Phantom still raises hackles after 50 years

The Dallas Morning News - August 18, 1996

Author: Kent Biffle

TEXARKANA - Old hands still talk about the story filed by an International News Service correspondent back in 1946. It began:

"I have arrived in Texarkana, the home of the Phantom Slayer. I have just talked with a newspaperman named Graves. I am quartered at the Grim Hotel, and the hair is rising on my neck . . ."

A half-century later, both the Grim Hotel and the newspaperman named Graves - Louis "Swampy" Graves - are still standing.

And, for all I know, the Phantom is still out there running naked through the pines.

The stalking nighttime serial killer, feared on both sides of Stateline Avenue, and in every lovers lane in the South, made Texarkana a lingering dateline for terror.

The Phantom killed five people - two women and three men. He dangerously bloodied three others - a man and two women. Most of the victims were shot in "lovers lanes," except for a farm couple. A farmer on the Arkansas side of Texarkana was shot and killed from outside his house, and his wife was shot twice and wounded. She escaped. Evidence later indicated that the Phantom then entered the house, looked at his victim’s body and left. That was the last heard of him.

But long after his spree ended, he continued to scare folks spitless.

As a boy growing up Gatesville, I sometimes speculated on whether the Texarkana Phantom would move to my town. I read every grisly Phantom story I could find.

In 1977, the Phantom inspired a movie directed by Texarkana’s own Charlie Pierce: The Town that Dreaded Sundown .

As recently as last spring, the Phantom inspired a 24-page special section in the Texarkana Gazette : "The Phantom at 50."

One who blames himself, rightly or wrongly, for keeping the fright level at fever pitch during the terror is J.Q. Mahaffey, retired editor. He worked for The Texarkana Gazette for 23 years.

I called on the octogenarian journalist the other day. He still writes a column running in the Diboll Free Press in Angelina County and the Gazette in Bowie County. He dispenses wisdom without taking himself too seriously.

I was greeted by Texas Monthly ’s literary luminary Prudence Mackintosh of Dallas. You may know she’s John Quincy Mahaffey’s daughter. The proud papa told me that UT Press will publish a selection of his daughter’s essays ( Just as We Were ) in October.

Thousands of readers of Thundering Sneakers know she’s the mother of three sons. She got wit from her old man and good looks from her mom, Ruth Mahaffey, who died a few weeks ago.

J.Q. and Ruth were married more than six decades.

He brightened a bit with a funny recollection of the unfunny period when the Phantom Killer kept Texarkana folks locked up at night in their homes. Isolated residents, seeking comfort in numbers, checked into hotels.

"No story has ever broken in this town that attracted so many representatives of the mass communications media," said Mr. Mahaffey, who joined the Gazette in 1929.

"They came from every major news capital in the country. They were intrigued not only with the Phantom and the Texas Rangers who were sent by the governor to solve the case, but they were gripped by the mass hysteria our headlines had created during March, April and May of 1946.

"Nearly 400 suspects were arrested. A part of the hysteria stemmed from the suspicion that your next-door neighbor might be the Phantom, particularly if he were unmarried and had a shady past.

"We on the newspaper were just as unnerved as everyone else. At the height of the tension, at near midnight one evening, there came a pounding on my front door with a raucous voice demanding, ..Let me in!’ "

"I picked up my son’s baseball bat and stood at the far end of my living room." (Footnote: his son, J.Q.M. III, is news anchor at the ABC-TV affiliate in Baton Rouge. He was then about 8.)

"Go away," yelled the editor.

"Let me in," screamed the man on the porch, battering the door.

"Get away from that door!"


With the Phantom on her front porch, Ruth Mahaffey gamely clambered out a rear window to run for help.

J.Q. listened to the silence awhile. He opened the door a crack.

Half a block away, a reeling figure was staggering off up the

street, a harmless drunk trying to find his way home.

Did I mention that booze sales boomed during the Phantom scare?

Mr. Mahaffey said his problem was "the horde of newspaper and radio people from the big cities. One got arrested for DWI. Two of them got drunk and got in a fight at Hotel Grim. I had to get them out of jail.

