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The Breakthrough: How a Reporter Solved a Decades-Old Murder

Ever wonder what it would be like to actually track down and catch an alleged serial killer?

On this week’s episode of The Breakthrough, Mississippi Clarion Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell tells us how he solved one of the oldest cold cases in U.S. history — the 1962 murder of Mary Horton at the hands of Mississippi drifter Felix Vail.

Louisiana’s Calcasieu River, where Felix Vail drowned his wife, Mary Horton, in 1962 (Steven Turner/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Vail, who had been tied to two other disappearances in the intervening decades, lived free until Mitchell assembled an extraordinary array of evidence against him.

Mitchell takes us through that process. He tells us how he got a renowned pathologist to unearth pivotal details overlooked in Horton’s original autopsy, how he used property deeds and financial records to find where Vail was living, and how he got his hands on Vail’s diaries.

In 2016, prosecutors brought a murder case against Vail, drawing on many of the discoveries in Mitchell’s nine-part series “Gone.” The jury returned a guilty verdict in less than an hour. Vail is currently serving a life sentence at Angola State Penitentiary.

At his sentencing, Vail stood up and blamed Mitchell for his fate, accusing him of being a “professional spin master” and plagiarizing acclaimed crime novelist James Patterson.

“I thought that was a pretty good compliment,” Mitchell said.

Listen to Mitchell tell the tale on iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher.

Have an idea for The Breakthrough? Send us your suggestions — including which reporters we should talk to — at [email protected].

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