Pulling Back the Veil of a Serial Killer Suspect:
An Analysis of the Investigation, Arrest and Statements of Felix Vail
(An edited version of this post appears on Michelle McNamara's blog True Crime Diary.
Five decades before Louisiana became the setting for Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, the bayou served as a backdrop to serial killer suspect Felix Vail’s continual narrative of domination, degradation and control. Much the same as Pizzolatto’s killer, Vail operated in plain sight and was unknowingly aided by a peripheral political connection; the late District Attorney Frank Salter Jr declined to prosecute family friend Vail for the death of Mrs. Mary Horton Vail in 1962. Vail strove to maintain his accustomed standard of living, one untethered to obligations. His veiled dangerousness arose from the unabashed and ruthlessly-pursued philosophy that life should be unaffected by the turmoil caused by lesser people. This viewpoint contributed to Vail’s aspiration to escape the commitment of becoming a second-time father, allegedly resulting in the murder of his wife, Mary Horton Vail.
While Pizzolatto’s killer purposefully baited authorities to flaunt his self-assumed superiority, Vail, consummately self-aware, understood that unveiling one’s innate supremacy requires a measure of practiced latency. Vail’s adoption of a well-crafted, honed veneer assisted him in exploiting the unassuming qualities of his counterparts in a mostly furtive and non-violent style. These parasitic behavioral traits ensured that not all those that stood as obstacles met an untimely demise. On his quest to master and command all things, Vail did encounter resistance once his partner’s monetary resources were totally consumed. His allegedly murderous response dictated that Vail’s nomadic lifestyle, originally a byproduct of his evident shortcomings, would repeatedly be a mixture of cowardice and calculated deceit.
My exposure to Vail began innocuously in October 2012 when Northeastern University’s Jack Levin connected me with investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell in an effort to locate Jim Bell, a former Major Case Specialist (MCS) with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Bell investigated Vail as a serial killer suspect briefly in 1993 before retiring from the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP). Gregory M. Cooper, a member of the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative, supervised Bell and suggested contacting the FBI.
FBI MCS Wayne Koka liaised between Acting FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit-4 Unit Chief Armin Showalter, Jerry and myself. Coupling Jerry’s extensive Gone exposé with my knowledge of serial killers, they were convinced of Vail’s potential. By January, Showalter had spoken with Detective Randy Curtis of Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office who summarily reopened the Mary Horton Vail cold case. Koka later modestly labeled their assistance as “routine”, but we understood it to be a vital intervention. After Vail’s arrest that May, I dubbed it the ‘oldest of a serial killer suspect in the nation's history’.
Since Jerry suspected Vail of the 1973 and 1984 disappearances of his longtime girlfriend Sharon Hensley and another wife, Annette Craver Vail, we continued to delve into his past. We consulted with Dr. Henry Lee about DNA evidence, contacted Thomas A. DiBiase and the folks at NamUs about other no-body murder prosecutions, reached out to a jewelry expert to identify earrings that Vail retained, and emailed the Internet Adult Film Database to inquire about a triple X film in which Vail may have participated.
During several visits to his residence, private investigator Gina Frenzel surreptitiously audio recorded Vail and photographed thousands of pages from his journals. It is from the analysis of Vail’s utterances and the content of his writings that the following vignette is offered. Since we are not psychiatrists, this evaluation is based strictly on how Vail compares to previous offenders in the Radford Serial Killer Database. A trove of this magnitude of a serial killer suspect’s intimate thoughts has never been available for examination. For that reason, it is difficult to approximate exactly how Vail fits into the grander spectrum of serial homicide offenders.
Vail, a detached observer, refers to himself primarily as a scientist studying the anatomy of the ego; an entity whose mission is to overtake our electrical life force, or spirit, which is labeled as the limiting factor of the human species. Intending to triumph over the ego by subverting and then neutralizing it, Vail hopes to reach a state of “free brain awareness” where total autonomy, self-governance and spiritual enlightenment can be attained. Suppression of the ego requires isolation, discipline and focus as one must instruct the mind to overcome bodily functions like breathing and hunger. Through periods of fasting, “elimination”, “simplification” and the “ceasing of verbalization”, all toxins can be purged and unwanted aspects abandoned.
The undercurrent of eccentric flair that Vail exudes is accented by his existential leanings and esoteric beliefs. A cerebral being, Vail is handicapped by a preference for abstract thought, an immensely inflated sense of self-worth and a tendency towards megalomania. Vail boasts a range of abilities that have surpassed those of his peers from an early age, granted by being privy to the brain’s remaining “ninety-percent”. Vail evidently places a high degree of importance on intelligence, considering it a cherished attribute. His desire to tap into the consciousness of strangers to access information within their minds signifies Vail’s lifelong quest for absolute omniscience. To anticipate underlying motives, Vail has conducted body language research and has become a student of psychology; measuring and profiling in an effort to determine when the truth is falsified. To Vail, the most detrimental event is to be undermined.
The strangeness of the adult world, namely the undefined distinction between what is thought and what is spoken, has confused Vail from a young age. This dissonance manifested as a schism between intellect and emotion and an inclination to understand the concept of dualism that has dominated his existence and decisions. To Vail, it is upsetting that we are “in and out of synchronicity” with ourselves. While discussing Waiting for the Galactic Bus and The Little Prince, two works that describe extraterrestrials’ observations of the human condition, Vail highlights his disdain for the mainstream and reflects upon the parallels of his journey with those of the characters in the stories.
Vail takes pride in thinking “outside the social parameters” to which others are programmed. Ignoring “social ethics” and “religious morality” affords Vail the ability to realize his ultimate potential. Fitting into the social order is hampering, according to Vail, and requires putting the mind “in neutral”. He cares not for what is deemed permissible by society and openly disregards the illegality of prior actions. Although Vail relishes his outsider status, he is keenly aware that perception is afforded more attention than actuality. To avoid sending “red flags”, he pretends to be influenced by the disapproval of others, thriving on the cons that he perpetuates.
As humans are amalgams of environmental and situational occurrences, some events have impacted Vail’s capacity to maintain enduring relationships. Growing up on a farm with sharecroppers and orderlies instilled in Vail a penchant for dehumanization and the opinion that some are subhuman. As no woman could equal him emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, they existed merely to be used. The search for a “mother substitute” for his son during their travels was based specifically on what she could provide. Vail admits to a sexual addiction and claims to have slept with “hundreds and hundreds” of women. In reminiscing about trading “electrical energy” with his mother during nursing, Vail demonstrates that his view of normal sexual relations was warped from childhood.
While awaiting his trial, Vail is undoubtedly contemplating the paradoxical nature of recent happenings. The image of a supreme being yearning for complexity has now been forcibly juxtaposed with the fallible man undone by weakness. Frenzel presented Vail with an opportunity for connection using distrust abatement and defense reduction – tactics Vail once employed for similar ends. As a consequence of his presumption that no one else could possess these nefarious capabilities, the all-seeing Vail failed to recognize Frenzel’s ruse. Although this deception seemingly validates Vail’s long-held paranoid thought patterns, being exposed as invariably human is, to Vail, a far more debilitating fate than any achieved at trial.