The Phantom Killer: Texarkana Moonlight Murders
Naming The Beast
"After Spring Lake Park, everything mushroomed from there."
— Milton Mosier, Arkansas State policeman
Lights were dimmed in the VFW Hall as the dancers swayed arm in arm to the melodic strains of "Moonlight Serenade," a popular tune of the day. On the bandstand, the Rhythmaires played this and other tunes under the gliding baton of their bandleader, Jerry Atkins, who doubled on saxophone. This engagement, Saturday, April 13, was one of many Saturday night gigs the band had played at the hall over the last year. Beginning as an ensemble to entertain GIs on leave, Atkins' band was renamed the Rhythmaires sfhortly after the war ended and lost no popularity in peacetime. Texarkana teenagers flocked to listen to and dance along with the most popular tunes as arranged by Atkins in the cozy banquet hall at Fourth and Oak streets.
Only a teen himself at the time, Atkins had shown skill in picking the right people to play in his band. Four of its members were female, invited to participate due to the shortage of male musicians who had gone off to war. "When I recruited the girls for the band we were playing proms and other events, but we were offered steady Saturday nights at the VFW Club. People still wanted the big band sound."
Since the girl musicians were yet teenagers like Atkins, and since many of the places they played offered beer and alcohol, the only way their mothers agreed to let them join Atkins was if the bandleader himself (who had a fine reputation) would give them a ride to and from their engagements. He agreed.
Betty Jo Booker was one of his favorites. At only 15 years old, she already handled her saxophone with grace. Atkins saw potential and often encouraged her to consider music as a full-time profession after she graduated high school. She was bright, talkative and eager, and Atkins felt that this straight-A student brimmed with promise.
The last note of the evening having resounded about 1 a.m. Sunday morning, April 14, band members began packing up their instruments and music stands. Dancers shuffled out onto Oak Street, still humming their favorite tune. Betty Jo announced to her boss that he needn't give her a lift home tonight. A former classmate named Paul Martin from nearby Kilgore had stopped by and would take her to where she was going, a slumber party with other girl friends. Atkins glanced at the awaiting acquaintance, sized him up as a clean-cut kid, sober and innocent. Satisfied, he told Betty Jo to go along and have a nice time.
It was the last time he saw her alive. Both she and Martin were dead, killed by revolver shots, long before sunrise.
Martin's automobile was discovered abandoned at the entrance of Spring Lake Park, nowhere near the slumber party to which Betty Jo was headed. Paul's body was located first, north of what is today Interstate 30 a mile and a half from his car. He had been shot several times. Betty Jo was found nearly two miles distant outside a patch of woods near Fernwood, also north of I-30. Like Paul, Betty Jo's body was bullet-ridden. She had also been sexually molested. This time, official records didn't deny it.
Ballistic tests confirmed that the bullets that had killed the teens — .32 calibers — matched those that had taken the lives of Moore and Griffin three weeks earlier.
Texarkana began to panic, realizing that it had within its hide a killer who seemed to be getting more nervy as his rampages continued. For the first time, the police put two and two together and realized that the same hooded vagabond might be responsible for the series of assaults and murders that had begun with the fracturing of Jimmy Hollis' skull and the near rape of Miss Larey on February 22. Unfortunately, again, authorities had not found any discernible fingerprints, but the killer's modus operandi was apparent: attacking young couples in secluded areas.
Because he seemed to hit and run, then dematerialize into the ether, the then-managing editor of the Texarkana Gazette, Calvin Sutton, labeled the town's number one nemesis The Phantom. The name first appeared in bold-faced headlines after the most recent murder. "Little did Sutton realize he was making journalistic history in Texarkana," J.Q. Mahaffey later noted. Mahaffey, being executive editor at the time, Sutton ran the name past him for his opinion. Mahaffey answered, "Why not? If the SOB continues to elude capture he certainly can be called a phantom."
But, Mahaffey somewhat ruefully admits, "Of course, as we continued to write about the murders, the name 'Phantom' only served to intensify the hysteria."
In the midst of the chaos, the fabled Texas Rangers made an entrance onto the scene. They came in the tall, lean form of well-known Ranger named Manuel Gonzaullas, known as "Lone Wolf" for his ability to track down criminals and face them by himself. In town when the latest murders were discovered, he took over the investigations. One of his first acts was to issue a bulletin:
"WANTED FOR MURDER":
"Person or persons unknown, for the murder of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin, on or about April 13, 1946, in Bowie County, Texas. Subject or subjects may have in their possession or may try to dispose of a gold-plated Bundy E-flat Alto saxophone, serial #52535, which was missing from the car in which the victims were last seen...This saxophone had just been rebuilt, replated and repadded, and was in an almost new black leather case with blue plush lining.
"It is requested that a check be made of music stores and pawn shops. Any information as to the location of the saxophone or description and whereabouts of the person connected with it should be forwarded immediately to the Sheriff, Bowie County, Texarkana, Texas, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin, Texas."
Lawmen queried anyone who knew Betty Jo Hooker and Paul Martin for a possible motive. What remains to this day a mystery is how Martin's coupe wound up so far from their destination.
The couple had not been romantically linked and had no reason to be in such an out of the way location as Spring Lake Park after nightfall, a kind of place where lovers might wander by instinct. "We have always believed that someone they knew or someone familiar to them forced them to go there," a classmate determined. And the law agreed. Perhaps, the two unfortunates had picked up a hitchhiker who made them drive there under false pretense and then, once there, produced his gun. Maybe someone at the dance.
Jerry Atkins believes, to this day, that the Phantom might have been someone who hung out at the dances, looking for people to victimize. "As I was questioned (by the police) about possibly identifying anyone who was at the VFW Club on that fatal night, I began to think about the Moore-Griffin murders as well. Their car and bodies were found not too far from the Highway 67 spot called Club Dallas. Could someone have stalked them from there? Maybe there was someone at the VFW who saw Betty Jo with Paul." Recalling the hectic investigations that bloody spring, he adds, "These theories never (officially) materialized."
Four days after the latest double murder, its victims were laid to rest. Four members of the Rhythmaires, including Atkins, were asked to be pallbearers. "It was a sad and tearful day," the latter recalls.
Betty Jo's saxophone was found several months later in a marshy field in Spring Lake Park, rusting and half-submerged in the murk. Obviously it had been lying there since the murderer tossed it that fateful night. It remained a mute reminder of the once-tuneful life of Betty Jo Hooker, a life that Jerry Atkins honored with a single decision: After her death, he chose to put the Rhythmaires to rest, too. They never played again.