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Reporter Cracks Serial Killer Cold Case After Receiving a Tip Based on His Democracy Now! Interview

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Late last month, 77-year-old Felix Vail was sentenced to life in prison for killing his first wife, Mary Horton Vail, who died on a fishing trip in 1962 with Vail. Eleven years after Mary died, Felix’s new wife, Sharon Hensley, mysteriously disappeared. Then, 11 years later, in 1984, Felix’s new wife, Annette Craver Vail, disappeared. She was just 17 years old. Sharon and Annette were never heard from again. All three women were last seen with Felix Vail, but Felix was never charged in any of the cases. But that changed after the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger ran a multi-part series re-examining the deaths and disappearances. The lead reporter on the series was the prize-winning investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, who has appeared on Democracy Now! multiple times over the years. Shortly after his DN! interview in 2010, he received a call from a woman named Mary Rose who heard the interview. She wanted his help in investigating the death of her daughter, Annette Craver Vail, the 17-year-old wife of Felix Vail who disappeared in 1984. Mitchell soon began investigating the case, and six years later it is no longer a cold case. For more, we speak with Jerry Mitchell and Mary Rose, Annette Craver Vail’s mother.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to what’s been described as the oldest prosecution of a serial killer suspect in U.S. history. Late last month, 77-year-old Felix Vail was sentenced to life in prison for killing his first wife, Mary Horton Vail, who died on a fishing trip in 1962 with Vail. Eleven years after Mary died, Felix’s new wife, Sharon Hensley, mysteriously disappeared. Then, 11 years later, in 1984, Felix’s new wife, Annette Craver Vail, disappeared. She was just 17 years old. Sharon and Annette were never heard from again. All three women were last seen with Felix Vail, but Felix was never charged in any of the cases. But that changed after the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger ran a multi-part series re-examining the life sentences and disappearances.

AMY GOODMAN: And Democracy Now! plays a small part in this story. The lead reporter on the series was the prize-winning investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, who’s spent decades investigating cold cases, mostly civil rights killings. He’s appeared on Democracy Now! many times in the past, including one appearance in 2010, when he discussed the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County.

JERRY MITCHELL: Every day there seems to be another case that resurfaces around the country—I mean, not just in Mississippi, but around the entire country. And so, that’s why it’s important. There needs to be an accounting. There needs to be, you know, some attempt to come back and document each one of these cases—who was killed and what the circumstances were—even if justice can’t be bought in these cases, because it’s very important.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jerry Mitchell on Democracy Now! six years ago. Shortly after that program, Mitchell got a call from a woman named Mary Rose, who heard the interview. She was in Massachusetts. She wanted his help in investigating the death of her daughter, Annette Craver Vail, the 17-year-old third wife of Felix Vail who—she disappeared in 1984. She asked Mitchell, “Would you be interested in writing about a serial killer living in Mississippi?” Mitchell soon began investigating the case.

Well, six years later, it’s no longer a cold case. Vail was arrested in 2013 based on a tip given by Mitchell. In August, Vail was convicted of murdering his first wife. Authorities also now say they believe Felix also murdered Annette and Sharon, but no charges have been filed. Today we’re again joined by Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson Advocate in Mississippi, as well as Mary Rose, Annette Craver Vail’s mother.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! So, Annette Craver—Mary Rose, can you describe what—when you first got in touch with Jerry Mitchell, what you knew at the time, and what this week means to you with Vail going to jail?

MARY ROSE: What I knew at the time—and, by the way, hello, Amy, and good morning, and thank you so much for all that you do.

When I contacted Jerry Mitchell, after hearing him on your program, I knew that there were two other women who were last seen with Felix Vail, and one of them had supposedly drowned, and the other had also disappeared like my daughter. And so, I told him that, and he asked for more information, which I sent him. And—and what was your other question?

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened this week, the fact that Vail has now gone to jail, though not for the killing of your daughter.

MARY ROSE: Right, right. Well, I feel, even though he was only convicted for the death of Mary Horton Vail, because she’s the—her body was found, and my daughter and Sharon Hensley’s bodies have never been found—I felt that justice has been done for all three women. He only has one life to spend—one lifetime to spend in prison. And I—it’s been a long time coming, but I feel that justice has been done for all three women.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jerry Mitchell, I wanted to ask you: Once you got the tip, did you immediately start investigating this story? Or—and once you did start, what was it that really turned the case for you in terms of a cold case?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, we had continuing conversations. And in May of 2012, Mary Rose came down to Mississippi, and she said she wanted to confront Felix Vail. And I told her, “Well, I want to go with you, you know?” And so, we literally went out to where he lived, in a very remote part of Mississippi. I went out with her. She knocked on the trailer. He didn’t answer. But there was another trailer that was kind of storm-damaged. And she walked over to that trailer, and the back window was missing, so she crawled in and opened the front door—and so I could see in—and started rummaging around. And she threw out a machete, and it like clanked on the floor. And then another machete, and then another machete, and then another machete, and then all these swords.

