LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - When Mary Horton Vail died on Oct. 28, 1962, her husband, Felix Vail, told police she drowned in the murky waters of the Calcasieu River in Southwest Louisiana.
He wasn’t prosecuted at the time, but more than 50 years later – after two other women he was last seen with went missing – he was convicted of murder.
The disappearances of a former girlfriend, Sharon Hensley, who has not been seen since 1973, and a former wife, Annette Craver Vail, who has not been seen since 1984, were allowed to be presented to the jury during his trial.
Vail, now serving a life sentence at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, has never told his side of the story, until now.
It started two years ago with the first in a series of letters from his jail cell, which culminated in a face-to-face interview with KPLC’s Rhonda Kitchens.
Join KPLC for Vail of Silence, Part II at 6:30 p.m. Thursday as more trouble arises on the horizon. Another wife disappears and Bill reaches the brink of despair. Tune in to KPLC or watch online.
While Felix’s story began in Montpelier, Mary’s began in Eunice, Louisiana.
“We grew up in a little town where dogs ran free,” her brother Will Horton said. “You could ride around on your bicycle. Everybody thought the best of each other: ‘Yes, ma’am, and ‘Yes, sir.’ was everywhere, being nice and polite to people.”
Will says Mary was the nicest of all.
“She was just so kind and wonderful,” Will said. “I mean she was the sister every little boy would want to have as a big sister.”
They were an all-American family – their father a wholesale cotton buyer and their mother an elementary school teacher.
Life was good.
“Staunch Catholic family kind of thing,” Will said. “We had an older brother, he was 14 years older than me, so by the time I was growing up he was out of high school and in college.”
But that was ok, because Will had Mary.
“I just loved her completely,” Will said.
Six hours away, in Montpelier, Mississippi, Felix Vail grew up on a farm.
Wesley Turnage – to whom Felix would later admit that he killed Mary – was good friends with Felix’s younger brother Ronnie.
Wesley said the brothers were nothing alike.
“Ronnie was a good guy,” Wesley said. “He was just as good a friend as you could ask for, he just had a sorry brother.”
Wesley said Felix’s actions were already raising concerns.
“A dairy farmer always had a lot of cats around because they had a lot of feed and the rats would eat and gnaw holes in the bag to get the feed out,” Wesley said. “They kept catching them to keep the mice down and the cats would have kittens and he would hang them up on the clothes line and throw rocks at them and kill them.”
Wesley remembers Felix as being a bit of a loner, which was a stark contrast to Eunice High’s popular homecoming queen.
“She took all of that in stride,” her brother Will said. “She loved what she achieved but she shared everything she had with her friends.”
Mary continued to thrive as she left her home in Eunice to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a teacher.
Felix came to the area to work in the industries.
“When I was finishing high school the pay scale for anything around that whole part of the country was pitiful and I had an uncle that worked at Cities Service chemical refinery in Lake Charles and he said ‘Well, come on down, I’ll get you on.’ He got me a job at Petroleum Chemicals Incorporated, PCI they called it.”
Felix says the connection with Mary was instant.
“I had never met my mental and electrical equal in a male or a female and here was this in her,” he said. “About a year before we got married in a church we married ourselves almost as soon as we met.”
Cathy Robbins and Judy Turney were in the same sorority as Mary and lived in the same dorm. They said they didn’t like Felix, but tried to be supportive.
Her family also wanted to be supportive.
“If that was the one that she loved, then we loved him, too,” Will said. “That’s the way it went.”
Will believes that Felix being a loner may have been what drew his sister to him.
“She was one of those that thought she could make a difference with everybody,” Will said. “Because he was a little unusual and he was very good looking that’s what made things click but he was deceitful and he fooled her.”
Just a year into the marriage, Will said, Mary figured it out.
“Well, she came home in early September of the year that she died - she died in October - and she had a closed-door session with my mama,” Will said. “And I believe that she said she was ready to leave him. I think mom said go back and see what you can work out and she was dead before she came back, before she had a chance to come back.”
Only one person know what was going on behind closed doors.
“She was teaching, making money,” Felix said. “I was working, making, at that time, better-than-average money and we had few debts - our apartment and I think a car note maybe.”
Mary had given birth to the couple’s first child: William Felix Vail Jr. They called him Bill.
“The only ideal time of my life and I’m, what, 80 almost,” Vail said.
Only one person knows what happened to Mary, too, who died on Oct. 28, 1962.
