Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Phantom Killer: Texarkana Moonlight Murders


"We all wondered whether the killings were being done by someone who lived among us, and I still wonder who did it."
— W.E. Atchison, Texarkana resident

Perhaps Katy Starks should have heeded Gonzaullas' advice — and bought a shotgun. Mrs. Starks, 35, and her husband Virgil, 36, owned a farm off Highway 67, southwest of the city in Miller County, Arkansas. Twelve miles from Texarkana, their rambling frame farmhouse sat on a stretch of open prairie facing the road; across the toad was her sister's house and down the way some 50 yards was a neighbor's farm, that of the Prater family. It was a remote area, but so far untouched by the Phantom. On the evening of Friday, May 3, 1946, that would change.

About 9 p.m., Virgil plopped in his easy chair beside the parlor radio, and flipped open the edition of that day's newspaper. He had been working in the fields all day and, dinner eaten, began a weekend respite. His back was sore from the day's labor, so as he read he leaned back onto the electric heating pad warming the lower stretch of muscles. Little did he notice the silhouette of a man before the moonlight, tiptoeing up his front steps.

Katy didn't see him, either. She had finished washing the supper dishes, had exchanged her housedress for a nightgown, and now lie in her bed rummaging through her Post magazine. All she heard was the scratch of her husband's radio in the parlor down the hall.

A shot blew open a pane from the front window and Virgil, struck in the cranium, jerked forward and sent the newspaper fluttering across the living room, blood spattered. An immediate second shot hit him again in almost the same spot. This time the body convulsed and fell limply sideways across the chair arm.

His wife heard the first, then the second, crash of glass and what sounded like the report of a gun accompanying each. She rolled out of bed into her slippers and raced down the hallway. One look at her husband, both he and his chair soaked in blood, and she knew what had happened. Shards of glass lay across the bureau beneath the window from where the gunfire had come. She immediately thought, Phantom!

Her head floated as she scrambled for the telephone across the room; her fingertips in the rush felt numb as she tried to dial the rotary for the otherwise easy O. A buzz and a woman's voice penetrated the shell of the black receiver, "Operator. May I help you?" But, Katy never answered. She felt a battering pressure drive the phone off her ear and a pain burn through her right cheek before she even heard the explosion from behind. Instinctively, she began to turn toward the sound of the blast when another shot boomed to tear her lower jaw from the upper. She watched splinters of her teeth sail upward, and she gulped down a gush of blood.

Somehow she remained conscious despite the horror, the excuciating pain and the dizziness. In an attempt to avoid further shots, she fell to the floor and crawled toward the kitchen and the back door. But, as she reached the tiles of the pantry, she became aware that the rear door was clattering against its bolt, being forced from the outside. She could hear utterances from the thing outside, making inhuman sounds of despair as he realized the door was locked. Through the curtains on the door window, his shadow filled the panes, distorted.

Blood soaked her nightgown and she felt herself on the verge of passing out, but she rallied with a determination that she would not be that animal's prey. Succeeding to her feet, she struggled back through the living room and out the front door, trailing blood. As she repaired from the house, she heard the kitchen door finally giving way under the intruder's ramrodding, followed by a stream of curses.

Wrote the Texarkana Gazette in the next day's edition, "She fled in her bloody nightgown across the highway to her sister's house, only to find no one at home. She eventually made her way to the A.V. Prater farmhouse down the road, where she was able to summon help and a ride to Michael Meagher Hospital."

The first bullet had penetrated her right cheek and exited behind her left ear. The second, after smashing her jaw, lodged in the muscles under her tongue. Immediate surgery saved her life. For days her condition was critical, but she miraculously pulled through. The scars she wore would be nothing compared to those she psychologically endured the remainder of her life.

Back at the farm, patrol wagons surrounded the house and the state troopers edged cautiously toward it. "(They) found two small bullet holes shot through the front porch window, which led them to believe the sniper used an automatic weapon because four shots were fired altogether," said the Gazette. The police made ingress through the house, guns drawn, but found no one alive inside. Virgil Starks' body lay on the floor now while the cushions of his easy chair smoldered from the unattended heating pad. The killer's muddy footprints were traced from the kitchen door to the Starks' bedroom, where he must have gone searching for Katy, back to the living room, out again via the front door, then across the highway, still in pursuit of the lady. Bloody handprints smeared on the walls and furniture indicated that the murderer had dabbed his palms in the pools of blood at Mr. Starks' feet. Whoever the killer, he seemed to have been in a fit of rage, out of control, berserk. And his frenzy had probably peaked when he realized the woman — whom he probably lusted — had eluded him.

Michael Meagher Hospital (now St. Michaels) where Katy Starks recovered. - Courtesy St. Michael's Hospital
Michael Meagher Hospital (now St. Michaels)
where Katy Starks recovered. - Courtesy
St. Michael's Hospital

This time, the police had fingerprints, plenty of them.

Miller County Sheriff W.E. Davis ordered roadblocks at both ends of Highway 67 and canine units assembled to trail the fugitive. The bloodhounds traced his scent along the highway for some 200 yards before they lost it. At this point, the maniac had probably jumped into his auto and drove off.

The Phantom had struck again, this time in a more savage way than ever. But — had it been the Phantom? Certain members of the police department did not think so, among them Davis and his chief deputy, Tillman Johnson. Their reasoning was based on two things: First, bullets removed from the Starks were fired from a .22 calibre semi-automatic shotgun, not a .32 revolver, so far the Phantom's weapon of note. Second, the modus operandi was all wrong — no lovers lane teenagers this time.

When questioned after her recovery weeks later, Mrs. Starks could not describe her husband's killer; she had seen only his shadow at the back door window.

Texarkanians thought it ridiculous not to consider the Starks murder as the handiwork of anyone other than the Phantom. His savagery had been increasing with each attack, and again here was a case of a couple being ambushed without mercy; it didn't matter that they weren't teenagers. As for the change of weaponry, who wrote the law that Phantoms must be restricted to only one choice of weapon?

There is no known record of what "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas and other in-charges believed, but the day after the Starks rampage the manhunt for the Phantom expanded to include Miller County. In fact, central investigation headquarters moved from downtown Texarkana to a location nearer to the Starks home.


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