"Another one was arrested with one of my female reporters in a parked car at Spring Lake Park, a Phantom slaying site. They said they were setting a trap for the Phantom - a likely story.

"My principal headache was Capt. M.T. ..Lone Wolf’ Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers. Lone Wolf, who long since has joined the Ghost Riders in the Sky , was without doubt the best-looking man I’ve ever seen.

"He was of Spanish extraction and wore a spotless khaki suit and a white, 10-gallon hat. He packed two pearl-handled revolvers and brought with him all the legends of the Texas Rangers. For instance, he didn’t deny that he was the ranger who sat in the cashier’s office of the Crazy Hotel in Mineral Wells in Palo Pinto County and gunned down two unlucky ex-convicts who sought to rob the place.

"He was so good-looking that the girl reporters couldn’t leave him alone. He didn’t have time to hunt for the Phantom. He was too busy giving out interviews and trying to run the Gazette . All the other officers on the case became rather jealous of Lone Wolf.

"The resentment boiled over one night. Police Chief Max Tackett and I were sitting in his office at the Arkansas police station when a report came in that strange lights were seen in the home of the last couple to be attacked by the Phantom.

"We sped to the place and, while I hid behind the police car, Tackett and other police officers approached the house with drawn guns. They announced that the house was surrounded and whoever was in there had better come out with their hands up.

"Who should come out of the house but Lone Wolf Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers and a girl photographer from Time-Life . He explained rather sheepishly that he had been re-enacting the crime for the young lady, who was taking pictures of him. Her flash bulbs accounted for the strange lights seen in the house.

"Chief Tackett turned to me and shouted at the top of his voice:

" ..Mahaffey, you can quote me as saying that the Phantom murders will never be solved until Texarkana gets rid of the big city press and the Texas Rangers."

J.Q. Mahaffey was a godfather at the Phantom’s christening, too. Editing a sensational murder story at the city desk, Calvin Sutton glanced at his boss: "We gotta call this guy something. What do you think of the Phantom ?"

Mr. Mahaffey nodded approval: "If the SOB continues to elude capture, he certainly can be called a phantom."

The sobriquet stuck to the mysterious murderer like dried blood. And there was plenty of that around.

No one was ever convicted of the serial murders, but some investigators contend that the Phantom was put away on other charges and died behind bars. Mr. Mahaffey doesn’t buy that.

It’s unsettling that the Phantom could kill all those people and get away with it. Especially with Lone Wolf Gonzaullas hot on his trail.

Mr. Mahaffey recalls interviewing the famous Ranger on Radio KCMC:

"What advice would you give the people to quiet their fears?"

Lone Wolf said, "I’d tell them to check the locks and bolts on their doors and get a double-barreled shotgun to take care of any intruder who tried to get in."

Mr. Mahaffey chuckled at the memory.

Lone Wolf boasted that he would stay in Texarkana until the case was cracked. He left after three months.


Folklorist has filled file on the Phantom

The Dallas Morning News - August 25, 1996

Author: Kent Biffle

LUBBOCK - In the folklore collection of Dr. Kenneth W. Davis of Lubbock is a file marked: "Meaner than hell, but locked up."

It refers to Texarkana’s Phantom Killer. And in a minute we’ll pull that file from the cabinet of Dr. Davis.

The Phantom Killer still sparks speculation and folklore 50 years after his last known murder. Our readers will recall last Sunday’s seminar on the Phantom’s five 1946 murders and three assaults.

J.Q. Mahaffey, retired editor of the Texarkana Gazette , told us that the upshot was 400 arrests but no convictions. The murder cases remain officially open.

Jo Allen of Dallas wrote that she’d been told that a college student confessed to the killings. That’s true.

On Nov. 5, 1948, H.B. "Doodle" Tennison, 17, a University of Arkansas freshman from a prominent Texarkana family, killed himself with poison.

Lawmen found a poem on a dresser in his room in Fayetteville, Ark. The poem posed a puzzle. The answer to the puzzle, the poem promised, would disclose how to open a strongbox in the young man’s room.

Washington County sheriff’s deputies were in no mood for parlor games. They broke open the box by brute force.

