EDINBURG, Texas (CN) — Three years after he killed her, John Feit admitted that he’d used a cellophane bag to murder a South Texas beauty queen in a bathtub, a former Catholic priest testified Monday on the third day of Feit’s murder trial.
Prosecutors say Feit had a penchant for attacking young women in high heels from behind while they prayed in church.
“I get anxious when I hear, ‘click, click, click, click,’ when I hear the heels on a hard concrete floor,” former Trappist monk Dale Tacheny testified that Feit told him in 1963.
Feit, 85, is on trial in Hidalgo County for the Easter weekend 1960 murder of Irene Garza, whose partially decomposed body was found in a canal five days after she was last seen alive, on her way to confession at Sacred Heart Church. He was the prime suspect in the McAllen schoolteacher’s killing but was not charged until February 2016, after a new district attorney launched a fresh investigation.
Feit, then a 27-year-old visiting priest, suffocated Garza to death before fondling her breasts and dumping her body in a canal, prosecutors say.
Tacheny, 88, told jurors Monday about a conversation he had with Feit when the former priest arrived at Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Ava, Missouri. Tacheny’s superiors told him that Feit had murdered someone and asked him to determine whether he was fit for the rigorous life of a monk.
Tacheny testified that Feit told him of a young woman whom he had assaulted, bound and gagged by placing a cellophane bag over her head.
“He put the young lady in a bathtub. As he was leaving, the young lady said, ‘I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe.’ And he left her there. When he went back, she was dead,” Tacheny said.
The former monk’s story came to light in 2002 when he contacted a San Antonio police detective with details about a killing that he assumed took place in that jurisdiction. Feit had just arrived from the Oblate of Mary Immaculate in San Antonio and had been ordained in the city in 1957.
Tacheny recounted for jurors that Feit told him of three factors that helped him avoid prison: the Catholic Church, law enforcement, and the rules of sealed confession.
“Whenever they would get close to anything, he would say confessional secrecy,” Tacheny said.
Feit’s lead defense attorney, O. Rene Flores of Edinburg, tried to poke holes in Tacheny’s 54-year-old story. He claimed a Texas Ranger fed him information about the crime, and suggested Tacheny was upset at the Catholic Church.
He also emphasized that Tacheny had been approached to write a book about his life, which Tacheny rejected, “because part of that story was my relationship with Father Feit.”
Feit sat mostly expressionless throughout Tacheny’s afternoon testimony, sipping from a Styrofoam cup and writing notes on a legal notepad at times.
Tacheny, whose efforts helped launch the second investigation of the killing, grew emotional when he told the prosecutor that he had not known Irene, or her parents. He said he had been determined to find out more about the killing, which has been called a Catholic Church cover-up in open court.
“But I knew she had parents,” he said softly before pausing for a moment to wipe tears away from his face.
“She had parents.”
McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez spent the morning leading jurors through two signed statements that Feit gave to police in May and June 1960. In the first statement, Feit denied ever meeting Irene Garza, in the next statement he acknowledged hearing her confess in the church rectory on the evening she vanished.
“I believe he was deceitful in his first statement and it shows in his second statement,” Rodriguez, 60, said. Rodriguez became involved in guiding Garza’s cold-case investigation a year after becoming McAllen’s police chief in 2001.
Rodriguez also said he found it “disturbing” that Feit made some half a dozen trips from a pastoral house in San Juan to Sacred Heart Church on the day Irene went missing. His excuses included broken glasses, forgotten clothing and soiled laundry, Rodriguez said.
He told jurors under defense questioning that he could not affirmatively say that Feit is responsible for Garza’s body being dumped in the canal where she was found. But Rodriguez added that a Kodak slide viewer found at the bottom of the drained canal is a “direct link” to Feit.
Testimony was to resume Tuesday after a hearing to determine whether a former Dallas Morning News reporter should be compelled to testify as a prosecution witness. Attorneys for the News objected to the subpoena of Brooks Egerton, citing prosecutors’ lack of reasonable efforts to obtain information from other sources on a story Egerton wrote.