Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Phantom Killer: Texarkana Moonlight Murders

This Time, Death

"Texarkana had a fear of the unknown...";
— Myrtice Johnson, Texarkana resident

Texarkana sits sprawling across the Texas-Arkansas line, a dynamo lumbering and industrial center manufacturing wood products (notably furniture), tires, pipe valves and tank cars. Its motto, "Twice as Nice," speaks for Texarkana as being, really, comprised of two separate municipalities, Texarkana, Texas, and Texarkana, Arkansas, divided mid-city at State Line Avenue, a popular tourist site. Each municipality has its own police and fire departments and city council. As well, because the area takes in two separate counties — Bowie County (Texas) and Miller County (Arkansas) — the surrounding suburbs are patrolled by separate county sheriff's offices.

This one-of-a-kind enterprise works well and its 60,000-some citizens think of themselves as being of one mind and one city. They work together well and play together well, and meet every October at their famous Fair and Rodeo. Families from Louisiana, only 25 miles away, often visit Texarkana's Crystal Springs Beach theme park and enjoy the city's varied nightlife.

Historically, it claims names who have made a mark in our country's social, artistic and political texture. Alamo hero Jim Bowie, along with his brother Rezin, invented the famous Bowie knife nearby. Natives of the town include Scott Joplin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning ragtime composer, and one-time Presidential aspirant Ross Perot.

In 1946, Texarkana's then-population of 44,000 was "just beginning to return to normal after World War II and most of the young men were returning from overseas, according to Phantom researchist Wayne Beck, author of his own website dedicated to the Phantom killings. " The city was celebrating the end of conflict and was trying to return to the life they knew and loved."

Texarkana officers like Charlie Cheatham did not expect what was to come. Courtesy Wayne Beck
Texarkana officers like Charlie
Cheatham did not expect what
was to come.
Courtesy Wayne Beck

Adds Lyn Blackmon from the Texarkana Gazette: "In good weather, families in nice residential sections sat on their front porches after supper, sipping iced tea. They swung on porch swings, rocked in rockers and spoke to neighbors walking home from a movie or from church...Few people locked their doors or their windows. The only shades pulled down were in bathrooms or bedrooms." Until the murders began, the scariest event in town was taking place at the local movie house where The House of Dracula was quivering many a popcorn bag.

While much of Texarkana was of white picket fences and rose-garden backyards, the city did claim its rough-house districts, too. It had been, throughout the war, a soldiers' town and the bars and nightclubs that had sprung up to serve the GIs on leave continued to thrive afterwards. Girlie floor shows attracted male clientele and blocks of saloons clattered well after sunset. Fights were common and drunken fisticuffs often brought local and state police onto the scene. Murders in the lower depths were not uncommon.

But, in most neighborhoods, Texarkana was a safe, God-fearing place to walk at night without fear of molestation.

The weird attack on Mary Jeanne Larey and Jimmy Hollis had reached the papers, but it was downplayed as a freak incident. Many people in town figured the perpetrator had been a transient passing through; a police search had uncovered no culprit; and it was assumed the hooded mystery man was long gone on a boxcar to other climes. Despite the frightening nature of the lovers lane brujaja, Texarkana had no reason to fear for its general safety — yet.

On the rainy morning of March 24, one month after the Larey-Hollis attack, a driver on rural Bowie County Highway 67 noticed something strange. A 1941 Oldsmobile was parked about 100 yards off the highway in a grove off adjacent Robison Road; a man seemed to be asleep behind the wheel. This was no place for a tired motorman to pull off the road, not with so many motels and other safer areas within a stone's throw. The driver, thinking he should investigate, approached the vehicle. When he peered inside, he shrieked at what he saw and scooted off to immediately notify authorities.

Bowie County officers converged on the scene. Two dead bodies lay within the auto, both shot in the head. At the wheel was 29-year-old Richard L. Griffin, a recently discharged Navy SeaBee. Lying on the backseat was his girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore, who was a checker at the Red River Arsenal outside of town. Forensic tests would show that the bullets that had killed them were fired from a .32 caliber revolver, possibly a Colt.

Moore had been killed outside the car, evidenced by bloodstains and drag marks. She appeared to have been sexually assaulted. Fingerprints and footprints were hard to trace, as a heavy downpour had washed away both during the night.

From the start, the police were stumped. Joining the investigation with the Bowie County patrol were members from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the city police forces (Texas and Arkansas) and Miller County and adjacent Cass County law enforcement agencies. The FBI was eventually summoned, but they also drew a blank. Motive there was none; Griffin nor Moore had no known rivals; the last time they had been seen alive was at a West Seventh Street café around 10 p.m. the evening they were killed dining peacefully with Griffin's sister, Eleanor.

Richard Griffin & Polly Ann Moore - Courtesy Texarkana Gazette
Richard Griffin & Polly Ann Moore
- Courtesy Texarkana Gazette

"Three days after the murder the sheriff's office had already questioned 50 to 60 people about the murder and tracked down about 100 false leads," writes Greg Bischof, Texarkana Gazette staff writer. "The murders remained a baffling mystery, forcing the sheriff's office to eventually post a $500 reward for information. None came."

The Gazette today makes an interesting comment about social attitude in the 1940s. And that has to do with how the police dealt with, and the public responded to, crimes involving rape or sexual deviancy. Today it is front page news, but in 1946 the public press glossed over any such activity. While Miss Moore's body indicated telltale signs of rape, and while the offender had sexually abused Mary Jeanne Larey with a pistol barrel before she escaped, the newspapers, the Gazette included, remained mum on that particular aspect of both crimes. If rape was hinted, it was as a generic, "criminal assault," which could mean any number of things.

"(Sexual assault) wasn't made public. You guarded the person who was raped," explains J.Q. Mahaffey, who had been executive editor of the Texarkana Gazette at the time of the killer's spree. He explains that no autopsy was made on Miss Moore's body, nor did the authorities formally state their opinions about a rape. It was the age before DNA testing for sperm content, the age when more physical facts, not science, nailed criminals. Rape was far less common than it is today. Alleged rape cases were based on any evidence found at the scene of the crime and any physical evidence found on the woman by an examining doctor. Not much more.

Rail detectives like Special Agent Fred Coleman (Cotton Belt RR) assisted Texarkana police. Courtesy Wayne Beck
Rail detectives like Spe-
cial Agent Fred Coleman
(Cotton Belt RR)
assisted Texarkana
police.
Courtesy Wayne Beck

The lack of technology and the hush-hush standard of the time perhaps may have been why the killer remained so-long elusive. The attitude discouraged the legal elements from pursuing known deviants who may have lived in the area — if indeed any sex offenders were labeled as sex offenders at the time — and therefore may have caused an oversight in the pursuit of a suspect. Even though Mary Jeanne Larey had been violated in a perverted manner and Miss Moore had been seemingly "assaulted," no one at the time thought to tie the two incidences together.

At least officially. But, the citizens of Texarkana were not naïve; the fact that Polly Ann Moore may have been raped was whispered about in the private corners of homes between couples and between best female friends. The rumors were enough to make many women, especially those living alone, start locking their doors at bedtime.

 

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