Unsolved Mystery: Texarkana’s Moonlight Murders

A couple, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey, had been on a date after which they had parked on the last road of a subdivision in Texarkana the night of February 22, 1946.  At the time, Hollis was 25 and Larey was 19.  After a double date to a movie, they had only been parked for about ten minutes when someone walked up to Hollis’ side of the car and shined a flashlight in his eyes.  The man with the flashlight ordered the couple to exit the car.  Hollis recalled that the man was armed with a gun.  The man then demanded that Hollis remove his trousers.  Hollis had initially resisted but complied, only to be struck hard in the head either with the gun or some other object.  Hollis suffered a fractured skull in the attack.  Thinking it was probably a robbery, Larey was scared but pulled Hollis’ billfold out of his trousers to show the man that Hollis had no money.  The man then ordered Larey to open her purse.  She replied that she didn’t have one and she was knocked to the ground by the assailant after being struck with an object.  The man then ordered Larey to get up and run, which she did.  The man quickly caught her and bewildered Larey by asking her why she was running.  Larey was again knocked to the ground and this time was sexually assaulted.  After the attack, the assailant disappeared and Larey was allowed to escape, managing to get to her feet and run to a nearby house.

Larey was helped by a resident and tried to get help for Hollis but he had already left the scene, having been assisted by a passing motorist.  When they were interviewed by police, each maintained that they did not know the assailant.  Their descriptions of the suspect varied.  Larey said he sounded like an African American due to the way he spoke, whereas Hollis described him as White.  They both agreed that he wore a light colored cloth sack on his head with cutouts for his eyes and mouth and that he was around six feet tall, though neither had a clear estimate of his height.

Larey remained in the area for a couple of months before moving to Frederick, Oklahoma with relatives, but returned from time to time to be interviewed.  Four weeks and two days later on Sunday morning, March 24, 1946, World War II veteran Richard Griffin and Polly Moore were found shot dead in their parked car, a 1941 Oldsmobile, on another lover’s lane just outside the Texarkana city limits.  Both were shot in the back of the head, again apparently while out late on a Saturday night.  An early rain washed away some of the possible physical evidence such as footprints, fingerprint and blood smear evidence.  No weapon was found.  Local authorities investigated and also called in the Texas Rangers to assist.  During the active investigation, a number of suspects were held for questioning, but no one was arrested.  Police revealed details of the attack, including the caliber of a bullet left at the scene, and a reward was offered.  Since neither victim survived, there were no witnesses and little physical evidence to identify a suspect.  There were no additional clues as to his identity.  By then, the public had begun calling the assailant “The Phantom Killer.”  Possible motives included robbery, since Griffin’s pockets were pulled inside out.  Moore’s body was processed for burial before it could be determined whether she had also been sexually abused in the attack.  The Ranger leading the investigation was Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, then serving out of Dallas as Captain of Company B of the Texas Rangers.  Gonzaullas’ biography would add that curiosity seekers were not kept away from the crime scene and likely prevented further processing of the scene for evidence.

While the authorities were still pursuing leads in the first two cases, there was yet another crime in the same locality.  Betty Jo Booker, 15, had finished her April 13th Saturday night event, playing saxophone with a band called the Rhythmaires at the local VFW.  Usually band members alternated taking her home, but this time she had made arrangements with an old friend named Paul Martin, age 16 and just in town for a few days, to pick her up and take her to the home of some girlfriends.  The two were not romantically involved, but they apparently never made it to their intended first stop.  Early on the morning of April 14, 1946 a couple, Mr. and Mrs. G. H.Weaver, found Martin’s body by the side of a wooded lane.  He had been shot four times, likely all but one of which might have been a fatal wound.  Several hours later, Booker’s body was located about two miles away.  She was fully clothed but had been shot twice, in the chest and in the face.  Again the Texas Rangers were called in.  Authorities concluded that the weapon was a .32 caliber (some accounts say .38) weapon, and that it appeared to match the Griffin and Moore killings that had occurred roughly about three weeks earlier.  This time the police, the FBI and the Texas Rangers were all involved in the investigation.

