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Vanished: 1948 case remains unsolved

Vanished: 1948 case remains unsolved

May 1st, 2013 by Russell McDermott in Opinion Editorial

Everybody knows about the Phantom Killer.

At least the legend. The facts sometimes get lost in the telling.

One of the most enduring myths is that the Phantom was never caught. That he moved on to continue his murderous spree elsewhere. That he was the son of a prominent local family who ended up committing suicide or was committed to a mental hospital. That he was sent to prison on an unrelated crime.

Only the last one is true.

The killer was Youell Swinney, a career petty criminal. He was not charged with the murders—there was not enough admissible evidence to go to trial—but was sent to prison on a stolen car charge, his third felony, which carried an automatic life sentence.

Swinney was responsible for the deaths of Richard Griffin, Polly Ann Moore, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker. It’s more uncertain whether he was involved in the first attack attributed to the Phantom, the assaults on Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey, who both survived.

He was almost certainly not responsible for the death of Virgil Starks and the shooting of his wife, Katie. The gun was different. The MO was different. Everything was different.

Swinney would be set free in 1973 after an earlier conviction was overturned. He was soon back in prison on a counterfeiting charge and was reportedly suffering from dementia when he died in 1994.

The Phantom Killer case made national news in 1946. Charles B. Pierce made a film, “The Town that Dreaded Sundown,” about the case. Filming on a remake of that movie is about to be under way in Louisiana. 

Yes, everybody knows about the Phantom Killer.

But few remember another Texarkana mystery from the 1940s that made national news. And unlike the Phantom Killer case, this one remains truly unsolved.

The year was 1948. On June 1, local resident Virginia Carpenter, 21, boarded the train at Union Station, bound for college in Denton, Texas.

She was a pretty girl with brown hair and brown eyes. She stood about 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed about 120 pounds. When she stepped aboard the train, she was wearing a green, brown and white striped chambray dress, a white hat and red platform shoes. Her watch was gold, a Wittnauer by make. Her purse was red. She also carried an overnight bag, a makeup kit and a hat box.

It was a six-hour ride to Denton. Virginia left Texarkana at 3 p.m. and got off  the train at Denton at 9 p.m. She and another student, Marjorie Webster, shared a cab driven by Jack Zachary to the Texas State College for Women campus.

But Virginia had to go back to the train station. She had forgotten to find out whether her trunk—which had been dropped off at the station earlier for shipping—had arrived at the station. The cab driver drove her back to the station.

Her trunk would arrive later. The taxi driver offered to deliver it when it arrived. Virginia said that would be fine.

Zachary drove Virginia back to her dorm, Brackenridge Hall. She got out of the cab and walked away. The cabbie later said he heard two boys in a convertible call out to her and that she had walked over to their car as if she knew them. That’s the last anyone saw of her.

She never checked into her dorm that night. Virginia Carpenter had vanished somewhere into the Denton night.

The cab driver delivered the trunk the next day. It sat on the dorm porch for a couple of days until someone noticed Virginia was missing.

Her boyfriend in Texarkana was questioned but cleared. Some speculated that the Phantom Killer had returned after two years. The cab diver, Zachary, was a prime suspect. Police even dug up his backyard. But he had an alibi—his wife said he was home with her after 10 that night. The two boys in the convertible—if they ever existed—could not be identified.

The Texas Rangers were called in, and they conducted an intense investigation. Ranger Lewis Rigler always said the Carpenter case was the one that most affected him—the one he couldn’t let go.

But he never solved it. And to this day, no trace of Virginia Carpenter—alive or dead—has been found.

About 10 years after the disappearance, Zachary’s former wife—the couple had divorced in the interim—said she had lied about being with her husband and that he did not come home until 2 or 3 a.m. But there was still no other evidence linking Zachary to the crime.

In 1970, it was reported that Denton police officers had reopened the case and had a suspect. But nothing came of it.

In 1998, a tip came that Virginia was buried under a stock pond dam near the college. No body or any other evidence was found.

The case remains open. And cold.

In 1997, Ranger Rigler, 83 and retired, was interviewed about the case.

“I always hoped someday she’d call and say, ‘Mr. Rigler, this is Virginia Carpenter. I just wanted you to know I’m all right.’ By God, I’d like that to happen before I die,” he told the Denton Record-Chronicle.

Rigler died in 2009. The call never came.