EDINBURG, Texas (CN) — Unable to shake decades of suspicion for the 1960 murder of a 25-year-old beauty queen from South Texas, former Catholic priest John Feit will finally face a jury next week, more than 57 years after the crime left a community looking for answers.
Opening arguments will come immediately after jury selection begins on Sept. 13, nearly a lifetime after the partially decomposed body of Irene Garza was found in an irrigation canal days after she was last seen receiving confession from the now 84-year-old ex-priest.
As years bled into decades, the mystery surrounding the Easter weekend rape and murder of the devoutly religious schoolteacher from McAllen lingered in silence until the turn of the century brought with it renewed interest, fresh eyes and undying suspicion.
The Early Investigation
Sunset had just fallen in McAllen on April 16, 1960 when Garza drove her father’s car a few dozen blocks from the home she shared with her parents to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, for confession on Holy Saturday, according to a 9-page police offense report that details the early days of the investigation.
The Garza home, no longer standing today, used to be a straight shot to the historical church, built as a wood-framed chapel in 1911, and at one time visible from the Garzas’ property.
Feit, then a 27-year-old visiting priest, is said to have heard Garza’s confession that evening, but not in the church. Witnesses through the decades have placed Garza next door at the church’s rectory, and Feit eventually told authorities that he heard her confession there.
In July 2016, Judge Luis Singleterry, of the 92nd District Court in Hidalgo County, allowed Feit and defense attorneys O. Rene Flores and Ricardo Flores to view the alleged crime scene, which included the McAllen church and rectory. They also viewed the pastoral house at the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, about 10 miles east in San Juan, where prosecutors say Feit hid Garza’s body before dumping it in a canal.
As midnight approached, Garza’s parents, Nicolas and Josephina Garza, who ran a dry cleaning business, grew worried that their daughter had not returned home. She would call home when she expected to be late, her father told McAllen police at 3:10 a.m. on Easter.
Nicolas Garza said family members found his daughter’s car two blocks from the church and drove it home, in hopes of identifying whoever it was that would eventually drop her off. Irene’s brother-in-law parked close to where the car was found until 6 a.m. to keep an eye out for Garza and who she was with, according to the offense report.
At 3:50 p.m. on Easter, Nicolas Garza told police that his daughter still had not been found. Suspecting foul play, authorities issued a radio broadcast for the 5-foot 4-inch, 118-pound, brown-haired woman last seen around 9 p.m. in the vicinity of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. She was wearing a lavender blouse with a flowered skirt and high heels.
“His daughter took car and went to Sacred Heart Catholic Church about 6:30 last night – hasn’t returned home – found car at 3 a.m. near church – keys not in car – cannot find girl,” police wrote in the April 17, 1960 report.
The next day, Monday, a woman’s beige shoe was found in a field and identified as Irene’s. Volunteer searchers and police combed the area and on Tuesday morning a teacher found Garza’s purse in a field. Investigators determined it had been tossed there after rainfall hit the area Easter evening.
No fingerprints were found and a crime lab analysis in Austin did not produce any clues. A lace veil was recovered but did not bring investigators any closer to finding Irene, or whoever took her.
The search intensified, with about 70 officers with the Hidalgo County Sheriff, the National Guard, Border Patrol agents, police and dozens of volunteers looking for the McAllen schoolteacher. Friends and acquaintances were contacted and a former boyfriend of Garza’s was questioned but cleared.
A Gruesome Discovery
On Thursday, five days after Irene was last seen alive, a passerby found her body floating face-down in the now-covered Second Street canal across the street from where a Sears department store once stood. She was fully clothed except for underwear and shoes. Her blouse was unbuttoned.
An autopsy determined she had suffered a blow to the head and was raped while unconscious. The medical examiner found no evidence of strangulation, but concluded that suffocation could have been carried out “by placing a cloth over the mouth and nose, especially if the subject was unconscious.”
Upon hearing the news from police, Irene’s mother collapsed to her knees. She let out a cry that her niece described as a “long awful moan from deep inside her body – almost like the howl of a wolf.”
