Texarkana’s Phantom Killer .32 Caliber Mystery

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The “Phantom Killer” poised to strike (top left). Suspect Youell Swinney (top right). Grandma Ina’s .32 caliber Ruby (bottom left). And my grandmother in 1917 (age 9) in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (bottom right).

Could my late grandmother have unknowingly come into possession of the ever-elusive .32 caliber mystery pistol used by the hooded killer in Texarkana’s notorious 1946 murder spree? The chances are slim, but coincidences sometimes beg to be examined more closely. It’s intriguing food for thought that my own grandmother may have actually known the infamous “Phantom Killer.” I remember her alluding to it only once, and only then in conjunction with my having seen the film which was based on the real events. Her response to me was puzzling. It was in the way she said it. Unaware (at the time) that there had actually been a suspect in the murders, I simply assumed that she had “misunderstood me,” or was getting a tad senile in her advancing years. *The loosely-based film version had not included this specific detail (there being a known suspect) as part of it’s storyline. We had been back from our trip to southern Arkansas for about six months by then. We traveled there to visit relatives in the summer of 1976—and see Aunt Clara (my Grandma Ina’s last surviving sibling) in Camden. The Town That Dreaded Sundown had not yet been released. It would open in St. Louis in late March of 1977 (original ad).

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The Town That Dreaded Sundown at Texarkana’s Paramount (1977).

During our visit to Camden we talked about Bigfoot creatures (as I did not yet know about the murders). Fouke (Arkansas) was just a short distance away—i.e. The Legend of Boggy Creek. Plus, a new “Bigfoot” documentary (hosted by actor Peter Graves) was currently out and making the rounds. My mentioning of “having recently seen it” prompted my aunt to recall her late husband Dewey’s Bigfoot encounter during deer hunting season one year (Dewey passed away a year before our Camden visit). My grandmother didn’t believe my aunt’s story about Dewey. Amusingly, my aunt didn’t believe my grandmother’s poltergeist story either. I, however, had my own particular reasons for believing both of their stories—for I had already read quite extensively about the many creature sightings in southwest Arkansas, and had also stayed overnight on many, many occasions at my grandmother’s strange St. Ann, Missouri home.

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Meeting star Andrew Prine in St. Louis (2013). His climb to superstardom stalled in 1963 after Karyn Kupcinet (original article).

Nearby Texarkana and the “Phantom Killer” murders were not part of my mental “repertoire” yet. Nor was the name Youell Swinney. I would later discover (to my surprise) that both he and my grandmother were from Clark County–and had both once lived in the very same small town! Swinney later ended up in neighboring Cleveland County (about 60 miles away). Grandma Ina had always had an affinity for shady characters and younger men. Active and well-respected in social circles, she preferred instead to align herself with the more impoverished and down-trodden of society. Moonshiners, ex-cons and habitual petty criminals were her friends in those days. She was raised a Southern Baptist (Youell Swinney’s father was a Baptist minister). Whether she herself would have actually known any of the Swinneys is impossible to know at this juncture, but it seems possible—given what meager population the town and vicinity had in those days (Arkadelphia’s population at the time of Swinney’s birth was just under 3000). If the Crawfords (my grandmother’s side) and the Swinneys knew one another, then it seems only plausible that she may have known Youell Swinney himself (and been associated with him in some capacity). Grandma Ina was born in Arkadelphia in 1908. Swinney was born there in 1917.

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Victim Betty Jo Booker–age 15, as she was found on that Sunday morning, April 14th (1946).

My grandmother was a mystery to me. She rarely spoke about her Arkansas past. My mother was like that too. I read it was Swinney’s wife who fingered him as the killer. She claimed that he had “forced her” to participate in the murders. But there were holes in her story. It was circumstantially based. Some of what she said made sense, but other things did not. Ballistics evidence revealed the killer had used a .32 caliber pistol in the attacks. Dubbed the “Moonlight Murders,” the killer struck on weekends, from February 23rd to May 3rd. Eight people (all couples) were attacked. Five out of the eight died. Swinney was released from prison shortly before the murders began. His past offenses had included bootlegging, larceny, auto theft and counterfeiting gold coins. Nothing in his history, however, indicated any overt propensity towards “killing people.”

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Bullet holes in the window glass (left) from May 3rd’s farmhouse attack that killed 37-year-old welder Virgil Starks while he was seated in his chair (right).

Authorities believed they were looking for a Colt-made self-loading pistol (rather than a revolver) because of recovered shell casings, which were thought to have been “automatically ejected” after firing. But what if the killer unloaded his gun intentionally–in order to leave the shell casings behind for investigators to find for the purpose of hindering investigative efforts? A declassified FBI document later surfaced, suggesting that the gun was probably “not a Colt,” after all, but a cheap “Spanish-made” .32 caliber pistol; referencing Llama Firearms’ foreign-manufactured Colt “knock-off” model–the Ruby. This particular low-cost brand of firearm was widely popular in countries like Europe and Latin America, but not so much in places like Texas or Arkansas. Being available for purchase is NOT the same as saying that they were regionally common. Most gun owners in the south preferred the more reputable and trustworthy brands like Colt and Smith & Wesson. If the “Phantom Killer” was using a cheap Ruby, it was indeed a curious choice. So, what ever happened to it? Did he throw it in a dark and murky lake? Or give it away to an unsuspecting friend?

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My mother–age 15 (left) with Grandma Ina in Arkadelphia (1946), unaware that not far away a series of terrible murders were taking place–being committed quite possibly by one of their own former neighbors!

I asked my grandmother back in the ’70s where she had gotten her gun? All she would ever say was that “someone down home” had given it to her. By “down home” she always meant Arkansas (and usually Arkadelphia). Though Swinney at the time officially resided in Texas, it was not unusual to find him drifting back and forth across the border every now and then to visit friends and family–back and “down home” in Arkansas. Swinney was convicted and sent to state prison for life in February 1947 under the “habitual criminal act,” following his latest offense (auto theft). It was the same year my mother and grandmother left Arkansas, settling in St. Louis for the remainder of their days.  The murders in Texarkana ceased in 1946. The case remains unsolved. My grandmother passed away in St. Louis in 1993. Youell Swinney died in Dallas in 1994. Re-questioned about the murders shortly before his death, Swinney adamantly (and vehemently) denied any and all involvement.

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