Police immediately began investigating, interviewing witnesses and processing the crime scenes.  Booker’s alto saxophone was not found right away, but Martin’s 1946 Ford was located three miles away from where Booker’s body lay.  Rewards were increased and were publicized over local radio stations and in the area newspapers.  Some clues were revealed, but others were intentionally withheld.  Some six months later, Booker’s saxophone was located in some underbrush by two men repairing a fence, surprisingly less than a tenth of a mile from where Booker’s body had been found.  However, by that time, yet another attack had occurred.

Virgil and Katie Sparks, aged 37 and 36 respectively, were home on the evening of May 5, 1946 when they were both shot.  Authorities speculated that Virgil was shot through a window from outside and that he had been injured first.  Katie had probably found him and was shot twice in the face (also likely from the same window) as she cranked the phone to call police.  When the first officers arrived, they found a small fire smoldering.  Virgil had been sitting on a heating pad when he was wounded and the heating pad had set the chair on fire.  Katie had managed to cross the street to her sister’s house to seek help.  Though she lost a lot of blood, Katie survived though Virgil was killed.  There were a few more clues and items of physical evidence this time.  Spent shells, a flashlight, bloody prints and other elements of the case were investigated.

In the Sparks case, police speculated that the killer had used a .22 rifle rather than a pistol, differentiating it from the previous cases.  In addition, the location of the attack (southwest Arkansas) was different in that it was barely across the Arkansas state line and not near Spring Lake Park.  Also, it was at a private residence rather than at a lover’s lane type location.  Nearby departments brought in bloodhounds who followed a trail back to a highway, where it ended.  No clear motive for the attack could be found.  The Sparks had valuables that were left untouched, though the killer could have panicked when he was not successful in killing Katie.  The rewards in the case were increased to $10,000, a substantial amount of money in 1946.  The case was vigorously investigated by local, state and federal police.  Eventually, the Sparks case was believed to be different enough from the other attacks that it was not widely thought to be connected to the three earlier cases.  Though there were some significant differences, there were some similarities as well, namely having to do with the attacker having isolated two individuals, having timed the attacks roughly three or four weeks apart and that the attacks all happened on weekends.

Then, the attacks stopped as abruptly as they had started.  They had all taken place within a short ten week period.  As time passed, there were fewer references to the case and it tended to fade from prominence.

Though there were others, history has focused on one major suspect, Yowell Swinney, whose wife implicated him in one of the killings as well as a number of car thefts, which were not typical of the Texarkana murders.  Swinney was questioned about the murders but never charged.  His wife later recanted her accusation of him as having killed two of the victims.  Swinney was incarcerated for being an habitual criminal after an auto theft trial in 1947.  He remained in prison until 1973, when he was released on an appeal.  Swinney later was incarcerated for other crimes.  He never admitted to the Texarkana attacks and died in 1994.

Speculation as to why the killings ended as suddenly as they began would include the possibilites that the killer slipped away and quietly relocated to another part of the state or the country.  The killer could have also been arrested and jailed for another crime.  Also, the killer could have become  a victim himself of a different crime or accident.


(Image credit: Abilene Reporter-News)

In popular culture, the Texarkana murders became the subject of a feature film of the horror genre, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, released in 1976.  The film was remade and released in 2014.  The murders have been the subject of a number of books and articles, several television shows, crime documentaries, urban legend series and the like.

The cases remain unsolved.  Ranger Gonzaullas retired after an otherwise successful career, but without having the satisfaction of knowing this case was solved.  As for the survivors, Jimmy Hollis married and had seven children.  He passed away at age 54.  It is believed that Mary Larey died of cancer at age 38.  The most seriously injured survivor, Katie Stark, remarried and lived to the age of 84.

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