Irene’s body was identified at the local morgue by her brother-in-law and by Sacred Heart’s priest Joseph O’Brien, the police report states. Decades later, O’Brien would become a central figure in the new investigation, after revealing to Texas Rangers, Garza’s family and reporters in 2002 that he had been hiding a secret since 1960: that he heard Feit admit to the killing.
O’Brien was not called to testify during the 2004 grand jury probe, to the dismay of Garza’s family. They stepped up efforts to publicly blast then-District Attorney Rene Guerra for mishandling the investigation, and did not stop until he was voted out of office 10 years later.
Guerra claimed that the testimony from O’Brien and another former clergyman was too weak to have any impact in a case against Feit. O’Brien died in September 2005 at 77.
Guerra also came under fire in the early 2000s when he told a newspaper that the murder would be solved “if you believe that pigs can fly.”
He told CNN in 2013 that his statement was unfortunate, because it came across as “insensitive and callous, which is not true.”
A year after the CNN interview, Guerra, Texas’ second-longest serving district attorney, lost his bid for re-election after 32 years in office, when the cold case and his handling of the grand jury investigation took center stage in a contentious election.
In May this year, Guerra announced that he would challenge District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez in the 2018 Democratic primary, and seek his old job back.
In the grim days after Irene’s body was found, police interviewed more than 500 people across Texas, and continued to look for missing pieces of Garza’s clothing. They canvassed 32 blocks surrounding the church, house-to-house, followed up on tips and administered polygraph exams to 61 people.
The manhunt for Irene’s killer grew into one of the largest searches in the history of the Rio Grande Valley. Business owners, community leaders and organizations offered thousands of dollars in rewards, and McAllen city commissioners gave the police chief unlimited resources to spend on the investigation.
Local news reports in print, on radio and television pleaded for help in tracking down Irene’s killer. An April 29 report in the McAllen Monitor described a “state of near hysteria” in the city, “as rumors flew thick and fast — rumors of other attacks on girls and vile rumors affecting innocent persons.”
Nearly 1,000 mourners attended Irene’s funeral Mass at the church where she had last been seen alive.
In a letter to a friend shortly before her death, and read at her funeral service, Irene wrote that she was not afraid of dying because of her religious devotion.
“Remember the last time we talked I told you I was afraid of death. Well, I am cured. I no longer fear death. I have been going to Mass and communion every day and you can’t imagine the courage, the faith and happiness it has given me,” she wrote.
Fifty-six years later, on Feb. 10, 2016, a state grand jury returned a first-degree murder indictment against Feit. He pleaded not guilty and has publicly denied involvement in the crime.
But Feit’s arrest by Texas Rangers as he quietly enjoyed retirement in Scottsdale, Arizona was not the first time the Chicago-born former priest was accused of foul play against a young, Hispanic woman within the confines of a church.
Twenty-four days before Garza was last seen alive, 20-year-old college student Maria America Guerra accused Feit of attacking her in the sanctuary of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the next door town of Edinburg, Texas. He faced trial in September 1961 after a venue change to Austin, for assault with intent to rape, but it hung a jury.
Maria America Guerra and a witness both identified Feit at trial. Maria said she escaped the assault by biting her attacker’s finger when he tried to cover her face with a rag.
That case ended in 1962 before a second trial could begin in Hidalgo County, when Feit pleaded no-contest to a reduced charge of aggravated assault. He was fined $500 and given no jail time.
His attorney told reporters that Feit did not admit to anything, but simply chose not to defend himself. Feit said in a 2002 newspaper interview that he was “out of the loop” and did not understand what his plea meant.
Pieces of evidence tying Feit to Garza’s rape and murder began stacking up almost immediately. Days after Garza’s body was found, authorities drained the canal and recovered a faded green Eastman Kodak slide viewer with a black cord, which Feit later admitted belonged to him.
Police found candlesticks in the canal that reportedly came from Sacred Heart Church.