“I was off from the refinery and I had fishing lines, trot lines you call them, where you tie a long line with hooks periodically to just leave them in the water and then you go get the fish off every few days,” Felix said. “I had them out for several weeks going out once or twice a week on my off days and getting the fish and we had everybody’s freezer full that we knew, so I was going out to take them up.”
He says Mary wanted to go along for the ride, so they left their 4-month-old son with a babysitter and headed out on the Calcasieu River.
He says he was sitting in the back of the boat, working the motor, and she was in the front of the boat when something happened that threw her from the boat.
“There was a swirl of water… a circular swirl that could only happen with the river current forcing its way around something under the water,” Felix said. “Well, it threw the boat sideways, I don’t know two or three feet, I’m not sure but just like that (snap) and toppled her in.”
He claims he jumped in after her, but the swirl of water sucked and pulled her down and was pulling him down, too.
“It had already taken her out deeper than I could go or deeper than I went and when I ran out of air I came up and went down and did that until I couldn’t anymore, so that’s it,” Felix said. “She was gone and I knew the river had her and when I swam downstream to where my boat had drifted to I, that’s the closest I’ve ever come, that’s the closest I had come at that time to dying because I had used all of my energy and adrenaline and everything was gone and I only made it to the boat thinking about Bill being left with no parents.”
Mary’s body was recovered two days later.
“Just a devastating time for our family completely,” Will said.
While Felix said it was normal for Mary to be on the boat, others weren’t so sure.
Mary had a fear of water, her friends and family said.
Will said the summer before his sister’s death she was too afraid to go near the water.
“She came one time to the dock to see me jump and slalom and I did a couple of rounds and she left but she just did not feel comfortable in dark water, much less at night,” he said.
Felix claimed her fear was from an incident she had at a high school party, but that with him, she got over her fear.
“She got over it pretty quickly with me and we had cruised the bayous and all of the moss-hung beautiful places that were there in Calcasieu," Felix said.
There were other questions: Why had Felix purchased a life insurance policy not long before Mary’s death?
Felix claimed a travel agent told him to do so before a planned honeymoon to Acapulco.
Shortly after Mary’s death, Felix was arrested but wasn’t prosecuted.
“The district attorney said things looked a little bit suspicious but it just wasn’t enough to go forward with and that’s how it ended for us,” Will said.
But it was far from over. In fact, no one realized just how far the end would really be.
Felix took Bill and returned to Mississippi, before they eventually headed to California, where they lived a nomadic life.
In later life, in 2009, Bill described the journey in a church podcast.
“My only possessions at that time were a sleeping bag and a pair of shorts,” Bill said. “No shirt, no shoes, nothing else.”
There was very little to eat.
“It consisted of whatever type of orchard we were living in at the time,” Bill said. “Cashews if we were living in a cashew orchard, grapes if we were in a vineyard.”
In San Francisco, Felix met a free-spirited model named Sharon Hensley.
Bill was just 8 years old when he heard his father admit to Sharon he had killed Mary.
“I overheard him sobbing, which caught my attention, and he told her that he had murdered my mother and I heard the girlfriend saying you must just feel responsible for it,” Bill said. “And he said, no you don’t understand I really did kill her.”
Bill said he was in shock, the information too much for an 8-year-old to handle.
“I walked two miles to the police station along the interstate and basically camped out on the front steps of the police station and told them something like my father murdered my mother and he does drugs,” Bill said. “At first they didn’t believe me and just kind of shooed me out, ‘Yeah, kid, go away,’ but I was committed. There was no turning around, I just camped out on the front steps until a detective finally listened to my story.”
The news that Felix had made Bill take LSD and marijuana made national headlines.
Felix pleaded guilty to LSD possession, but still no charges for the murder of Mary.
Bill was returned to Mississippi, but eventually Felix broke his parole and he and Sharon showed up in Mississippi.
“I came home one day and my father and the same girlfriend standing in the driveway and I really thought that he was going to kill me,” Bill said. “I got off the bus and this deer in the headlights feeling: ‘Where do I run.’ ”
But there was nowhere to go.
Bill said Felix told him he didn’t blame, him. Instead, he blamed Sharon.
Felix “later used that as an excuse, I think, to murder her,” Bill said.
When Bill was 13, Felix came back without Sharon.
“Basically, he said she would never bother anyone ever again,” Bill said. “I knew at that point that he had murdered her and that there was nothing I could do with this information, because I had had my experience in court when I was 8 and that no one would believe me.”
Felix says the last time he saw Sharon was in Key West, Florida.
“I don’t know for how long since her mother sent her to San Francisco to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, so I don’t know how long before I met Sharon that that had happened, but Sharon was having a lot of emotional distress about having to give up her child.”
