When Mary Rose’s 15-year old daughter Annette Craver began dating 41-year old Felix Vail in 1981, Mary was understandably concerned. But she had no idea that the mysterious older man was a cold-blooded killer who had already murdered at least one of his previous wives.
Mary Rose had given birth to Annette at just 17, and the two developed a strong bond. “She was a treasure. Her passion was music and poetry, and just living from her heart. She was just a beautiful, beautiful loving soul,” Mary Rose said.
She and Annette were having a yard sale in 1981 when Felix Vail showed up on his motorcycle. Annette was only 15, but she soon struck up a friendship with Vail, then 41.
Annette graduated from high school age at age 16, after which she and her mother moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, Mary Rose purchased a house with the deed in both Mary Rose's and Annette's names. Vail showed up at their new home, and Annette told her mom that she wanted to travel the country with him on his motorcycle. Believing that her daughter would run away if she refused permission, Mary Rose agreed.
As the couple traveled the country, Annette stayed in touch with her mother. After a year, Annette called home and asked for her mother’s permission to marry Vail—which she needed because she was still only 17—and Mary Rose approved.
The couple lived off social security checks that Annette received from her father’s death. But the marriage was rocky, and in 1984, Annette told her mother that she wanted to leave Vail.
Two weeks later, Vail showed up at the house, and after he spent time with Annette, the couple accused Mary Rose of trying to “steal” the house.
So Mary Rose transferred the house to Annette’s name alone, and, only a few months later, Annette transferred her ownership of the property to Vail. Just three weeks later, Annette disappeared without a trace.
Vail claimed that Annette had left him and gone to Mexico. Mary Rose was suspicious of that story and reported her daughter missing, but Tulsa police believed Vail over Mary Rose. That’s when Mary Rose began looking into Vail’s dark history.
First, Mary Rose discovered the suspicious drowning death of Vail’s first wife, Mary Horton Vail, on Louisiana’s Calcasieu River in 1962.
Incredibly, there was also the unexplained disappearance of another woman, Sharon Hensley, who was involved with Vail in the 1970s.
Mary Rose got in touch with Will Horton, Mary Horton’s brother. He told her that his sister was homecoming queen at her Louisiana college when she met Felix Vail. Six months later, the couple became engaged, and then married in July 1961. The following year, Mary gave birth to their son Bill.
But Vail did not want the child—and a few months later, Mary told her family that she was thinking of leaving him. In 1962, the couple dropped their son off with a friend and went out on a boat to go troutline fishing.
Vail claimed that while they were on the boat at night, Mary was shining a flashlight and saw a stump and fell overboard when he swerved to avoid it.
Two days later, search crews pulled her lifeless body out of the river. Vail was taken into custody, but the coroner ruled at the time that the death was due to accidental drowning.
Vail moved to Mississippi with his son then later moved to California, where he re-invented himself as a free-loving hippie. That’s where he met Sharon Hensley, a 23-year-old whose friends described as a “free spirit.”
When Bill was eight years old, he told police in Livingston, California, that he had overheard his father confessing to killing his mother.
Police ended up arresting Vail and Sharon for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and drugs charges. Vail received a six-month sentence for LSD possession.
Vail later wrote Sharon’s family a note saying that Sharon was sailing around the world and did not want to be found. Sharon’s family heard nothing for decades—until Mary Rose called them in 1994.
They quickly realized the similarities: In both cases, Vail had attempted to divide the daughters from their mothers and wrote letters saying the daughters did not want to be contacted after their disappearances.
Mary Rose went to the FBI—and, even after learning that the agent she was working with was no longer with the bureau, she continued to seek justice. In 2010, Mary Rose contacted Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter from The Clarion Ledger in Mississippi, after hearing him on a radio broadcast.
Mary Rose and Mitchell went to confront Vail in his trailer, which was missing a back window. Mitchell was shocked when Mary Rose climbed inside—and then tossed out several machetes.
Mitchell arranged meetings with the families of both Mary Horton and Sharon Hensley, and began to investigate the case. He got a call from a former coworker of Vail’s who claimed that Vail told him that he had killed his first wife, Mary, because she had gotten pregnant for the second time.
Jerry presented the new information on the death of Mary Horton to the District Attorney. Hugo Holland, Assistant District Attorney of Calcasieu Parish, took on the half-century-old murder case even though he thought that the case was hopeless. But Holland eventually found a 90-year-old man who had been Vail’s coworker at the time of the original investigation in 1962. The man gave investigators photos of Mary’s body after her death—and revealed that when her body was pulled out, there was a scarf tied tightly around her neck.
On May 17, 2013, Felix Vail was arrested in Texas for the 1962 murder of Mary Horton Vail. He is now serving life in prison.
This Story Was First Published on Crime Feed.
Featured photo of Felix Vail: courtesy of Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office