More evidence came to light in 2002 when O’Brien and a former monk, Dale Tacheny, testified in a Texas Rangers examination that Feit had confessed to the killing.
Tacheny, 87, testified against Feit for the first time in March this year at a closed deposition in Hidalgo County. He drove nearly 1,400 miles from his home in Oklahoma City with his son-in-law and was under oath for three days as a state prosecution witness.
Tacheny has said in media interviews over the last 15 years that Feit confessed to the killing while the two were at a Trappist monastery in Ava, Missouri in 1963.
Krystine Ramon, one of two assistant district attorneys prosecuting the case, wrote in a request to take Tacheny’s deposition that his testimony was “critical to the outcome of the trial.”
“Dale Tacheny possess information critical to significant factors at trial, and has information relevant to the charges in this case that are exclusively within his knowledge,” she said in the court document.
Texas law allows state prosecutors to take a witness deposition if their age and exclusive knowledge constitutes good reason for it.
Feit is said to have changed his statements to authorities in the early days of the investigation, and failed a polygraph test administered months after Garza’s death by George W. Lindberg, now a senior U.S. district judge in the Northern District of Illinois.
In April 2016, Hidalgo County prosecutors issued a subpoena seeking testimony from the Chicago-based firm Lindberg worked for, John E. Reid and Associates.
In Feit’s failed motion to change venue filed this April, his attorneys argued unsuccessfully that an impartial jury in a county of more than 800,000 residents would be impossible to find because the media has already condemned Feit, and pushed a theory that a cover-up orchestrated by the Catholic Church protected him from prosecution.
Whispers of the church’s possible role in helping to shield Feit from the eyes of the law are nothing new around McAllen, or the border towns that dot the four-county region known as the Rio Grande Valley.
“I was very young at the time but everybody was shocked,” said longtime McAllen resident Myrna Perez, 70. “I myself told my mom, ‘Mom, it can’t be a priest, Mom, it can’t be.’ And she would say, ‘It could be. You never know. It’s possible.’”
Perez, the oldest of six siblings, said her family has worshiped at Sacred Heart Church for four generations, minus the dozen years they spent in Houston before moving back to McAllen and rejoining the congregation.
“We’ve always had good priests,” Perez said, sitting in her dining room one hot summer afternoon in July with newspaper articles of the case strewn over a wooden table.
Perez, who does not remember Feit and did not know Garza, was a 13-year-old schoolgirl when Irene’s murder became front-page news for the first time. Perez and her siblings grew up in the Catholic Church, like an overwhelming majority of residents in 1960 McAllen, just miles from the Texas/Mexico border.
While talk of the priest’s possible role in the crime frightened her as a child, and still stirs up strong feelings as an adult, Perez said she never let it shake her religion.
“For the longest time it was hushed,” she said. “But this really needs to be put to rest in a way. He went to different places, monasteries and what have you, and ended up married and everything, but what about her?”
Irene Garza, born in 1934, was one of two daughters and a trailblazer for her time. The first female Hispanic drum majorette and twirler at McAllen High School, she was also the first member of her family to earn a college degree. She was crowned homecoming queen at Pan American College and Miss All South Texas Sweetheart in 1958 before becoming a second-grade teacher at an underprivileged elementary school. She was devoutly religious and became active in the Legion of Mary, a Catholic volunteer group whose emblem is emblazed on her gravestone.
Feit, ordained in 1958, left the priesthood under a cloud in 1971 after spending time in Trappist monasteries in Iowa and Missouri, and as a superior at the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. His duties there included making decisions on when troubled and sexually abusive priests would be returned to duty.
Feit married and moved to the Phoenix area, where he had three children and eventually grandchildren. He was active in his local Catholic Church, and from the late 1980s until 2004 volunteered for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix, where he helped recruit and train food pantry volunteers.
But suspicion continued to hound him, especially in the early 2000s, when nationwide revelations about priestly abuse sparked renewed attention to Irene Garza’s unsolved murder.
McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said at a news conference just after Feit’s extradition to Texas that the aging ex-priest had remained the clear suspect throughout the latest review, which began in 2002. Rodriguez has led the McAllen Police Department since 2001, the year a municipal cable TV show on unsolved crimes called “Open Files” profiled the cold case.
“We’ve always believed that there was probable cause there for John Feit to face charges in the death of Irene Garza. In our latest review, we believe that still to be the case,” Rodriguez told reporters in March 2016.
At that news conference, district attorney Rodriguez — no relation to the police chief — said that “new facts and evidence” were uncovered during his 14-month investigation, which began the month he took office.
“We are confident that after a jury hears all of the facts and the evidence, we will get past the threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt,” the district attorney said. “During the course of reviewing and investigating this cold case, and up until today, we do have new facts and evidence.”
Prosecutors alluded to that new evidence at a hearing in February. They told Judge Singleterry that the state was waiting on DNA results from evidence found inside the vehicle they believe was used to take Garza’s body to the canal where she was found.
But in legal circles around South Texas, attorneys and trial watchers say a case against Feit is likely to be an uphill battle in front of a jury. It has been described by some as circumstantial and weak on hard evidence.
‘This Whole Thing Makes No Sense’
Feit spent the first night of his arrest for murder in Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail, where then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio held watch.
“This whole thing makes no sense to me, because the crime in question took place in 1960,” Feit told a judge at his arraignment in Arizona the day after his arrest.
“In 2003 the same gentleman were here and questioned me extensively and took DNA samples. That was 13 years ago. I’m totally puzzled by something coming up now after the fact,” Feit said at the hearing, which was recorded on video.
The judge told Feit there is no statute of limitations on murder, and set a $750,000 cash bond.
“I understand that,” Feit said.
He dropped his extradition battle after a month and District Attorney Rodriguez declared Feit’s March 2016 arrival in Hidalgo County as the beginning of “bringing justice to the accused, the victim and the community.”
“We could not walk away from this case, the murder of Irene Garza, with clean hands,” Rodriguez said of his office, McAllen police and Texas Rangers.
Days after Feit arrived in Edinburg, he applied for a court-appointed attorney, saying his only source of income was the $1,551 he received each month in Supplemental Security Income.
At his crowded arraignment at the Hidalgo County Courthouse on March 14, 2016 Feit, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and using a walker, appeared frail as he stood before Judge Singleterry for the first time.
“Not guilty, your honor,” Feit said in a firm voice after the indictment charging him with murder by asphyxiation was read in open court.
Singleterry denied a request by Feit’s attorney for a reduced bond of $100,000, and raised the bond to $1 million, with the added restrictions that Feit must stay in Hidalgo County, and wear a GPS monitoring device.
Since then, Feit has remained in the Hidalgo County Jail infirmary receiving round-the-clock medical attention. He has stage 3 kidney disease, bladder cancer, spinal stenosis and diabetes, according to his attorneys.
Prosecutors issued subpoenas to some half a dozen churches across the nation seeking records on Feit. The 17 months of status hearings during which Feit has remained in custody included a rejected defense motion to move the trial out of the Valley.
Feit has spent more than 530 days in the county jail, at a total cost of $28,200, including medical expenses. The cost of housing an inmate in Hidalgo County is $52 per day, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said.
Juror notices have been mailed to 3,600 county residents for jury selection, set for two days beginning Sept. 13. National and international media are expected to descend on the city of 87,650.
The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, which did not exist until 1965, said in a statement after Feit’s indictment that it hopes and prays “for healing for the family and everyone involved.”
“It is our hope that justice is served in this case that dates back to 1960,” the diocese said.
The Catholic Diocese of Phoenix issued a statement distancing itself from Feit, saying he was “not a priest of the Diocese of Phoenix and did not have faculties to celebrate the Mass or sacraments of the Catholic Church.”
“Great efforts have been made to put systems into place to keep our people safe. Anyone who may have information concerning this investigation or any illegal activities is encouraged to call a local law enforcement agency,” the Phoenix diocese said.
Feit faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted of murder. A final pretrial hearing is set for Sept. 11.