And that was kind of the beginning of it. It was wild. It was like, “What have I gotten myself into?” And so, that kind of began the journey. And I did the piece that ran, about 9,000 words, in November of 2012, and Felix Vail ended up being arrested seven months later. But Mary had saved all these documents. And really, the case would not have happened if Mary—she really became an investigator herself and collected all these documents on all these women, and that really helped to form the basis of the case. The disappearances were allowed into the evidence in this case, so it really was an important part of the case.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from the USA Today mini-documentary, Gone, which accompanies your newspaper series in The Clarion-Ledger. This is Mary Horton Vail’s brother, Bill Horton, followed by fisherman Hubert Hooper, who knew of the murder. Jerry Mitchell then explains the autopsy results. Our television viewers will see the pictures of Mary Horton Vail after she was pulled from the river.

BILL HORTON: We know they were out in the boat. And she, according to him, had a flashlight and said, “Watch out, there’s a stump.” And he jerked to avoid it, and she fell out. And he implied that she may have hit her head on a stump. I later learned that that area was dredged to 60 feet in 1945, and there were no stumps there.

HUBERT HOOPER: He was—killed that woman before they got to the river. When they done—they found her, she didn’t even have—she didn’t have water in her lungs. She didn’t drown.

JERRY MITCHELL: What the autopsy shows is that Mary had a very large bruise on the back part of her right head, extending all the way down onto her neck. It also shows that she had a scarf stuffed in her mouth, four inches into her mouth. We also see that it appears from the photograph she would have been dragged, and there was no water found in the lungs.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from Gone, the mini-documentary that accompanies Jerry Mitchell’s newspaper series in The Clarion-Ledger. That was Mary Horton Vail’s brother Bill Horton, followed by the fisherman Hubert Hooper, who knew of the murder. I want to go to a second part. This is Billy Vail, who was the only son of Mary Horton Vail and Felix Vail. Felix had taken Billy with him to California, where he lived with Sharon Hensley. This is Billy recalling a conversation he overheard his father having with Sharon.

BILLY VAIL: My father thought I was outside playing, and overheard him just sobbing, which caught my attention. And he told her that he had murdered my mother. And, you know, that just shocked me to no end. And I heard the girlfriend saying, “I know you must just feel responsible for it.” And he confessed to her that he had actually murdered her, that he said, “No, you don’t understand. I really did kill her.” And from that point on, I don’t remember what else they said; I just was in shock. That was too much for an eight-year-old.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Billy Vail, who is the only son of Mary Horton Vail and Felix Vail, and he’s describing this conversation that his father, Felix, had with his second wife, Sharon Hensley, who would disappear, as would Annette, the third wife. Jerry Mitchell, it’s a little hard to follow. You have spent so many thousands of words writing about this. Why wasn’t this investigated before? Did it have to do with the fact that these murder victims were women?

JERRY MITCHELL: That may have definitely played a role. With the first killing, of Mary Horton Vail, one of the issues, the coroner at the time had ruled it an accidental drowning. The district attorney, it turns out, was friends with Felix Vail’s family, the uncle and the aunt. And then, it turned out, too, that the district attorney had dismissed something like 800-and-something criminal cases in a year, so this was a common practice of him dismissing cases, so that those kind of issues were the ones I discovered. And I know that Mary Rose talked to the FBI in the '90s, as well, and it still didn't—it still didn’t go anywhere. So, I don’t know all the answers to that, actually.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jerry Mitchell, this was a quite distinct cold case from the others that you have uncovered throughout your career, that were mostly civil rights cases. But did authorities act soon after your series came out to reopen the cases?

JERRY MITCHELL: Yes, actually, they did. It was—he was arrested—Felix Vail was arrested seven months after “Gone,” the original piece I wrote, ran in the newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your reaction, Mary Rose, to the trial, and how you’re feeling now? Did your daughter know what had happened to his first two wives when she married Felix Vail?

MARY ROSE: No. Annette knew nothing about his history, nor did I. And I don’t—yeah, I don’t even think she knew about—well, she possibly knew about a drowning of his first wife, but it was—we didn’t discuss it. And it seems like maybe she had some inkling that that had happened, but all she felt for him was sympathy about it. But I didn’t suspect anything until much later, when I spoke with one of his sisters. And so, your question about how do I feel now that the trial is over?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

MARY ROSE: I feel like, like I said earlier, justice has been done, and I can rest in peace that there’s no more that I need to do, that he’s—it’s been a long time coming, but he’s finally serving time and being held accountable for his deeds.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Mary Rose, mother of Annette Craver Vail. She was the third wife of Felix Vail, who has just recently been convicted of the 1962 murder of his first wife in the oldest cold case in U.S. history, Vail also implicated in the ’84 disappearance of Annette, as well as another partner, Sharon Hensley. And thanks so much, Jerry Mitchell, for all of your work over these decades with The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi. We will link to your series, “Gone.” And please let us know if you get another call after this interview.

JERRY MITCHELL: I definitely will.

MARY ROSE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much. Both of them joining us from Chicopee, Massachusetts. Massachusetts is where Mary Rose lives.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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