A S T R A N G E R C A L L S
This caused an eruption in gossip and hearsay to explode amongst the people that lived in the vicinity of these crimes, spreading the rumour mill further into the outer towns, with the story expanding and evolving to fit several narratives, birthing a new Urban Legend. This was happening so much so that officials had to publicly plea on a radio interview for residents to help with the investigation by refraining from spreading and repeating rumours. He stated, and I quote, ‘These only take the officers from the main route of the investigation. It is so important we capture this man, that we cannot afford to overlook any lead, no how fantastic it may seem.’
It seemed the murderer was able to hide amongst the noise and confusion that the rumour mill and chaos that came with it had created - keeping track of the facts amongst the stories that people told were a perfect way for the murders to hide in plain sight.
That was until Max Tackett, a 33-year-old Arkansas state police officer realised that a car had been stolen on the night of one of the murders and that a previously stolen car had been found abandoned. He found a car in a car park that had reportedly been stolen and staked it out until someone came back for it - when they did, he arrested them - 21-year-old Peggy Swinney.
She told him that she had just gotten married, but that her husband was away, currently in Atlanta, Texas, trying to sell another stolen car. After speaking with the chief of police in Atlanta, Max found that a man had tried to sell a stolen car to one of their citizens; once speaking to the citizen, they told Max that if they saw the man again, they probably would not recognise him but that gave Max an idea. You see, the citizen had a very distinct appearance, including a cowboy hat and boots and Max knew that although he would not recognise the man, there was a good chance the man would recognise him. Max and the cowboy citizen walked to several public places around town with the idea that if they came across the man they searched for, they would try to avoid him. It was on a Saturday in July when Max and the cowboy walked into the Arkansas Motor Coach Bus Station, only to see a man run out of the back of the building at the sight of them.
Max chased down the individual, catching up with and obtaining him at the fir-escape. The man Youell Swinney, once in custody would not talk but unfortunately for him, his wife Peggy confessed in great detail that he was, in fact, the Phantom Killer.
Due to the laws in 1946, Peggy couldn’t be forced to testify against her husband and because she was considered by many to be an unreliable witness, Youell was not arrested for the murder. Instead, with only circumstantial evidence, Swinney was sent to prison as a habitual offender for car theft.
There is a considerable amount of doubt in regard to the guilt of Youell Swinney but there are several factors that, although circumstantial, is compelling.
The first is that the car Peggy Swinney was arrested in for stealing was the one reported missing on the night of the murders of Richard Griffin and Polly Anne Moore.
The second, that I admit, is of course easily lied about, is that when Max finally caught Youell, he begged ‘please don’t shoot me’. When Officer Tackett replied, ‘I’m not going to shoot you for stealing cars.’, Youell apparently replied ‘Mister, don’t play games with me. You want me for more than stealing cars’. The third is a similar case of Youell putting his foot in his mouth, at least, according to the police. Chief Deputy Tillman Johnson claims that when he was in the police car with Youell, he asked ‘Mr. Johnson, what do you think they’ll do to me for this? Will they give me the chair?’ Johnson responded with, ‘you won’t get much. Maybe five or ten years. They don’t give you the electric chair for stealing cars’. It was here Youell Swinney reportedly replied ‘Mr Johnson, you got me for more than stealing cars.’.
To make matters worse for him, when the lawyer told Peggy that her husband was being held for murder, before her confession, she exclaimed ‘How did they find out?’ But again, take this with a pinch of salt as the police are not above pushing an agenda when they believe they have their man.
More damningly, Peggy’s family and Youells’ brother-in-law all believed that Youell was, in fact, the phantom, not giving his judgement of character the best light to shine through. Strangely, police found a khaki work shirt in Youell’s room with a laundry mark of the word ‘S-T-A-R-K’, which was read under a black light.
In the front pocket of this same shirt, slag was found, which matched samples found in Virgil Stark’s welding shop. Slamming him closer to the victims.
Whilst I do not believe that silence is necessarily a sign of guilt, especially in such shocking circumstances, it doesn’t help Swinney’s case that he remained silent throughout the accusations instead of pleading his innocence. Not that it would have done much good. Especially since Peggy had already confessed to her husband’s actions, revealing very detailed information, including some information officers already knew, and some that surprisingly, they did not. But this was not a clear cut arrest, and it was by no means a smooth process, with many complications arising, throwing several spanners in the machinery and clogging its progress. Firstly, Youells fingerprints did not match any of the latent prints at the crime scene.
Secondly, Peggy Swinney recanted her confessions.
