Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Phantom Killer: Texarkana Moonlight Murders

From The Dark

"Why didn't he kill me? He killed so many others?"
— Mary Jeanne Larey, victim

The Phantom Artist's rendering Copyright American- International Pictures
The Phantom
Artist's rendering
Copyright American-
International Pictures

Nineteen-year-old Mary Jeanne Larey and her boyfriend, Jimmy Hollis, 24, were like any other young lovers in Texarkana tonight. Their world was an oyster, wide open, sparkling, and promising a taste of adventure. This evening of February 22, 1946 — a date that had begun no different than any other — promised to end a little more exciting because they finally had a chance to be together, alone. And in good old fashioned American idiom, that meant to sneak out to the seclusion of Richmond Road beyond town, to kiss, to cuddle and pet. With their double dates hurriedly rushed home and unloaded after the movie they had all seen together, Mary Jeanne and Jimmy had, by themselves, raced to a romantic rendezvous here in this section of country back road known as Lovers Lane — the local ministers' scorn and a blight to any respectable parent.

Turning the key in the ignition, Jimmy snuffed the engine of his auto and glanced at his wristwatch; time was nearing 11:45 p.m. He scowled, for he had promised his dad to have the Plymouth home not much after midnight. But, he quickly forgot his father's imminent anger under the lure of the prospect beside him in her Lana Turner sweater and white pearl beads. His pulse raced; Mary Jeanne looked so lovely, the moonlight punctuating her lovely features, glistening her eyes that spoke of a little reticence yet urged the right amount of wickedness. Her sweet perfume filled the shell of the car. When he leaned over to peck his girl's cheek, reassuring her that he meant no harm — after all, what's a kiss between two people who, let's face it, weren't kids anymore? — the only sounds he could hear were her anxious breathing and the squeak of the seat springs beneath them.

Then, the shadow fell over them to obliterate the moonlight.

Jimmy glanced up, expecting to see the uniform of a policeman come at an inopportune moment. He startled, however, to see the thing just beyond his window, bent to peer inside. Frankly, he didn't know what the hell it was. Some thing in a hood of what appeared to be canvas, motioning to them with two bare hands from beyond the car window, from the darkness of the grove. As Jimmy's eyes accustomed to the darkness, he realized that one of those hands held something in it. It gripped a pistol. And as the pistol barrel came to rest against, then tap, the window, Jimmy recoiled into the recess of the car, shoving Mary Jeanne across the seat.

"Come out of the car now!" the Thing directed, voice muffled under the mask. It was, muffled or not, a deep voice, a masculine voice. Muffled or not, it demanded authority.

Fearing the intruder would shoot through the pane if he did not comply, Jimmy obliged, pushing the door outward and stepping into the night. Gravel crushed under heel. Mary Jeanne, her hand in her boyfriend's, followed suit and stood beside him. "You can have all the money we have, mister," the girl warbled. "Just don't hurt us."

Try as they may, the couple could not detect eyes through the slits where eyes should be. Only blackness, a hollowness, like that within an unlit window sill pumpkin at Halloween. As if he noticed their inquisitive stares, the stranger flicked on a flashlight into their faces to blind their perceptions. Behind the sudden and bright beam, Jimmy heard the Thing's voice: "Do as I say and I won't hurt you."

Jimmy's lips quivered. "What do you want? My wallet? The car?"

"Your britches." The Voice chuckled this time. "Remove your britches."

"I will not!" the boy responded. He wondered for a moment if this was some kind of gag proffered by his buddies.

"Do it or I'll kill you!" insisted the Voice.

Mary Jeanne pleaded, tugging at her date's shirtsleeve. "Please, Jim, do what he says."

Jimmy hesitated, wondering why this absurdity. He glanced at the gun barrel, for the first time noticing it leveled within inches of his abdomen, and lost all male inhibition. Unbuckling his belt, he let the corduroy trousers drop below his kneecaps. In that same moment, he watched the Thing's hand raise overhead, the one holding the pistol, and with first a flashing light then a blistering pain he realized that the man had belted him — twice he sensed in quick succession — with the butt of the gun. Dizzy, his legs crumpled beneath him. Time and space faded.

The creature now turned to face the girl. She ducked beneath his reach and dashed in her desperation toward a dark connecting lane of overhanging cypress. She sensed him strike forth again and this time felt his fist tug the back of her sweater to pull her into him; like fodder, she was tossed to the ground. Now triumphant, the animal sat on top of her; it coughed, then wheezed, then snorted like a bull who had made a rag doll from a matador. His hands crept up the inside of her skirt; she could feel the cold of the gun metal against her thighs. Despite her pleas, his abuse continued, for the barrel of the gun was resting now against her panties, phallic like. Even though his face was hidden behind the dirty cover of canvas, the girl knew he was grinning. She could see the glint of debauchery in his eyes - those dark eyes that now glimmered through the peep holes. They shone now, almost iridescently, in the full glow of evil, in the full of the moon...

...But, no, it was not the moon. Too bright for the moon, for the ray of white light illumined the beast's full form, froze his macabre presence like a waxen dummy, forever twisted and clenched in nature in a house of horrors. The light caught his attention; he groaned and cursed and by his cussing Mary Jeanne, under him, knew it was the light of an approaching automobile.

But, as he eased up on her, obviously to run, he intended to have the last word. Walloping her across her face and shoulders several times with his fists, he at last retreated into the darkness from whence he came.

* * * * *

The darkness would not hold him long. He would return. His first two victims had been lucky to have been alive, even though they did not — and Texarkana did not — realize their fortune at the time. Mary Jeanne and her boyfriend were rushed to the hospital where the girl's bruises were tended to. Jimmy had been hit with such ferocity that his skull had been fractured in two places. But, he too survived to tell the story.

They had escaped from what would become over the ensuing months a deadly rush of murders brought on by this same Thing that crept in from the silence where lovers should have been left alone to spoon.

Texas Rangers, Texas' top lawmen, were assigned to Texarkana to take on the Phantom. Courtesy Wayne Beck
Texas Rangers, Texas' top lawmen,
were assigned to Texarkana to take
on the Phantom. Courtesy Wayne Beck

Between February and May, 1946, the city of Texarkana would endure one of the most sanguine, most frightening episodes in its long and colorful history. It was The Season of the Phantom, of his Moonlight Murders, of his dangerous ghostlike elusive ambushes that crawled under the skin of man, woman and child who couldn't sleep at night, who suddenly began locking their doors in a town that didn't need bolting before.

He was never caught. Who he was, where he came from, where he went is still much of a mystery; at best, there is a central suspect, no more. Evidence remains minimal.

In the end, Jimmy and Mary Jeanne would be the only two victims who could describe him, and their descriptions were hazy. They described him as standing about six feet tall, wearing a rough-looking homemade hood of white, with holes punched out for the eyes and mouth.

"It is an image most commonly associated today with the Phantom Killer," writes Carmen Jones, one of the staff writers of the Texarkana Gazette, which in 1996 produced a half-century retrospective of the murders. "It is the image of record because no one else who saw the killer at work lived to give a description." And it is that image that haunted movie screens when Hollywood filmed a semi-documentary of the event called The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

Mary Jeanne Larey herself dreaded many sundowns to come after that night. She spent months of scarred dreams and restless afternoons, eventually leaving town to live with relatives in Oklahoma. But, she would always remember his voice.

"I would know that it anywhere," she later said. "It rings always in my ears."

 

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