SAN ANGELO, Texas — In 1946, Texarkana was plagued by a Phantom Killer who donned a white mask and hunted town residents under cover of nightfall. These infamous killings became known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.

Warning: This post contains graphic content that may be inappropriate for some readers

A famous movie, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, was based on this Phantom Killer and inspired the following cult classic movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween.

These movies pale in comparison to the Texarkana Moonlight Murders that have remained unsolved to this day for 76 years.

Washington Time Herald May 8, 1946, before the murder of Virgil Stark. CC FBI

Authorities believe that the Phantom Killer murdered a total of five people within the span of two weeks with three victims surviving the attacks. These survivors described him as wearing a white mask or sack with holes cut for eyes giving him his nickname as a phantom.

The first attempted victims were Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larrey, a young couple parked on the side of the road just outside of town on the night of February 22, 1946. According to reports, the Phantom held the couple at gunpoint outside their vehicle ordering Hollis to remove his pants. Hollis was severely beaten but survived with several severe injuries including a fractured skull. Mary Larrey was ordered to run away with the phantom chasing closely behind her. Upon reaching a ditch, she was ordered to change course to the road where he caught up and sexually assaulted her with the pistol he carried before letting her run away again.

Unlike the first couple, Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore did not survive the attack. Their bodies were found in March in their parked car both having been shot in the back of the head. At the time of their death, Griffin was 29 years old, a veteran who made his living in carpentry and painting. Moore was only 17 years old and living with her cousin.

Newsletter clipping after Paul Martin and Betty Jo Bookers murder. CC FBI
Newsletter clipping after Paul Martin and Betty Jo Bookers murder connecting to the murders of Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore. CC FBI

Only a few weeks after they were joined by another young couple, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker. The last time the couple was seen together was when Martin went to pick Booker up from band practice. Martins’s body was found five hours later shot in the back of the head, and Booker’s body was found six hours after Martin and two miles away, having been shot in the face and chest. Booker was the Phantom’s youngest victim at 15 years of age.

Bullet casing from both cases were a match and fingerprints not matching any of the victims had been found but proved inconclusive.

The Phantom Killers’ last official victims were a husband and wife, in their farmhouse northeast of town. Virgil Stark was found with 2 shots to the back of the head, but his wife, Katie, survived being shot twice in the face.

One bullet passed through her nose and the second broke her jaw lodging in under her tongue. She survived and ran down the street to a neighbor’s house to get help.

Newsletter clipping regarding the attack of Virgil and Katie Stark. CC FBI

Texarkana all but shut down the city in wake of the murders, and nearly 400 people were arrested in connection with the killings. The killer’s targeting of couples and lack of other identifiable motives led many at the time to believe that the killer was some sort of “sex maniac”.

A handful of those suspects had more evidence against them than the rest, such as Youell Swinney. His wife confessed to as much at the time, but legally she could not testify against him. Peggy Youell was interviewed several times, and despite the accuracy of her statements about the murders, law enforcement doubted she was telling the truth because she never could provide physical locations or correct time frames. Reports suggested she got her information from the news and publicly made reports. Swinney died in prison as a habitual offender in 1994 without ever implicating himself as the Phantom.

A few years later, 21-year-old Virginia Carpenter went missing in 1948, and it was thought it had been the work of the Phantom killer. However, Swinney was still in prison at the time. In 1999 and 2000, an anonymous woman contacted surviving family members of the Phantom’s victims to apologize for “what her father had done.” But Youell Swinney never had a daughter.

The true killer’s identity remains a mystery to this day, and Texarkana has never been the same since. Although this person likely is no longer alive, their grisly legacy has lived on as one of Texas’s most brutal serial killers.

To view the official FBI records of the case, go here.