All eyes on county as decades-old case finally set for trial: National media coverage underscores interest in ‘60s murder case
By Lorenzo Zazueta-Castro
November 25, 2017
|John Feit smiles as he sits next to attorney O. Rene Flores during a pre-trail hearing Monday January 30, 2017 in the 92nd State District Court at the Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg.|
Photo by Nathan Lambrecht
EDINBURG — The nearly 60-year saga in the death of a schoolteacher and beauty queen is expected to reach its conclusion by the end of the year as the former priest accused with her murder finally faces a jury.
This time around the hyper-local media coverage and focus will be accompanied by a national media presence, with outlets like CBS’ “48 Hours,” and CNN, expected to cover the trial gavel-to-gavel as jury selection begins tomorrow.
From the time the Hidalgo County District Attorney, who ran a campaign two years earlier in part on “getting justice” for the slain woman’s family, announced in February 2016 that a grand jury had declared there was enough evidence to charge former priest John Bernard Feit with the 1960 murder of Irene Garza, the media coverage of the decades-old case went into overdrive.
Such is expected as the beginning of Feit’s long-awaited trial is set to begin this week with jury selection and the beginning of opening arguments set for the end of the week.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of Garza, a 20-something McAllen schoolteacher who went missing just before a religious holiday weekend in April 1960 and found dead five days later near where she was last seen, has piqued the interest of not only locals who grew up recounting anecdotal stories and details of what transpired the night she went missing, but also the interest of a national audience.
In 1960, the 25-year-old schoolteacher went to visit Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, where she had planned to attend confession during Holy Week only to never be seen again. Her body was found in a canal several days later and although authorities initiated a large-scale manhunt for the woman’s killer — they were unable to arrest anyone in connection with her death.
Feit, now 84, worked as a visiting Catholic priest in the Rio Grande Valley in the early 1960s — and had been questioned by authorities in the young woman’s disappearance, but ultimately at the urging of local Catholic church officials authorities were steered away from Feit, and eventually, they ruled him out as a suspect and never questioned him again.
For more than 40 years the case stalled, and laid dormant, that is until 2002, when McAllen police and the Texas Rangers renewed their efforts and reopened the case into Garza’s death, interviewing key witnesses like Father Joseph O’Brien, a McAllen priest who said he’d seen scratches on Feit’s hands in the days following Garza’s disappearance. He eventually told the Rangers that Feit confessed to Garza’s murder.
This renewed interest in the case led to public pressure on the county’s district attorney, Rene Guerra, who at that point had been the county’s top prosecutor for more than 20 years, to have a new grand jury look at the case.
Guerra, who initially declined to have the case sent to a grand jury because he questioned both the McAllen police department’s and the Texas Rangers’ handling of the case and subsequent interviews, would bend to pressure and sent the case to a new grand jury in 2004 — only to have them come back and decline to indict the former priest, citing lack of any new evidence.
Ten years later, during a highly contentious race in 2014, Garza’s case proved to be Guerra’s undoing and seen as one of the primary factors leading to Guerra losing the district attorney post to Rodriguez, who at the time was serving as state district court judge.
Rodriguez, who had the support of the victim’s relatives, ran for the position in part with the promise of taking a closer look at the cold case, and bringing Feit to justice.
He eventually re-opened Garza’s case, requested a new grand jury, which led to a subsequent indictment against Feit in early February 2016.
Feit was arrested that month at his Scottsdale, Arizona, home after Rodriguez argued there was enough evidence to prosecute him.
The octogenarian has remained in custody at the county jail under 24-hour medical watch since his extradition last March due to a slew of ailments.
Feit, who has publicly denied any involvement in Garza’s death on multiple occasions, is expected to sit through about three weeks of trial testimony.