There were no more murders but the investigation got complicated
The Texas Moonlight Murders have grabbed the attention of the entire country. In the May 11th edition of Texarkana Gazette, Sheriff Presley and Chief of Police Jack N. Runnels asked for any information on missing persons on the nights of the murders. “Somebody in Texarkana or in Bowie or Miller counties knows that somebody else was ‘out of pocket’ on the nights of Feb 22-23, March 23–24, April 13–14 and May 3, and Sheriff W. H. Presley and Chief of Police Jack Runnels want persons having such knowledge to report to them immediately,” said the newspaper. In a joint statement, the officers stated:
We want every man and woman in these two counties to recall the dates of these murders and also to recall whether or not any person close to them was missing or out of pocket during those nights. Persons who have such information and have been withholding it when they know they should report it are leaving themselves open to possible charges of complicity in event the slayer is captured. Make no mistake about the fact that the slayer will be captured because we will not give up this hunt until he has been captured or killed.
By May 19, rumors were still being spread about the Texas moolight murders and many people believed that the slayer had been caught. Some of them believed he was being held at the Bowie County Jail surrounded by Texas Rangers with submachine guns on their knees. Others believed he was flown to an out-of-town jail. The Gazette and News offices were drowned with phone calls, both local and long distance, inquiring about the apprehension of the killer. “Newspapers Will Tell Public If Killer Is Caught”, read one of the sub-headlines of the May 19th edition of Texarkana Gazette. Sheriff Presley declared that innocent people were being accused of being the killer and asked the residents to show more consideration for their fellow citizens. Presley stated, “These rumors positively are not true. We can understand why the people believe them. All of us are tense and are hopeful that at any hour officers will announce they have the killer in custody. The people must not become so anxious to rid themselves of the killer, however, that they brand innocent persons as the murderer and believe unfounded stories. The investigating officers have announced that when and if the killer is apprehended or killed the public will be given the full story through the newspapers. We reaffirm this statement. The newspapers are kept posted on developments in the investigation and they will announce all news immediately. We believe that the people have a right to know if the killer is caught or killed and we pledge ourselves to let the public have this information.”
After the first double murder, some parents warned their children about being out late. The second double murder shocked the city and curfews were set for businesses. The height of the town’s hysteria snowballed after the murder of Virgil Starks. The Texarkana Gazette stated on Sunday, May 5, that the killer might strike again at any moment, at any place and at any one. Before, it was normal to leave your house unlocked, but soon residents started locking doors, pulling down shades, blocking windows, and arming themselves with guns. Some people would nail sheets over their windows or nail the window down. Some used screened-door braces as window guards. The next day after Starks’ death, several residents bought firearms and locks. Stores sold out of locks, guns, ammunition, and window shades and Venetian blinds. Other items that sold well included window sash locks, screen door hooks, night latches, and other protective devices.
During that weekend, Texarkana residents kept the police busy by flooding the station with reports of prowlers. One officer stated that nearly all of the alarms were the result of excitement, wild imagination and even near hysteria. Farmhouses and neighborhoods blazed with lights. Several businesses, including cafes, theaters and night clubs, lost many customers. One business reported a 20% drop. The evenings were hopping, but the streets were practically deserted when dawn approached. The city became a virtual ghost town. Because of the drop in business, liquor stores closed at 9:30 and posted a statement in the paper saying, “We fully understand the state of mind in which Texarkana is now gripped. And we are selling no liquor to persons who already have been drinking. We do not wish to add further to the troubles of the police. Any person who drinks whiskey at this time to get drunk and wander about the streets of Texarkana is further complicating the works of the police and is placing himself in grave danger of being shot by people whose nerves are on edge from the recent murders.” Since citizens were so jittery and armed with guns, Texarkana was a very dangerous place. Officers had to turn their siren on when they drove up, get out and stand in their headlights and announce themselves to keep from being shot by a nervous homeowner. In order to go to someone’s house, you had to call in advance and let them know to expect you. A fearful tavern proprietor had shot a customer in the foot who was in search of beer.
