The Horrifying True Story That Inspired ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’


[*] The Texarkana Moonlight Murders were a series of murders that happened in the twin cities of Texarkana, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946. That spring, an unidentified man known as the ‘Phantom Killer’ or ‘Phantom Slayer’ murdered five people and attacked eight total, mostly in lovers’ lanes.

[*] Police have investigated more than 400 suspects, but these murders have never been solved.

[*] If you’ve seen the (excellent) Netflix series Mindhunter you know that the term “serial killer” wasn’t around until the late 1970’s. Little was known about who these men were or why they killed but everyone assumed it had to do with “sex mania”.

[*] Here are the known attacks by the Texarkana Phantom:

February 22, 1946 — Jimmy Hollis (25) and Mary Jeanne Larey (19) were approached by a man while parked at a lovers’ lane. They were ordered out of the car and Jimmy was asked to take his pants off. Jimmy was then pistol-whipped so hard his skull was fractured. Mary was told to run. When the attacker caught up with Mary he sexually assaulted her. Both Jimmy and Mary survived.

March 24, 1946 — Richard L. Griffin (29) and Polly Ann Moore (17) were gunned down while at a lovers’ lane. It is believed that they were killed outside the car and then placed inside by the Phantom. Later that night

April 13, 1946 — Betty Jo Booker (15) and Paul Martin (17) were attacked somewhere after leaving Booker’s band performance at a VFW. Martin was found on the side of the road, shot four times. Booker was found 2 miles away, she had been shot twice.

May 3, 1946 — Virgil Starks (37) was attacked while sitting inside the living room of his farmhouse watching TV. He was shot twice from a (closed) window three feet away. His wife Katie Starks (36) was shot twice from the same window but managed to run to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor drove her to the hospital and she survived.

[*] The two survivors of attacks by the Texarkana Phantom describe him as 6 feet tall and wearing a white pillowcase with eye holes cut out. They do not agree on whether he was a dark-skinned white man or a black man.

[*] After the murders started the community of Texarkana went into a hysteria. The towns instituted a curfew and many citizens who used to not lock their door were buying supplies to secure their doors and windows. Local stores sold out of guns and ammo. The police were inundated with calls about minor clues or crimes.

[*] The name “the Phantom Killer” was literally invented by the media. The Texarkana Gazette started using the name after the double murder of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin.

[*] The Texarkana Phantom is one of at least seven known killers who targeted lovers’ lanes either for their remote locations, distracted prey, or a deeper psychological motive. The Zodiac killer, Son of Sam killer, and Monster of Florence also preyed on lovers’ lanes. The Zodiac and Monster of Florence are also unsolved crimes.

[*] Youell Swinney is considered the prime suspect for the moonlight murders. He was a known criminal and his wife confessed that he was the killer, though she refused to testify against him in court. Swinney was never officially charged and died in 1994 without confessing.

[*] When Swinney’s wife was initially told that the police were questioning her husband for murder, she responded “How did they find out?” She was able to lead the police to crime scenes and give information they believed only someone involved in the crimes would know.

[*] Officially, Youell always denied the allegations. Mrs. Swinney recanted her confession, and some police officers remained unconvinced that a low-life like Youell could commit more restrained crimes than petty theft and counterfeiting. He was imprisoned from 1947-1973 for auto theft.

[*] The Texarkana Moonlight Murders were immortalized in the horror movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown in 1976 and a remake in 2014, though both are heavily fictionalized. In Texarkana, the 1976 film is screened at a movies in the park event every Halloween.