The Texas Rangers and Sherrif Bill Presley were not even convinced that Swinney was the phantom at all, believing in the strong chance that they were focusing time on a false lead. Youell Swinney himself never did confess, always denying that he was, in fact, the dreaded killer.
But more damning than most Dozens of officers and Sheriffs from both miller county and Texas city worked tirelessly for six months to validate Peggy Swinney’s stories of her and her husbands’ whereabouts. Finally deducing that Peggy was lying.
To many, the case is closed with Youell Swinney, too many more, this does not fit the narrative enough for it to be a compelling case, leaving the even more terrifying prospect that the killer was free but then we must ask ourselves why did they stop? Did they stop at all or did they just get better at it? It’s difficult to tell and our decisions on it will always be nothing but opinion as we, unfortunately, may never find the truth.
Years past, the rumours slowed, and the stories of murders on lovers lanes became nothing more than Urban Legends told around campfires but then something strange happened. As if an eerie epilogue to the narrative that would serve as a cliffhanger to another sequel.
It is unknown if it was a tasteless prank by somebody that lacks any sense of class or decorum or if it was a true confession that we had accepted would never come but on one day in 1999, an anonymous woman contacted a family member of one of the victims, apologising for what her father had done. In 2000, another family member of another victim received the same call, once again apologising for her father's actions.
But with that, is it worth noting that Youell Swinney had no daughters.
The notion of the couple down lovers lanes being murdered has become such a part of society that almost every corner of the world has their own interpretation of it. This even became an unspoken rule amongst slasher films for many years - the couple that goes off to have sex always end up murdered earlier in the story. It is the one that behaves, has a close relationship with their parent, and doesn’t seem to follow the rule book of an average teen that survives - pushing the narrative in some way that sexually active teens deserve it in some way more than the so-called innocent.
The Legend started with a hook in the side of a car, inspired by the concepts of real events, this expanded with a modern audience to become a boyfriend hanging by his neck above the vehicle, adding a sense of guilt and horror to the eeriness of the previous story. Although often still, you’ll hear the tale told one step further still, venturing deeper into that slasher movie style. In this version of the story, a couple of teens are travelling in their late at night through the woods home from a date when the young man's car suddenly conks out, running on fumes for too long and shutting down in the middle of nowhere with no petrol.
In the slight moments of panic and frustration, the young man looked up into the distance, noticing what looked like a Mansion like hospital at the top of a large hill, beyond the woods. After a little tiff and some firm words to each other out of fear and frustration, the boyfriend told her to lock the doors and wait in the car whilst he walked to get help.
She asked him to stay, as they always do in these stories but as the man, he decides to go at it alone - to fix the problem.
The young woman sits in the car and patiently waits for his return as he asked her to do, trying to keep her eyes away from the strange noises that Rustle through the bushes outside. Telling herself it was nothing but the nocturnal animals that had come out to hunt.
Hours pass by and still, there is no sign of her boyfriend as she sits in the car in the middle of the woods, lit only by the bright moonlight above. She is beginning to grow more and more nervous as the time continues to tick on.
More time passes as the moonlight begins its journey across the sky above, creating sharp shadows of the treetops against the floor outside. The girl is beginning to doze off, finally edging to sleep until he returns when she is awoken by the horrifying, loud, bang on the roof of the car. This banging continues as she begins to scream for help.
Much like our previous story, this involves a woman trapped in a vehicle with the sounds of something horrifying and unknown on the rooftop of the car they’re in but in this version, the events are very different. Her screams are suddenly stifled by the loud screams of police sirens as several cars arrive surrounding her, their sirens glistening a deep blue through the trees.
She watches them in a confused state as they all slowly step out of their vehicles, horrified and amazed by something they can see that she cannot. She begins to panic as one pulls out a megaphone and shouts ‘Please step out of the car slowly, walk towards us and DO NOT at any point turn around’.
After a moment of coaxing her out from the police, the young woman opened the car door, flinching as she heard the slight movement of the cars roof thud. She steps out, her entire body trembling, tears pouring down her cold cheeks as she slowly edges towards the police officer who stands in front of her with their hand out but the moment she took the officers hand, as if suddenly feeling an urge of safety, she turns around to the car and screams.
On top of the car was an escaped murderer from the distant asylum they had mistaken for a mansion or a hospital, he was jumping around with joy - her boyfriends head gripped in his hand.
This tale is one of three that I have told on this chapter and yet it still only a small handful of the numerous versions of this legend that spreads itself through the zeitgeist, always reminding us that although we are no longer little kids by the time we learn to drive, we are still just as easily picked off by those that may wish to do us harm as we ever were - which plays on the question: are we ever truly able to claim we are safe?