The Tex Files: Phantom Killer - Dallas News |

The Tex Files: Phantom Killer


Original Air Date: Sunday May 19, 2002

The legend of Texarkana's phantom killer fascinated America for decades. Eventually it was immortalized on the silver screen.

A film called "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" mangled the story as only Hollywood can. But the basics were there -- a hooded serial killer stalking young couples on lovers lanes. That part is true, and the conclusion, as well -- the phantom killer got away with it. No one was ever charged.

The crime spree began in February 1946 on a moonless night. Two young lovers parked along Richmond Lane, then just a secluded dirt road on the edge of town. Suddenly, a man in a white hood approaches -- a pistol and a flashlight in his hand. The young man is pulled from the car and beaten unconscious. The young woman viciously raped. But at least in this first case, the phantom's victims survived."

Three weeks later to the day another lovers lane attack outside Texarkana. This time the couple was murdered.

"Once it had been reported this was the pattern, every three weeks this mysterious killer was loose, people became very alarmed," author Dr. James Presley said..

Presley was a teenager then. He said when another lovers lane double murder occurred three weeks later, alarm turned to panic.

"It was after the second double murder that they started using the name 'phantom' in the local paper," he said. "No one felt like he or she was safe … we had everything locked and we had our guns handy, and so forth, and this was the pattern that was repeated all over town."

"At that time we had not had anything like this," said Tillman Johnson, then a deputy sheriff on the Arkansas side.

"People were frightened. Not only here but for miles around," Johnson said. "When dark came, kids came indoors. People didn't go downtown much. They were frightened."

"Life" magazine gave it front page coverage and hordes of policeman came to town. The state sent its most famous lawman -- Texas ranger "Lone Wolf" Gonzaulas. But the one and only break in the case was the work of two small town cops from nearby Atlanta, Texas, who followed a car thief named Euell Swinney into downtown Texarkana.

"I got down there after they started chasing him," Johnson said.

Johnson suspected they'd caught the phantom from the moment Swinney was put in his car.

"He thought that's what we were picking him up for. He says, 'Hell, I know you don't electrocute people for stealing a car.' … Nobody had said a word to him about anything."

Fifty-five years later, Tillman Johnson is still mesmerized by the case. He's the only surviving lawman from the era and his are the only files.

"Swinney never did admit to anything," he said.

However, Swinney's wife, Peggy, did.

"I took maybe three to four different statements from her and eventually got her to talking," he said.

Johnson still has a copy of Peggy Swinney's polygraph examination. She talks about the murder of Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, and admits she was there when Euell Swinney committed them.

"She gave us quite a bit of information about the Booker/Martin killing that was later confirmed."

That's all the cops ever got on Swinney -- testimony from a wife they couldn't use in court. Instead, he was sent to prison for car theft, getting a long sentence as a habitual criminal.

"In my own mind, I think he did it," Johnson said.

In any event, the murders stopped and young love triumphed again.

"As frightened as people and the public was, young couples still continued to park on the road after this and we would patrol the roads, and the lanes, and try to keep them off it. But it didn't," Johnson said.

Mark Bledsoe represents generations who've grown up in Texarkana after the phantom disappeared

"Still to this day they talk about the phantom killer," he said.

When he became a probation officer, Bledsoe started digging for information and Euell Swinney.

"Every time he would get out of prison he'd commit another offense and end up back in prison," Bledsoe said.

In 1992, Bledsoe drove to a halfway house in Dallas, where Swinney was supposed to be living.

"I saw this elderly man, kind of bent over in a big, old white cowboy hat. And I thought that'd be funny if that was the phantom," he said.

Inside Bledsoe was told he'd missed Swinney -- a bent over old man in a white cowboy hat. Bledsoe rushed out to the street but, once again, the phantom was gone.

Bledsoe did connect with Swinney a couple months later but by then, the old con had suffered a stroke and was in a Dallas nursing home.

"His whole demeanor did change when the subject of the phantom was brought up … he denied it, but he also denied ever being married, which I though was really unusual because that's the only reason he got off," Bledsoe said. "I would say I'm 100 percent it was Euell E. Swinney that committed several of the phantom killer murders. And he got away with it."

Euell Swinney: Car thief, habitual criminal, long time con. The evidence does seem to point to him. Thus, mystery solved. Well, maybe not.

Over the years, relatives of murder victims have received anonymous calls from a woman -- middle aged maybe -- apologizing for what she said her father had done. As far as anyone can determine, Euell Swinney never had a daughter.

"I don't know. I don't know. That's a puzzler," Presley said.

"It could be. My mind's open on this case. If Swinney didn't do it and we can find somebody who did do it. Why, let's get after it," Presley said. "The reason this is called a mystery is because it fits all the molds of a mystery … the ends get looser as time goes on."

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