A mysterious note

Inside was another note: "Why did I take my own life? You may be asking that question. Well, when you committed two double murders you would, too. . . ."

He confessed to the string of Texas murders and went on to claim that he had killed a man and wounded his wife across State Line Avenue in Arkansas.

I don’t know if the poem was any good. The confession wasn’t. Listen to Maude Davis Blankenship’s 1950 East Texas State master’s thesis in history:

"Investigation failed to match his {Mr. Tennison’s} fingerprints with prints taken at the murder scenes. Other discrepancies seem to prove that the confession came from the mind of one mentally ill."

Of the Phantom’s heyday, the historian wrote, "Texarkana became a city of fear. The Texas Rangers were called in. The manhunt for the Phantom Killer has been called one of the most extensive in the history of the Southwest. Newspapers over the nation concentrated their attention on this city. Few people went out after dark."

Fittingly, a movie on the Phantom was titled The Town That Dreaded Sundown .

Investigators had one hot suspect, a low-end career criminal whose motives mixed robbery with sex. His girlfriend, who claimed to have been along during the attack on one couple, gave vivid details to lawmen - then destroyed her value as a witness by marrying the suspect.

Police Chief Max Tackett on the Arkansas side was sure the suspect was the Phantom. Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley on the Texas side had doubts. Veteran newsman J.Q. Mahaffey had even more doubts. The suspect died in a nursing home a couple of years ago.

New interest

Rekindled interest in the Phantom (the Texarkana Gazette published a 24-page special section last spring) caused Dr. Davis, a retired Texas Tech prof and folklorist, to open his file.

Reviewing notes, he said, "On a hot September day in 1958, I was on my way to Nashville, returning to graduate school. Near the western edge of Texarkana, I stopped for gasoline at a small Conoco filling station whose operator was a toothless gnome, but quite a talker. His failing eyes couldn’t quite read the official-looking parking sticker on my car that let me park on the Texas Tech campus.

"As he took my credit card, he asked, ..You one of them laws come to keep an eye on that killer?.. I assured him that I wasn’t a’ I asked if he referred to the famous Phantom Killer."

"That’s him."

Dr. Davis said he’d almost forgotten the grisly case, although it had made the pages of Life magazine. He asked the attendant what happened to the killer.

With a conspiratorial look, he said, "The Texas Rangers, the highway patrol, and them local laws figgered out who was doin’ all that killin’, but they couldn’t get no real stout evidence on him.

"So, they went to that old boy’s rich momma and daddy and laid it on the line. Them laws told the killer’s folks that if they didn’t keep him locked up somebody would have to up and kill him and save the state a passel of time and money.

"So, his rich momma and daddy, they built a room on the back of that big old plantation house. Made it out of sheet steel and cement. They put a couple of windows in the room, but they’s bars as big as baseball bats over them. They’s no way that killer son could get out’n there."

Dr. Davis asked if he knew where the house was located.

"Not exactly. But I got a purty good idee. Anyway, a few years after those folks locked him up because he was meaner’n hell, they died within a couple of months of each other. The momma died first. Some say it was a broken heart killed her. Some say she drank herself to death because that boy was locked up. The old daddy walked into a freight truck on the Dallas highway.

"It turned out them two had made a will and had a deal with the laws that if somethin’ happened they’d be money to keep watch over him till he died."

Dr. Davis said the attendant moved off to fill another customer’s tank. When he returned, he seemed tired of talking about the matter.

"He did say that at least twice a week a Texas Ranger or one of ..them highway cops’ stopped in the station to fill up with gas and buy a case or two of R.C. Colas. He’d heard the killer liked R.C. Colas.

"I hurried on to Tennessee and let this intriguing tale slip into the back files of my memory bank. Not until I began teaching folklore courses several years later was I reminded of it. My students had numerous tales of people locked up in their homes for a variety of reasons. The recurring motifs make them a significant body of lore."

Dr. Davis recalled, "My uncle, the late James R. Duke, was parts manager for the Dallas Hudson Co. Famous Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Gonzaullas was a customer. He told my uncle the rumors that although the local lawmen in Texarkana knew who the killer was, they wouldn’t arrest him because they had too little evidence, or the family was too rich and influential, or this rich family had agreed to maintain a private prison.

