Book Review: The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders

I learned about the Phantom serial killings after watching Killer Legends, a horror-documentary that examines the origins of various urban legends. The director, Joshua Zeman, also directed Cropsey, a documentary well-worth seeing. The book came to my attention when James Presley, the author of The Phantom Killer, was interviewed in the documentary about the murders.

Here are the basic facts: a person or persons unknown attacked eight young people in the Texarkana area, targeting couples necking in cars in lover’s lanes. He killed five people; three escaped. This was in 1946, decades before Robert Ressler coined the term serial killer. The author does a fine job detailing the investigation, which by today’s standards was shoddy. The lawmakers in question had never dealt with serial killings and focused on motives like robbery or revenge, trying to locate enemies of the couples. This was the wrong approach, as most serial killers do not know their victims.

A man named Youell Swinney was picked up by the police and immediately became the Number One Suspect, for reasons I still don’t quite understand. It seems that one of the investigators came up with the theory that the killer might be using stolen cars, and Swinney was a known car thief who operated in the area. Investigators placed Swinney near the crime scenes on the nights of the murders. However, they had nothing more than circumstantial evidence on him.

Peggy, Swinney’s wife, gave a statement to the effect that her husband was the Phantom, claiming that she witnessed two of the murders, but as his wife Texas law forbade her from testifying against him. From the author’s account, it’s doubtful she would have made a good witness. Eventually, Swinney was convicted as a habitual offender – he had a long list of crimes, ranging from petty theft, burglary and counterfeiting and escalating to assault and car theft – and given a life sentence (Texas had a three strikes and you’re out law). He was released in 1973 and spent the rest of his life in and out of jail.

The first half of The Phantom Killer is by far more interesting. Mr. Presley paints a vivid picture of Texarkana in 1946 and gives us a detailed description of the crime and subsequent investigation, conducted by a number of colorful lawmen. The second half of the book lagged, focusing on Swinney and how investigators attempted and ultimately failed to build a case against him.

The obvious question is whether Swinney was indeed the Phantom. The author is convinced he was. Please note that Mr. Presley’s uncle was a sheriff deeply involved in the Phantom case, so he can hardly be called unbiased. After reading this book, I wasn’t convinced. Lawmakers never had anything more than circumstantial evidence against Swinney, and it seems doubtful a jury would have sent him to the electric chair on that basis. The other question that comes up is whether Swinney had adequate legal representation, which is perhaps of greater interest to legal scholars.

I drew three conclusions from reading The Phantom Killer: 1. Swinney could have been the Phantom; 2. Lawmakers couldn’t prove Swinney was the Phantom; 3. Swinney was sent to prison – fairly or unfairly – for a number of lesser crimes using laws then on the books.

I’m still unsure why Swinney suddenly became the main suspect. To me, it looks like lawmen decided that the killer was also a car thief, which automatically made Swinney – a known car thief – their number one suspect. Strangely, they never had two of the survivors try to pick Swinney out of a lineup, even though one of them said her assailant had a voice she’d never forget.

And then there’s Peggy Swinney’s statement. Actually, statements would be more accurate. Her first account of the night of the double murder is full of inconsistencies. Her revised statement, made months later, is much more coherent, mentioning a number of crucial details she’d omitted in her first account. Amazingly, Ms. Swinney’s memory of the events of that night seemed to become clearer with the passage of time; either that, or she was coached, picking up salient details over the course of multiple interrogations.

The Phantom Killer contains a fair bit of psychobabble about why Swinney was such an unpleasant character. It is undeniable that Swinney was a sociopath, displaying violent and antisocial tendencies. He could have been The Phantom, and the murders ceased after his imprisonment. It is also undeniable that lots of people in Texarkana –by the author’s own admission, a hotbed of crime – had similar psychological profiles and could have been the Phantom also.

So did the Phantom Killer escape justice? It’s hard for me to believe that he just stopped killing, although apparently sometimes serial killers do. My feeling is that he either killed himself or was jailed for another crime. Was the Phantom Killer Youell Swinney? He fits the profile, but we’ll never know.

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Summer of Culture! A Song At Twilight

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This review contains minor SPOILERS, so be warned.

I saw A Song at Twilight on a Saturday night at the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre. I sat in the front row, close to the action. During the dinner scene it felt like I could have reached out and grabbed the salt-shaker.

The plot: famed author Sir Hugo Latymer meets his former mistress, Carlotta Gray, who wants to publish his love letters for her impending autobiography. That Sir Hugo refuses is no surprise, as Coward does a good job of quickly establishing his character. The plot turns when we discover that Carlotta has another set of Sir Hugo love letters, addressed to another person and far more damaging.

Blackmail, I thought, but the truth is more complex. Carlotta is still ‘irritated’ (her word) about the way she was treated. As Sir Hugo points out, thirty plus years is a long time to carry a grudge. Carlotta then calls Sir Hugo a heartless prick (I’m paraphrasing), which is certainly true, but doesn’t solve anything. They’re at an impasse. Sir Hugo won’t apologize or equivocate – which is what I THINK she wants – even though the second set of letters will ruin his career.

One of the things I liked about A Song at Twilight is that I couldn’t guess the ending. To Coward’s credit, he spurns the predictable. There are red herrings: the liquor cabinet, the medicine chest, even the butler. In the end two of the characters (neither of them Sir Hugo) act like grown-ups to resolve the situation.

The writing is excellent, the characters well-drawn. I thought the female characters were a bit more developed.  Sir Hugo isn’t likeable. He treats his wife, Hilde, like a secretary. This makes sense, since she is his secretary. With the exception of the piano-playing butler, none of the characters are likeable, but they are interesting, and by the play’s end I felt sympathy for Sir Hugo. This might have been due to the actor’s interpretation of the final scene.

My only quibble is that the publication of the first set of Sir Hugo’s love letters would serve the purpose of reinforcing his desired persona, so I wondered why he refused. But since he’s an ornery bastard who gives away nothing, it made sense. Even his ‘generous’ gesture at the play’s end felt like a transaction.

I enjoyed A Song At Twilight very much. The sets at the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre are always first-rate, and this was no exception. Parts of the play are witty, but the atmosphere of the production is too melancholy to be funny. The characters stay true to themselves, and the ending packs a punch.

An enjoyable night of culture!

Book review! Y: The Last Man, Unmanned

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This graphic novel is about a plague that kills every man on Earth, minus one. Yorick has just graduated from college, and he’s wondering what to do with his life now that he’s all big and growed up. Before the plague hits, he’s in the process of digesting the fact that his English degree qualifies him to work at a bookstore. Yorick is proposing to his girlfriend over the phone when every man on Earth dies. Here are the possible causes of the plague:

1. The Amulet of Helene, a mystic item of great power, is shanghaied from its homeland. Every man on Earth is killed as reprisal. Source: The Book of Exodus, The Bible.
2. Dr. Mann creates a clone of herself. When she gives birth to said clone (a baby boy) it triggers a chain reaction that wipes out all men.
3. A biological weapon of mass destruction created by some government (take your pick) that is accidentally unleashed on the world. Source: The Stand.
4. Yorick is dreaming; making the entire story up (he is an English major); or hallucinating as he lies dying. Source: St. Elsewhere.
5. Yorick’s monkey is a test animal (note that it doesn’t like needles), rescued by animal rights activists from the lab where the virus was created. Because of the experiments the monkey is immune to the plague and he passes that immunity on to Yorick (probably by biting him).
6. Yorick has godlike powers. When his girlfriend dumps him over the phone (we don’t hear the end of their conversation) he kills every male on the planet in a fit of pique. Source: The Twilight Zone.

Whatever. Yorick is the last guy on Earth, and he’s got Amazons and government agents running after him. He decides to go to Australia to find his girlfriend. Joining him are Agent 355, a mysterious government agent; and Dr. Mann, the doctor who created the clone. Great start to a series; highly recommended.

Book review! Bat-Manga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan

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The stories in this volume are entertaining and trot along at a nice clip. The stories are a sci-fi/superhero hybrid, similiar to the campy Batman stories of the 50’s and 60’s and the Adam West television show. Not exactly realistic, but who cares? I like the villains, whose ranks include a super-intelligent gorilla and manga versions of Clay Face and Two Face. My favorite is ‘Lord Death Man,’ who uses the power of yoga to cheat death!

My only complaint is that some of the stories end in cliffhangers and are not continued; other stories start in the second chapter. This is somewhat annoying, and I’m not sure what the designers of the book were thinking. The book looks nice and all, but I’m in it for the stories not the design of the book!

Bottom line: If they ever release more Bat-Manga I will read it.

Book review! Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

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Legacy of Ashes is founded on three premises.

1. The CIA is incompetent. The author gathers plenty of ammo to back this one up, to the point of downplaying the agency’s successes and highlighting its failures. He still makes a compelling argument that the CIA’s track record isn’t good.
2. The CIA’s dual functions – gathering intelligence and covert operations – are fundamentally at odds with each other. This is obvious. Covert operations thrive on secrecy, not openness. On a more practical level, if you try to gather accurate information and disseminate disinformation at the same time you will invariably get the two confused. This is the best argument in the book; the author should have focused on this one more.
3. An organization like the CIA can not be truly effective in a democracy. The author does not say this, but it’s what he thinks. He  states it differently, more like: an organization like the CIA has no place in a democracy.

Legacy of Ashes contains a great deal of information. Mr. Weiner did his homework and then some. This book isn’t a real history because true historians try not to let their personal biases affect their thinking, which the author does. Also: after Richard Nixon the book gets sketchy. I’m assuming this is because a lot of the information has not yet been declassified (Mr. Weiner gets most of his information from primary documents from the CIA’s archives).

Still a good read.

Book review! The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.

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The Day of Battle is about the invasion of Italy in World War II. It took me almost a month to read, but it was worth it. The author’s attention to detail and his ability to sustain a narrative are impressive. The battle descriptions are clearly written and the characters (major & minor) are all well-drawn. Essential reading for military history buffs and lovers of good non-fiction.