Phantom Killer murders live on
Texarkana residents were in an intensive state of alert the weekend night of May 24, 1946. That day marked three weeks since the last “Phantom Killing” took place at a home 10 miles outside the city limits in Miller County on U.S. Highway 67.
The two victims were the third couple shot that tense and unnerving spring of 1946.
Throughout Texarkana’s 136year history, perhaps no other event has created more sustained interest and intrigue than the Twin Cities’ five mysterious Phantom slayings of 63 years ago.
There were assaults on four young couples between the nights of Feb. 22 and May 3, 1946. Of the eight victims, five died of gunshot wounds and three survived either being shot or beaten. The lasting historical effect and legacy of these events for Texarkana are evidenced by the national and international attention the crimes drew—and continue to draw.
Former Miller County Chief Deputy Tillman Johnson, the last surviving lead investigator of the homicide cases, died several years ago at age 97. He possessed the last original police records and documents on the cases, as well as a wealth of personal knowledge regarding the slayings.
Johnson had been contacted by people from as far as Norway and Sweden interested in the murders.
In early 2007, a British television crew from London came through Texarkana with a piano that once belonged to the late exBeatle John Lennon. The crew conducted a nationwide tour in a memorial tribute to different sites where “senseless killings” took place.
Within the last six years, a Discovery Channel film crew visited Texarkana to make a video documentary about the slayings, and this year, several film crews came to town working on projects related to the Phantom Killings.
About the only original records of the first attack attributed to the Phantom Killer can be found in the Texarkana Gazette’s February 1946 hard-bound files.
The attack was an aggravated assault of a young couple in a car parked on a gravel “lateral road” off Richmond Road—just about a mile north of the Beverly residential area. The attack occurred about 11 p.m. Feb. 22, 1946. The couple survived.
The assault victims were James B. “Jimmy” Hollis, 24, and Mary Jeanne Larey, 19.
Contrary to newspaper accounts, a 14-page statement on the attack, written by Hollis and dated Oct. 15, 2007, states that he and Larey actually parked about 50 feet off Richmond Road on an unpaved lane, only about 100 yards from the last row of city homes.
A 1945 Texarkana City Directory indicates that the Beverly addition’s residential development stopped in about the 600 block of Richmond Road.
Hollis’ 2007 account further states that the assailant knocked him unconscious, fracturing his skull in three places. The suspect then apparently attempted to sexually assault Larey, after which she managed to flee south to a home at 805 Blanton St. to summon help after an approaching car apparently forced the assailant to retreat from the area.
Once at the house, Larey described her attacker as a man “wearing a hood mask over his face with holes cut out of it for his eyes and mouth.” That Blanton home still exists. Hollis received treatment for his injuries at Texarkana Hospital. The hospital, also known as Pine Street Hospital, morning, April 14, 1946, in wooded areas north and west of Spring Lake Park.
At that time, the park was on the far north end of town. Residents and law officers found Booker’s body off Morris Lane with two gunshot wounds, one apparently in the chest and the other in the side of her head.
Today, her crime scene is a wooded area just south of where the residential Fernwood Street dead ends. Earlier that same Sunday morning, law officers found Martin on his side in a rural area off what was then an unpaved North Park Road—not too far from where it now intersects with Summerhill Road. He appeared to have been shot at least four times—once in the chest and hand and twice in the back.
At the time of her slaying, Booker lived at 3107 Anthony Drive in what was then the new Sussex Downes neighborhood off Texas Avenue (now Texas Boulevard). She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery after her funeral at Beech Street First Baptist Church. Her home and Martin’s, at 1224 Locust St., still exist.
Martin was buried at Hillcrest Cemetery on U.S. 67 West.
Following the Booker-Martin murders, the phrase “Phantom Killer” started circulating amid the media, law enforcement and the community.
The fourth and final attack stood at West Fifth and Pine streets and no longer exists.
Larey, an Oklahoma native, died of cancer in 1965 in Billings, Mont. She was 38.
This first attack drew practically no attention, but people started to take notice on Sunday morning, March 24, 1946.
Bowie County sheriff’s deputies discovered the bodies of 29year-old Richard Griffin and 17year-old Polly Ann Moore.
They were in a car parked near a railroad spur a few hundred yards south of where West Seventh Street (U.S 67) and South Robison Road now intersect. Both had been shot at least once, apparently with a .32-caliber pistol.
At the time of her murder, Moore lived in a boardinghouse at 1215 Magnolia St., while Griffin lived at 155 Robison Courts—a new residential section being built for servicemen returning from World War II.
