EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – John Feit, the 85-year-old former Catholic priest convicted Thursday night in the Easter weekend 1960 murder of beauty queen and schoolteacher Irene Garza, was sentenced Friday afternoon to life in prison.
“Instead of praying for her soul, he preyed for a victim,” Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza said during the sentencing phase Friday, before adding that Feit married, had a family and continued “mocking the system because he got away.”
A jury on Thursday found Feit guilty of suffocating the 25-year-old McAllen schoolteacher to death after she was last seen on her way to confession at Sacred Heart Church nearly six decades ago. He stood emotionless as he was sentenced, just as he had when he heard his conviction the day before.
The six-day trial in Edinburg, Texas, featured allegations of a Catholic Church cover-up, a claim bolstered by an internal church letter dated Oct. 1, 1960 that showed a collusive relationship between the church and local authorities to avoid the potential scandal to the institution.
Prosecutors painted a sinister portrait of Feit as a “depraved” priest with a “mischievous heart,” whom the Catholic Church protected to avoid institutional scandal. The state presented a pattern of “creepy” behavior, including Feit’s penchant for attacking young women wearing high-heeled shoes from behind.
It was Holy Saturday 1960 when Feit pulled Irene by the arm out of a church confessional. He took her to its rectory next door, where he assaulted, bound and gagged her with a cellophane bag in a bathtub.
Feit, then a 27-year-old visiting priest, fondled her breasts before she spoke her last words: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” a former monk, Dale Tacheny, testified this week. Tacheny said Feit confessed to the murder to him three years after he did it.
Feit spoke briefly in court Friday to say he will “follow the advice of counsel” and would not be testifying in his defense during the sentencing phase. He declined to speak in front of jurors on Wednesday, saying the decision “was a wrestling match between my vanity and my common sense.”
Irene’s nephew, Nick Cavazos, pointed at Feit and said he “destroyed so much of what could’ve been.”
“I heard so many stories of her angelic ways and how she reached out to poor children,” he said of his aunt during victim impact statements. He said his mother, Josie, Irene’s only sister, had been suppressing “her feelings for my aunt in all these years.”
“On behalf of my mom, this man has destroyed her final years of peace,” Cavazos said.
Arturo “Tito” Torres, a childhood friend of Irene’s since age 5, called Feit “a murderous animal” and “sorry excuse for a human being.”
“I’m really happy that the jury sentenced you to life. You not only deprived her of her life, but you deprived everybody in this room and everybody in this town, everybody who knew Irene,” he said.
Prosecutor Garza ending his closing argument Thursday by asking jurors to send a message to the community.
“It’s time to heal. We won’t tolerate a cover-up,” he said.
He also invoked memories of Irene’s father, Nicolas Garza, who he said was unable to protect his daughter.
“The system of justice that he believed in sold her out, sold him out. The church that he believed in, that he sought to save his soul, betrayed him,” Garza said.