EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – A South Texas beauty queen struggled to understand why a new Catholic priest kept pulling her from the confessional days before she vanished on Easter weekend 1960, testimony in John Feit’s murder trial revealed Friday.
The 85-year-old former priest is on trial in Hidalgo County for the murder of Irene Garza, whose partially decomposed body was found in a canal five days after she was last seen alive, going to confession at Sacred Heart Church. Feit was the prime suspect in the McAllen schoolteacher’s rape and murder but was not charged until February 2016 after the election of a new district attorney, who said “new facts and evidence” had been uncovered.
Hidalgo County prosecutors breezed through seven witnesses on the second day of trial, where jurors saw articles of Garza’s clothing, including her shoe, purse and floral-colored skirt. A McAllen Police Department evidence technician spent the morning unsealing what was left of the items Garza wore on the night she went missing over a “running objection” from defense attorneys.
Feit briefly closed his eyes as Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza held up Irene’s petticoat, more than half a century after Feit sat in the same courtroom for the attack on another South Texas woman, 20-year-old college student Maria America Guerra. He pleaded no contest in 1962 to a reduced charge of aggravated assault in that case and was fined $500, but faced no jail time.
Guerra is slated to testify as a prosecution witness.
The seven-woman, five-man jury also saw a faded green Kodak slid viewer with a long black cord, which Feit admitted in a handwritten letter to authorities in April 1960 belonged to him. Investigators discovered the object near Irene’s body.
Prosecutor Garza (no relation to the victim) told jurors during opening statements on Thursday that Feit had a “depraved heart bent on mischief” and said the Catholic Church helped cover up the murder that has become the region’s most notorious case.
Prosecutor Garza spent the first two days of trial attempting to establish a sinister pattern of behavior he attributed to Feit’s penchant for attacking women wearing high-heeled shoes from behind.
“Instead of sitting back and listening to her sins, he looked into the screen to see her face, exited his side of the confessional, opened her side, pulled her out by the arm and said, ‘You’re too good to confess in here, meet me in the rectory,’” prosecutor Garza said.
Inside the church’s next-door rectory on Holy Saturday 1960, prosecutors say, Feit attacked and suffocated Irene to death, then loaded her body in a pastoral car and dumped her in a canal.
Feit, then a 27-year-old visiting priest, held Irene in the rectory basement and fondled her breasts before she spoke her last words: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” prosecutor Garza said testimony will reveal.
Ana Maria Cavazos Hollingsworth, 83, testified Friday about a conversation she had with Irene on the week of her murder. They were sitting on a twin bed when Irene confided that she had become “disturbed” by a new priest “who thinks he’s handsome” and wouldn’t let her complete confession.
“She didn’t know what to expect anymore,” Hollingsworth said, adding that Irene appeared to struggle with whether she should give confession on Holy Saturday.
“She looked like she didn’t have an answer because she said, ‘We will see,’ and then I thought, ‘What do you mean,’ “We will see?”’”
Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry allowed Hollingsworth to tell her story to jurors despite objections over hearsay admissibility by defense attorneys.
Under defense questioning, Hollingsworth acknowledged that she withheld her story from authorities for more than 57 years. It wasn’t until prosecutor Garza showed up on her doorstep two weeks before trial that she agreed to reveal the conversation with her friend, whom she referred to as “my darling Irene.”
“I’ll miss her till the end of time. We lost her in a very sad and morbid and sorrowful way. No woman deserves to be treated like dirt, to be thrown in a canal,” Hollingsworth said.
Feit’s three court-appointed attorneys rebutted the state’s case as just “stories” and said their client had no 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 Feit.
Feit wrote notes on a yellow legal notepad during testimony Friday, which he passed to attorney O. Rene Flores of Edinburg at one point during an afternoon break.
Defense attorneys tried to downplay a series of ominous comments the former priest made to young women he encountered in the weeks before Irene’s murder.
“He said, ‘I’d love to take a picture of you in a black dress by the cemetery,” Beatrice Castro Garcia, 77, told jurors Feit said to her one day while she walked to her downtown McAllen job. Feit, she said, was wearing black clothes, a white collar and black horn-rimmed glasses.
“That’s him,” Garcia said the moment a black and white photo of a young Feit appeared on a flat screen TV inside the courtroom. She said she thought Feit was trying to scare her.
Cleotilde “Tilley” Sanchez, a onetime cook at Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg, testified that she often made trips down to the church’s cellar for supplies. Now 80, Sanchez said that she once heard Feit tell other priests, “How about we close the door and make Tilley disappear?”
She said she received a call shortly after the attack on Guerra, and a familiar voice warned her: “Tilley, you’re next, honey.”
Sanchez, who was brought into court in a wheelchair Friday, said she instantly knew it was Feit’s voice but that other priests insisted it could not have been him.
Feit, who left the priesthood under a cloud in 1971, had been quietly living in retirement in the Scottsdale, Arizona area before he was arrested last year. He is married with three children and grandchildren, none of whom are expected to appear at trial.
Testimony for the prosecution was to continue Monday.