Griffin’s former home recently underwent demolition; Moore’s Magnolia address was apparently demolished when North State Line Avenue grew wider through the years and consumed some residential and business structures on both sides of it.
Moore’s burial site is at Bryans Mill Cemetery in Cass County, Texas. Griffin’s burial site is unknown.
The third attack killed 16-yearold Paul Martin and 15-year-old Betty Jo Booker early Sunday attributed to the Phantom Killer took place the evening of May 3, 1946, at a rural home off U.S. 67 East about 10 miles outside the Texarkana, Ark., city limits in Miller County.
Sheriff’s deputies and Arkansas State Police found 36-year-old Virgil Starks on his living room floor. He was apparently shot in the back of his head by a bullet that came through his home’s front window.
The unknown gunman also managed to shoot Starks’ wife, Katy Starks, 34, twice in the face. She survived the attack and ran, collapsing near a neighbor’s home. Virgil Starks was buried at Hillcrest Memorial Park after his funeral at First United Methodist Church on the Arkansas side.
Katy Starks recovered from her wounds at Michael Meagher Memorial Hospital—now the Miller County Health Unit at 503 Walnut St. She eventually remarried. She died in early July 1994 and was buried next to her first husband’s burial site in Hillcrest. The couple’s home on U.S. 67 no longer exists.
In April 2005, the Miller County Sheriff’s Department received a sealed package of evidence, with the year 1946 and the name Starks written on it, from the Little Rock crime lab.
During a 1996 interview, Johnson said murders in and around Texarkana weren’t necessarily uncommon, but the similar circumstances were—the fact that slayings attributed to the Phantom Killer happened at night, on weekends, exactly three weeks apart with two victims involved, usually young couples, and with the same method of murder.
During the few weeks following Starks’ murder, terror throughout Texarkana reached near panic as life in the city would shut down shortly after sundown every night—with downtown bars, nightclubs, restaurants and movie theaters taking the biggest financial hit.
Residents all over the city kept firearms near their bedsides and placed extra locks and other security devices on doors. Windows were boarded up and blacked out.
Such edgy security precautions became the subject of a feature and photo article in the June 10, 1946, issue of Life magazine.
Gradually the fright tapered off as weeks and eventually months went by without any more slayings.
However, local law officers continued to search diligently for the killer and eventually found a prime suspect—at least in the Booker-Martin murders— around July 15, 1946.
Following a series of car thefts, when one car was stolen and a previously stolen car was abandoned each night of the murders, police eventually tracked down a car thief and his wife during a stakeout near Union Station.
The investigation eventually led to the suspect’s arrest at or near the popular Jefferson Coffee Shop on Front Street. The BiState Justice Building occupies part of where the cafe stood.
But despite undergoing intense questioning at the Miller County Sheriff’s Department and later at the Arkansas State Police headquarters in Little Rock, the suspect could not be made to confess.
As it turned out, his 21-yearold wife, who apparently accompanied him during the Booker-Martin murders, gave details about the slayings, but state law prevented spouses from being forced to testify against one another.
The 29-year-old suspect, who had a criminal record dating as far back as 1932, was eventually sent to prison on car theft charges and eventually received a life sentence as an habitual criminal. He died at a Dallas rest home more than a decade ago.
From the many archived local news articles and the few remaining police reports on the case, there were at least 33 building sites and relevant places associated with the Phantom Killer murders. Of that number, at least five are gone and four have been so altered and modernized as to render them unrecognizable.
Some of the more notable existing sites include Spring Lake Park and the former Miller County Sheriff’s Department, which at that time was housed in the county courthouse on the first floor, now occupied by the county Tax Assessor’s Office.
This is where the chief suspect was questioned.
The building that housed the Bowie County Sheriff’s Office, where ultimately some 200 suspects were questioned, is still at 214 Main St.
Three other key sites associated with the Phantom Killings include:
The Hotel Grim, where dozens of radio, newspaper and magazine media from throughout the country flocked to cover the stories. It also served many law enforcement officers from both states investigating the cases.
The old Texas High School where Betty Jo Booker was a sophomore. It later became Pine Street Middle School before it shut down a few years ago and is now a vacant historic building.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars building bordered by Oak Street on the west, West Third Street on the south, West Fourth Street on the north and Spruce Street on the east. It is where Booker played in a local big band at a high school prom the night before her murder. The original wood building burned down. The brick building standing there today was built in about 1962.