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Moonlight Murders

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Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist

In 1946, five people were
murdered and three more
critically injured in a series
of bloody attacks that kept
Northeast Texas and Southwest
Arkansas gripped in
panic over the “Moonlight
Murders.”
The first attack occurred
on February 22, 1946, when
Jimmy Hollis and Mary
Jeanne Larey were forced
from their parked car on
a secluded road. The two
were severely beaten but
left alive.
One month later, on the
night of March 23, Richard
Griffin and Polly Ann Moore
were gunned down in their
car. Police were convinced
it was the same man who
was involved in the earlier
assault and immediately
began arresting suspects,
but none of the evidence
connected the suspects to
the attacks. The nightmare
grew with the predawn murders
of Paul Martin and
Betty Jo Booker on April 14.
Like the previous attacks,
the two were shot while in
their car in a remote area.
As the days went by, fear
overran the area. A voluntary
curfew was established
and businesses closed early.
Police patrols and checkpoints
were organized as far
away as Hope and Magnolia.
Citizens raised thousands
of dollars in reward money
for information leading to
an arrest, to no avail. Texas
Rangers established decoys
to try to lure the assailant,
with no results. Ultimately,
more than 200 suspects
were questioned.
On the night of May 3,
Virgil Starks was shot and
killed through the window
of his home northeast of
town. Moments later, Katie
Starks, his wife, discovered
the bloody scene and ran to
phone police. However, the
murderer was still close and
shot her through another
window as she made the
call. She barely survived.
Immediately, Miller and
Little River County sheriff’s
deputies and the Arkansas
State Police organized
roadblocks near the Starks
home.
A handful of suspects
were detained but were
eventually all released.
While most of the killings
were committed a .32 pistol,
the Starks shootings were
carried out with a .22. In
spite of the different gun
used, investigators were
convinced it was the same
assailant.
The attacks abruptly
stopped after the murder of
Starks, without explanation.
The three survivors of the
attacks could never clearly
identify their attacker and
quietly resumed their lives.
Psychologists theorize that
in cases where serial killers
suddenly stop their attacks
is often because the perpetrators
leave the area, go to
jail on unrelated charges,
or die themselves. However,
little evidence exists
to support any conclusion
about the Phantom Killer,
as newspapers called him.
The story of the murders
was made into the movie
The Town That Dreaded
Sundown in 1976. The film
outraged many residents
still tormented by memories
of the deaths. Most of
the details of the killings
were twisted around as to
be almost unrecognizable.
Filmmakers suggested in
their advertisements and
the movie itself that the
murderer was still in Texarkana
though there was
no proof of this. In spite of
the controversy, the movie
is often shown at the local
film festival each October at
a park near the scene of one
of the murders.
The family of victim Polly
Ann Moore sued filmmakers
over the depiction, claiming
defamation of character.
The case was dismissed by
the Texas Supreme Court
in 1980.
A 2014 remake of the
film, filmed in Texarkana
and nearby Shreveport,
featured a story with even
less resemblance to the
original murders than the
1976 film. Several books
about the murders have
been published.
The months of terror
were the worst serial killings
Texarkana has ever seen.
The identity and the fate
of the Phantom Killer was
never determined. Nearly
seventy years later, Texarkana
still has no answers.