EDINBURG, Texas (CN) — Seriously ill and 84 years old, former Catholic priest John Feit will be tried for the 1960 murder of a South Texas beauty queen in late summer, when the last pieces of prosecution evidence arrive, a judge told him Wednesday.
At a brief hearing Wednesday, state prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to a plan to begin searching for jurors. Both sides said they will be ready for trial after prosecutors receive results from their final evidence tests.
“My understanding is that the analysis has been completed and we are waiting on the reports to come in,” said Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza. “Apparently, they go through a review process and there’s some delay in that.”
Feit, dressed in orange prison clothes, sat silent and expressionless on the walker he uses in courtroom appearances as Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry addressed him.
“Mr. Feit, your case is set for trial, pre-trial trial, on Sept. 11. The process of selecting a jury will begin that week and then we will proceed to trial immediately thereafter,” the judge told him.
Feit was a 27-year-old visiting priest in McAllen when the partially decomposed body of Irene Garza was found in a canal, five days after she was last seen going to confession at Sacred Heart Church.
He became the prime suspect within weeks of the Easter weekend 1960 slaying of the 25-year-old schoolteacher and onetime Miss All South Texas Sweetheart. An autopsy conducted hours after Garza was found determined that she suffered a blow to the head and was raped while unconscious. The medical examiner’ found no evidence of strangulation, but concluded that suffocation could have been carried out “by placing a cloth over the mouth and nose, especially if the subject was unconscious.”
Feit was indicted for first-degree murder by asphyxiation in February 2016. He pleaded not guilty and has publicly denied involvement in the crime. But suspicion continued to hound the now-married father and grandfather, who was extradited last year from Scottsdale, Arizona, where he had been quietly living in retirement.
Feit left the priesthood under a cloud in 1971 after spending time in Trappist monasteries in Iowa and Missouri, and as a superior at the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Part of his duties there included making decisions on when troubled priests would be returned to duty.
“This whole thing makes no sense to me, because the crime in question took place in 1960,” Feit told a judge at his initial arraignment in Arizona the day after police arrested him.
He dropped his extradition battle after a month and has been in the Hidalgo County Jail infirmary receiving round-the-clock medical attention since March 2016. He has Stage 3 kidney disease, bladder cancer, spinal stenosis and diabetes, according to his attorney.
Feit acknowledged in the early days of the investigation that a Kodak slide viewer found at the bottom of the drained canal belonged to him. Police also found candlesticks in the canal that reportedly came from Sacred Heart Church.
More evidence came to light in 2002, when two former priests testified in a Texas Rangers examination that Feit had confessed to the killing. Only one of the men, Dale Tacheny, is still alive.
But a Hidalgo County grand jury in 2004 refused to indict Feit, in an investigation that was clouded by assertions from Garza’s family that then-District Attorney Rene Guerra failed to present enough evidence.
Ten years later, in a Democratic primary in March 2014, Guerra, Texas’ second-longest serving district attorney, was voted out of office after 32 years. Garza’s cold case and Guerra’s handling of the grand jury probe took center stage in the contentious election.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, who promised to re-examine the murder, said after Feit’s indictment that “new facts and evidence” were uncovered during the most recent investigation, but has declined to go into detail.
Guerra announced in May that he would challenge Rodriguez in the 2018 district attorney’s race, and seek his old job back.
Feit faced trial in 1961 after a venue change to Austin, for assault with intent to rape a 20-year-old South Texas woman at a nearby church, but it hung a jury. The woman escaped the assault, reportedly by biting her attacker’s finger when he tried to cover her face with a rag.
Feit pleaded no-contest to a lesser charge of aggravated assault in that case and was fined $500 before a second trial set to begin the following year in Hidalgo County.
That assault took place less than three weeks before Garza’s disappearance.
Feit faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted of her murder.
(CNS photos by Erik De La Garza show John Feit in court Wednesday, and Irene Garza’s grave.)