On the front page of the Texarkana Gazette on Monday, May 6, a headline stated that the entire area was fighting jitters. Captain Gonzaullas helped fuel the hysteria when he announced on the radio Tuesday evening that Texarkanians should “Oil up their guns and see if they are loaded. Put them out of the reach of children. Do not use them unless it’s necessary, but if you believe it is, do not hesitate.” When asked what advice he could give to quiet the town’s fear, he responded “I’d tell them to check the locks and bolts on their doors and get a double-barreled shotgun to take care of any intruder who tried to get in.” Another part of the hysteria came from the killer being called a “Phantom”. That Tuesday night, many residents around East Ninth street were alarmed and called into the Gazette and News that they believed more murders had been committed because they heard sirens. The sirens turned out to be sound effects from a carnival. Guard dogs became a hot commodity in local want-ads. Terrified wives would not go out after dark. In addition to arming and barricading themselves, residents took to extreme measures, such as creating booby-traps, installing lights, and even temporarily moving into hotels or relative’s homes, for safety in numbers. Overnight watches were kept, and tensions were high, with police questioning anyone who appeared suspect.
Although most of the town was in fear of the killer, some kids continued parking on lonely roads. Some of them hoped to apprehend the evasive slayer. One night, Officer Tillman Johnson was patrolling a lonely road with Arkansas State Trooper Charley Boyd when they came up to a parked car. Johnson got out while Boyd stayed behind. Johnson walked up to the car and noticed a couple. He said, “I am Tillman Johnson with the Miller County Sheriff’s Department. Aren’t you scared to be parked out here at night?” The girl replied, “You’re the one that ought to be scared, Mister. It’s a good thing you told me who you are,” as she revealed that she had been pointing a .25 pistol at him the whole time.
On Friday night, May 10, Texarkana, Texas City Police officers chased a car for three miles that had been following a city bus. The police shot out the tires and arrested a high school star athlete named C. J. Lauderdale, Jr. When the officers questioned the teen at the station, he explained that he did not know they were officers because they were driving an unmarked car. He said that he was following the bus because he was suspicious of an occupant who had gotten on from a private car. On Sunday, May 12, Captain Gonzaullas gave a warning to “teen age sleuths” in the Gazette, saying that “it’s a good way to get killed.”
Ranger Gonzaullas also tried baiting the Phantom by recruiting teenagers, some of which were sons and daughters of Texas Rangers, as decoys in parked cars while officers waited nearby. Officers, too, volunteered as decoys, some with real partners, others with mannequins. After the murders of Booker and Martin, some officers hid in trees at Spring Lake Park. Despite all efforts, the Phantom never took the bait.
The unknown killer did not acquire a Phantom Killer nickname until after the death of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin. In the April 16 edition of the Texarkana Daily News, a heading read, “Phantom Killer Eludes Officers as Investigation of Slayings Pressed”. The story from the front page continued on page two with the title, “Phantom Slayer Eludes Police”. The Texarkana Gazette contained a small title on April 17 which read, “Phantom Slayer Still at Large as Probe Continues”. J.Q. Mahaffey, executive editor of the Texarkana Gazette in 1946, said that Calvin Sutton, the managing editor of the Gazette, had an acute sense for the dramatic in the news, which impelled him to turn to him and ask if they could not start referring to the unknown murderer as “The Phantom”. Mahaffey replied, “Why not? If the SOB continues to elude capture, he certainly can be called a phantom!”
Dr. Anthony Lapalla, a psychologist at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, believed the killer was planning to continue to make unexpected attacks such as that of Virgil Starks on the outskirts of town. He also believed that the same person committed the murders of Virgil Starks, Betty Jo Booker, Paul Martin, Polly Ann Moore and Richard Griffin. He also believed the killer was between the ages of middle 30s to 50 years old. He said that the killer was apparently motivated by a strong sex drive and that he was a sadist. He said that a person who would commit such crimes is intelligent, clever, shrewd and often not apprehended. According to Lapalla’s theories, the killer knew at all times what was being done in the investigation and knew that the lonesome roads were being patrolled, which is why he chose the house on the farmland. He pointed out that his statements were surmised theories that were based on a large number of people who have committed similar crimes. He said in many cases the killer is never apprehended and in some instances he will divert attention to other distant communities where it is believed the crimes are committed by a different individual or else he will overcome the desire to kill and assault women.
Lapalla said that the murderer is probably not a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and that he could be leading a normal life, appearing to be a good citizen. He also said that he probably is not a veteran because if the man had served in the armed forces for even a year, the maniacal tendencies would be apparent. He said that the murderer was not necessarily a resident of the area, despite his knowledge of the area. He said that all of the attacks show evidence of cool and cunning planning and that the killer could be from another community and had acquainted himself with the area. He said that the strengthening of the police force would not scare him away but that he would willingly leave due to the difficulty of committing a crime. “This man is extremely dangerous. He works alone and no one knows what he is doing because he tells no one,” Lapalla said, adding that the killer may have reasoned in past crimes that the only way to remain unidentified is to kill all persons at the scene. Lapalla did not believe the killer was a black man because “in general, negro criminals are not that clever.”
