The Big Read: When three women disappear, the finger points to the one man they all loved - Felix Vail

By Vanessa Brown

Felix Vail's first wife Mary Horton, second wife Annette Vail and former partner Sharon Hensley. Photo / Supplied
Felix Vail's first wife Mary Horton, second wife Annette Vail and former partner Sharon Hensley. Photo / Supplied

Mary Horton, Annette Vail and Sharon Hensley have one thing in common - they were all last seen with Felix Vail.

One is dead, and the other two have never been seen again.

With Vail now facing a murder charge over the 1962 death of his first wife Ms Horton, fresh questions are being asked about the disappearances of his second wife and former partner in a new Making a Murderer-style documentary.

On May 17, 2013, authorities arrested Vail in a Canyon Lake post office, charging him with the the murder.

Now, more than 53 years after his first wife's death - the US's oldest prosecution of a suspected killer is slated to begin this month.

THE THREE PARTNERS

In 1962, Vail's first wife - Mary Horton - died after she fell off the couple's boat on a lake in Mississippi and drowned. At the time, the coroner said her death as an "accident".

The only person with her at the time of her drowning was Vail.

Twenty years later, Vail met Annette Rose in Texas when she was still 15. He was 44 years old.

Marrying when she turned 17, the newlyweds went off on a motorcycle adventure across the US which lasted several months.

But instead of returning together, the new Annette Vail now came home without her husband, telling her mother she had a painful abortion and wanted a divorce.

Locking herself away, the teenager spoke to no one - including her mother, Mary Rose. Even Vail - who repeatedly called her home to speak with his wife - was ignored.

When Annette finally emerged from her room, Vail convinced her to let him back in her life. She did, and with an insurance payout left to Annette when her father died, Vail was put on the deed of her house alongside her name. One month later, the deed was completely in Vail's name, and the two then left for another camping trip to St. Louis together.

But this time, Annette didn't return home.

Between his first and second wife, Vail met brunette Sharon Hensley in San Francisco. At the time, he had his son Billy with him, and the trio would travel down the coast - jobless - stealing from orchards and doing drugs.

The last time Ms Hensley spoke to her family was to tell them she and Vail were heading down to Florida.

In a letter to her family one year later, Vail claimed that Ms Hensley decided to leave him and sail around the world with an unknown Australian couple.

She was never seen or heard from again.

WHO IS FELIX VAIL?

More than a half century after his first wife, Ms Horton, drowned in a lake in Mississippi, Vail is now facing a murder charge for her death.

The story of his first wife's death and the disappearance of Ms Hensley and Ms Vail is part of the new investigative series GONE by journalist Jerry Mitchell and the USA Today Network.

Born on a dairy farm in 1939 in Montpelier, Mississippi, Felix Vail was a regular boy who often topped his class but sometimes was "inclined to mischief".

By 16, he excelled in farming, and a year later he volunteered for the military hoping to be a pilot, but his quest was denied.

"I was not the kind of person who would follow orders and that I would be a disciplinary problem," Vail said in a recording for the video series.

Vail's sister Kaye Faulkner described her brother as "normal like anybody else" growing up, but admitted he only ever wanted to do things his way.

"He and I were close like as a brother and sister could be," she said. "But he never wanted to do things daddy wanted him to do and how daddy wanted him to do it.

"When he was 15 or 16 ... daddy would give pretty good whippings but they weren't anything like the beatings that he needed."

Ms Faulkner, who was interviewed for Gone, said her brother had a cruel streak, and would kill animals including his mother's kittens and the neighbours' dogs.

"He killed our neighbour's dog one time," Ms Faulkner said. "I think she told me that maybe he killed two or three of them.

"Mother would have a cat who had kittens and she wouldn't want them, so he would just put them all in what we called a croker sack or feed sack and he would either bash them up against the wall and kill them, or either take a gun and shoot them until they didn't move."

FELIX VAIL MEETS MARY HORTON

As a young adult, Vail would spend much of his time at the McNeese State University where he was a chemical plant worker and "dated a lot of women".

But it was homecoming queen Mary Horton who he fell in love with, and the pair started dating in 1960.

"Mary was one of those people, when she walked into the room, she made everybody feel good," her younger brother Will Horton told ABC News.

Felix Vail has been charged over the death of his first wife in 1962. Now questions are being asked about two other disappearances. Photo / Supplied
Felix Vail has been charged over the death of his first wife in 1962. Now questions are being asked about two other disappearances. Photo / Supplied

While Ms Horton grabbed the attention of many classmates on campus, it was Vail she wanted the most.

"She just kind of fell in love [with Vail] from the get-go," Ms Horton's friend and sorority sister Cynthia Lunn said.

But it wasn't all happiness with Vail. Mary would confide in her school friends through letters, revealing that while she loved Vail, she didn't think she really liked him anymore.

