Mary Horton Vail Cold Case: Accident or murder?

Mary Horton Vail Cold Case: Part 2
Published: Jan. 21, 2013 at 11:50 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 20, 2013 at 11:50 PM CST
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Mary Horton Vail (Source: Family)
Mary Horton Vail (Source: Family)
Mary Horton Vail (Source: Family)
Mary Horton Vail (Source: Family)
Annette Craver
Annette Craver
Sharon Hensley
Sharon Hensley
Felix Vail circa 1983
Felix Vail circa 1983

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - It's a case that dates back more than 50 years. But the family of Mary Horton Vail believes her death was no accident.

The mystery to what happened to 22-year-old Mary Horton Vail has lingered for 50 years in the waters of the Calcasieu River. At the time of her death, Mary was married and the mother of a newborn.

"It left a hole in all of us. It was just terrible because she was so full of life and she lit up every room she walked into," said Will Horton, Mary's younger brother.

A Eunice native, Mary was the middle child. Her two brothers, Will and Allen Horton, recall how their sister was always a favorite in the small town.

"Even when she became homecoming queen or tri-parish queen, her demeanor never changed. She was still smiling and friendly with everybody," Will said.

Mary eventually graduated and attended McNeese State University, majoring in education. Pledging Chi Omega, she could have had her pick of any guy on campus.

"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," Will said.

But it was Mississippi native Felix Vail who won her over. Described as a ladies' man, the two were engaged to be married within a year.

"I was younger then so I accepted him because she accepted him. And that's just how it was for me," Will said.

Not everyone was keen on the idea of Felix becoming part of the family.

"I was not happy with the situation only because my parents weren't because I didn't know him from Adam," said Allen Horton, Mary's older brother. "I was away at college and my mother asked me to write Mary a letter asking her to wait and not marry him."

Despite concerns she was rushing in, Mary and Felix wed in July of 1961. A year later, the couple welcomed a baby named Bill.

"If you would have seen my sister with her baby, she was absolutely radiant. She loved Bill just heart and soul," Will said.

By this time, the marriage had went south. According to her family, Mary was contemplating divorce, but at her mother's urging, stayed to work things out. A couple of months later, Mary would be dead. Her family was told she drowned while she and Felix were running trotlines in the river at night.

"We were devastated, just absolutely devastated. There was no thought of any type of criminal intent. We were just totally devastated," Will said.

Felix's story wasn't adding up. For starters, Mary was deathly afraid of the water and Felix's boat didn't have any fishing gear, not to mention the waters on that stretch of the river were too deep to run trotlines.

An arrest was made, but after being questioned and spending three nights in jail, Felix was released.

While Mary's death was eventually ruled accidental, the autopsy tells a much different story. Recently, a renowned pathologist reviewed the autopsy report and concluded foul play was involved in her death because of large bruises on her body and a scarf that was extended four inches inside her mouth.

Felix Vail would never be charged with any crime. In fact, the case never even it went before a grand jury.

"When authorities showed no interest to pursue that situation, we had no recourse. There was nothing for us to do," Will said.

"But every time somebody would make an attempt to bring things up, it would just shut down quickly so as far as I was concerned I got to the point of saying, 'Hey this is impossible. It's not going to ever happen so why keep digging it up'," said Allen.

Although more than 50 years have passed since Mary's death, her brothers believe it's never too late for justice.

"That would be having him arrested, charged with murder and convicted. He belongs in jail," said Will.

Felix Vail a suspect in disappearances of two other women:

The Hortons aren't the only family looking for answers. Since Mary's death, two other women who had relationships with Felix Vail have disappeared.

After Mary's death, Felix and their son, Bill, moved to California. By 1970, he was seeing a woman by the name of Sharon Hensley. She would later go missing in 1973. Felix told her family he last saw her in Key West when she hopped on a boat with an Australian couple to sail around the world.

Then, in the early 80s, he met a young Annette Craver, who was still in her teens. Craver and Vail would later marry and she, too, would disappear. Her last known whereabouts were in Sulphur. Felix told her family she decided to go to Mexico.

Both of these cases are being investigated by different agencies.

Three women last seen alive with Felix Vail caught the attention of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell. Mitchell writes for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. Over the years, he's covered his fair share of cold case investigations, but he'll tell you none like this one.

"This one is really bizarre. To be honest with you, I have never written about a serial killer suspect before. So, it's been fascinating. I always like it because I feel like I am piecing a puzzle together," said Mitchell.

Mary and Felix's son, Bill, died of cancer in 2010. He always believed his father killed his mother and at 8-years-old, went to police in 1970.

"He walks in this police department in California and says my father keeps giving me drugs and I don't want drugs. And oh, by the way, my father says he killed my mother," said Mitchell.

Before his death, Bill made a video telling everything he recalled while living with his father and the confession he says he heard told to Sharon Hensley.

California authorities arrested Felix and Sharon for LSD, but nothing would come of the alleged confession.

Since writing his first story on the case back in November, Mitchell has reached out to a now 73-year-old Felix who was living in Montpelier, Mississippi.

"I've tried calling him, left voice mails. He left. He sold his property and took off and just left after we started asking all these questions about what happened to these women and where did they go? He's gone now. Sold his property," Mitchell said.

Authorities recently tracked Felix down and the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office reopened the case. According to Sheriff Tony Mancuso, Calcasieu's cold case investigators questioned Felix Vail as recently as last week.

"It certainly raises a red flag that something may be wrong," Mancuso said.

Mancuso said they are actively working the case and looking for inconsistencies in Felix's story. However, Mancuso said it's not an easy case.

"We obviously are looking because we believe something is there. The question is how do we get from 'point A' to 'point B' to where we have enough to make an arrest. And that's where we are trying to get to," Mancuso said.

While it is far away from a conviction, it's a big step for the Hortons in finding justice for Mary, Sharon and Annette.

Meanwhile, the Horton family would like to talk with anyone who knew Mary and Felix, especially the family babysitter who was keeping infant Bill the night of Mary's death. They believe her name may or may not have be Jayne Weaver, a name of a woman who lived in the Maree Apartments in Moss Bluff at one point during that time.

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