"Ranger Gonzaullas also told my uncle some rather grim, darkly humorous stories that fit into the grand tradition of folk humor."

In one, a nervous young cotton ginner was so scared that he took to sleeping with a loaded six-shooter. Late one night he saw two hands reaching over the foot of his bed. He fired and shot off a big toe.

Another Gonzaullas story was about a farmer on the Arkansas side who grabbed his double-barreled shotgun when he heard strange noises outside one rainy night. Through the screen door, he let go both barrels. Stepping outside, he found that he’d killed a neighbor’s mule.

Blame the Phantom.



The Record (New Jersey) - March 22, 1998

Author: By JOHN CHADWICK, Staff Writer: The Record

Gerald Gedrimas lives a quiet life as a chauffeur now. At 37, he no longer thinks like the rootless kid who shot down a teenage friend and stole a bunch of rifles because he wanted to be like Jesse James.

Doris Grunstra, too, lives a subdued existence, taking care of her aged mother and working as a financial clerk. She is far removed from those happier days when she and her husband, Wayne, worked full time so they could afford a new tract home in suburban Pequannock and a Catholic education for their son.

Twenty years ago this month, the paths of Gerald Gedrimas and Doris Grunstra became entwined forever when Gedrimas, then 17, ambushed and killed 16-year-old James Grunstra, Doris’ only child.

In today’s tabloid-crime lexicon, the shooting in James’ bedroom might be called a "thrill killing" murder with no motive other than to take life. But for its surviving principals, it remains a moment of horror that has defined the rest of their lives.

"What I did was bad, I cannot justify it; there are so many things that affect me because of that," a reflective Gedrimas said during a recent interview at his basement apartment in a remote old farmhouse."Jim’s sin was to trust me. There was no argument between us, there was absolutely no reason for him to die, and the weight of that is what has made me into who I am today."

Doris Grunstra, who found her son’s body, carries the weight of the tragedy as a widow whose sunny memories of family outings are offset by feelings of despair and chronic fearfulness. Wayne died in 1995, and Grunstra, 56, now lives with her mother, finding solace in family and in her faith. But she still is terrified walking into an empty house. She can’t bring herself to visit James’ grave, and only recently was she able to look over some of his belongings stowed in the attic.

"To this day, it boggles the mind. There was no rhyme or reason for it, and it shattered something fundamental in us. It destroyed our lives," she said.


On March 15, 1978, high school acquaintances Gerry Gedrimas and James Grunstra agreed to get together after school at James’ Sunset Road house while his parents were out working.

Gedrimas got there first, walked in, and began carrying out his plan: He packed up rifles that belonged to James’ father, put the guns in a Kirby vacuum cleaner box, pocketed a few household items, and bided his time.

James got home and walked upstairs to his bedroom, where Gedrimas waited. There was little conversation between the two.

Gedrimas then shot James once in the chest, walked over to where he had fallen, and shot him two more times in the head. He returned the rifle to the father’s closet and rode away on James’ bike, carrying the box with the other rifles over the handlebars.

He was caught by police soon after, and his case was moved to adult court. Headlines trumpeted news of a youthful killer who told his stepfather he wanted to be like Jesse James. But authorities, perceiving a deeply disturbed boy, arranged a plea bargain: Gedrimas pleaded no defense to second-degree murder and was given the maximum sentence of 38 to 40 years.

News accounts show that the tragedy receded from the public consciousness as quickly as it had appeared. It did spark some discussion over the relationship of movies and television to real-life violence: Gedrimas told the judge he had gotten the idea to commit murder from a Grade B horror movie, "The Town That Dreaded Sundown ." But neither the prosecutor at the time, Peter Manahan, nor the assistant prosecutor, Michael Bubb, can recall the case today.

Doris and Wayne Grunstra never appeared on television demanding justice, never gave emotional interviews, never attended a single court session. Instead, they sought refuge in each other, their relatives, and the church. They moved to a rural area far from that house in Pequannock.

