Did Felix Vail kill his first wife? Cold case goes to trial

Published 9:05 pm Wednesday, August 10, 2016

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) — The southwest Louisiana coroner who reopened the investigation of a 1962 death says he’s “100 percent sure” that the 22-year-old woman was killed, rather than the victim of an accidental drowning.

Dr. Terry Welke was the first witness at the trial of 76-year-old Felix Vail, who has pleaded innocent to a charge of murder in the death of first wife, Mary Horton Vail. Defense lawyers say she fell from Vail’s boat and Vail tried unsuccessfully to save her.

Defense attorney Josh Monroe cross-examined Welke on Wednesday, questioning his certainty, KPLC-TV reported via Twitter.

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Welke reopened the case after The Clarion-Ledger published a five-part series in 2012 about Felix Vail, his first wife’s death and the disappearances in 1973 of his girlfriend Sharon Hensley and in 1984 of his second wife, Annette Craver Vail.

Welke testified that drowning victims normally are found face-down, arms down. But he said,Mary Vail’s body was stiff, arms crossed, and found face-up in the Calcasieu (KAL’-kuh-shoo) River.

Dr. Avery Cook, the coroner in 1962, noted that 4 inches of Mary Vail’s scarf were stuffed into her mouth, according to Welke. He had reviewed Cook’s report, along with witness statements and photographs of the body’s recovery.

Unlike Cook, Welke is a forensic pathologist.

On Tuesday, Welke testified that he examines about 10 drowning victims a year, the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, reported (http://on.thec-l.com/2aLylQ6 ). “I’m familiar with what happens when people drown, and I’m familiar with what happens when people die,” he said.

Other witnesses Wednesday included Mary Vail’s younger brother, Will Horton, and Thomas Wesley Turnage, a Mississippi man who said he grew up with Vail, KPLC reporter Theresa Schmidt tweeted.

Horton testified that he would go water-skiing with the Vails, but Mary would never ride in Vail’s fast wooden boat.

Turnage said he and Vail were co-workers and, though not friends, would occasionally ride to work together. During one of those rides, he testified Wednesday that Vail told him, “My wife wanted another son, thought it would fix our marriage,” according to KPLC.

He also testified that Vail continued by saying he didn’t want the son he had, and he “fixed that … so she’d never have another one.”

Turnage said his mother was frightened when he relayed those comments to her and that he promised her he wouldn’t talk about Vail’s comments. However, he eventually told the Clarion-Ledger reporter who wrote the series.

Defense attorney Andrew Casanave asked why Turnage never told law officers, suggesting that he talked to a reporter only to “become famous,” according to KPLC.

Turnage said he didn’t talk to the reporter for fame, adding he wouldn’t accept money and was testifying because it was the right thing to do.

In his opening statement, District Attorney John DeRosier had told jurors he would tell them a three-part story about a killer, The American Press (http://bit.ly/2b3yLzt ) reported. The first part is about Mary Vail, Hensley’s story is the second chapter and Annette Vail the third, he said.

Vail’s lawyers described the death as a tragic accident.

Casanave said Vail tried unsuccessfully to save Mary Vail after she fell out of a boat, and then went to the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office to report what had happened.

“We don’t have that statement because it is gone,” he said. “Everything is gone.”

With every investigator dead and their work missing, the prosecution’s case is based on “supposition, innuendo, rumor and sympathy,” he said.