Felix says Sharon wanted to escape her past and her family. He said she planned to take another name and just disappear.
He said Sharon had the money she had earned through modeling to make the plan work.
Felix said he moved on – continuing to add to a growing list of women entering his life and the life of his son, Bill.
“He had a least seven wives that I know of,” Bill said.
One of those was Annette Craver, who Felix met in Houston when she was 15.
She quickly caught Felix’s eye and they married when she was just 17 in 1983.
By that time, Felix’s son Bill was in his 20s and married.
“Bill and I had just married and so here we are in our 20s and he married somebody that was younger than me,” said Bill’s wife, Janet. “Watching her it was so evident that she wanted to please Felix. Looking at how to please him was all of her focus. It was hard to see in such a beautiful girl.”
She was a beautiful girl with more than just companionship to offer.
The couple was living off a large inheritance Annette received after the death of her father. But the money couldn’t buy them happiness and Annette eventually left Felix and went to stay with her mother in Oklahoma.
“They were living in a house together there and I was working on a four-story mansion in Waco, Texas,” Felix said. “She calls me up and says, ‘Help, can you come help me?’ She had locked herself in a room of this house with a chain through the door, with a padlock on the inside, locking her mother out.”
“So, I go and she lets me in and she has a twenty-five caliber automatic pistol that she had bought and was going to shoot her witch mother with if she managed to get her bolt cutter and cut her chain and get in on her,” Felix said.
Felix said he spoke with the executor of her father’s will and had the money put in an account only Annette could draw on. Eventually, the home was put in Annette’s name as well.
“Together with the executor we got the house put in Annette’s name and since there was money available, Annette gave her mother money, or paid the debt off and gave her mother ten-thousand or so, I think, and told her to leave, go live someplace else.”
Soon, Annette would sign the home over to Felix, and within months she too had disappeared. Once again, Felix Vail was the last known person to see a woman alive.
“The last time I saw her she was traveling with some people from Canada who were going south and she was going to travel with them but they were going to stop off in Los Angeles to see some friends,” he said.
Felix said the only real coincidence of the two women’s disappearances was that they shared a common goal.
“They wanted to go off the grid with their mothers, that was all,” he said. “They didn’t care about anyone else, they just wanted to get away from their mothers and they had been trying to do that themselves. Annette since before she was probably eight or ten. And Sharon, I don’t know for how long since her mother sent her to San Francisco to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy.”
Felix claimed Annette’s new companions had just the skills they needed.
“The last time I saw her was in St. Louis and she and I had been traveling around, camping out and she didn’t have false identification, she was still using Annette,” he said. “Their profession, how they were living, was creating identification for people, whatever, a whole set of anything you wanted: passports, driver’s license, whatever.”
He claimed both stuck to the plan.
“I applaud the fact that they are sticking to the plan and I had no idea at the last time I saw either one of them if either one of them would stick to it,” he said. “I applaud that they have.”
But this would not be the last Felix would hear of Sharon and Annette. Annette’s mother, Mary Rose, wanted answers and she wasn’t about to stop looking for them.
Mary Rose had learned of the other women in Felix’s life – and the suspicion surrounding the death of Mary Horton.
“I think the first time we met her she was hesitant to give her name,” Bill’s wife, Janet, said. “I don’t know that she knew where Bill stood in the whole thing.”
But where Bill stood was the same place he had been as a child.
“When he was little he would keep, he kept a notebook of evidence against his dad,” Janet said. “He wanted to prove that his dad did it.
“His grandmother tore it up. She was like, ‘Look, they’ve checked into this and you just need to put all of that behind you but how does a seven- or eight-year-old put that behind them, you know.”
Bill Vail died of esophageal cancer in 2009 at the age of 46.
While it would have been easy to let the investigation into his father die with him, Mary Rose was not about to give up.
In 2012, she enlisted the help of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell out of Mississippi.
“What she said to me was, would you be interested in writing about a serial killer living in Mississippi?”
Of course, Mitchell said, the answer was ‘Yes.’
Together, they went to Felix’s home. They didn’t encounter him there, but Mary Rose did give Mitchell a copy of Mary Horton Vail’s autopsy. It was included in a mound of paperwork Mary Rose had collected in her nearly 30-year investigation.
Mitchell turned the autopsy over to famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, known for high profile cases, including the O.J. Simpson trial.
“So, he looked at it and said, ‘Yeah this is a homicide.’ ” Mitchell said.
Finally the confirmation Mary Horton Vail’s family had been waiting on for years – but had it come too late?