"When you lose your only child, you become each other’s priority," Doris Grunstra said. "Wayne and I spent a lot of time just at home, sometimes just in silence."


Gedrimas was paroled two days before Christmas 1986. Officials say his records show he was not a discipline problem in prison and was not perceived as a threat to society by the parole board. He now has been downgraded to the most minimal parole reporting requirements, state officials said.

Life since has had its ups and downs: Gedrimas married and separated, bounced among unskilled jobs. At one point he started a locksmith business, but it eventually failed. Mostly a loner, he has had little contact with his family. He said Friday that he has moved and is living with a woman with whom he recently became engaged.

In a clear and blunt style, he acknowledges his guilt, refusing to blame society, his parents, or anything else. "If you go sit in jail nine years, your attitude changes," he said.

Like Doris Grunstra, Gedrimas agreed to be interviewed for this story on condition that his town of residence be withheld. Gedrimas also said he wanted to publicly express his remorse over the crime.

But to listen to him, what happened remains a mystery he cannot fathom.

"I guess I don’t feel good about myself. I guess because of what happened, maybe I feel I am undeserving," he said.

His freedom deeply troubles the Grunstra family, who say the years he served hardly matched the viciousness of the crime. "This is someone who is cunning, calculated, and cold; can someone who did what he did ever really be rehabilitated? I don’t believe so," Doris Grunstra said.


The Grunstras and the Gedrimases moved to Pequannock with high hopes. Both sets of parents had working-class roots and wanted homes in the suburbs for their children.

But beyond that, their characters diverged.

Gedrimas never met his real father, who left before he was born. His mother remarried when he was 5, and it was his stepfather who moved the family from Lyndhurst to a home on Star Court. His stepfather drove a potato chip truck. "It was the idealistic middle-class America," Gedrimas said.

But family life was volatile. His stepfather drank and could be gruff and argumentative, Gedrimas said. A neighbor remembers the family as troubled, describing the stepfather as aggressive and Gerald as gentle but offbeat, solitary, and completely unsupervised.


Phantom’s crimes unavenged - The sex-crazy, hooded killer who haunted lovers’ lanes was never unmasked. He flat got away with murder.

Dallas Morning News, The (TX) - January 5, 2003


A night-stalking serial killer who made Texas-Arkansas border-liners dread sundown in 1946 lived in Dallas in the 1990s, a researcher says.

Texas mystery buffs won’t forget the reign of terror that the killer - called the Phantom - created in Texarkana a half century ago.

And Texas movie buffs won’t forget (or forgive) the Phantom’s lasting legacy, a 1977 movie called The Town That Dreaded Sundown .

Critical viewers suggested that for his work in this film, actor Ben Johnson should give back the Oscar he won for The Last Picture Show. Actually, Ben Johnson’s performance was among his most convincing portrayals of Ben Johnson.

I liked the fright flick’s sort of homemade quality.

The Phantom’s story is intriguing. The sex-crazy, hooded killer who haunted lovers’ lanes was never unmasked. He flat got away with murder.

Body count

His body count of unavenged victims was five dead and three others badly bloodied.

Who knows? Dallas citizens might have dreaded sundown, too, had they known that Texarkana’s 1946 nocturnal terror was thought to be living in Big D in the 1990s.

Sammy Wacasey is the latest Phantom researcher, hoping to base a book on his findings.

The Texarkana Museum System librarian last week closed his exhibit The Good, The Bad and the Unsolved. The Phantom shared a spotlight with other blood-spillers who got what was coming to them.

If Mr. Wacasey is right, the Phantom ultimately got his comeuppance, too. But that’s getting ahead of this mystery story.

The Phantom’s bloody spree began on the night of Feb. 23, 1946, when he assaulted a dating couple, Jimmy Hollis, 24, and Mary Jeanne Leary, 19, on an isolated dirt road frequented by lovers.

His face hidden by a canvas bag with eye slits, the Phantom, pointing a handgun, ordered them out of their parked car. He pistol-whipped young Hollis, twice cracking his skull. He tackled Miss Leary as she tried to run in high heels. Assaulting her, he was startled by distant headlights. She broke free, fleeing to a friendly farmhouse. The victims recovered.