"He really is sweet, but we don't see eye-to-eye on things," she wrote.

"I never could break up with anyone," she wrote. "I always keep hoping when there is no hope."

Despite a tumultuous, sometimes on, sometimes off relationship, the pair decided to get married in 1961 and moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana together. It was then that Ms Horton fell pregnant just one year into married life.

"Things were going along well, but then she gets pregnant. Felix did not want her to get pregnant," Mitchell revealed in GONE.

Their first son Billy was born, and the pair thought maybe another was on the way.

Years before her marriage to Vail, Ms Horton revealed to a sorority sister that she saw herself having an early death by drowning.

"I remember in the dorm that Mary had always told us she was going to die young by drowning. I never forgot that," Cathy Robbins said.

On October 28, 1962, her premonition came true.

The couple had decided to take a boat out fishing on the Mississippi River. The pair stayed out on the water quite late, and decided to turn back after nightfall.

Vail claimed his wife saw a stump in the water as they were travelling back home. In an attempt to miss the obstacle, he swerved and she went overboard.

He claimed to have jumped in the water to save his wife, but was unsuccessful.

Two days after the accident, her body was found and her funeral was held the very next day.

Four days after family and friends said goodbye to Ms Horton, Vail was arrested by police while he was at work.

Questioning his story about how Ms Horton fell overboard and drowned, authorities asked whether Vail had wasted valuable time travelling down river to find help instead of searching for his wife.

Refusing to take a lie-detector test, Vail was free after the coroner ruled Ms Horton's death was an "accidental drowning".

Fifty years after her death, Mitchell tracked down Vail's childhood friend Wesley Turnage who admitted that Vail had confessed to murdering his wife.

"He said, 'Well, that damn ***** wanted another baby ... thought it might help save our marriage, but said I didn't want the one I got, and I sure didn't want another one'," he told Mitchell.

"He said, 'I fixed that damn *****. She won't never have another one'. And right then I knew that I was sitting beside a murder."

Robert Fremont, who was friends with Vail in the later 60s, revealed a similar story - saying Vail had confessed in graphic detail about the murder of his wife.

"He talked about something about a lake and a boat and all this stuff and he had killed his first wife. I thought it was maybe some kind of BS story," Mr Fremont said.

"The second time he told me, it was very graphic, and it really troubled me ... It sounded like he whacked her on the head and threw her in the water."

THE OTHER DISAPPEARANCES

Meeting in Texas when Annette was 15, and he was 44-years-old, Felix and Annette began dating in 1982. When she turned 17, they got married.

Her mother, Mary Rose, didn't know much about Vail but learnt that they had been secretly dating while she was still studying.

"What I did then by letting her go off with Felix is not something I'm proud of," Mrs Rose said.

"I really thought she was in love with him and I didn't know he was a bad guy ... I've struggled with it tremendously."

After the death of his first wife, but before marrying his second wife, Vail moved to San Francisco with his eight-year-old son Bill.

In 1970, Bill made his way to a police station while his father and Sharon Hensley, who Vail had met along the way, were together.

The young boy told the police his dad had drugs, and was forcing him to use them. It was during this period that he heard his own father confess to his mother, Mary's, murder.

"My father thought I was outside playing, and I overheard him sobbing which caught my attention and he told her [Ms Hensley] that he had murdered my mother," Bill said in a recording in 2009, before he died.

"That just shot me to no end ... he confessed to her that he'd actually murdered her.

"From that point on I don't know what else was said, I was just in shock, it was too much for an eight-year-old."

Vail was arrested and charged with drug possession, but wouldn't admit to any involvement in his first wife's murder. Bill was returned to his grandparents, who were given full custody over him.

While in South Dakota, Sharon's brother Brian Hensley saw the story of Bill going to the police about his father. He knew, after reading the article, that Vail had control of his sister's life.

"I believe she was with him out of fear. She didn't know how to get out of the situation," Mr Hensley said.

Six months later, Vail and Ms Hensley were bound for Florida. She sent a photo to her parents titled "making travel plans," but they said they saw no excitement in her eyes. After receiving the photo, they got one last phone call from her.

"I remember being right next to my mum," Mr Hensley said.

"Her knees almost buckled and she almost collapsed when Sharon told her she was going to Florida to make a porn movie.

Ms Hensley's family received a letter from Felix some time after the phone call, saying that she had met an Australian couple who were sailing around the world. The letter said that the couple wanted them to join them, but Vail refused. Ms Hensley, on the other hand, wanted to join them.

"The letter said, 'I gave them my blessings and sent them on their way off to the sea together," Mr Hensley said.

Ms Hensley was never heard from by her family ever again.

"She hung up the phone and said Sharon is in deep trouble."

- news.com.au

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