EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – The Catholic Church was complicit in covering up the 1960 murder of a South Texas beauty queen to protect a priest who attacked her during confession, prosecutors said on the first day of 85-year-old John Feit’s trial.
“This is a case about betrayal, murder and a cover-up,” Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza told jurors in opening statements Thursday.
The Hidalgo County prosecutor painted a portrait of a “depraved” priest who had attacked another woman inside the sanctuary of a nearby church, just weeks before he suffocated Irene Garza to death and dumping her body in a canal “like trash.”
“It became clear and the evidence will show that who did it was a depraved heart bent on mischief,” Garza said.
It was Easter weekend 1960 when, prosecutors say, Feit pulled 25-year-old Irene Garza by the arm out of a confessional at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, attacked her inside the church’s rectory next door, and held her in a basement.
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,” prosecutor Garza (no relation to the victim) said testimony will reveal.
Feit was helped to stand by one of his three court-appointed attorneys as he eyed jurors and pleaded not guilty. He sat at the defense table during about six hours of testimony Thursday, looking up at a flat-screen TV at times as photos of Irene Garza flashed before him. They included a gruesome autopsy photo showing the former Miss All South Texas’ lifeless body on the medical examiner’s table still wearing a floral-colored skirt.
“She was very different, but very obvious it was Irene Garza,” Thomas McGettrick told the jury. He is a retired priest who helped identify her body.
The Irish-born McGettrick, one of six witnesses who testified on the first day of trial, once led the religious organization Legion of Mary, of which Irene was a member. He became emotional as he described his former parishioner as “an extremely good person” who was devoted to her parents and the second-grade children she taught.
Defense attorneys rebutted the state’s case as just “stories,” and dismissed claims that Chicago-born Feit had any link to Irene Garza’s murder. They said there are no eyewitnesses to the crime and that a foot impression found near the place Irene’s body was found did not belong to their client.
“There wasn’t enough evidence,” attorney O. Rene Flores said. “There wasn’t enough evidence then, and there won’t be enough evidence now.”
The cold case resurfaced in the early 2000s when nationwide revelations about priestly abuse sparked renewed attention to Irene Garza’s unsolved murder. Feit was charged with first-degree murder by asphyxiation in February 2016 after the election of a new district attorney, who said “new facts and evidence” had been uncovered.
On Thursday, Darrell Davis, a former news reporter turned attorney, testified that Feit escaped justice because prosecutors cut a deal with the Catholic Church: Feit would not be prosecuted for Irene Garza’s murder if he agreed to plead-no contest in a case involving 20-year-old college student Maria America Guerra.
Guerra, who is slated to testify during trial, was attacked by Feit from behind as she knelt to pray in church, prosecutors said. Feit pleaded no-contest in 1962 to a reduced charge of aggravated assault in that case after a trial ended in a hung jury the year before.
Prosecutors say Guerra escaped Feit’s attack by biting his finger so hard “she tasted blood.”
Davis, who covered the Guerra case as a reporter in 1960, said an off-the-record meeting with then-District Attorney Robert Lattimore revealed that Feit was not going to be tried for Irene’s murder because the Catholic Church agreed to send him away to a monastery for “disturbed priests,” where they said he would be kept for the rest of his life.
“Who did he say killed Irene Garza?” Prosecutor Garza asked the former TV reporter.
“He [Lattimore] knew that John Feit killed Irene Garza and the church knew it and agreed that he did it,” Davis said.
“When you say ‘the Church’ what church are you referring to?” Garza asked.
“The Catholic Church,” Davis replied.
Feit, ordained in San Antonio in 1958, left the priesthood under a cloud of suspicion in 1971 after spending time in Trappist monasteries in Iowa and Missouri, and wound up as a superior at the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. His duties there included deciding 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 grandchildren. None of his family members were in court Thursday.
Members of Irene Garza’s family sat three rows behind Feit, more than half a century after Feit sat in the same courtroom for the attack on Guerra. “In that very seat,” prosecutor Garza said.
He said the Garza family trusted the Catholic Church, and it betrayed them.
“For all the time that they lived, they had a broken heart. Irene Garza went into a church trusting that her soul would be saved, but it was suffocated,” the prosecutor said.
Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry rejected a midday defense request for dismissal in what became a sparring match with prosecutors outside the presence of the seven-woman, five-man jury. Defense attorneys said jurors should not have heard of a plea agreement when no record of one existed.
“I don’t have any reason to believe this is a plea bargain. It seems unreasonable to dismiss a murder charge,” Singleterry said. “If it was behind closed doors, I don’t know. That’s up for the jury to decide.”
Testimony was to continue Friday and is expected to last about two weeks. Feit faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted.