Monday, March 9, 2015

"The Phantom Killer" by James Presley (2014)

This is a case which they still speak of in Texas. It has never been solved. The Phantom Killer; so dubbed by the local press in Texarkana; is America’s Jack the Ripper. We think we know who did it; but then again, we’re not quite sure. And the fascination with the case may be more entertaining than actually finding out who really did it. It’s kind of like JFK and Dallas. We want to know, but then what would we do about it?

The town of Texarkana straddles the two states of Texas and Arkansas. The old joke was that a man could stand in the center of town with his mule and claim he was in Texas while his ass was still in Arkansas. With the advent of the oil industry; and later the war; work was plentiful and Texarkana was somewhat of a boomtown. But with all of the quick money came increased crime and a transient population. 

The author; James Presley; is the nephew of Sheriff Bill Presley; who was the the chief investigator on the case and; as a trained historian with a Pulitzer Prize nomination to back him up; has taken all of the eye witness accounts and affidavits from the investigation, distilling them down to a very convincing argument as to who the Phantom was. In addition he draws upon his knowledge of the local folk lore and geography to paint a portrait of the town; as well as the effects the crimes had upon the average citizen.

Eventually, after the town has been literally terrorized as they wait for the next killings; which occur with regularity; every African-American is pulled in for questioning. Eventually, though, the leads all point to a white man named Youell Swinney and his girlfriend Peggy. But catching him proves difficult, until his alibis don’t seem to match up. And just as the noose is tightening in the case against him, he marries Peggy, thus avoiding her having to testifying against her new husband. But, still their stories don’t match the facts and the investigation continues for years.

Swinney had a rap sheet going back decades by the time he was prosecuted again in 1981 for other violent crimes. Fans of CSI will be aghast at the way the investigation was done; with officers from 2 counties trampling over evidence and not roping off crime scenes. They even allowed the public to swarm all over the terrain where the killings took place; rendering any evidence gathered useless.

In the end Swinney walked free. But he continued to have problems with the law until 1981, when he was finally convicted of larceny. This is a great insight into the way that justice has changed; along with crime detection; over the last 6 decades. It is also look at what society was like in the heady days after the end of World War Two, when life sometimes seemed more perfect than it was. And to this day no one has been proven guilty of the 5 murders that terrorized the entire town in the summer of 1946.

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