A month later ...

"On March 29, 1946, a motorist noticed what he thought was two people sleeping in a car parked on a dirt road not far from a hot spot called Club Dallas," said Mr. Wacasey.

Approaching the 1941 Oldsmobile, he realized that he had chanced on a crime scene. Richard Griffin, 29, a WWII hero, slumped in the front seat, dead from two bullet wounds. Polly Ann Moore, 17, a worker at the Red River Arsenal, was sprawled in the backseat, raped and fatally shot in the head.

Rain during the night had washed away any footprints, but investigators recovered .32 caliber slugs probably fired from a Colt revolver.

Pondering scanty clues from the Club Dallas site, cops early on April 14, 1946, were stunned by yet another lovers’ lane tragedy.

The bodies of Paul Martin, 16, and Betty Jo Booker, 15, were found in Texarkana’s leafy Spring Lake Park.

An A student, she was a talented musician. Her promising future vanished like a wisp of muzzle smoke from the Phantom’s .32. Her former classmate, young Martin, had recently moved to Kilgore.

Each Saturday night, Betty Jo blew sax with a group called the Rhythmaires, whose big-band sound filled a VFW hall with musical moonlight and roses. She and her escort left the hall about 1 a.m. Sunday.

"Official reports would say Miss Booker was raped in the same manner as Miss Moore," noted Mr. Wacasey, who researched the Phantom’s murders for the East Texas Historical Association.

Two months after that ...

On May 4, 1946, Virgil Starks, 36, listened to the radio while reading a newspaper in the living room of his farmhouse south of Texarkana, in Miller County, Ark. Without warning, two bullets punctured a windowpane, drilling his skull. He rolled out of his easy chair, dying. His wife, Katy Starks, 35, heard the commotion, gasped at the scene and flew to the phone. While dialing the operator, she was shot in the right cheek and again in the jaw.

She heard the unseen killer entering the house through a kitchen window. Severely hurt, she reeled out the front door into the night. Making her way to a neighbor’s place, the new widow survived the night. But she didn’t get a look at her husband’s killer.

Investigators believed that a .22 caliber pistol was the murder weapon. Although the crime deviated from the Phantom’s MO, lawmen assumed the killer was intent on raping Mrs. Starks. The Starks case went into the Phantom’s bulging file, jam-up with false leads.

Numerous nuts claimed they were Phantoms. Helpful citizens happily fingered suspects, among them targets of spite, one an IRS agent. Texarkana struck a gusher of headline ink. The towering Grim Hotel was crowded with reporters filing grim stories.

Promptly after the Booker-Martin killings, a dazzling figure descended on Texarkana.

Trailing clouds of glory, Texas Rangers Capt. M.T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas alit, taking charge of half a dozen Rangers and anyone else who got too close.

J.Q. Mahaffey, who died not long ago, was for 23 years editor of the Texarkana Gazette. Mr. Mahaffey and one of his editors, Calvin Sutton, pinned the "Phantom" tag on the killer. Mr. Mahaffey once recalled for me his year of living sleeplessly:

"My principal headache was Lone Wolf, who without doubt was the best-looking man I’ve ever seen. He was of Spanish extraction and wore a spotless khaki suit and a white 10-gallon hat. He packed two pearl-handled revolvers.

"He was so good-looking that the girl reporters couldn’t leave him alone. He didn’t have time to hunt for the Phantom; he was too busy giving out interviews and trying to run the Gazette. All the other officers on the case became rather jealous of Lone Wolf.

"One night Police Chief Max Tackett and I were sitting in his office at the Arkansas police station when a reporter told us that strange lights were seen at the Starks’ farmhouse.

"We sped to the place and, while I hid behind the police car, Tackett and other officers approached the house with drawn guns. They announced that the house was surrounded and whoever was in there had better come out with their hands up.

"Who should come out of the house but Lone Wolf Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers and a girl photographer from Time-Life. He explained rather sheepishly that he had been re-enacting the crime for the young lady, who was taking pictures of him. Her flash bulbs accounted for the strange lights."