Mitchell moved forward with his reporting and released “Gone,” which chronicled Felix’s relationship to the three women.
“He interviews a lot of people I had known in my life,” Felix said. “This guy interviewed and he lied about every one of the interviews, he put words in their mouth.”
“He made it sound really good. He’s good, I’ll give him that,” Felix said of Mitchell’s story. “They took this little book called “Gone: with my picture on it and two of the women I dated.”
After the story was published, Jerry said he got a call from Wesley Turnage, an old family friend of the Vail’s.
Turnage said he had a story he’d been waiting to tell.
Turnage claimed Vail told him about Mary one day as they rode to work
“He said, ‘My wife wants another baby,’ ” Turnage said. “She thought if we had another baby it would help our marriage. He said, ‘I fixed that damn bitch, she won’t never have another kid.’ ”
“The way his facial expression changed and his voice changed when he started talking about her it was like two different people,” Turnage said. “He changed from normal to evil just talking about her.
“I told myself, ‘You’re sitting here next to a cold-blooded killer.’ ”
Others were ready to talk as well
Sonny “Ike” Abshire, who drove the boat during the search for Mary, had held onto the 1963 supplemental report from the Calcasieu Sheriff’s Office the photos of Mary’s body long after police had discarded them from evidence.
“Mr. Abshire was right there, the only survivor still alive at that point who actually saw the body in the water and saw the body get taken out of the water and placed on the stretcher,” said Calcasieu District Attorney John DeRosier. “What interested me about it was his description of the position of the body when he saw it floating. It was almost laying straight on its side not slouched over like a typical drowning victim and I noticed in the basket when the body was loaded up onto the boat that it was laid out straight. I asked him specifically what the condition of the body was when he first saw it in the water floating and he said it was just like that, stretched out and there was just something about that that troubled me.”
The autopsy report was brought to Calcasieu Parish Coroner Terry Welke.
“And of course, after talking with the forensic pathologists, both of them, they both concluded very quickly that the person was dead before they entered the water,” DeRosier said.
Prosecutor Hugo Holland said the photos showed she had been laying facedown on something dirty before she entered the water.
He said her scarf was 3 to 4 inches inside her mouth.
Holland said Abshire may have described it best: “I think the he put it is: ‘That ain’t no lady’s knot.’ ”
Felix, meanwhile, points to the autopsy conducted in 1962.
“The coroner, the body was brought to him exactly the way it was taken out unless somebody had messed with it on the way, so this coroner had access to all of her clothing including the scarf and, actually, I read the report, he measured everything and the river current,” Felix said. “She had been rolling on the bottom of the river for forty-eight hours, I guess, and some of the scarf, a corner of it was in her mouth.
“He noted everything about her on his report and accidental drowning was his report.”
But it was actually a finding on that first autopsy that helped the forensic pathologists make their determination.
“She had a large contusion behind, I want to say, the left ear,” Holland said. “Welke said ‘I don’t know what killed her but she was dead before she went in the water.’ Bodin said not only was she dead before she went in the water but somebody strangled her to death.”
Holland believes a life insurance policy may have been motive in Mary’s death and money the motive in Annette’s disappearance. Sharon, he believes, disappeared because Felix had told her about Mary.
Felix was arrested in May 2013 in Mary’s death.
DeRosier said Felix was offered a deal that would have allowed him out of jail before he died – with the condition that Felix tell “where the other two bodies were.”
“I don’t think he’ll ever share any new news on the other ladies,” said Bill’s wife, Janet. “You know, in his mind, he lives with a different set of rules.”
Felix contends Sharon and Annette left on their own.
“I would not, to save myself, put either one of them back with either one of the mothers that they were trying to get away with,” Felix said.
“I was railroaded, in a word, and I’m sitting there three years before the trial and during the trial and watching this parade of coached and paid witnesses get on the stand and say what they’ve been told to say - all lies. There was not one witness against me that said any truth.”
While Felix only stood trial in the death of Mary, the verdict was considered a victory for all three families.
“I am thankful to Annette’s mom and will that they just kept on, you know, and didn’t give up,” Janet said.
“To have a district attorney say, ‘Ok, we’re going to look at this fifty years after the fact, and got us a prosecutor that was awesome and they were so sensitive and caring and professional throughout the whole experience that I went through, I’ll be grateful to them forever,” Mary’s brother, Will, said.
Felix, though, maintains his innocence and said he’ll die with a clear conscience.
“I have one and I’ve never had any other kind,” Felix said. “I’ve lived my life trying to learn and play, learn and play. That’s my main objectives in life and it still is.”