Judge: Probable cause to hold Vail on murder charge in 51-year-old case

Judge rules probable cause in Felix Vail case, still held without bond
Felix Vail (Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office)
Felix Vail (Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office)
Vail at a recent court appearance.
Vail at a recent court appearance.
A button worn by friends and family of Mary Horton Vail.
A button worn by friends and family of Mary Horton Vail.

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Judge Robert Wyatt determined that there is probably cause to hold Felix Vail on a second-degree murder charge in the 1962 death of his wife, Mary Horton Vail.

Wyatt also denied the defense's motion for bond to be set on Vail.

Wyatt said he deemed Vail to be a flight risk.

Vail, 73, has yet to be indicted in the case. The case will go before a Calcasieu Parish grand jury on June 27.

Vail appeared in 14th Judicial District Court on Tuesday for the preliminary exam.

Several witnesses testified.

Mary was found dead in October 1962 in the Calcasieu River. Felix Vail claimed that she was the victim of a boating accident.

The coroner in 1962 ruled the death as an accidental drowning. The case was recently reopened and the death was ruled a homicide by Calcasieu Coroner Dr. Terry Welke.

Vail was arrested last month in Canyon Lake, Texas.

Ike Abshire, 90, gave testimony Tuesday morning. It was videotaped.

Abshire told the court that he and Felix were friends.

Abshire said Felix rented a room from him at his home around the time he started dating Mary.

Abshire said they worked together. He said Felix told him he didn't like that Mary was pregnant and didn't want a baby.

Abshire said he was like a "big brother" to the couple. He said he saw Mary, Felix and baby the Friday before Mary died on Sunday.

Two photos and a police report were submitted into evidence. They were black and white photos of Mary's body after it was recovered from the Calcasieu River. Abshire testified the photos and document were given to him by two deputies and that he kept them all these years.

Abshire said after Mary's death, Felix told him he was going to have his lawyers contact him because Abshire was telling coworkers Felix killed Mary. Abshire said he told Felix for the lawyers to give him a call because he was ready to take the stand and tell what he knew.

Abshire said nothing ever came of that and Felix resigned from his position at the Cities Service plant shortly after. Abshire said he never saw or heard from Felix after that.

When asked if he knew Felix had a boat, he said "yes." However, Abshire said he didn't know of Felix being a fisherman and never heard of him ever setting trotlines, which is what Felix claims he and Mary were doing when she fell into the water.

Defense attorney Andrew Casanave cross examined Abshire and asked if he didn't like Mr. Vail.

Abshire said he liked Felix and he liked Mary.

"Mr. Abshire is a live wire. And I think he's been looking forward to this for 51 years because I believe he knew what happened 51 years ago. Plus, he kept those documents and photos locked in his safe all these years," said John DeRosier, Calcasieu District Attorney.

The next witness called by the prosecution was Wesley Turnage. According to Turnage, he and Felix grew up in a small, Mississippi town together.

Turnage said around the time of Mary's death, it was "big talk" in the town, especially after Felix was initially arrested in the case but later released.

Vail eventually moved back to Mississippi in the early 60s after Mary's death. Turnage was around 17 or 18 at the time and said he and Vail worked at the same plant together.

Turnage would eventually start riding to work with Felix because his car was not working. It was on a ride to work that Turnage said they started talking about Felix's son, Bill. According to Turnage, Vail said he never wanted the boy.

Turnage recalled he also thought it was strange that Felix referred to Mary as his "ex-wife."

Turnage said Felix went on to say that Mary wanted more children to help fix the problems in their marriage but that he didn't want them and said, "I fixed that bitch so she'll never have any more children."

Turnage told the court he thought he was sitting by a murderer and that he never rode with Felix again. He said he told his parents but no one else until reporter Jerry Mitchell with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger started writing articles about the cold case.

Turnage said he didn't ever speak with authorities about the case because his mother feared for his safety, but that he promised himself if it was ever reopened, he would tell his story.

Calcasieu Coroner Dr. Terry Welke was the only witness called by the defense. Welke was questioned in great detail about how he concluded Mary's death a homicide after more than 50 years.

Casanave went into great detail about the autopsy report in questioning Welke.

Welke said he concluded the death a homicide based on several photos and the original autopsy report.

According to Welke, the scarf around her neck was suspicious. He said that, along with bruises found on her body, could possibly have led to her death, but that there is also the possibility it was not a factor.

Welke believes that Mary was dead before she entered the water. He said he came to that conclusion based on witness testimony from Abshire that described Mary as being rigid and in a coffin-like state with her hands crossed over her chest. Welke said that is not how they usually find drowning victims when they are pulled from the water.

Welke went on to explain that based on the photos, there was a lot of black residue on Mary's hands, forehead, shirt and shoes. He said Mary did not look like the type of woman to leave her house without being clean and presentable. It's his belief that Mary was either transported face down or with something over the front of her face and body, which caused the black markings.

When asked how Mary died, Welke said he didn't know but that he was certain she did not drown and that it was a homicide.

The last witness called by the prosecution was Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's detective Randy Curtis. He briefed the court on the history of the investigation into Mary's death.

He also commented on the investigations into the deaths of two other women last seen alive with Felix. Girlfriend Sharon Hensley disappeared in 1973. According to Felix he last saw Sharon in Key West when she left on a boat to sail around the world with an Australian couple she had met.

His second wife Annette Craver Vail disappeared in 1984. Felix told investigators in Tulsa, where the couple had been living, that he last saw Annette in September of 1984 when he put her on a bus in St. Louis. He said she was bound to Mexico with friends.

But according to detective Curtis his account of Annette is conflicting with what Felix's family told investigators. They claim Felix and Annette were in Sulphur for the Cal-Cam Fair in October of 1984, which would have been several weeks after he told investigators he last saw her.

Felix family told investigators he left after the Cal-Cam fair and showed back up 10 days later but without Annette.

Both women have never been heard from since. Felix also wrote letters to the mothers of both women explaining the circumstances around their disappearances. The prosecution presented both letters as evidence and have requested a writing sample from Felix to compare to the letters.

Detective Curtis also shared that Annette was only 17 when she and Felix met.

When Annette turned 18 she came into $89,000 her father left her. Annette's mother also gave her a home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In June of 1984 Annette named Felix a co-owner of the house. Two months later she deeded the house solely to Felix taking her name off the deed.

Felix recently sold the house. Authorities believe he was getting things in order to make a run.

During Felix and Sharon's relationship they lived in California with his son Bill, who was 8 years old at the time. Detective Curtis said Bill went to the police station in California claiming he was tired of his father making him do drugs and that he overheard his father confess to Sharon of killing his mother.

When authorities in California questioned Felix, they said they found drugs on him. They arrested him and Sharon for drugs and child cruelty. The cruelty charges were later dropped and the two served about six months with two to three years probation.

Family and friends of Mary were in court for the proceedings and are claiming a first victory.

"Today is a day that Calcasieu Parish corrected an injustice of 50 years ago. And it's a great feeling and we are very happy with what has happened so far and looking forward to the rest of it," said Allen Horton, Mary's older brother.

Not to be forgotten, the Calcasieu District Attorney's Office is now involved in the investigations of Sharon and Annette's disappearances.

"We have other law enforcement agencies helping us at this time - both state and federal. We are going to pursue these cases as well," said DeRosier.

Meanwhile, the grand jury will consider the case on June 27.

Mary Horton Vail, 23, was a Eunice native. She attended McNeese State University, majoring in education. At the time of her death, she was a teacher at Moss Bluff Elementary.

Copyright 2013 KPLC. All rights reserved.