The Phantom Killer: Texarkana Moonlight Murders
"The town was like a tinder
box waiting for something to go off:
— Ed Malcolm, Texarkana resident
With the second double murder, the streets of Texarkana wore an entirely different cloak of attitude. The once-peaceful thoroughfares and byways suddenly filled with dark anticipation, suspicious gazes and stiff, alerted passersby. Trust in one's neighbor melted under a hot flame of doubt. Strangers were suspect; strange automobiles were followed, vigilante-like, until the spies were assured the passengers of said vehicles were merely out-of-town salesmen or merely a family of innocents driving through. And when night fell, the sidewalks, previously filled with strollers and kids playing flashlight tag, turned empty and silent as the air before a tornado.
"We were scared to death," Ida Lou Ames recollects. "We spent the night in the same house for six weeks." The Ames house was especially on guard since it sat in the country, in the area where the Phantom was known to strike. In fact, Betty Jo Booker's body had been found not far away. "Noise carries in a still, clear, cool night, but on that night we did not hear anything. And we lived so close."
If one dared to go out after dark, it was never alone, it was cautious, and never just for fun. "Nights were especially nerve-wracking," writes Texarkana Gazette reporter Christy Busby. "Most teenagers adhered to a voluntary curfew and they were more careful about their whereabouts...With motion lights, alarms and other highly technical home security systems still a generation away, residents relied on cleverly crafted booby traps to warn of the Phantom's approach. Pots and pans were strung to clang and clatter, and loose nails were collected so they could spill on the floor if disturbed."
Many Texarkanians alive today remember the distinct uneasiness and the safety measures their families took to prevent harm. Dan Young remarks, "Everybody was scared. You could not even buy locks. The thing that sticks in my mind is me and my family in a house that summer with the doors shut and the windows shut. We had (only) a 4-inch fixed fan to cool the house, and it was hot."
James Timberlake, whose family owned a hardware store, recalls that an item called a screen door brace became a best-seller. It was a metal device that stretched across the window and screwed into the wooden window frame. But, Ed Malcolm, a hardware clerk at another store, remembers items of a more deadly nature selling like hotcakes: "We sold out of all our guns and ammunition."
Not all the guns that citizens bought were used merely for at-home protection. Some locals took it upon themselves to do what the police seemed to be having a difficult time accomplishing: to catch the Phantom. But, the vigilantes, often just a pack of teenagers, became a real nuisance and often interfered directly with established police stakeouts.
"Many students who were especially incensed by the killing of two fellow students were conducting their own search," explains Wayne Beck in his online Phantom website. "Armed young couples were parking on lonely roads hoping the mad killer would try an attack on them."
The police forces involved had their hands full, following bad leads and keeping the temperament of the town subdued. And as their ranks grew, the organizational mixture resembled that familiar case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Investigations were often redundant and the once-lineal chain of communication went zig-zag. Spearheading the case were the Texas Rangers and the Bowie County Sheriff's Department working hand in hand; it was under the latter's turf that all the Phantom's crimes to date had been committed. Naturally, the two metropolitan constabularies (Texarkana, Texas, and Texarkana, Arkansas) served as aide de campe. The Federal Bureau of Investigation entered the fold to lend a hand, so did the Texas Department of Public Safety and adjacent Cass County. As the manhunt stretched out to other counties and towns those counties and towns leaped eagerly forward. They were the Arkansas State Police; the Hope, Arkansas, police department; the Little River County Sheriff's Department and the Lafayette County Sheriff's Department.
Says Wayne Beck, "Texarkana was the most guarded city in the United States."
Confusion aside, the different units performed a marvelous job patrolling the town, its parks, alleys, underpasses and rail yards, and wherever a hooded killer might lurk. Shotgun-toting troopers on horseback, in car and on foot watched the outskirts of the city, the lover's lanes, the abandoned farms, the lakes, lagoons and swimming holes.
More than 300 suspects were brought in for questioning — people who were caught roaming the dark spots at night, people who were considered "odd" by their neighbors, hermits and loners and those who had any criminal record at all. All were carefully questioned, none, however, were detained.
The town continued to shake in its boots and, with each knock of the knees, quickly lost faith in the lawmen's ability to fulfill its ultimate obligation: getting the Phantom. There was even talk that the authorities were holding back on important information. Grapevines rustled.
Responding to these rumors, Captain Manuel Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers and Bowie County Sheriff W.H. Presley jointly issued the following press release, which has more of a tone of a drastic mission statement. It read:
"The Texarkana newspapers have cooperated with us all through this investigation and we intend to cooperate with them in furnishing them the information they desire when the time comes for divulging that information. The newspapers are not printing rumors and have assured us they will not. Any information the public hears about the case will not be official unless it comes from us through the newspapers. We will continue to work day and night on the investigation. We will appreciate information from citizens and all such information will be treated confidentially."
In the meantime, a reward fund was established by city council members for apprehension of the perpetrator of "the foulest murder ever committed in Texarkana". Business, civic organizations, private families and fraternities donated to the fund — among them Texarkana and State national banks, Southwestern Gas, Longhorn Company, the Texarkana Gazette, the Elks, Lions and Rotary Clubs, the VFW Otis Henry Post (where Betty Jo Booker played with the Rhythmaires), and many more — to the sum of $4,280.
Texarkana was becoming big news, and major metropolitan newspapers and radio stations were sending some of their top people to cover the grisly events in the city 'twixt the two states. Representing were The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Dallas News, The Houston Chronicle and even The London Times. "All of the news agencies, including the Associated Press, United Press and the International News Service, sent reporters," attests J.Q. Mahaffey, then-editor of the Texarkana Gazette, which served as host to fellow press agents.
The news hounds brought with them the color that only men and women of their experience could bring; downtown became one giant typewriter clacking away the Texarkana story in true human interest style — both the tragedies and the whimsies.
There were, after all, moments of mirth. Recalls Editor Mahaffey, "I don't suppose I will ever forget the lead paragraph of the INS reporter's story: 'I have arrived in Texarkana, the home of the Phantom Killer. I have just talked to a newspaperman named Graves. I am quartered at the Grim Hotel, and the hair is rising on my neck.'"
A favorite of the news-hungry legions of the printed word was Manuel "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas, Texas Ranger, who had set himself up as a one-man PR agency and spokesperson. He was a reporter's delight, with the swagger of John Wayne and the verbosity of Will Rogers.
"Rumors that attached themselves to 'Lone Wolf' were easy to believe because he was the living embodiment of the Wild West," Mahaffey says. "(He) wore a spotless khaki suit and a white 10-gallon hat. He packed two pearl-handled revolvers on his hips and did not deny that he was the Ranger who sat in the cashier's office in the Crazy Water Hotel in Mineral Wells and gunned down two ex-convicts who sought to rob the place. He was so good looking that my girl reporters wouldn't leave him alone. He really didn't have time to hunt down the Phantom. He was too busy giving out interviews and trying to run the Gazette. All of the other officers...were intensely jealous of 'Lone Wolf' and complained bitterly every time his picture appeared in the paper."
True to nature, Gonzaullas succeeded in giving one of the most animated live interviews at the time. When Mahaffey, conducting the interview on radio station KCMC, asked him to offer listeners some words of wisdom that might calm their fears, Gonzaullas replied, "Sure. Check the locks and bolts of your doors and get a double-barreled shotgun to blow away any intruder who tries to get in."
Mahaffey quickly changed the subject.