Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Phantom Killer: Texarkana Moonlight Murders

Suspects

"Rumors were flying as to who the Phantom Killer was, including someone on the police force, some prominent person or a serviceman returning from the war..."
— Joe Bearden, Texarkana area resident

With the world watching, Texarkana needed an arrest. Authorities believed that the killer, his vengeance having been unleashed so fully on May 3, had scooted the border city area. The investigation continued in and around Texarkana, but fanned out.

"The Texas Rangers were in contact with every law enforcement agency in the country where someone attacked people parking and either killed them or committed rape," Phantom historian Wayne Beck declares. "Surprisingly, there were many such incidences, even as far away as Wisconsin and New York. They checked out virtually everyone who was arrested for rape or robbery in Texas where the modus operandi was similar to the Texarkana crimes. There were several very good leads,(including) local people (but) the Rangers would go no further with them if their fingerprints didn't match."

Beck lists some of these people, names withheld:

Forty-two-year- old suspect from College Station, Texas, who owned a .22 caliber rifle and was known to enjoy sneaking up on parked lovers with his rifle. He was believed to be in Texarkana during the Phantom season.

Graduate student from the University of Texas, having displayed homosexual/homicidal tendencies and dismissed from the U.S. Navy.

Missouri Pacific Railroad section hand, after writing to the Governor of Texas and admitting to the killings. But he also claimed he killed Satan. In the interim, he challenged FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Harry Truman to a duel."

"One of the more comical suspects questioned was an IRS agent accused by a neighbor in Texarkana," says Beck, tongue-in-cheek. "obviously a disgruntled taxpayer."

A week after the Starks murder, an Atoka County sheriff notified the Rangers that he was holding a migrant in Paris, Texas, for threatening a rancher's wife after she refused to give him food when he came to her door. The 33-year-old suspect lived in Lewisville, Arkansas, 30 miles east of Texarkana. The FBI, Arkansas State Police and Texas Rangers questioned the suspect, but, like so many others, was quickly released after an alibi proved solid or fingerprints didn't match those found at the Starks home.

Arkansas Police Chief Max Tackett - Courtesy Wayne Beck
Arkansas Police Chief
Max Tackett - Courtesy
Wayne Beck

On May 13, the Texarkana Gazette reported, "Despite combined efforts of Texas, Arkansas, county, city and federal officers, no trace of the phantom killer has been found as of late tonight. Officers said there were no new developments. 'We've been working in circles all week,' was the way one officer expressed himself."

Then something very strange occurred late summer. Chief of Police-Arkansas State Patrol Max Tackett had earlier noted that before each murder a car was reported stolen, then found afterwards. On the afternoon of June 28, one of these cars was tracked to a parking lot in Texarkana. There, the police waited to see who would claim it. When a young woman appeared from an adjacent market and got into the automobile, they promptly arrested her. She confessed that it belonged to her husband who was currently out of town. Tackett and his assistant, Tillman Johnson, followed the man's trail to Atlanta, Texas, where he attempted to sell a stolen car, then nabbed him in a bus station when he returned to Texarkana a couple of weeks later.

Deputy Tillman Johnson, Arkansas State Police. - Courtesy Wayne Beck.
Deputy Tillman Johnson,
Arkansas State Police.
- Courtesy Wayne Beck.

His name was, according to Wayne Beck, Youell Swinney. When apprehended, this tall, thin 29-year-old scarecrow turned to arresting officers Tackett and Johnson and exclaimed, "Hell, I know what you want me for. You want me for more than stealing a car!"

Swinney, authorities learned, already had quite an extensive record of counterfeiting, car theft, burglary and assault. When the police raided the hotel room where he and his wife temporarily lived, they found a shirt in the closet with the name STARK stenciled on the pocket. When asked about the shirt back at the police station, he clammed up — in fact, he remained non-verbal about everything.

But not his wife. She had a minor record herself, and it was obvious she was panicking to save her hide. She talked and talked throughout the day, throughout the night. She told the police anything they wanted to know. They had recently been married in Shreveport, Louisiana, she explained, and spent a lot of time in their car, traveling. They came to Texarkana not long before the murders began. Then, much to her interrogators' surprise, she admitted that even though she did not participate in any of the Phantom killings, she had been with her husband while he committed every one of them.

"She told things about the murders that the general public did not know," Beck attests. "She even knew about a date book found at the scene of the Betty Jo Booker-Paul Martin murder that only Sheriff Bill Presley knew about."

Youell Swinney (center) with arresting detectives. - Compliments Wayne Beck
Youell Swinney (center) with arresting
detectives. - Compliments Wayne Beck

But, there was a problem with what she was telling them. Exasperatingly, her details changed from interview to interview, except to leave Swinney at the scene of each crime every time.

Take her statements of the Spring Lake killing. Initially, she described how she and her man had gone to the park to finish off a bottle of beer they had bought at the Drivers Café. At one point during their private binge, Swinney left their 1941 green Plymouth (stolen) to urinate. While she waited for him to come back, she heard two shots ring out from beyond a clump of trees. When he returned, quite a bit later, his trousers were damp and muddy, but he refused to tell her where he'd been.

Later, however, another version became more accusatory, relating how he had driven to the park not for a harmless binge but for the sole purpose of robbing someone. Spotting Martin's coupe, he pulled up alongside it and ordered the couple out of their car. Much to Mrs. Swinney's dismay, her husband then suddenly opened fire on the Paul Martin, killing him instantly. While his wife waited in Martin's auto, Swinney shoved Betty Jo into the Plymouth and drove off with her. An hour later, he returned without Betty Jo. Only after some insistence from his wife, did he later admit that he raped and killed her, overcome with desire.

As much as the police wanted to believe the woman, there were major challenges to her testimony. First was the fact that she never stuck to one version. Second, she was a convicted criminal and in the eyes of the law considered an unreliable witness. Last — but most importantly — she refused to take the stand against him in court. By law, a wife cannot be made to testify against her husband.

The Arkansas State Police nevertheless remained curious about that shirt found in Swinney's possession. They transported him to Little Rock for further questioning.

"But fate was on the suspect's side," alleges Texarkana Gazette staff writer Kevin McPherson. "Interrogators, to his fortune, administered too much 'truth serum' (sodium pentothal) and the suspect fell asleep. ''Really, we should have kept him here,' Tackett told (the Gazette) in a 1971 interview. 'I think we blew our case right there,'"

Deputy Tillman Johnson, who outlived all the other Phantom investigators, concurred that their chief suspect missed the electric chair by the skin of his teeth. "I think that if we just kept him here (in Texarkana) and kept questioning him, we would have gotten the truth out of him eventually....Max was always 100 percent sure it was him. I think we had him..."

No known record exists stating whether Swinney's fingerprints matched those found on the Starks farm.

The authorities who wanted to see Youell Swinney burn had to settle for the next best thing. They sought and won a conviction the following year for the car theft. Because he was a habitual offender, he received life imprisonment at Texas State penitentiary in Huntsville.

No one will ever know for sure if the law got its man, or if the real Phantom danced away scot-free to perhaps cause havoc elsewhere. But, after Swinney's arrest, the Phantom killings in Texarkana ceased for good.

 

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