Phantom Phacts Part 5 — The Starks

Such few things are known about the Phantom of Texarkana crime spree that formulaic and economic rehash is basically what dominates the subject. James Presley’s book is the best so far (The Phantom Killer), but Presley did not analyze the crime spree. He also had followed the case since he was young, being Sheriff Bill Presley’s nephew (sheriff of Bowie County where the other attacks had taken place), and had long been disposed to believe that a petty car thief Youell Swinney was responsible. However innocently, coming to a thesis with a prejudice conclusion is going to limit analysis.

Formulaic rehash often states that official investigators no longer link the Starks murder/assault with the crime spree of The Phantom. I have so far found no credible statement supporting that. Nor would it really matter. The clues and the evidence matter.

Let’s begin to look at the chain of events here.

It was Friday evening, May 3, 1946, around 9 p.m. Virgil Starks, (37) relaxed in his chair in the parlor of his farmhouse. He was reading the newspaper. His back had been bothering him, so he had a heating pad on his upper back. Some of it was close to his neck. His back was to the room’s window. Under the window was a writing desk. The shade was half drawn over the upper part of the window. Virgil’s wife, Katie (36), was relaxing in the bedroom.

Their country farmhouse was just off Highway 67 in Homen, about 10 miles northeast of Texarkana, in Arkansas. The bloody attacks of the Phantom had been in the western rural side of Texarkana in Texas. The Phantom had regularly attacked couples, but only in lovers’ lanes. A single story farmhouse off 67 on the other side of town should be safe.

The location of the Phantom strikes, including the Starks on the eastern side of Texarkana.
The location of the Phantom strikes, including the Starks on the eastern side of Texarkana.

The Starks house was surrounded by grass, shrubs and trees and there was a couple of outstanding buildings, including Virgil’s welding shop. Beyond the grassy area there was a plowed field. Beyond that more grass by a row of trees along the fence to the property. The fence was perpendicular to the road.

Someone went to a lot of trouble this night. Running parallel with Highway 67 was the railroad tracks. A man parked his older model car on the other side of the railroad tracks, off a dirt road. He walked over the tracks, crossed the road, along the grass by the tree-lined fence, and then across the plowed but uncultivated field. He left no footprints on the harder ground and grass around the farmhouse. Yet he stood within 20 feet of the window and watched Virgil sitting there reading his paper. He drew his weapon — an automatic .22 caliber– either a pistol or rifle. He fired twice, one after the other. The second bullet went through the same hole as the first in the window pane. Both had hit the neck of Virgil Starks, near the base of the skull.

The map of the Starks' farm in relation to where the killer had parked. As presented in James Presley's
The map of the Starks’ farm in relation to where the killer had parked. As presented in James Presley’s “The Phantom Killer.”

The end result was murder. Virgil slumped forward and blood dripped onto his paper. One of the bullets had creased the edge of the heating pad and started a spark. The heating pad short-circuited.

The killer didn’t move. He remained in the dark on the grass.

Katie heard the breaking of glass. It wasn’t much, but she thought Virgil broke something. She got up and walked to the room. She stood in the doorway. She couldn’t believe what she saw. She approached Virgil. It was clear he was dead. Right by the doorway to the sitting room was a wall phone, an old hand crank one. She rushed to it and cranked for the operator.

Police photo of the window. At least 4 bullets passed through those two holes. Due to the precision, the bullets were obviously fired from an automatic weapon. The holes are about 10 inches apart, indicating the attacker stood back a bit .
Police photo of the window. At least 4 bullets passed through those two holes. Due to the precision, the bullets were obviously fired from an automatic weapon. The holes are about 10 inches apart, indicating the attacker stood back a bit .

The same window splintered with a hole as another .22 caliber bullet pierced it. It hit Katie in the face and went out by the ear. Another one sped through the same hole and hit her in the mouth, breaking teeth and lodging under the tongue. She dropped to the floor, oozing blood. She crawled off. She couldn’t remember what drawer the .45 pistol was in. Scrambling to the bedroom to find it, she saw the villain coming in the screen to the back porch. She only saw his leg coming in the window. She rushed through the bedroom and out another door.

The rest of her journey that night is well known. She finally got to neighbors and they sped her to the hospital. It was a miracle she had survived and not bled to death.

The general area of the Starks farm today. The house has long been demolished.
The general area of the Starks farm today. The house has long been demolished.

Many of the clues in the farmhouse were ruined by the way some of the police traipsed through it. But some good investigation was done by other cops. Two sheriffs had actually seen the car parked on the other side of the tracks around 9 p.m. on their way to Hope, Arkansas. We don’t know what type of car it was, but the footprints of the attacker could be traced from the area where it had been parked. They crossed the tracks and road to the grassy area and then the prints in the plowed field were obvious. Some of the killer’s tracks could be traced leading away from the farmhouse, but he chose another route down the driveway.

It seems he came to kill.

Many questions must be asked. Was this The Phantom? If so, why such a different MO? Why did he wait for Katie Starks to appear? How did he know she would? Had he stalked them on earlier nights? If so, why only one fresh set of tracks over the field? Did he have a rifle or pistol? In my next Phantom Phacts we’ll get into these.

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