I stumbled across this serial killing spree by a meme posted on Facebook that said that this was an unsolved series of cases in Texarkana. I made note of it because I write about cold cases, with an emphasis now on serial killings. I thought this might be worth looking into.
I did find a book on the case, The Phantom Killer, so I picked it up. Wow. I went from not knowing anything about these murders to being immersed not just in the cases, but in the culture and period of the crimes. The internet meme was wrong (I know, misinformation on the internet? I was stunned too – NOT!) The killer was known, but never fully brought to justice.
Taking place in 1946, the Phantom Killer killed five people and wounded three. The victims were in pairs, which resonated with me after writing about the Colonial Parkway Murders. The author, James Presley, is a master-historian, taking you back in time to Texarkana in 1946, putting you on the streets of his hometown in that era.
This was a ruthless killer in an age long before DNA testing and modern police investigatory techniques. Today, this killer would have gone to jail much earlier. Instead, the murderer hid in the folds of history, concealed by police incompetence or lack of skills we now take for granted. The stories of the victims are recreated in painstaking detail. Kudos to the author for what had to be difficult research after all of these years.
The books brings you a cast of characters that are right out of central casting – including a wily Texas Ranger that is bigger than life.
This is not a true cold case though. The police caught Youell Swinney, a car thief, whose wife implicated him in the murders. While the case was largely circumstantial, I feel confident that Swinney was indeed the killer.
What follows though is the legal twists and turns as to how Swinney dodged ever being tried as the Phantom Killer. This is a book that leaves you wondering at the very end if the decisions by the authorities was the right course of action. Yes, the killer spent years in jail, but never for his most heinous crimes.
James Presley is a great writer. I found the book compelling and written with the care needed to take us back to the crime scenes. He weaves a stirring tale of a serial killer in an era far before that label existed. I devoured the book on a business trip, unable to put it down.
Well worth picking up – I recommend highly The Phantom Killer.