Max Tackett was a 33-year-old Arkansas State Police officer rookie at the time. He noticed that a car had been stolen on the nights of the murders, and a previously stolen car was found abandoned the same night. The last murder was on Friday night May 3 and on Friday, June 28, 1946, Tackett found a car that had been reported stolen in a parking lot. He staked out the car until someone came back to it. He arrested a 21-year-old woman named Peggy Swinney. She said she had just married a man named Youell Swinney and he was in Shreveport. This car had been stolen on the night of March 23, the night of the Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore murders.
After questioning Peggy Swinney, she let it slip that her husband may be the Phantom killer suspect. Youell Swinney became the prime suspect. He had an extensive criminal record that included burglary, counterfeiting, car theft, robbery and assault. At this time he was trying to sell another stolen car in Atlanta, Texas. Atlanta police had been tipped and they followed the suspect out of their city as he drove north toward Texarkana, where local police were already looking for him. Arkansas State Trooper Max Tackett arrested the 29-year-old Youell Swinney inside the Arkansas Motor Coach Bus Station in downtown Texarkana. After being placed in a police car bound for the Miller County Courthouse, Youell Swinney supposedly turned to Tackett and said, “Hell, I know that you want me for more than just stealing cars.”
Meanwhile Swinney’s wife, Peggy, decided to give several detailed descriptions and statements to police about the Booker-Martin murders. She even eventually rode with them to Paul Martin’s murder site and described how her husband (who at the time of the murders was her boyfriend) shot the young couple. More importantly, Peggy Swinney started telling police things that only a person actually at the crime scene would know. One such item that directly connected Peggy and Youell Swinney to the scene was Peggy’s statement about Paul Martin’s datebook being thrown into some nearby bushes—a book that only Bowie County Sheriff W.H. “Bill” Presley found earlier and knew about at the time.
By law in 1946, Peggy could not be made to testify against her husband, and, because she was considered as an unreliable witness, Youell was not arrested for murder. Instead, with only circumstantial evidence, Swinney was sent to prison for being a habitual offender for car theft.
Peggy’s family and Youell’s brother-in-law believed Youell was the Phantom.
Police found a khaki work shirt in the suspect’s room with a laundry mark of the word “S-T-A-R-K”, which was read under a black light.
In the front pocket of the work shirt, slag was found, which matched samples found in Virgil Starks’ welding shop.
Youell Swinney owned a .32 Colt automatic but had previously sold it at a crap game.
While being accused of murder, Swinney remained silent instead of pleading his innocence.
Peggy Swinney confessed to her husband’s actions, revealing very detailed information, including things officers already knew and other things they did not.
Complications with evidence
Youell’s fingerprints did not match any of the latent prints at the Booker/Martin crime scene.
Peggy Swinney recanted her confession.
The Texas Rangers and Sheriff Bill Presley were not convinced that Swinney was the Phantom.
Swinney denied being the Phantom and never made a confession.
Officers, including Bowie County Sheriff Presley, Miller County Sheriff Davis, Texas City Chief of Police Runnels, their officers and both State Police departments worked day and night for six months trying to validate Peggy Swinney’s story of their whereabouts. They deduced that Peggy was not telling the truth and that, on the night of the murder of Booker and Martin, the couple was sleeping in their car under a bridge near San Antonio.
Unknown as either a sick prank or a true confession, an anonymous woman contacted family members of the victims, one in 1999 and another in 2000, apologizing for what her father had done. Youell Swinney never had a daughter.
On November 5, 1948, an 18-year-old freshman, Henry Booker “Doodie” Tennison, from the University of Arkansas, was found dead in his bed at home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Washington County Sheriff Bruce Crider discovered that Tennison had purchased cyanide of mercury on November 3, explaining that he was going to use it for rat poison. A note was found and it read, “The opening to my box will be found in the following few lines. In a tube of paper is found, rolls on colors and it is dry and sound. The head removes, the tail will turn, and inside is the sheet you yearn. Two bees mean a lot when they are together. These clues should lead you to it.” A note was found inside a B·B fountain pen. Poison was found on the cap. The note inside the pen contained clues to the combination of a lock box. Not in the mood for playing games, the police forced the lock box open. Inside was a View-Master with several rolls of film of Mexico and a stack of papers. Under the stack of papers was a note confessing to the Texarkana killings. The note read:
To Whom It May Concern:
This is my last word to you fine people, and you are fine. I want to thank you for all the trouble that you have gone to, to send me to college and to bring me up, you have really been wonderful. My thanks to Ella Lee [Mrs. McGee, the owner of the house he was rooming in] for letting me stay with her during my college career, and to Belva Jo [Mrs. McGee’s 12-year-old daughter] for putting up with me the way she did, she had to I know, but I fell in love with her about a week ago, if she was older I would have asked her to marry me, but that would be impossible.
