Friday, February 12, 2016

Ex-Priest Is Arrested In 1960 Killing Of Texas Beauty Queen

She had a disarming combination of beauty and intelligence and, in her short life, amassed a collection of accomplishments and firsts: first Hispanic twirler at a majority-Anglo high school on the Texas-Mexico border, first in her family to go to college, homecoming queen and, in 1958, Miss All South Texas Sweetheart.

Irene Garza, 25, was working as a grade-school teacher when she was killed 56 years ago, asphyxiated, an autopsy revealed, and then dumped in an irrigation canal. She was last seen at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Tex., her hometown parish, where she had planned to go to confession ahead of Easter Sunday.

On Tuesday, Texas Rangers and McAllen police officers arrested the parish’s visiting priest at the time — now an octogenarian — who had been living quietly in a condominium complex here. His name is John Feit, and through the years, he has remained the sole suspect in Ms. Garza’s killing.

Mr. Feit, 83, shuffled with his walker along the linoleum floor at the Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix on Wednesday, anchored his stooped body behind a desk and addressed Commissioner Paula Williams of Maricopa County Superior Court, who was presiding over his initial court appearance on closed-circuit television.

“This whole thing makes no sense, because the crime in question took place in 1960,” Mr. Feit said, sounding hoarse and tired.

“There’s no statute of limitations on that sort of crime,” the commissioner replied.

Mr. Feit’s arrest in what is perhaps the most memorable cold case in recent history in Hidalgo County came about through a mix of patience, persistence and political ambition. As suspicions against Mr. Feit mounted, the Roman Catholic Church moved him to a monastery in the tiny Missouri town of Ava, and from there to a home for troubled priests in tinier Jemez Springs, N.M.

Ms. Garza’s relatives never gave up, and the investigators in the case kept the pressure on — even as time passed, memories faded, and witnesses aged and died.

The crime became a big issue in the 2014 campaign for district attorney of Hidalgo County — at the southernmost tip of Texas, on the Mexican border — when the challenger, Ricardo Rodriguez Jr., pledged to re-evaluate the evidence. The incumbent, Rene Guerra, had presented the case to a grand jury 10 years earlier but failed to secure an indictment.

One of Ms. Garza’s cousins attended a rally for Mr. Rodriguez. Another, Lynda Y. de la ViƱa, wrote in an impassioned letter to the local newspaper: “We care about justice for Irene Garza. We care about violence against women. We care that those from the highest to the lowest stations in life receive the same equal dignity and attention that is merited by our legal system. I do not believe that Guerra cares.” Then, she asked for votes for Mr. Rodriguez.

Mr. Rodriguez won the election. “With all due respect to Irene Garza’s passing — and may she rest in peace — in no way did I use her to benefit my campaign,” he said in an interview. “The only thing I promised to people and to the family was that we were going to take a hard look at the case when I came into office, and that’s what I did.”

When Ms. Garza disappeared, the police chalked it up to a case of a pretty young woman who had run off with a lover and fled the confining rules of her fervently Catholic family. Two days later, a passer-by found one of her high-heeled shoes on a road on the edge of McAllen, which sits across from Reynosa, Mexico. The next morning, someone found her purse.
By midweek, her body surfaced in the canal. Divers drained its waters, recovering a clunky slide viewer with a long black cord that the police presumed had been tied to Ms. Garza’s corpse so it would sink to the canal’s muddy bottom.

The slide viewer belonged to Mr. Feit.

Already, the young priest had admitted to hearing Ms. Garza’s confession, saying he had done so in the privacy of the rectory. And the parish’s priest, the Rev. Joseph O’Brien, told investigators that he noticed fresh scratches on Mr. Feit’s hands when they had coffee late that night.

Mr. Feit left the priesthood in the 1970s, married and had three children. He built a new life in Phoenix, where he became active at St. Theresa Parish and trained volunteers for food pantries run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul charity, where he worked for 17 years.

In an email, the charity’s executive director, Stephen J. Zabilski, described Mr. Feit as “a humble and caring man” who had “repeatedly” denied killing Ms. Garza.
But at Assumption Abbey in Ava, a Trappist monk named Dale Tacheny — who, as a novice master, served as coach and spiritual counselor to new arrivals — heard a different story.

In an interview, Mr. Tacheny, who is no longer a monk, recalled that the abbot had told him that Mr. Feit “had killed someone” and asked him to see if Mr. Feit “had the vocation to become a monk.” It soon became clear he did not.

“He told me he didn’t feel comfortable there — he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in that environment,” Mr. Tacheny said.

According to Mr. Tacheny, Mr. Feit confided in him that he had killed a young woman in Texas; Mr. Tacheny never asked her name or pressed him for any details. His role, he said, was to prepare Mr. Feit for life outside the monastery, to “help him to be in control of himself.”

It was not until 2002 that Mr. Tacheny shared Mr. Feit’s story with the authorities. That year, the Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team, a newly formed unit of the Texas Rangers, had reopened the investigation of Ms. Garza’s killing. One of its members, Rudy Jaramillo, who retired as a lieutenant in 2012, said the team had cobbled together a credible, convincing narrative from old and new evidence, including Mr. Tacheny’s testimony.

A bail at $750,000, cash only has been set for him, while he remains in jail.


  1. Her soul will now rest in peace now that her killer has been found

  2. This world is wicked

  3. Time to reap what has been sown

  4. Amazing story, but it is needless to say.

    1. We live in a very wicked world

  5. Every evil done in secret will surely be exposed someday

  6. You can never imagine that such case could still come alive


  8. Let every evildoer remember a day called tomorrow

  9. These are the kind of man that should be executed. They shouldn't let him die of hypertension from this case. He should be injected

  10. Serves him right.

  11. No hiding place for criminals