Missing North Dakota woman may be victim of nation’s oldest serial killer
Sharon Hensley was last seen in the early 1970s with Felix Vail, who is now serving a life sentence for the murder of his first wife.
Editor's note: This article is No. 1 in a series as The Vault reports on missing persons in North Dakota, whose cases are logged in a new database from the North Dakota Office of the Attorney General.
Sharon Hensley left her home in Bismarck, North Dakota, in the summer of 1970 with peace and love on her mind.
She wanted to experience life in a way that she hadn’t before, alongside fellow free spirits etching their existence into the aftermath of the now famous “Summer of Love.”
San Francisco was Hensley’s ultimate destination. She succeeded in her journey, yet the life that unfolded looked nothing like the idyllic lifestyle Hensley dreamt up in her North Dakota bedroom.
Instead, that life intersected with Felix Vail, her one-time boyfriend who is now known as the nation’s oldest serial killer.
Hensley’s body has never been discovered. Vail told her family in a letter that she ran off with an Australian couple to sail around the world — a claim that’s been called into question following the verdict that landed him life in prison for the murder of his first wife.
Missing or lost?
Hensley showed up at her parents' Bismarck home a few years after leaving, along with her boyfriend, Vail.
Their daughter seemed distant — a far cry from the North Dakota girl that once loved dancing and socializing with friends. Once an independent young woman, her parents observed their daughter under the thumb of her new boyfriend.
The meeting didn't sit well with them, yet Hensley made the decision to leave with Vail. She was, after all, an adult. She had freewill to do as she wished.
Her parents' concerns, however, began to grow. They believed Vail was taking their daughter down a dark path, fueled by drugs and debauchery.
Yet even they couldn't have predicted what the future held.
In 1973, one year before she went missing, Hensley called her parents and told them she and Vail would be traveling down south, possibly to South America. That’s according to an ABC interview with Brian Hensley, Hensley’s late brother.
Brian Hensley said his parents saw that phone call as a cry for help.
That was the last time anyone in Hensley’s family heard from her.
In 1974, Vail wrote her parents a letter, claiming she had run off with an Australian couple to sail around the world.
That explanation never sat well with Hensley’s family members. Yet, it wasn’t until 2013 that a missing persons report was filed with Burleigh County Sheriff’s Office, the county in which Bismarck is situated.
“A brother of hers basically had some concerns and she was associated with a guy out of Louisiana,” Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben told Forum News Service in a recent interview. “There were concerns with him and his first wife, and ultimately he was convicted of that murder.”
The Burleigh County Sheriff's Office connected with the investigators in Louisiana, but Leben said there wasn’t much information to go on.
“This is one of these cases where, it’s an interesting one in the aspect of some of the circumstances, but at the same time, a very limited case because to come into the case 40 years after the fact, it’s very hard to work with,” Leben said.
Felix Vail, the murderer
Sharon Hensley followed in the unfortunate footsteps of Mary Vail and Annette Craver. All three women fell in love with one man before either dying or vanishing without a trace.
Mary Vail was 22 years old when she died during a boating accident on Oct. 28, 1962 while out for a ride on Louisiana’s Calcasieu River with Vail and her infant son, Bill. Despite an autopsy report showing bumps and bruises on Mary Vail’s head and a scarf in her mouth, the death was deemed an accidental drowning.
Until more than 50 years later when the case was reopened.
The key to unlocking the case came from a civilian who came forward with photos taken of Mary that evening on the boat. By 2016, Vail was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Throughout that trial, Hensley and Craver were also highlighted. Vail was, after all, the last person to see them both.
Craver was only 15 years old in 1982 when she met Vail. By 17, she had moved away with the man, then in his forties. Eventually, the two were married.
Craver’s mother, Mary Rose, was never a fan of Vail. He was much older than her daughter, and she suspected he was taking advantage of her quest for adventure.
Her fears came true when the two set out to St. Louis for a camping trip. Vail penned her a letter shortly thereafter saying her daughter left without him for Mexico.
Mary Rose didn’t buy it. As she dug into Vail’s history, she came across the names of Hensley and Mary Vail — and her wheels started turning.
She eventually connected with Hensley’s family, and a bond — based on a common enemy — was formed.
Mary Rose was present for Hensley’s funeral, which took place in August of 2016.
Finally, her family and friends were able to pay tribute to her life. It was, in a sense, closure.
"Sharon was a wonderful sister and friend," Brian Hensley said in a 2016 Bismarck Tribune obituary. "I am so grateful her voice was finally heard."
Vail was never formally charged in relation to Hensley or Craver. Yet those who are involved and invested in this case aren’t ready to accept that. Vail is still alive, and they believe he’s yet to reveal the truth regarding the women in his life.
“Even though he will be in prison for the rest of his life, this does not mean we are finished with this case,” the “Do You Know Felix Vail” Facebook page states. “There are still women out there that are missing. Both Sharon and Annette have disappeared and we feel it necessary to find out as much information as possible about their disappearance in order for the families to have closure.
If you have any information regarding the missing persons case of Sharon Hensley, please contact the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department by calling 701-222-6651.