Why did I take my own life? Well, when you committed two double murders you would too. Yes I did kill Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin in the city park that night, and killed Mr. Starks and tried to get Mrs. Starks. You wouldn’t have guessed it, I did it when Mother was either out or asleep, and no one saw me do it. For the guns, I disassembled them and discarded them in different places. When I am found, which has already been done, please give this typewriter to Craig [Tennison’s older brother], and tell him that I hope that his child is a boy, it will (help) him in his work. Everything can go wherever you think it will do best except for the View-Master which will go to Belva Jo. Please take my bankroll and give it to Daddy, I think it should go to him, and tell him I don’t want the car now. Well, goodbye everybody. See you sometime, if I make the grade which will be hard for me to make.
Tennison had written many rough drafts with a pencil and then completed type-written copies. He had even created his own newspaper headlines mentioning his body being found. One read, “UA Student Found Dead”, another, “UA Student Commits Suicide”. Printed words on a sign read: “Do not disturb, death in the making”. He also wrote his own epitaph, which read: “Here lies H. B. Tennison. Born Feb. 12, 1930. Died Oct. 2, 1948. He committed suicide for the happiness of his family. May He rest in peace. Amen.” The officers found several more notes. Sheriff Crider had no idea in which order the many notes were written because they were all undated. Miller County Sheriff W. E. Davis and Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley were surprised by the news. They said that the youth was never a suspect in the killings and that a detailed investigation would be made. Max Tackett left El Dorado, Arkansas to investigate the incident in Fayetteville. Texas Ranger Stewart Stanley was sent to investigate the suicide by “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas. Fingerprints were taken from Tennison to see if any match could be made on the still-unclassified prints taken at the scene of the Booker/Martin murders. Mrs. Bessie Brown, Booker’s mother, visited Tennison’s mother to offer sympathy and told her that she felt that Tennison had nothing to do with her daughter’s death.
Officers also found a confusing note which they believed to contradict his other notes, but were unsure when it was written. This note read:
Please disregard all other messages which I have written, they are only thoughts which I was thinking about as possible reasons for taking my own life. As I think about it, it is none of these things. They are not the reasons for this incident, there’s a much later point to it all. Happiness. Yes happiness. If I am out of the way, all the family can get down to their own lives. Mother will not have to worry about me making my grades, and Daddy will not have to put out more money on me, which would do no more good than it did in high school. No one will have to worry about me, keep having to push me through the things which would be best for me. After much thought, I decided to take this way out. It took more thought than anyone can think possible. It started about a week ago, when I began to think of a way to get out of this. Running away would not do any good, the police would find me where ever I went and would bring me back to it all. No, Mother and Daddy are not to blame, it is just me. If I had done what they told to do this would have never happened. Studying instead of playing around, going out with the people in my age group instead of staying home and dreaming.
James Freeman, a 16-year-old friend of Tennison from Texarkana, came forward and talked to a deputy prosecutor after hearing that Tennison confessed to being the Phantom. Freeman explained that on the night of Virgil Starks’ death, he was with him at Tennison’s house playing cards or checkers between 7 p.m. and midnight. That night, they both heard the news of Starks’ death. Tennison’s brothers, J. D. Jr. and Craig, said the confession and suicide were “fantastic things” induced by reading too many comic books. They both stated that he did not know guns, and did not care for weapons, hunting, or shooting. All guns that Tennison would have had access to did not match the bullets used in the Phantom murders. Craig said that he taught Tennison how to drive a car in the summer of 1947. Bowie County Sheriff Presley stated that he was notified Tuesday, November 9, that the fingerprints from Tennison did not match those at the Booker/Martin crime scene. A ballistics expert from Little Rock, Arkansas revealed that cartridge cases of test bullets fired from rifles Tennison would have had access to were nothing like the case of the bullets found at Starks’ home. In 2013, a relative of Doodie claimed that all ballistics testing from these available guns were irrelevant since they were most likely not the guns Doodie used; especially if the real guns were disassembled and hidden as stated in his note
Don’t forget to listen to Aaron on the Big Dumb Fun Show, live on Monday nights.
To go to the store click here
To rent Gangland Wire, the documentary, click here
To subscribe on iTunes click here, give me a review and I will send you a link to see the film for free.