by Don Stradley
The post-war Texarkana of James Presley’s The Phantom Killer had a “reputation as a rough little town,” but it was also typical of small-town America in 1946. High school musicians played swing music for couples to dance to at the local VFW, and there were plenty of all night diners where you could grab a snack. The favorite pastime of all, though, was parking in a secluded spot with your sweetheart.
That is, until the killer arrived.
Presley’s highly detailed recounting of the murders, the bumbling investigation, the media blitz, and the aftermath, shows us that evil isn’t something that comes up from a netherworld. Rather, it can come in the guise of a plain bumpkin, in this case, a local hick named Youell Swinney. A 30-year-old ex-con, Swinney was the youngest son of a Baptist minister and was known for having a violent streak. When Texarkana cops busted him for car theft, he all but confessed to the murders. His wife provided damaging statements that convinced every cop on the case that Swinney was the killer.
The book is packed with minutiae. Presley tells us as much as possible about the unfortunate victims, down to what they were wearing and what they liked to do in their free time. Mostly, we learn about Swinney, an egotistical loser who once drove 120 miles roundtrip to see a movie about Jesse James, as if he sought tips on how to be a vicious outlaw.
Swinney wasn’t the type of misunderstood criminal that might draw sympathy. He was warped, and his treatment of one of the female victims showed a man torn by a strange sexual anger. Presley suggests that Swinney was sublimating homosexual urges, but there had to be more to him than mere sex hang-ups. "He got his kicks through violence," Presley writes, "like killing and control." What influenced Swinney's messy psyche? Presley chews on several possibilities, and his chapter on the makings of a serial killer is as terse as any I’ve read on the subject.
In some ways, Swinney seemed to get what he wanted out of life. He liked the notoriety that came with being associated with the Phantom murders, and he avoided execution. He ended up serving a couple of decades for other crimes, was released briefly in the 1970s, but was soon back in the slam. While most felt the killings were unsolved, with the Phantom becoming a sort of American Jack the Ripper, most authorities in the Texas penal system felt confident that they had their man. (Other authors have suggested Swinney was a solid suspect in at least some of the murders, but Presley is determined to pin everything on Swinney, with no other suspects mentioned.)
Presley’s book is a good read, chockfull of research and insights – Presley spent many years reporting for the Texarkana Gazette, and his uncle was sheriff of Bowie County where the murders happened, so the events of 1946 loom large in the Presley family. Yet, Presley spends too much time on the court trials and legal finagling that allowed Swinney his freedom in the ‘70s. I also lost track of the number of times Presley mentions that DNA evidence wasn’t available at the time of the killings.
But Presley is also adept at the telling detail, such as his description of a battered saxophone case belonging to one of the victims, its plush blue lining “rotted from exposure to the elements.” The sax is such an integral part of the investigation that it begins to feel like a sixth casualty, and when it’s finally located in some underbrush near one of the murders, there’s a sense of relief. It even takes on a human quality when the investigators check it for latent fingerprints, wondering if “the killer had opened the case and touched the instrument with an ungloved hand.”
I suppose anyone writing about such a grisly murderer should be allowed some hyperbole, but it’s a stretch when Presley writes that the slayings in Texarkana “represent a case history of domestic terrorism as threatening as any other.” He tries to fit Swinney into a lineage that includes the Boston Strangler, Adam Lanza of Sandy Hook, and even the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Without belittling the terror and pain he inflicted on the community, The Phantom of Texarkana is more in league with William Heirens, a wingnut who terrorized Chicago women for a few months in 1945-46 and became known as “the Lipstick Killer”. He’s a period piece.
But then, a man known as “The Phantom Killer” and “The Moonlight Murderer”, a man who has inspired at least a couple of low budget movies, might deserve a bit of grand talk. “With the principle participants dead,” Presley writes, “and documentary evidence fragile and scattered and possibly on the way to being lost forever, this was the last chance to set the record straight and close a popular but vexing old mystery.”
Consider the case closed. But there are still questions. Swinney's wife remains a puzzle. How much did she really know? And Swinney’s tattoo, for instance, of a skull and heart with the word “revenge” on his left arm. Revenge for what?