EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – Accused murderer John Feit will not testify in his own defense, so after closing arguments Thursday the jury must decide whether the former Catholic priest killed a South Texas schoolteacher 57 years ago, suffocating her in a bathtub in the church rectory.
“It was a wrestling match between my vanity and my common sense, and my common sense prevailed,” Feit told Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry on Wednesday, outside the jury’s presence, on the fifth and final day of testimony.
Feit is charged with the first-degree murder of Irene Garza, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher and beauty queen, who was assaulted, bound and suffocated to death with a cellophane bag on Easter weekend in 1960, testimony revealed.
Feit, then a 27-year-old visiting priest at McAllen’s Sacred Heart Church, pulled the devoutly religious schoolteacher by the arm and told her she was “too good” to give confession in church, prosecutors said. He led her to its next-door rectory, and killed her there on Holy Saturday, according to the state.
Prosecutors called the 57-year-old cold case a Catholic Church cover-up, a claim bolstered by an internal church letter dated Oct. 1, 1960 that showed a relationship between the church and local authorities, to avoid the potential scandal to it “as an institution.”
Closing arguments will come Thursday immediately after the jury charge is read to the seven-woman, five-man jury. Both sides rested their case Wednesday afternoon.
Prosecutor Michael Garza tried to establish a sinister pattern of behavior: Feit’s penchant for attacking young women wearing high-heeled shoes from behind. Feit pleaded no-contest in 1962 to attacking another woman, Maria America Guerra. He was fined $500 and served no jail time.
Prosecutors called 22 witnesses, including a former monk who says Feit confessed to the killing in 1963 while the two were at a Trappist monastery in Missouri.
Another witness, Cleotilde “Tilley” Sanchez, a former cook at Sacred Heart Church, told jurors that she never forgot an ominous comment Feit made to other priests about making her “disappear” behind a closed cellar door.
Sanchez, 80, says that shortly after the attack on Maria Guerra, to which Feit pleaded no contest, a familiar voice warned her in a phone call: “Tilley, you’re next honey.” The attack on Guerra took place just three weeks before Irene Garza’s murder.
Witness Beatrice Castro Garcia, 77, testified that Feit approached her around the same time and said: “I’d love to take a picture of you in a black dress by the cemetery.”
McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez testified that a faded green Kodak slide viewer found at the bottom of the drained canal where Irene’s body was found was “a direct link” to Feit.
Feit admitted the object was his in a letter to authorities.
Defense attorneys called two witnesses, one of whom testified that Irene Garza stood feet away from him in Father Joseph O’Brien’s confessional line, at a time that contradicts investigators’ official timeline of the case.
“She was a beauty back then to us,” Faustino Rodriguez, 86, said Wednesday through a Spanish-English interpreter. He said he remembers greeting the former Miss South Texas on April 16, 1960, the Saturday before Easter, because he “got in trouble with his wife.”
But Rodriguez could not remember why he told investigators in 1960, and again in a 2002 statement, that he could not remember anything from the night Irene disappeared.
Defense attorneys also called to the witness stand retired Texas Ranger Rudy Jaramillo, who investigated Irene Garza’s murder as part of the department’s cold-case squad beginning in 2002.
Feit’s defense team said their client has no link to the murder. There are no eyewitnesses and a foot impression found at the canal bank where Irene was discovered did not belong to Feit, they argued.
Several witnesses subpoenaed to testify were struck from the state’s witness list, leading to the sudden ending to a trial originally expected to last 10 days.
Attorneys have sparred throughout trial, with prosecutors claiming repeatedly that defense attorneys have “opened the door” to evidence not admitted in court.
“I think I’m going to object to him continuously saying ‘open the door,’” said Ricardo Flores, one of Feit’s three court-appointed attorneys.
Feit, 85, faces up to 99 years in state prison if convicted.