Marc Hoover: Who was the Texarkana Phantom killer?

Marc Hoover

Texarkana, Texas is a small-town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. For most people, it’s just another small, hot and dusty Texas town. But you might be familiar with the town if you’re a Texas resident, true crime follower or horror movie fan.

In 1976, a movie was released about a killer that terrorized Texarkana for roughly two months. The movie is titled The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Although fiction, it captured the fear of Texarkana residents inflicted by an unknown hooded stranger who brutally murdered five residents.

Today, the murders remain unsolved and no one has ever identified the hooded killer.

On February 22, 1946, lovebirds James Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey were parked on a secluded road outside town. A stranger with a flashlight approached the couple. He blinded them by shining it into their eyes. He pulled a gun on the couple and ordered them to exit the car. After making Hollis strip off his pants, the stranger beat him and fractured his skull. The stranger then forced Larey to run away. He then chased, captured and raped her. But he didn’t kill her.

The couple described the killer as either a white man or light-skinned black man. They couldn’t be sure because he wore a white hood with eyeholes. In March, the stranger killed Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore. The couple were both found murdered in a parked car in a secluded area. The next couple murdered was Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, 15.

The killer’s final victims were Virgil and Katie Starks. The killer shot Virgil in the back of head with two bullets. He died immediately. Katie Starks was shot twice in the face but managed to escape and get help from a neighbor.

The killings gripped the town in fear. Citizens soon became prisoners in their homes. A curfew was set and residents began buying guns to defend their homes. The Texas Rangers even came to town to solve the murders. Captain Manuel T. Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers swore he wouldn’t leave Texarkana until they solved the murders. A local investigator asked the Captain if he had bought a home in town yet. They weren’t able to capture the killer. So who was this killer?

At the time, a man named Youell Swinney was believed to have been the killer. Authorities arrested him for auto theft in 1947. Youell’s wife originally claimed he was the killer but later recanted her statement. Swinney was a habitual offender and spent much time in jail. Although authorities and townspeople believed Swinney was the killer, no one ever proved it.

An author named James Presley wrote a book about the crime titled The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Story of a Town in Terror. Presley is a Texarkana resident and his Uncle Bill Presley was Sheriff of Bowie County and lead investigator on the murders.

Based on conversations James Presley had with his uncle, both men believed that Youell Swinney was the killer. One reason was Swinney’s wife because she named her husband as the killer. Although she recanted, she knew too many details about the killings. It’s possible she may have even been at the crime scenes.

Additionally, after Swinney went to jail, the killings stopped. Authorities considered the case closed after he received a life sentence for stealing cars. Unfortunately, Swinney was eventually released. He never admitted to the killings and if he did, he took his secret to the grave with him when he died in 1994. And since the crime happened so long ago and evidence no longer remains, the case will likely remain unsolved.

Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page at He also wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on