EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – An April trial date has been set for the former Catholic priest charged with the 1960 murder of a South Texas beauty queen whose body was found dumped in an irrigation canal after she confessed to him.
A Hidalgo County judge this week scheduled 84-year-old John Feit’s trial for April 24. Feit, who has pleaded not guilty, faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted of killing Irene Garza, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher who was murdered more than 56 years ago.
Feit was flown from his home in Arizona to face murder charges in South Texas a year ago and has remained in the Hidalgo County Jail infirmary since then. The indictment charges the ex-priest with murder by asphyxiation.
Now frail and using a walker in courtroom appearances, Feit was a 27-year-old priest in McAllen when Garza’s half-clothed body was discovered in a canal days after she was last seen going to confession at Sacred Heart Church. He became the prime suspect almost immediately after Garza’s April 16, 1960 slaying stunned the community.
An autopsy determined that the former Miss All South Texas Sweetheart had been beaten, suffocated and raped while unconscious on the day before Easter. Feit has always denied involvement in the crime but acknowledged that a Kodak photographic slide viewer found near Garza’s body belonged to him.
The church later moved Feit into a monastery, according to old press reports on the case, and nobody was ever charged.
The cold case began to heat up in the early 2000s when former Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra attempted to pursue charges.
A Rio Grande Valley grand jury’s refusal to indict Feit in 2004 sparked a firestorm of criticism, led largely by Garza’s family.
The case was propelled to the national spotlight when a series of news outlets reported on the story, which became a lightning rod in the 2014 race for district attorney. The cold case took center stage in that election, with Garza’s family blaming Guerra for failing to present enough evidence to indict Feit.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez ousted the 32-year incumbent and told supporters he would re-examine the case. After Feit’s arrest last year, Rodriguez announced that “new facts and evidence” were uncovered during the most recent investigation of the case.
A pretrial date is scheduled for April 20.
Feit is represented by Edinburg attorney O. Rene Flores and Ricardo Flores of McAllen.