Phantom Phacts . . .

A Scooby Doo title. . . but then part of the Kolchakian world is a Scooby Doo vibe.

Having investigated popular X Files type of stuff has proven a great blessing when tackling the hardcore world of cold case and dark deeds. I saw just how legends arise.

Newton said: “I stand on the shoulder of giants.” True. Knowledge builds upon knowledge. But the popular forum isn’t the refined world of science. Those who come first to a particular mystery may do so out of a great interest or just plain love of a mystery. They bring it forward to the public. They become synonymous with a subject. They pave the way. However wonderfully sincere they are, they may not have the best investigative mind. They chronicle. They repeat. Unfortunately, this sets the tenor for the press.

No cold case is as popular as some of the great mysteries on Earth — cryptids, UFOs, even Nessie attracts a global crowd. But legend happens in Cold Case as well. If a case reaches a level of fame but really doesn’t hold on for long, the chronicle of the early though perhaps somewhat shallow chroniclers becomes the source that is repeated and repeated odd nauseam — and that’s not a typo. With cold cases, there is often no way to get the official files and facts either to dispel the error.

Such is the case of The Phantom of Texarkana. Yes, I understand it was national news back in 1946. But it faded away to oblivion except locally in Texarkana. Chuck Pierce brought it back to life in 1976 and this was thanks to Bigfoot. Yes, Bigfoot. Without the idea of Bigfoot being a real creature, the latest greatest national pastime, Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek would not have been one of the highest grossing films of 1972. Pierce was in good stead now to bring forward to the nation more than the local Bigfoot-type Fouke Monster. He brought forward the local bogey man, The Phantom.

By this time the nation had had many other fascinating and prolific serial killers– Zodiac, Juan Corona, and soon Bundy would be upon us. The movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown wasn’t that great either. The Phantom seemed inadequate compared to what had been in more recent times. He was something black and white and not very sophisticated, like an old Paramount movietone newsreel. Not like the Ripper. Not like the Crime Noir poster girl, Black Dahlia. He was a redneck, wasn’t he?

Who really knows?

Very little cold hard facts exist. There isn’t much published. The best book reads more like a local history fit for the local historical society publication. But it isn’t an investigative thesis. So forth and so on “remembers.”

There was a great man hunt going on for The Phantom. That’s how sheriffs thought back then. Hunt ’em down. But how much sleuthing? If much investigation was done, little has been released. Few crime scene pictures. A single movie near 40 years ago hasn’t helped open up the official files. Even the WWW is very sparse.

This isn't much of a help, is it? Morris Lane and sheriffs looking for clues. Betty Jo Booker had been dumped near here.
One of the most common pics in circulation today. This isn’t much help, is it? Morris Lane and sheriffs looking for clues. Betty Jo Booker’s body had been dumped near here.

The Phantom was a lovers’ lane stalker/killer. He attacked and severely wounded his first 2 victims, then killed the next 2 couples on lovers’ lanes and finally attacked a couple in their farmhouse, killing the man Virgil Starks. Then somewhat anticlimactically he vanished.

Investigators had lots of stereotypes and closed minds. They wouldn’t even accept that The Phantom’s first victims had been a couple who had survived a brutal lovers’ lane attack in February of 1946. Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey were both married but not to each other. To the investigators this meant a vengeful man– Larey’s husband– had beaten Hollis and punished her since she wasn’t as badly beaten. When she insisted the attacker had worn a hood they scoffed. They thought she made it up so she could say she didn’t recognize her husband. Even after the murders began a month later and she returned to Texarkana to tell them this hooded man must be the killer they wouldn’t listen to her or connect the cases.

Let’s start with this first attack. It’s the only one with witnesses.

Hollis didn’t see squat because of the blinding flashlight the attacker held, so we must rely most on Larey. She made a point that the attacker (Phantom) wore a hood. It was white, some feed sack or pillow case. Holes were cut for the eyes and mouth. This is the Phantom’s image today. There is no reason to question Larey’s statement. Her assailant conspicuously let her live. An assailant isn’t going to do that if his face has been seen. Her attacker intentionally and brutally attacked them . . . but it doesn’t seem he planned murder yet.

Popularized image of The Phantom of Texarkana.

Here is the problem: Larey thought he was a black guy; Hollis said a white guy. Larey based her conviction on the way he spoke the cuss words. Chroniclers dutifully chronicle this. But that is not enough. Was The Phantom black or white? Larey saw the hood and therewith must have seen some of the skin around the holes cut out for the eyes and mouth. She must also have seen the hands. A light skinned black man is how her appraisal is summed up whereas Hollis’ appraisal is a dark skinned white man. Yet Hollis didn’t see anything.

In an interview done with a local newspaper woman, Lucille Holland, Mary Jeanne Larey said that she told the assailant that he best kill her because she would rather be dead than raped and abused by him. Remember, this is Texas/Arkansas 1946, the segregated South. I doubt she was speaking of rape in and of itself. She had been groped by the barrel of the gun already. But him touching her was something different. She was subtly repeating her belief he was black. She didn’t want to be defiled by a particular type of man. This reflects her strong conviction that she believed her assailant was black.

As the crime spree got more complex the criminal psychiatrist didn’t want to believe a black man was responsible because on the whole he didn’t believe they were smart enough. This was the era. Such is the way it was. You can’t put a fig leaf on a statue.

All of this bias and stereotype, however, makes it more difficult to assess the case today. Was The Phantom white or black? The other victims were all murdered so we do not know anything else. All we know is that the Phantom knew the back roads of WEST Texarkana.

This may prove a better clue.

This 1942 topo highlights that The Phantom struck in the rural west of Texarkana.  1, is the first strike on Richmond Road; 2, the second on South Robison; 3 is the attack on North Park by the park. 4 & 5 mark where these last victim's bodies had been taken and dumped.
This 1942 topo highlights that The Phantom struck in the rural west of Texarkana. 1, is the first strike on Richmond Road; 2, the second on South Robison; 3 is the attack on North Park by the park. 4 & 5 mark where these last victims’ bodies had been taken and dumped.

As the topo right shows, clearly The Phantom avoided Texarkana proper. His last strike against the Starks (not on the map) was about 10 miles northeast of the city in Arkansas. Their farm was off Highway 67.

The second pair of victims– Rich Griffin and Polly Moore — were killed very close to Highway 67. The Phantom’s deepest strikes were his first off Richmond Rd  and then his 3rd by the park. In other words, he stuck close to the main country roads. He clearly knew this area but it doesn’t seem he knew the Arkansas side well. He stayed close to the main country highway.

So far these facts don’t tell us much. But let’s examine this more in our next post.


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