(Footnote: Editor Mahaffey’s daughter, Prudence Mackintosh of Dallas, is known for her hilarious book on raising sons, Thundering Sneakers, and, more recently, her remembrance of things past, Just As We Were.)

Key to attacks

Max Tackett figured in researcher Wacasey’s take on the Phantom. In a nifty bit of deduction, the chief noticed that a car was stolen before each attack by the Phantom and later abandoned. He alerted his cops.

On a late June afternoon, a cop spotted a stolen car in a parking lot on the Arkansas side. Lawmen waited. A young woman came out of a nearby store. When she got into the car, they nabbed her.

She claimed the car belonged to her husband, who was out of town. Questioning her, Chief Tackett and his assistant, Tillman Johnson, learned that her husband was in Atlanta, the Cass County seat, selling another hot car.

Returning to Texarkana, he was greeted by cops at the bus station. The hot suspect was Youell Swinney, 29, a jailbird fallen from the nest of a preacher papa.

His wife, 21, told cops how her husband killed Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin. She relayed details of the slayings that weren’t publicly known. Moreover, she passed a polygraph test. But she continually changed her story, and, in the end, claimed her lawful right to refuse to testify against her husband.

Suspect Swinney was never charged with murder. Nor did a shirt found in his hotel room ever become a court exhibit. "Starks" was stenciled on it.

Lawmen hauled him to Little Rock for a dose of truth serum. He OD’d and went out like a light. They didn’t try again. Eventually, the habitual thief sold one hot car too many and was sent to prison for life. A 1973 appeal freed him. He then fell for counterfeiting.

Again released, he was tracked by Mark Bledsoe of Texarkana. Realtor Bledsoe investigated the murders for a book he planned. He found that the ex-con lived in a Dallas halfway house until he was crippled by a stroke.

Mr. Bledsoe reportedly quizzed him in his wheelchair, hoping he’d confess to the murders. He didn’t.

Mr. Wacasey said: "The suspect died in a Dallas nursing home in 1993."

Kent Biffle is a regular contributor to Texas & Southwest.


Seeking a solution to secrets

Dallas Morning News, The (TX) - January 12, 2003

Author: Kent Biffle

Scattershooting while wondering what ever happened to Blackie Sherrod ...

(Footnote: Just kidding. If you just rode up, I’d better mention that columnist Sherrod retired from The Dallas Morning News last week. For six decades, he awed and humbled Texans of the inky-fingered ilk.)

Actually, I assembled you for Part Two of our Phantom symposium.

Texarkana’s night-stalking serial killer, described on Jan. 5, fetched a hearse-load of mail from readers.

One respondent confessed that her father was the Phantom killer. I’ll get back to her.

The sex-crazy Phantom haunted lovers’ lanes in 1946. He left five victims shot to death and three others hurt.

He wore a canvas bag with eye slits. And he was never unmasked. He got away with murder.

Dusk and doom

Texarkana - on both the Texas and Arkansas sides of Stateline Avenue - became a town that dreaded sundown .

And The Town That Dreaded Sundown was the 1977 horror movie inspired by the Phantom’s killings.

Realtor and Phantom investigator Mark Bledsoe and Texarkana Museum librarian Sammy Wacasey have researched the killings. The leading suspect was Youell Swinney, thief, counterfeiter and habitual criminal. Mr. Bledsoe tracked him to Dallas, where he spent his last years in a Dallas halfway house. Crippled by a stroke, he was moved to a Dallas nursing home, where he died in 1993.

Researchers Bledsoe and Wacasey have each talked of writing a book on the Phantom. Our mail confirms that the long-ago Phantom remains a lively topic.

’Lone Wolf’ arrives

Fort Worth artist William Robert "Bob" Martin, who wasn’t kin to victim Paul Martin, recalls saxophonist Betty Jo Booker, 15. She was slain with 16-year-old Martin, her escort. The ex-soda jerk writes:

"I was one year behind Betty Jo at Texarkana High School. I worked at Brown Drug Store, which adjoined a Studebaker dealership and garage.

"One afternoon while I was at the fountain, two black and white Ford sedans drove up. I served coffee and Cokes to Capt. M.T. ’Lone Wolf’ Gonzaullas and other Texas Rangers while their cars were being serviced. That was the day they arrived from Austin.

