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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Ex-Priest Arraigned in Texas for 1960 Murder

EDINBURG, Texas (CN) - More than five decades after the murder of a South Texas beauty queen, the retired Catholic priest long suspected of killing her pleaded not guilty to her murder Monday morning.

John Feit, 83, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, appeared frail as he appeared before State District Judge Luis Singleterry for his first court appearance, since being returned to Texas from Scottsdale, Ariz., where he had been living.

"Not guilty your honor," Feit said in a firm voice after the indictment charging him with the 1960 murder by asphyxiation of Irene Garza was read in open court.

Feit was a 27-year-old priest when Garza's half-clothed body was found dumped in an irrigation canal just days after he had heard her confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas.

An autopsy determined that the elementary school teacher had been beaten, suffocated and raped while unconscious before she died.

Feit, who became the prime suspect almost immediately, was the last person to see Garza alive, according to reports.

He has always denied involvement in the crime but acknowledged that a Kodak photographic slide viewer found near Garza's body belonged to him.

More evidence came to light in 2002 when two former priests testified in a Texas Rangers examination of the case that Feit had confessed to the killing.

Last week, Hidalgo County sheriff's officers escorted the former priest back to Edinburg, Texas. He's been arrested exactly one month in connection with the 55-year-old cold case. Feit dropped his extradition battle on Feb. 24, and has been receiving medical care in the county jail's infirmary since then.

Oscar Rene Flores, Feit's court-appointed attorney, asked the judge set a bond of $100,000, arguing that because his client suffered from Stage 3 kidney disease, bladder cancer, spinal stenosis, diabetes, he is not a flight risk.

"We recognize the gravity of the case. [But] a bond any higher than $100,000 cash surety in this case would be constitutionally excessive," Flores said.

He said that at least one of Feit's family members is "ready, willing and able to make the move to Hidalgo County" to help care for Feit and ensure compliance.

But Judge Singleterry set Feit's bond at $1 million, with the added restrictions that the former priest must reside in Hidalgo County, and wear a GPS monitoring device.

State prosecutors had recommended a $750,000 bond, the same amount the Maricopa County Superior Court ordered after Feit's arrest in February.

"Once these conditions have been met I will certainly revisit and reconsider the amount," Singleterry said.

A Hidalgo County grand jury in 2004 refused to indict Feit, but that investigation was overshadowed by assertions by Garza's family that then-District Attorney Rene Guerra failed to present enough evidence.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, who was elected in 2014 and promised to re-examine the murder, said that "new facts and evidence" were uncovered during the most recent investigation, but declined to go into detail.

Feit faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted.

Sarah Flores in Edinburg, Texas contributed to this report.

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