What Happened to Virginia Carpenter: Oldest Cold Case in Texas Turns 70

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Seventy years ago, on a hot June morning, Virginia Carpenter left her home in Texarkana by train and arrived that evening at the campus of her new college, Texas State College For Women, in Denton. The last person to (reportedly) have contact with Carpenter was the taxi driver who transported her from the train station to the steps of her new dormitory on campus. However, Carpenter never checked into her dorm, nor showed up for the first day of class, and was never seen again.

A Likable, Beautiful Young Woman

Virginia Carpenter

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-one-year-old Mary Virginia “Jimmie” Carpenter was described by those who knew her as likable, beautiful, and happy. She was looking forward to her new adventure as a lab technician student at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Women’s University). The taxi driver who delivered her to Brackenridge Hall on June 1, 1948 at 9 p.m. claims that upon getting out of his taxi, he observed Carpenter walk up to a light-colored convertible, parked just outside the dorm, and converse with the two male occupants–as though she knew them. The identity of these two men remains a mystery. On June 4, Carpenter’s boyfriend, Kenny Branham of Dallas, called her mother because he had been unable to get ahold of her since she left for Denton. This worried Mrs. Carpenter, who then called local authorities and reported Virginia missing.

Several Leads in the Case

breaks in case

Photo: Flickr/NSW Police

Initially, the taxi driver, Edgar Ray “Jack” Zachary, was the prime suspect. Zachary’s wife told police that he had been at home by 10 p.m. the night of Carpenter’s disappearance. Zachary took a polygraph test in July of 1948, which he passed. However, years later, Zachary’s wife told authorities that she had lied about her husband’s whereabouts that evening and that he didn’t return home until 2 or 3 a.m. the following morning. Zachary was charged with an unrelated attempted rape in 1957. Although never charged in connection with Carpenter’s disappearance, Zachary later passed a second polygraph test and died in 1984.

In 1959, a box of human remains was recovered in Jefferson, Texas, about 200 miles from Denton. In the box were bones and a skull from a female who was the same height as Virginia Carpenter. Interestingly, the bones displayed a deformity that Carpenter also had; one of her legs was shorter than the other. However, this lead came to a screeching halt when dental records from the skull failed to match those of Carpenter.

In May 1998, a man in his 70s came forward, claiming to know who killed Carpenter and where her body was buried. This man claimed that Carpenter’s body was buried on the grounds of Texas State College for Women. The grounds were excavated, but nothing was found to support this theory and the two individuals named as the killers were long deceased. 

The Work of a Serial Killer?

serial killer

Photo: Flickr/Fe Iiya

Many who are familiar with the case of Virginia Carpenter feel she may have been a victim of the “Phantom Killer of Texarkana.” This serial killer attacked eight people in the Texarkana area, five of whom were killed. Of these victims, Virginia Carpenter knew three. The “Phantom Killer” was never caught. Some researchers believe the murders were the work of Youell Lee Swinney, who was never charged with any of the crimes.

On June 9, 1955, Mary Virginia Carpenter was declared legally dead under Texas Civil Law. Carpenter’s mother spent much of the remaining years of her own life chasing down leads and helping police to learn more about the case. Mrs. Carpenter tended to cycle between hopeful periods of believing that her daughter had suffered amnesia and wandered off to start a new life, or, in darker moments, that her daughter was, in fact dead. Mrs. Carpenter died in 1980 without the answers in her daughter’s disappearance for which she had hoped.