In 1962, Felix Vail said his wife had fallen overboard from their boat and drowned. When her body was pulled from the river, she had a scarf in her mouth and no water in her lungs. The second episode in USA TODAY’s special video series, “Gone.” Steve Elfers, USA TODAY
Felix Vail leaving the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse in Lake Charles, LA at the end of day 4 of his trial for the murder of his first wife, Mary Horton Vail, in 1962.(Photo: Scott Clause, The (Lafayette, La.) Daily Advertiser)
LAKE CHARLES, La. — Nearly 54 years after Mary Horton Vail went under the dark water of the Calcasieu River, a jury found her then-husband, Felix Vail, guilty of murdering her.
It is the oldest prosecution of a suspected serial killer in U.S. history. He was the last known person with Mary, the woman he called his wife, Sharon Hensley, who disappeared in 1973, and his wife, Annette, who disappeared in 1984.
Sentencing is set for Sept. 26, but Vail will get a life sentence without parole, which means he may celebrate his upcoming 77th birthday behind bars.
“Justice is being served today,” District Attorney John DeRosier told reporters. “I’m just honored to be a part of this process.”
He said prosecutors believe there could be other victims beyond these three women.
THE CLARION LEDGER
GONE: Did the wife of Felix Vail really drown?
Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland said he and Melissa Sonnier traveled the country, digging up evidence, much of which jurors didn’t get to hear, including that one of Vail’s ex-wives describing pristine surgical saws he kept in a VW trunk.
He said prosecutors confirmed that Vail had molested a child in Oklahoma, but authorities were unable to pursue that case because the statute of limitations had expired.
The Clarion-Ledger reported on the allegations of molestation in 2013, citing items that private investigator Gina Frenzel had found inside Vail’s Texas home, including a photograph of a naked 3-year-old girl and journals where he discussed his relationship with that girl and other children.
Annette’s mother, Mary Rose, who had pushed for 32 years for justice for her daughter, called Friday’s verdict “a prayer answered, a dream come true that justice would be done and that he would be held accountable for the three young lives.”
Mary Vail’s brother, Will Horton, praised the district attorney’s office for their dedication and Rose for never giving up. He talked of his love for his sister and his nephew, Bill, who died of cancer in 2009.
Bill’s widow, Janet, talked about her late husband, who at age 8 walked into the police station in Livingston, California, in August 1970, and told a detective that his father, Felix Vail, had said he killed the boy’s mother, Mary.
“Today he was heard,” she said.
Public Defender Andrew Casanave said, “From the beginning, I disagreed with this concept of this prosecution. Clearly the jury disagreed with me. I think we put on one hell of a defense, despite out moneyed and outspent.”
Felix Vail had maintained his innocence, saying he is a victim of “hate” and “hypocrisy.”
In 1962, he told deputies his wife accidentally fell from the boat when they were trotline fishing on the Calcasieu River.
But three former friends testified Vail told them he killed his wife, Mary.
Two forensic pathologists for the prosecution, including Dr. Michael Baden of New York, concluded her death was a homicide and that she was dead before she went in the water.
Baden pointed to the scarf found in her mouth.
The 1962 autopsy conducted by Dr. Avery Cook found Mary Vail had a 4-inch hematoma to the back of her head, a 4-inch bruise to her right calf and a 2-inch bruise above her left knee.
Forensic pathologist Dr. James Traylor, testifying for the defense, said her injuries were not inconsistent with drowning, but he acknowledged she had to receive the hematoma before she died.
A former employee for Travelers Insurance testified Felix Vail took out a life insurance policy on his wife, Mary, shortly before her death, and that she didn’t sign the policy.
Despite being paid, Vail didn’t pay for her funeral, her burial or her headstone.
“What kind of man doesn’t pay the funeral bill for his wife?” Holland asked.
The prosecutor also talked about the disappearances of<span style="color: Red;">*</span>Sharon Hensley and Annette Vail.
“How unlucky is this guy?” he asked. “His first wife dies. His second wife-girlfriend disappears off the planet. His third wife disappears from the planet. He is either the most unlucky person born on the planet since Job or it is what it looks like — a killer who learned from his mistakes.”
Casanave put on a scarf, trying to reconstruct the scarf Mary Vail had.
“That is not stuffed in her mouth, and that is not choking her,” he said.
He recalled the testimony of Bruce Biedebach, who said Felix Vail told him he killed his wife, that it was ruled an accident and that he tried to use an oar, “but it didn’t work well.”
Casanave suggested Vail tried to save his wife with the oar and accidentally hit her on the head, or perhaps she hit her head falling out of the boat.
“If either one happened,” Casanave said, “he didn’t mean to kill her, he didn’t want her hurt. You must say not guilty.”
Holland told jurors that Vail was indeed guilty and pointed at him. Vail pointed back.
He called on jurors to convict for the sake of Mary Horton Vail, Sharon Hensley and Annette Craver Vail.
“You need to put him in prison. Don’t take long.”
He pointed toward the women’s families, sitting on the front row of the courtroom. “Don’t make these people wait any longer.”
Gone: One wife dead. Two others missing.
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