"I never saw Lone Wolf again, so I had no reason to think he wasn’t the Texas Superman he was made out to be. I can see that his ego may have been a problem. I kept thinking he would come through and pull in the murderer. It seemed like he was deserting when he retreated to Austin.

"Because the crimes were sex-related, I felt no great fear delivering prescriptions on my bike after dark. I did not deliberately examine the crime scenes, but I was pretty familiar with the areas.

"The first three crimes were on the edge of T-town, all on the Texas side. The last one was something like seven miles or more in Miller County, Ark. This one - the murder of Virgil and Katy Starks - appeared to be inconsistent with the previous crimes. I have been one of many who doubted the connection.

"There was a different weapon - a .22 instead of a .32 - and there was speculation about a different motive, maybe revenge, jealousy, whatever. Of course, as a naive kid, I didn’t have access to the insider information that seems to be emerging now.

"I thought the movie [TTTDS] was a bummer. I’d like to see it again to examine it with a new perspective. That scene on the cover of the video looks more like Fort Stockton than Texarkana."

Fixing the date

Mark M. Moore of Naples in Morris County writes:

"The correct date of the death of Polly Ann Moore, who was my sister, was March 24, not March 29, 1946, as stated in your article. About two years ago, I met with Jim Presley, whose name was given to me by Larry Powell, a Dallas Morning News columnist, and Tillman Johnson, who was the chief deputy at the time of the event. Mr. Presley was doing research.

"Mr. Presley had been interviewed by the TV program Unsolved Mysteries. I learned some information that had not been available to my family in 1946. Mr. Presley is the only researcher I have talked to although I see articles from time to time indicating that research is being done on this dreadful event. The brother of [murder victim] Richard Griffin lives within 15 miles of me and I don’t think he has ever been contacted by anyone either.

"Incidentally, I lost my lawsuit regarding The Town That Dreaded Sundown . It was advertised as a true story, but was not."

John A. Norman of Dallas, a retired trust company CEO who is plotting a novel, writes:

"I was a teenager, living in New Boston at the time. That summer, we were afraid to sleep with windows open. Rumors were rife about sightings and near misses.

"Mr. Starks was a shade-tree mechanic. I remember stopping at his place with my dad to repair a flat tire shortly before he was murdered."

Bars on windows

Mrs. Curt Kennedy of Dallas writes:

"My family and I moved to Texarkana in 1945 and were as terrorized as the other people. We had window bars installed. My dad kept his pistol handy. My dad, Charlie Kennedy, was a first cousin of J.Q. Mahaffey [late editor of the Texarkana Gazette], so we were always up-to-date on breaking news of the Phantom.

"J.Q. loved to tell about Max Tackett [police chief on the Arkansas side], who was quite a character. A favorite story was that when Lone Wolf arrived in all his glory, Max broadcast to the town that he ’couldn’t track an elephant in a 10-foot snow.’ I love that."

Tom Wilbanks of Mesquite writes:

"I grew up in Texarkana and was about 12 years old at the time of the attacks. I remember some of that unfortunate time. My grandfather was a Presbyterian pastor for many years and a close friend of J.Q. Mahaffey, whom I also knew. I had not heard about his death. He was a good man."

A Bedford woman, who gave her name as Lou, writes that her father - "one of the meanest persons I ever knew" - was the Phantom:

"I read with anticipation that something true would finally be written about my dad. Yes, my dad was the Phantom killer. He did not move to Dallas as you indicated. He married my mother and moved to Louisiana. From there we moved to California, then to Arizona. He and his mother were murdered in California, execution style - which he probably deserved. ...

"Sorry you feel the person pinpointed died in a nursing home in Dallas. The article was good fiction."

Lou, 55, reported that a Texas Ranger shot her father - the Phantom - scarring his legs.

(Footnote: A Texas Ranger shot the Phantom in the legs, but only on film. Actor Ben Johnson, playing a Ranger captain, plugged the Phantom’s legs in The Town That Dreaded Sundown . Tougher than bodark, the movie’s wounded Phantom escaped.)