Living in the Shadow of a Killer

Shadow of a killer
We may never be able to identify serial killers until it is too late. (Photo courtesy Canva)

By the time my family moved to Texarkana, Arkansas, nearly 40 years had passed since a killer terrorized the twin cities. In fact, we were unaware of the trauma the city had endured for years. As a boy, I was more intrigued by the stories my classmates shared about the Boggy Creek Monster who was rumored to prowl around the Sulphur River Bottoms near Fouke, Arkansas. But as I later learned, those stories paled in comparison to what evil lurked along the backroads of Texarkana for 10 long weeks in 1946.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown poster
American International

For you cinephile’s out there, you may already think you know the story if you have ever watched the 1976 film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, directed by Charles B. Pierce, or its purely fictitious 2014 sequel of the same name, even though both movies are very loosely based on the events that actually transpired.

Although I had heard fragments of the truth in school, and had obviously heard of the movies, I wasn’t clear on their storyline until 2013 when I worked at a cluster of radio stations in Texarkana and one of my colleagues, on-air personality Jeff Easterling, was cast as the radio announcer in the second film. Suddenly, he was eager to give me the skinny.

During a 10-week stretch between February 22 and May 3, 1946, an unidentified killer began targeting couples, killing them on the back roads of Texarkana in the dark of night (hence the title of the two films). Of the killer’s eight victims, five people died. Although this may pale in comparison to more recent murder sprees, it was enough to send the small communities on the Texas-Arkansas border into a frenzy.

Locals armed themselves with newly acquired weapons and seemingly everyone concealed themselves away behind locked doors when the sun went down that spring and summer, terrified that they could be the killer’s next target. Police patrolled the area and some ambitious young people tried to draw the killer out into the open, but to no avail.

At the time, the newspapers called the serial killings the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, and the story went on to make national and even international headlines. Still, the investigators on the case were never quite sure if the same perpetrator murdered everyone involved, and the killer earned the name the Phantom Killer.

Much of what I ever heard was heresay, stories spun in the dark by teens intent on frightening one another or giving each other the willies. Of course, none of those people likely knew the real story either, mostly because they hadn’t been alive in 1946, but also because it was a piece of sordid history most people preferred to leave in the past. Still, the past has a way of coming back to haunt us whether we like it or not.

Simon and Schuster

In 2014, James Presley published his book The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror, which points to petty criminal Youell Swinney as the culprit. Although Swinney had been linked to the murders at the time by circumstantial evidence and his own wife’s accusations, she refused to testify against him, and the prosecutors dropped the charges as a result. Still, the authorities had enough on him to convict him of other crimes, including forgery and auto theft.

Are Presley’s conclusions accurate? I don’t know for certain. What I do know, however, is that we love stories about things that go bump in the night, especially if there is an element of truth to the tale. In fact, I believe our friend, author Alex Kava, hit the nail on the head in the blog post she just published at Rogue Women Writers, “Dahmer and Others: Why Serial Killers Fascinate Us.” In it, she says, “I think we’re fascinated because these killers are so normal, and they hide in plain sight.”

We never really know the people closest to us—let alone the neighbor down the street— including what secrets they’re hiding, what they may be thinking, or what they are truly capable of. That thought alone, if we dwell on it too hard, is rather terrifying. But so is this little fact: you too may be living in the shadow of a killer, and you won’t even realize it until it is too late.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

2 Responses to Living in the Shadow of a Killer

  1. Alex Kava says:

    Jathan, I always say real life killers are so much more frightening than anything I can make up. Interesting that no one has solved this. And yes, I too, was intrigued (and scared) of the Boggy Creek monster.

    • Jathan Fink says:

      Alex, I’m surprised you even know what the Boggy Creek monster is coming from Nebraska! But I agree with you. As one of my journalism professors in college used to say, he used to dream of being a novelist, but the truth was usually more unbelievable than anything he could think up! And these days, fact is truly weirder than fiction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: