His first wife, Mary Horton Vail, died while out fishing with him. Her body was found in the Calcasieu River with four inches of her scarf stuffed into her mouth and down her throat. When police pulled her body from the water near Lake Charles, La., the day before Halloween in 1962, her corpse was covered in bruises and crabs had burrowed into her scalp. She was 22 years old, with a 4-month-old son at home.
Eleven years later, he was dating a girl named Sharon Hensley, who disappeared into thin air in 1973. She was never heard from again.
A decade after Hensley’s disappearance, Vail remarried, this time to Annette Craver. Much like Hensley, she disappeared, in 1984. Also much like Hensley, she was never heard from again.
Though the circumstances in each case were strange — and family members of each woman think Vail had a hand in their demise — he has never faced criminal charges in any of the three cases. He was arrested following his first wife’s death but never prosecuted, according to the Associated Press.
He has never been put on trial.
Vail was arrested in June 2013 and charged with second-degree murder in the 1962 death of Mary Horton Vail, KLPC reported.
“We feel like we have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that this death was, in fact, a homicide. We feel like we can prove that in court,” Calcasieu District Attorney John DeRosier told the station in 2013. “It is never too late. You know, when you drop out that anchor, it may have a long rope, but eventually justice is going to take care of it and it’s going to catch up with you.”
His trial began Monday.
The amount of time that has passed since the victim’s death isn’t the only thing that’s strange about the trial. Also unusual is the fact that the jury in Vail’s case will hear testimony concerning not just the death of Mary Horton Vail, for which he is charged, but of the other two women, for which he is not charged. The courts allowed this based partly on legal doctrine derived from a British murder case at the turn of the 20th century.
Family members of both Hensley and Annette Craver Vail testified at the trial on Thursday.
Part of Vail’s defense team’s argument is that the entire prosecution is fundamentally flawed because of the passage of time.
Everyone who investigated Vail in 1963 has since died, public defender Andrew Casanave told the Associated Press, adding that the prosecution’s case will have to be based entirely upon “supposition, innuendo, rumor and sympathy.”
The prosecution disagreed.
During his opening statement on Monday, DeRosier, the district attorney, said the prosecution would tell a story that “plays out in three chapters” — Mary Horton, Sharon Hensley and Annette Craver — by bringing family members of each woman to the stand, the American Press reported.
We’ll do the same.
Born in the 1940s, Felix Vail was one of five siblings who grew up in Montpelier, Miss., about 50 miles south of Tupelo.
Some claim he had a dark side.
“He killed our neighbor’s dog one time,” Kaye Faulkner, Vail’s sister, told the Clarion-Ledger. “Mother would have a cat that had kittens and she didn’t want them. And so he would put them all in what we called a ‘croaker sack’ — it’s a feed sack — and he would either just bash them up against the wall and kill ’em or either take a gun and shoot them ’til they didn’t move.”
Even so, he hid it well and was popular with women.
By his own estimate, Vail dated “like uh, several hundred maybe in my lifetime,” he told the Clarion-Ledger.
He attended McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., where he met Mary Horton, a fellow student. It seemed like his bachelor days were coming to an end.
Horton had grown up poor in Eunice, a small town in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country, known as Acadiana. Eventually, she made her way to McNeese, where she studied education and pledged Chi Omega.
Like Vail, Horton was popular with the opposite sex. Her younger brother Will Horton told the Daily Advertiser she was flush with marriage proposals — though she chose Vail over them all.
She was well liked and had been the homecoming queen at Eunice High School, described in its yearbook as “the young lady with a smile and warmth for all.”
“In college, she was in a sorority and there was a number of fellas that wanted to win her over and a lot of competition,” Horton told KPLC.
But she only had eyes for Vail.
“She was just in love with him,” Horton’s cousin Judy Marcantel told the Daily Advertiser. “And she just believed that he was — even if he wasn’t really good to her in a lot of ways, I believe that she probably would think that he would be different later.”
No one told her of Vail’s dark past and they were married on July 1, 1961. A year later, she had a child, a son named Bill.
A couple of months passed, however, and trouble began at home, according to Mary’s family. She claimed that Vail threw the baby against a wall, treating him much like he did the kittens
In late summer of 1962, she visited her mother to announce her plans to divorce.
“My mother told her to go back and work it out,” Horton told the newspaper.
She stayed with Vail.
Then after twilight on Oct. 28, 1962, the couple loaded into a small boat on the muddy river and pushed off softly into the gloaming.
Vail told authorities they were laying trotlines — weighted fishing lines — along the Calcasieu River when the boat hit a tree stump in the river, causing his wife to fall into the water.
He said he searched for her to no avail.
Authorities were suspicious, though, and arrested Vail. But, in 1963, a grand jury found there was too little evidence to prosecute, according to the Associated Press.
Her death was ruled an accident.
The ruling didn’t sit well with her family. In fact, even to this day, the fact that the young couple would lay trotlines together at night — their infant child at home — strikes the family as odd.
“She was deathly afraid of dark water,” Will Horton told the Daily Advertiser. “If she couldn’t see the bottom, she wouldn’t get in. So for her to be in that boat that night, it’s just unthinkable. It wouldn’t happen.”
Kaye Faulkner, Felix Vail’s sister, agreed.
“I knew that Mary was real afraid of water, and I knew that she would have never gone in a boat without a life preserver on, especially at night, and never have left her four-month-old baby at home if she’d had a choice,” she told the Clarion-Ledger.
The case lay quiet for 50 years, though, until 2012 when the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., published a five-part investigative series, led by journalist Jerry Mitchell, which detailed the circumstances surrounding the death.
The series prompted the current Calcasieu Parish coroner and forensic pathologist Terry Welke to reexamine the 1962 autopsy report. That led to Vail’s arrest in 2013.
On Wednesday, Welke, the first witness in the trial, testified that he is “100 percent sure” the death was not accidental but, rather, murder.
“I was 100 percent sure three years ago and even more so today,” he said, the American Press reported. “She was dead when she went into the water.”
Where most drowning victims are found face-down with their arms extended toward the river’s bottom, Vail was found face-up with her arms crossed against her chest, stiff as a wooden board.
Months before that fateful fishing trip, the Daily Advertiser reported, Vail had taken out a life insurance policy on his wife. He ultimately received a $10,000 payment from the insurance company, the newspaper reported.
“He made no attempt to pay for the funeral, at all,” Will Horton told the Clarion-Ledger. “My mom paid for the funeral, and dad.”
On Wednesday, Vail’s lawyers maintained that the death was an accident and pointed out that the statement Vail gave police immediately after the incident has been lost to history.
“We don’t have that statement because it is gone,” Casanave said. “Everything is gone.”
Also in court Wednesday, 71-year-old Thomas Wesley Turnage, an old acquaintance of Vail’s who would often carpool with him, testified that Vail once spoke about his deceased wife while the two were riding to work one morning.
Adding to the suspicion that Vail was responsible for the death is what happened in the intervening years — the disappearances of Sharon Hensley and Annette Craver.
It was the late 1960s, several years after Mary Horton Vail’s death. Felix Vail found himself living in San Francisco, where he met a woman named Sharon Hensley at a “pot party,” ABC reported.
The two fell for each other and lived off the land. They would steal from nearby orchards for food and drop acid in between meals with 8-year-old Bill — Vail’s son — in tow.
But Hensley was slowly wasting away, according to her brother Brian, who told ABC that Vail had taken control of his sister’s life, and she didn’t know how to leave him.
“At that point, I believe she was with him out of fear. She didn’t know how to get out of the situation,” Brian Hensley said.
In 1973, Hensley called her parents to tell them that she and Vail were moving to New Orleans, then maybe Florida, to make pornographic films together.
“What daughter tells her mother she’s going to do a porno?” Brian told the Clarion-Ledger. “I think it was a cry for help. That’s what my mom thought.”
Hensley’s mother planned to visit Louisiana herself to see if she could find the couple, maybe put an end to their relationship.
Then, Hensley called her parents again with news of another potential move, only this time she said she and Vail were heading out on the road, maybe moving to South America.
“When my mom got off the phone, she told my dad, ‘Sharon’s in deep trouble. She’s crying out for help,'” Brian told ABC.
After that phone call, no one ever heard from Hensley again.
After Hensley disappeared in 1973, Vail wrote to her mother. The letter stated that the two had broken up because Hensley left him for another man. He wrote that he sent Hensley and her new boyfriend “off to the ocean and each other with my good wishes and blessings,” the Clarion-Ledger reported.
On Thursday, Brian Hensley told this story in court, at Vail’s trial in the death of his first wife, the Hattiesburg American reported.
In 1981, a 41-year-old Vail had moved again, this time finding himself in Houston.
That’s where he met 15-year-old Annette Craver.
Aside from being beautiful, Annette was about to come into a large sum of money. Her father had died when she was younger, and his life insurance policy was set to pay out to her when she turned 18.
“When I saw her, I thought, ‘That’s going to be my new girlfriend,'” Vail said, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
Quickly, she fell for the much older man, and the two began dating.
“She thought she was in love with him, and I trusted her. She was very, very bright,” her mother, Mary Rose, told the Greenfield Recorder. “If I had been more mature, I would’ve suspected that there was something up because he was so much older, and she had money.”
On Aug. 15, 1983, Vail married Annette, the Clarion-Ledger reported. She was 17 years old.
Just after her 18th birthday, she withdrew $98,000 to help Vail pay off some of his loans. She also deeded her house to him.
Then, it happened again. Later that year, Annette disappeared after the couple went on vacation in 1984.
Vail told authorities he had dropped her off at a St. Louis bus station, because she planned to travel to Mexico, according to the Associated Press.
Rose said she has never heard from her daughter again.
She also recounted this story on Thursday in court, according to KATC.
The doctrine of chances
Thursday’s testimony from the families of the other two women creates an odd situation, since Vail has not been charged with any crime relating to their disappearance.
To persuade the court to allow their testimony into evidence, Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland invoked the “doctrine of chances,” according to the Clarion-Ledger.
The doctrine is well explained in a 2001 opinion by United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. “This doctrine posits that it is unlikely a defendant would be repeatedly, innocently involved in similar, suspicious circumstances,” the court explained.
The doctrine was first conceived in a 1912 case with striking similarity to Vail’s.
Colloquially known as the “Brides in the Bath Murders,” the case concerned a British man named George Joseph Smith. In three subsequent years, three of his wives were found drowned in a bathtub (though he used several aliases, so police didn’t immediately know all the women were married to Smith).
Eventually, police noticed how similar the deaths were, according to London’s Metropolitan Police. The chance that this many women would have all drowned in their baths in such similar fashions seemed impossible — the tubs were shallow, and the women were on their back.
Also strange was the fact that all three had signed wills or had taken out life insurance policies naming Smith — or one of his aliases — as the sole beneficiary days before their deaths.
This fact helped establish Smith as the killer. He was executed in August 1915, 101 years ago this month.
In that vein, the other families’ testimony will likely be used by the prosecution as a means to establish a pattern, which prosecutors hope will convince the jury of Vail’s guilt.
This, too, the defense claimed is reaching.
“Annette Craver might be in Mexico,” Casanave said. “Sharon Hensley might be in a nursing home in Cleveland.”
The trial continues Friday.