Felix Vail, 73, is accused of killing Mary Horton Vail, his wife, on Oct. 28, 1962. He claimed she drowned in the Calcasieu River while they were running trotlines. (Rick Hickman / American Press)
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 10:27 AM
A 90-year-old man who was present when Mary Horton Vail was pulled from the Calcasieu River in 1962 said her body was rigid and straight with her arms folded across her chest.
Isaac “Ike” Abshire’s testimony was part of a preliminary exam Tuesday to determine whether there was reason to hold 73-year-old Felix Vail, Mary’s husband, who was arrested May 17 and charged with second-degree murder.
The case was reopened recently because of an investigative report by Mississippi journalist Jerry Mitchell.
Prosecutor Hugo Holland said the case will go before a grand jury on June 27.
Judge Robert Wyatt said that while he thought it would be difficult to bring what he heard Tuesday to a jury trial, it was enough to warrant holding Vail without bond.
Defense attorney Andrew Casanave asked for a $20,000 cash bond to be set.
Abshire was one of four people to take the stand Tuesday. Calcasieu Coroner Terry Welke also testified, as did sheriff’s investigator Randy Curtis and Mississippi man Thomas Wesley Turnage.
Welke said he used photographs and a 1962 autopsy report to come to the conclusion that the death was a homicide. Mary had bruises on her head and legs and had a scarf wrapped around her neck, he said.
Casanave went through much of the report line by line, asking Welke if the notes were consistent with a drowning or a homicide. Welke answered “possibly” to many of the questions, later expounding on why he believed Mary’s death was a homicide.
He said that one day in the coroner’s office, he walked into a room where investigator Zeb Johnson was discussing photos of Mary with deputies. Johnson and the deputies told Welke that her death had been ruled an accidental drowning. But her swollen neck and the scarf wrapped around it raised his suspicions, he said.
Welke said that even though the autopsy report did not denote strangling, he would not rule it out as a cause of death because of the swelling of her neck and the scarf wrapped around it twice. A bruise on Mary’s head was “consistent with a head injury,” he said.
The “coffin-type” position her body was in when it was found was not consistent with a drowning victim, he said. He said that when people drown, first they fight, then their body jackknifes, head and legs down, once they die.
He said coroners do see drowning victims in other positions, but never like they had been lying down. “The fact that she was rigid is very concerning,” Welke said.
He said he noticed there was a dark substance on Mary’s hands. As he further examined the photographs, he said he noticed it was on her forehead, her shirt and her toes, which led him to believe she had been laid face down or on her back with something on top of her. She was “dead prior to going in the water,” he said.
The 1962 photographs and a police report were provided to the Sheriff’s Office by Abshire, who kept them in an envelope. Abshire said he worked with Felix and rented a room to him prior to his marriage to Mary. He said he often had them over to his home, and had visited with them two days before Mary’s death.
“I was kind of like a big brother to them,” Abshire said. “That’s what she said.” Mary had once asked him if he thought Felix could take her baby away, he said.
He said during a conversation at work, Felix told him he didn’t like his baby and didn’t like Mary while she was pregnant. “I told him that even a dog loves their children,” Abshire said. “I couldn’t understand that.”
He said Felix had once told him that Felix’s sister and her husband were hiding Mary from him and that he was mad at them. After Mary was reported drowned, Felix went out with two other men on his father’s boat to help find her.
After a fruitless search the Monday after her death, they found Mary on Tuesday. She was wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt and appeared to be lying on her side with her arms crossed, he said.
“I thought she was tied; that’s what it looked like,” he said.
He said her neck was swollen and the scarf was tied with a “big knot, not a woman’s knot.” It covered her mouth like a gag, he said.
After Mary’s death, Felix confronted Abshire one day at work and told him he was going to sue him for the things he was saying, Abshire said.
“I said, ‘Bring it on. I want to get on the stand and say what I saw,’ ” Abshire said.
A special chair was brought in for the elderly Abshire. At one point he drew a laugh from the courtroom when Casanave asked him if former Calcasieu Coroner Harry Snatic was a good man. “Well, he was a coroner,” Abshire replied.
Thomas Wesley Turnage, who said he had known Felix for most of his life, recounted a conversation he had with him in 1964. Turnage said that while his car was broken down, he often rode to and from work with Vail. One day on the way to work, talk turned to Mary, whom Turnage said Felix referred to as his ex-wife, and their son, Bill.
Turnage said Felix told him Mary had wanted another child to fix their marriage, but Felix didn’t want the one he had. “He said, ‘I fixed that damn bitch. She won’t never have another one,’ ” Turnage said. He got another ride home, he said.
Turnage said he didn’t tell anyone for years at the urging of his parents, but when he saw an article by Mitchell, he called him to tell his story.
Felix is also the last known person to have seen two other women alive: A girlfriend, Sharon Hensley, went missing in 1973, and another wife, Annette Craver Vail, went missing in 1984.
Sheriff’s detective Randy Curtis said Felix told Tulsa, Okla., detectives that he dropped Annette off at a Trailways bus station in St. Louis on Sept. 16, 1984, and never saw her again. But Felix’s sister, Sue Jordan, told the detectives Felix and Annette were in Sulphur for the Cal-Cam Fair in October 1984, Curtis said.
Jordan, who is now deceased, told investigators that they left and Felix returned alone about a week later, Curtis said.
The hearing drew a rare packed courtroom for a single case, with Mitchell and a producer from “48 Hours” in attendance.
In a rare move, Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier is handling the case himself, along with Holland. He said he and Holland will prosecute the case “all the way through.”
“This has been going on way too long,” DeRosier said when asked why he was personally prosecuting the case. “He’s gotten away with this for 51 years now, and I strongly suspect the other two ladies are no longer with us. We owe it to their families to pursue it to the end.”