By Neil Root
(Published in Real Crime magazine)
The last time anybody saw Mary Horton Vail alive, JFK was the US President and he’d just faced down the Russians in the Cuban Missile Crisis and nobody in America had ever heard of The Beatles.
In deepest southwest Louisiana all those years ago in 1962, Mary Horton Vail’s husband Felix Vail played innocent, but over a half a century later the dogged tenacity of a reporter, following a string of other disappearances linked to this evil man, finally led to his arrest in 2013, fifty-one years after he murdered his first wife.
When she died, beautiful Mary, who had been a homecoming queen at high school, was just twenty-two years old and had a four-month old son Bill with her husband Felix. Both southern state natives, Mary from the Cajun country of Louisiana, and Felix from a town south of Tupelo, Mississippi, they had met at McNeese State University, where she was studying education, and she fell in love with him. They got married in July 1961.
Felix, who later said himself that he had dated ‘hundreds of women’ in his life, is said to have had ‘a dark side’ as a young man, Felix’s own sister Kaye remembering that he tortured animals, battering the family’s unwanted kittens to death in a sack and shooting them, and killing a neighbour’s dog. Mary Horton’s cousin Judy Marcantel told local newspaper the Daily Advertiser that Mary had really loved Felix, and whilst 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.’
That is perhaps an understatement. Mary’s family have said that Felix and thrown baby Bill against a wall, and that by the time she died, Mary wanted a divorce, and she told her mother this in the summer of 1962. Apparently, Mary’s mother told her to go back and try to work it out, which she did.
According to Felix Vail, on the evening of 28th October 1962, he and Mary went on to Lake Charles, close to their home, in a little boat, laying weighted fishing lines. But Mary’s family would later say that she was afraid of water, and terrified of dark water, and that she would never have got into that boat under darkening skies without a life preserver. Felix told police at the time that the boat had struck the stump of a tree in the water and Mary had been thrown in. Despite searching hard for her, he claimed, he hadn’t been able to find her. But was Mary even alive when she got into that boat?
It was on the day before Halloween, 30 October 1962, when Mary Horton Vail’s body was finally located and dragged out of the murky water. She was badly bruised, and crabs in the water had gone to town on sodden scalp. Most ominously, her own scarf had been pushed down her throat, four inches of it. Police were of course suspicious and Felix was arrested, but when the case went before a Grand Jury in 1963, incredibly it was decided that there was insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution at trial. Felix Vail was free and had escaped justice.
There the tragic case of Mary Horton Vail lay: dormant for exactly fifty years, when a group of investigative reporters on the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, led by journalist Jerry Mitchell, published a nine part series of in-depth articles on Mary’s case. They employed various investigative methods to locate Felix, including financial and housing records, and even obtained the murderer’s own diaries as evidence. The series built a damning portrait. Shockingly, it came to light that two other partners of Felix’s had disappeared since Mary’s death- Felix’ s girlfriend Sharon Hensley in 1973, and his second wife Annette Craver in 1984. Neither woman was either seen or heard from again.
But most importantly, the stellar journalistic work of Jerry Mitchell and his team got Terry Welke, a parish coroner and forensic pathologist, to take a long hard look at Mary Horton Vail’s 1962 autopsy report. Welke found many new angles and discrepancies, and this led to directly to Felix Vail’s arrest in the following year, fifty-one years after he murdered Mary. At his trial, relatives of Sharon Hensley and Annette Craver, the other two missing women from Felix’s life gave evidence against him. But it was for Mary’s 1962 murder that Felix was convicted, in the second degree. After half a century, the jury took less than an hour to reach their verdict.
Felix Vail was sentenced to life in prison on 26th September 2016. At that hearing, Vail railed against Jerry Mitchell, the journalistic architect of his rightful fate, calling Mitchell ‘a professional spin master’, and accusing Mitchell of plagiarising ‘the plot’ from the bestselling crime novelist James Patterson. To which Jerry Mitchell responded, ‘Actually, kind of entertained by it, him saying I plagiarised a James Patterson novel to write this piece. I guess you been reporting long enough, you get tagged like that. I take it as a compliment.’
Felix Vail also reiterated that his first wife Mary’s death had been an accident, but that nobody would listen to his side of the story, and that his later girlfriend Sharon Hensley and second wife Annette Craver ‘disappeared’ of their own volition.
Felix Vail is incarcerated in the tough Angola State Penitentiary, and due to his advanced age- he is now 77 years old- Felix will never come out alive. The disappearances of Sharon Hensley and Annette Craver are still unsolved, but their fate seems ominous, as lightning very rare strikes twice, let alone three times. But at least the black widower’s evil tentacles are finally clipped and Mary Horton Vail finally has justice.
Will Horton, the younger brother of Mary Horton Vail, addressed Felix Vail at his sentencing hearing, and summed up how many felt. ‘You are a serial killer and you are headed to the place where serial killers deserve to go, first to Angola, and after that, the place where God will send you.