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.
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