Preview the USA TODAY special video series on a Mississippi man, Felix Vail, and the 54-year quest for justice that three of his wives’ families have sought after one died and two others went missing. Steve Elfers, USA TODAY
LAKE CHARLES, La. — The prosecution of suspected serial killer Felix Vail, a native of Montpelier, Mississippi, has been made possible in part by a serial killer a century ago.
British authorities executed George Joseph Smith 101 years ago this month for murdering his wife, Bessie Mundy — a death originally ruled an accident.
At trial, prosecutors presented evidence that the deaths of Smith’s two other wives, originally ruled accidental, were homicides. The case became known as the “Brides in the Bath Murders.”
Courts upheld the admission of the evidence under the “doctrine of chances.”
This doctrine will play a role in Monday’s murder trial of 76-year-old Felix Vail, the oldest prosecution of a suspected serial killer in U.S. history.
He is the last known person with three women: his wife, Mary Horton Vail, whose 1962 death was declared an accidental drowning and has now been ruled a homicide; the woman he called his wife, Sharon Hensley, who disappeared in 1973; and his wife, Annette Craver Vail, who disappeared in 1984.
All three families are expected to testify at trial — one of the rare cases where this has taken place.
Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland convinced the Louisiana Supreme Court to allow evidence of the two other women’s disappearances under this doctrine.
Defense lawyers argued these “bad acts” were too distant in time, but Judge Robert L. Wyatt of Lake Charles concluded, “These acts are not shoplifting or even burglaries. The enormity of their consequences are time-consuming events.”
While courts generally bar evidence of a defendant’s other “bad acts,” the doctrine of chances is one of the exceptions.
The doctrine dates to Smith, who married seven women under aliases.
In his book, “The Serial Killer Files,” Harold Schechter wrote, “The moment Smith had his hands on his new bride’s money, he would disappear. Usually telling her he was going out on an errand — to pick up a newspaper or buy a pack of cigarettes — he would never return. On one occasion, he brought his newlywed wife to the National Gallery of Art and, after viewing some paintings, excused himself to go to the bathroom. She never saw him — or her life savings — again.”
In January 1915, a detective from Scotland Yard, Arthur Neil, received a letter that contained two newspaper clippings, one that detailed the 1913 death of Alice Burnham, who drowned in a tub after being married. A 1914 clipping gave the details about Margaret Lloyd, another bride who drowned in a tub.
Their deaths had been blamed on fainting or suffering an epileptic fit while taking a bath.
Examining the bathroom where Lloyd had been found dead, Neil found it difficult to believe someone could have drowned in such a small tub. He also found it odd the husband had reportedly shown no grief at his bride’s death and had purchased the cheapest coffin possible.
After receiving physical descriptions of the husbands of the two brides, John Lloyd and George Smith, Neil began to believe they were the same man.
He told the coroner to rule that Margaret Lloyd’s death was an accident so that her husband would come to collect on the life insurance.
When he did, Neil was waiting. The man confirmed he was John Lloyd and later acknowledged he was George Smith as well.
Neil arrested him, and detectives continued their investigation. They learned that a third bride, Bessie Mundy, had drowned in a bathtub in 1912.
The thing all three brides had in common? Each had been married to Smith. Each had signed wills and-or taken out life insurance policies. All the policies had named him the sole beneficiary.
The three women signed these documents just days — and sometimes hours — before their deaths.
In Vail’s case, he took out two separate life insurance policies on his wife, Mary, months before she died. One promised to double the payout in case her death was accidental. Mary Vail signed only one of those policies.
Insurance companies paid $10,000 in a settlement, but documents show Felix Vail paid nothing toward Mary’s funeral, headstone and burial.
Months after Vail married Annette in 1983, she inherited $98,000 from her father’s death. After she disappeared in 1984, he told police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that she took half of that with her to Mexico. She had also deeded him the two homes she owned.
In Smith’s case, coroners examining the three women’s bodies found no signs of foul play.
Scotland Yard called in pioneering pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. He studied each report, discovering Mundy was still clutching a bar of soap when she died. He concluded that if she had really fainted, her hand would have relaxed.
Studying how the bodies were found, Spilsbury theorized Smith, perhaps pretending to tease his bride, had instead jerked her up by her feet, the water rushing into her nose and causing unconsciousness.
Neil hired female divers to test the theory. Attempts to push them underwater resulted in a struggle.
But when he yanked the feet of one diver, she went underwater and stopped moving.
After she was revived, she told Neil she lost consciousness almost instantly.
At Smith’s trial, the defense argued Mundy’s death was an accident.
At Vail’s trial, a similar defense argument is expected. In 1962, the local coroner ruled Mary Vail drowned accidentally in the Calcasieu River.
When deputies recovered the body from the river on Oct. 30, 1962, they found crabs that had gotten into her scalp and a scarf 4 inches into her mouth.
The pathologist examining her body found a 4-inch bruise to the back of her head. The pathologist also found two bruises on her legs.
Pathologists say bruises must take place while a person is still alive.
In his 2013 recorded conversation with private investigator Gina Frenzel, Felix Vail blamed these injuries on “crawfish and crabs and the debris on the bottom.”
He said the coroner then was familiar with what kind of damage a river could do to a body.
Current coroner Dr. Terry Welke, a forensic pathologist, has since ruled Mary Horton Vail’s death a homicide, concluding she was dead before she went into the river.
The defense expects to call an expert pathologist who will say the death is an accident.
In 1962, Vail told deputies his wife was sitting on top of the backrest of a boat seat.
But when he spoke to Frenzel in 2013, he put his wife in a different place — “half kneeling on my feet.”
Newspaper accounts from the time said Vail told deputies his wife was shining a flashlight to search for stumps.
In his conversation with Frenzel, Vail mentioned no flashlight, saying instead his wife told him “when she saw one of the float buckets that were on the line.”
Vail was quoted in 1962 as saying his wife yelled for him to watch out for a stump, that he turned the boat sharply to the right and that she went in the water.
But he said in 2013 the boat was running slow along the riverbank when it hit a stump: “I shut the motor off and jumped in where she had plopped in the water. I mean, nothing. The river had sucked her right in.”
Vail insisted he “dove around until I was exhausted” and “came in immediately to the police station in town and reported the accident.”
In 1962, sheriff’s deputies weren’t so convinced about him seeking help, noting in their report that Vail “passed up a lighted tugboat in the vicinity of the drowning” and other lighted places “without requesting assistance,” driving more than 5 miles to Lake Charles.
Jurors are also expected to hear testimony about the two other women who disappeared and are presumed dead — Sharon Hensley and Annette Craver Vail.
In each disappearance, Felix Vail told families their daughters wanted to leave their pasts behind.
In his 1974 letter to the Hensley family, he wrote that Sharon “was going to try to forget me, her family and everybody else that she knew so she could become a new person, clean and free from memory associations.”
In his 1985 letter to Annette’s mother, Mary Rose, Vail wrote that after they returned from Costa Rica, Annette had begun “completing her relationships” with family and friends “for the purpose of getting ready to drop everybody and start over.”
Vail has insisted on his innocence, saying “all the charges are fabricated” and that “a large amount of money, hate and political ambitions are behind them.”
If jurors believe Vail, they would set him free.
If they believe he is guilty of murder in Mary Horton Vail’s death, he would automatically be sentenced to life without parole.
In Smith’s case, the jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to death. On Aug. 13, 1915, he walked to the gallows.
His last words? “I am innocent.”