Author 'Unlocks' the Mystery of Texarkana's Phantom Killer

Feb 3, 2015

The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror
Credit book cover, Amazon.com

In the spring of 1946, "The Phantom Killer" attacked eight people around Texarkana, Texas, killing five. Three of the dead were 17 years old or younger. To this day, these serial murders remain officially unsolved. The murders were dramatized in the 1976 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown, directed by Charles Pierce, (who happens to be buried in Dover, Tennessee.) On Sounds Good, Todd Hatton speaks with Presley about this dark chapter in his hometown's history.

In 1946, Texarkana was two cities divided by a street along the state line. In reading newspapers from the 1940s, Presley learned that it was a wild town rife with robbers, safecracking, killings and automobile accidents. Increasing local industry also led to an influx of people. By the mid 1940s, the population was around 50,000 - primarily made up of people from different parts of the country. It was not a calm and peaceful town, says Presley. Max Tackett, a state trooper and the lead investigator of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders once remarked that the city was callous to murder. But the ages of the victims set the public into a frenzy. People suspected their neighbors, the local newspaper came out with the headline citing a "sex maniac" and law enforcement patrolled disguised as young couples in love hoping to lure out the killer.

Presley says he was curious about the case because of its unknown factors and the misinformation circulating after the popular film The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which was loosely based on the facts of the case, distorted many of the facts. In his book, The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of The Texarkana Serial Murders, the Story of a Town in Terror, Presley makes a case for who he believes the actual culprit is. In the summer of 1946, the suspected culprit was arrested but was never charged due to lack of evidence.

Today, there's a mixed reaction regarding the story's legacy. This is a result of the movie and notoriety over the years, Presley says. He says there's a form of denial and a feeling that trauma and stigma was killing business in Texarkana. Over time, The Phantom Killer has been disregarded as a stranger passing through town. Maybe that's the hope of the people, he says. Also, the movie struck a strange sense of Texarkana pride as it was largely a local production, further distorting the unsolved case.

James Presley is the author of The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of The Texarkana Serial Murders, the Story of a Town in Terror, available on Amazon.com (your purchase through this link supports WKMS).