no one could locate the instrument. After the Martin/Booker murders the reward was bumped up from $500 to $1700 for any information leading to the perpetrator the newspapers were now calling the “Phantom”.
Only Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey at this point had actually seen the Phantom and lived to tell the tale. That is until Friday May 3rd when Virgil and Katie Starks were attacked inside their own home by what Katie Starks described as tall man wearing a bag over his head. The Starks may not have been on a lovers lane but the farmhouse they lived in was nevertheless, secluded and outside of town giving Texarkana’s pillowcase killer the perfect opportunity to stalk his victims in their own home. Katie Starks did not hear the gunshots that rang in through a window and killed her husband, only broken glass.
When she went to investigate the commotion in her living room, she found her husband slumped in his chair dead with blood all over his face. As she reached for the phone to call police two bullets struck Katie in the face. One bullet existed out her left ear but the other broke her jaw and took out several of Katie’s teeth. With no options but to run out of the house, Katie took off out the front door in nothing but her now blood-soaked bathrobe leaving a trail of blood and teeth behind her. She ran to a nearby house where Katie collapsed after screaming “Virgil is dead!” By the time the police arrived at the Stark residence, a fire had broken out from a heating pad Katie had put in her husband’s chair earlier in the evening. Strangely, the shells found at the crime scene belonged to a .22 rather than a .32 Colt pistol as was used in the previous attacks.
Because the attacks happened only on the weekends, always at night, and seemed to coincide with a full moon, the newspapers had started referring to the killings as the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders”. In fact, if you google this story that is exactly the name of the Wikipedia page that pops up. No matter how many roadblocks were put up, how many bloodhounds were brought in, or how many men were arrested and questioned, the Phantom remained elusive. After weeks of sheer terror for the people of Texarkana, it would seem the Phantom mysteriously vanished. …Or did he? There is no doubt that whoever the killer was he was hanging around either in or near Texarkana enjoying the fear he had brought upon the people there. He read the newspaper articles, listened to the radio reports, and overheard the rumors that circled through town. He then watched as the Phantom became rock star famous even if only for a short time. But the question remains, what happened to the Phantom of Texarkana? Had he been incarcerated on a different crime and therefore could not continue? Had he been killed himself or perhaps suffered a traumatic accident that left him physically incapable of killing? Or had he moved on to another place and continued his killing spree there?
Assuming the Texarkana killer wasn’t dead, in jail, or quadriplegic -fast forward to July 4, 1969 when another murder spree began, this time in California. Like the hooded killer in Texarkana -this one also liked to stalk dark and secluded lovers lanes for unsuspecting victims. He called himself the “Zodiac” and this one garnered attention and fame the Texarkana killer could only envy. Because of the eerie similarities between the two, this has of course left some to theorize that the Zodiac and the Texarkana killer were one and the same. Both stalked lovers lanes, both went after couples, both have five known victims to have been killed, both wore hoods, both shot their victims, and neither were ever caught. While that all seems rather damning it might also be purely coincidental. For example, while Zodiac indeed went after couples, he didn’t rape his female victims, and he broke his M.O when he stabbed a couple at Lake Berryessa rather than shooting them, then again when he shot lone cab driver Paul Stine in San Francisco. The stabbing at Lake Berryessa is the only time the Zodiac donned the hood and his was solid black and was a cloak of some sort that also covered his torso. It wasn’t just a pillowcase -Zodiac put some effort into his outfit but was nonetheless a bizarre description given by survivor Bryan Hartnell. All the other murders however, Zodiac didn’t wear a hood rather those that have actually seen the Zodiac described him as a chubby man with black-rimmed eyeglasses and a crew cut. Numerous people have been accused of having been the Zodiac killer so why should the killer in Texarkana be any different? While the Texarkana killer and the Zodiac might not have actually been the same person, it is important to note that the Zodiac’s weapon of choice was a .22.
In 1976 Charles B. Pierce whom we all remember as the director of The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), directed an early slasher film called The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) which recounts the story of the Texarkana killer and if you’re feeling froggy -you can catch a viewing of the film every year in October at Spring Lake Park in Texarkana.
On October 24th 1946, six months after the murders ended in Texarkana, someone accidentally stumbled upon a black case sitting in the underbrush off North Park Road. Inside was Betty Joe Booker’s missing saxophone.
Managing editor: The Moratorium