Unsolved Texas ‘Moonlight Murders’ Still Inspire Horror Over 75 Years Later
Two young lovers are parked in a remote area late at night in Texarkana, Texas. They are holding hands, kissing and caressing each other. It's a sweet and thrilling moment, albeit a typical and nearly mandatory step towards adulthood. It's 1946. Today, they would have been old enough to be my great-grandparents. But for now they are so preciously young.
Swirling in the current of these emotions, this couple is asking themselves: is this love? Will we be married? There's nothing in the world but these two because the whole world is just a large, American-made automobile.
But suddenly, it's shock, surprise as a flashlight beam cuts across their faces. Were they just caught by a patrolling police officer? It's frightening but almost expected, part of the thrill of stolen time for love.
This police officer has his gun pointed at them. No, not officer. The man has a pillowcase over his head, a pillowcase with two holes cut out that stare almost eye-lessly at the couple. This man finally speaks. He says to the young man, "take off [your] god-d*** britches." The young man complies, only to get pistol whipped twice so hard that the young woman thinks he's been shot when it's actually the loud crack of his skull fracturing.
The young woman is ordered to run, and he does. She runs until she spots a car, but the car is empty and the man with a pillowcase for a face is suddenly there calling her a liar, knocking her down and then worse...much worse.
Jimmy Hollis, age 25, and his girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, age 19, survived their attack by the man who would become known as the Phantom Killer of Texarkana, a pair of twin cities that straddle the Texas and Arkansas border. The Phantom Killer would attack 8 people, killing 5, before his 10-week reign of terror ended.
We've all heard the infamous stories of serial killers who attacked people in parked cars, but the Phantom killer pre-dates the Son of Sam and the Zodiac Killer by decades. Like the Zodiac Killer, the Phantom Killer was never officially caught. Note the word "officially."
You may be thinking the Phantom Killer was never caught because he was meticulous and calculated like the Zodiac Killer, a hyper-intelligent psychopath. That's not the case. There were mountains of evidence -- fingerprints, bullet casings, footprints, hair, blood and more. After shooting a married couple through their home's window, the Phantom Killer went inside to see his handiwork, tracking bloody foot prints over the linoleum.
There was also multiple confessions from his wife.
Youell Swinney liked to steal cars and counterfeit money. In 1947, he was convicted for stealing cars, and as a repeat offender received life in prison. He was released in the 70s because it was determined his rights were violated in his original trial. He was never charged with any of the Phantom Killer slayings, even though he had been seemingly caught red-handed:
An Arkansas law enforcement official, Max Tackett, had noticed that before each murder, there were reports of a car being stolen and then abandoned. In July 1946, a stakeout of a reported stolen car on the Arkansas side led police to a woman who claimed to be Swinney’s girlfriend. She provided details of the murders that had not been released to the public. Subsequently, her story changed, and she married Swinney. Because of the unreliability of her testimony and the fact that she could not be forced to appear as a witness against her husband, law enforcement officials declined to prosecute.
Peggy confessed to police in detail that she was present at one of the slayings. She said she was so close to the female victim that she could hear her screams. But each time Peggy confessed, she later recanted. I poured though documents made available to the public by the FBI. I'm convinced that she was there at the murders, but also smart enough to save her husband from the electric chair.
Here are some FBI documents I saved so you can decide for yourself:
As for the physical evidence, DNA was first used in 1986, some 40 years after the Phantom Killer murders. The gun used was never recovered. Hair evidence is still seen as circumstantial. There were piles of evidence, but the piles just didn't add up to enough.
The "Moonlight Murders" directly inspired the film The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). They certainly inspired countless campfire tales, slasher flicks and horror novels. Perhaps they even inspired the Son of Sam and Zodiac Killer, too.
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