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

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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 Viña, 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.

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