EDINBURG, Texas (CN) – John Feit, the former Catholic priest who spent more than five decades shrouded in suspicion for his involvement in the 1960 murder of McAllen schoolteacher Irene Garza, died in prison on Tuesday. He was 87.
Preliminary reports indicate that Feit, who resided in Scottsdale, Arizona, before being extradited to Texas in 2016 to face murder charges for Garza’s Easter weekend suffocation death, died of cardiac arrest, said Robert Hurst, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Hurst said Thursday evening that Feit was pronounced dead at 5:38 a.m. Tuesday at Huntsville Hospital after being found unresponsive just before 5 a.m. in his cell at the Estelle Unit.
“His next of kin have been notified,” Hurst told Courthouse News.
Attorneys for Feit sent notice of the former priest's death in a one-page document to the state appellate court hearing a challenge to his 2017 conviction. Feit asked for a new trial in December, based largely on hearsay claims from witness testimony, but Hidalgo County prosecutors who tried Feit said that appeal will be abated.
Prison officials in December downgraded Feit’s health to “poor,” and said then that he required a geriatric facility after nearly two years as a state prison inmate. His death comes after months of transfers from his assigned unit in Huntsville, Texas, where he was serving his life sentence, to the Hospital Galveston facility for treatment.
Feit’s attorneys have said in court documents that he suffered from stage-three kidney disease, bladder cancer, spinal stenosis and diabetes.
Garza’s killing was a crime that rocked the Rio Grande Valley – especially devout Catholics in the heavily Hispanic border community – for nearly six decades, generating long-lasting implications to a Catholic Church steeped in crisis.
A 25-year-old former beauty queen and elementary schoolteacher well-known for her generosity and soft, elegant manner, Garza was last seen going to confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on April 16, 1960, Holy Saturday, before her body was recovered five days later in an irrigation canal.
Testimony at Feit’s seven-day trial in Edinburg centered around an alleged 57-year-old Catholic Church-led conspiracy blamed for covering up Garza’s murder, one of the nation’s oldest cases brought to trial.
Instead of hearing her confession that evening, the then-27-year-old visiting priest pulled Garza by the arm, attacked her inside the church’s rectory next door and gagged her with a cellophane bag in a bathtub, according to trial testimony.
Feit, the youngest of three siblings born in Chicago on Nov. 24, 1932, was raised in a traditional German-Catholic household among a sea of middle-class families in the city’s south side.
In 1946, when Feit was 13 years old, his parents sent him to an all-boys school in San Antonio. He went on to attend an all-male college and studied at the Oblate of Mary Immaculate, before becoming ordained a Catholic priest on Sept. 8, 1958. In doing so, he accepted a vow of celibacy.
During that period, the Rio Grande Valley had a shortage of priests, so church officials transferred Feit some 230 miles south of San Antonio to begin a year of pastoral training in McAllen, where his path would ultimately cross with Garza’s.
After Hidalgo County officials and the Catholic Church ironed out a deal to spare Feit from being prosecuted for Garza’s death in the 1960s, the young priest was shipped off to Dubuque, Iowa, for his first stint at a Trappist monastery, the New Melleray Abbey.
He admitted in 1963 to former monk Dale Tacheny that he used a cellophane bag to murder a young woman in a bathtub during Easter Weekend, Tacheny testified at trial. Tacheny had been in charge of counseling Feit upon his arrival at the monastery when the conversation occurred, he has said.
Terence McKiernan, president of the watchdog group BishopsAccountability.org who attended Feit’s trial in Edinburg called Garza a “saintly person” whose life and death inspired activists to bring Feit to justice. Feit preyed upon Garza’s devout Catholic beliefs, and her rape and murder “is especially important and heartbreaking,” McKiernan said.
“This case brings together many essential aspects of the clergy abuse crisis. Despite his crime, Feit was transferred away from McAllen, and he had a second career as an important priest of the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico,” McKiernan said.
In that role, Feit formulated and implemented a “disastrous” policy allowing pedophile priests in treatment with the Servants to work and reoffend in surrounding communities, according to McKiernan. That policy led to former Catholic priest James Porter’s sexual abuse of dozens of children, for which he was convicted of in the 1990s, with Feit in the center of a new phase in the abuse crisis.
Feit, who left the priesthood in the early 1970s and has always publicly denied involvement in Garza’s murder, spent just over two years in a state prison, and a lifetime of accusations. He had denied interview requests by Courthouse News and other media outlets before and after his conviction.
He was to be parole eligible in 2024 when he would have been 92.
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