Photo by Peyton Sims
Slain on Lover’s Lane
Reliving the Moonlight Murders of 1946
October 31, 2020
It’s been 74 years since a phantom made his mark on Texarkana. It’s been 74 years since five teenagers’ lives were unexpectedly taken. It’s been 74 years with no answers.
Texarkana is a small town. It’s not a place that’s known for skyrocketing to the top of news headlines, but one of the few exceptions is 1946. A tragedy struck in this desolate town, a tragedy referred to by numerous names: “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” “The Moonlight Murders” or the “Phantom Killer Attacks.” Despite the varying titles, the sorrow over the lost victims was shared from one individual to the next.
Ever since the ‘40s, publications such as “LIFE,” “Buzzfeed Unsolved” and television series such as “Riverdale” have discussed this case. While some are simply references to the crime within a scripted plot, magazines dispersed the national mystery from state to state. Word of the murders spread like wildfires which evoked fear ranging from the young and the elder.
“People were locking their doors, tying chains to their handles and they’d put cans on their doors, so it would rattle when someone opened it,” Grady Doles, who was 18 when the murders happened, said. “My mother was as bad as everyone else, she had cans tied to every door. My grandma said, ‘If the killer is going to come in, they’re going to come in.’ She showed me her .38 revolver, and I asked her if she could use it. She said, ‘Dang right I can.’”
Just imagine: teenagers constantly complain that their current city curfew is 12 a.m. However, after the occurance of the first murder in ‘46, all curfews were moved to 9 p.m. Friends had to cancel plans which meant no more late drive-in movies or weekend hangout sessions at the downtown Paramount Theatre. Even if a couple wanted to push the curfew’s limit, teens were scared senseless to go on a date due to an unidentified serial killer that was on the loose.
“I think that if the Phantom Attacks ever started up again that young people, especially Gen Z, wouldn’t care at all. They’d just carry on with their lives as usual,” senior Christian Rogers said. “I feel like if they enforced a cut curfew like they did in 1946, it’d be unnecessary. Personally, I wouldn’t want to stay out in public after dark anyways because the fear would get to me.”
Today, while running errands around Texarkana, it’s likely that it doesn’t cross your mind that you could be passing by a once prevalent crime scene. Mary Larey and Jimmy Hollis’s bodies were said to be discovered in north Spring Lake Park, Betty-Jo Booker’s was found off of the Galleria Oaks Road extension in an area where the road intersects Fernwood Drive, Paul Martin’s body was located on or near a grassy field near the intersection of North Park Road and Greenbrier Forest Circle about a quarter to half a mile north of Interstate 30, and the final murder victim, Virgil Starks, took place in a house located in Homan, Ark. which is located approximately 20 minutes out of Texarkana.
On March 24 of 1946, two bodies were discovered at 8:15 a.m. Polly Ann Moore and Richard Griffin were murdered by a killer who still remains unknown. This couple marked the beginning of the tragic killing spree. Prior to their attack, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey were attacked. Unlike the end result of the other victims, Hollis and Larey successfully escaped.
Two more teens lives’ were taken by a bullet on April 14. Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker were found on a dirt road on Lover’s Lane— a desolate path within Spring Lake Park. Booker, who played the saxophone in the Texas High School band, was picked up by her childhood friend where they expected nothing more than having time to talk and catch up. Little did they know how limited their time was. If anyone wanted to pay their respects to the loss of Booker, her grave is located at Mossy Woodlawn Cemetery in Texarkana, Ark.
The last and final murder was Virgil Starks on May 3. Stark’s wife, Katie, was shot multiple times while trying to call the police, however, she miraculously survived. Including Mrs. Stark, three people escaped the attempted killings. There’s rumors about this assassination in specific that has raised speculations to whether or not it was committed by the Phantom Killer. Not only was the victim a grown man which differed from his previous teenage victims, but the murder also took place while Starks was sitting on his living room recliner opposed to an isolated dirt road. It’s said that Katie Starks was having an affair and that her secret lover drew his weapon at Virgil.
The prime suspect throughout the case is none other than Youell Swinney. Unfortunately, there was never enough definite evidence to charge him for the five murders. While his wife told the officers numerous incriminating facts, nothing she said could be proven. Swinney was instead placed behind bars for car theft where he was eventually released. He died in a Dallas, Texas nursing home in 1994.
“They couldn’t exactly prove beyond reasonable doubt that [the suspect] was connected to all the murders. They did have evidence to charge him with habitual car theft. He was put in prison for a long time, but they never tied him to all of the murders,” State Trooper Nathan Head said. “Luckily, today we have new investigative techniques. [The police] have a lot of different tools now than they did back in 1946 when these murders were taking place like DNA polygraphs and fingerprint analysis.”
To this day, the case remains open and is still unsolved. The next time you’re spending the weekend out with your friends, take a second to think back to the nightlife within this small town 74 years ago. Strolls through Spring Lake Park, a first date shared behind the wheel or a broken curfew could potentially lead to another life unexpectedly taken. As the years go on and questions remain unanswered, we fear the possibility that Texarkana could reach the top of the headlines yet again.
With our hopes held high and our fingers crossed tight, we pray that the day never comes.