Anatomy of a Murder Case
Dallas Morning News
November 21, 2004
John Feit has been the prime suspect in Irene Garza's rape and murder since April 1960, when she vanished after going to church in McAllen on the night before Easter. Here are key dates in the case:
A man attacks Maria America Guerra, 20, while she prays alone at a church in Edinburg. He flees after she bites his finger and screams. Ms. Guerra later identifies the man as Father Feit. A witness says she saw Father Feit running from the church shortly after the screaming.
Irene Garza, 25, disappears after going to Sacred Heart Catholic Church near her McAllen home. Her parents, with whom she lives, tell police she phoned a priest about 6:45 p.m. to arrange for a confession and promised to return home soon. Several parishioners say they saw her that evening at the church, which had long lines of people waiting to make confessions. Her car is found about a block from the church.
APRIL 18 and 19
Searchers find Ms. Garza's left shoe and purse at separate roadside locations a few miles from the church.
Ms. Garza's body is found in an irrigation canal about a mile from Sacred Heart. Police begin to suspect Father Feit after learning that he had been in Edinburg on March 23 about the time that Ms. Guerra was attacked.
Police ask for the public's help in identifying the owner of a film-slide viewer found where Ms. Garza's body was dumped. Two days later, Father Feit acknowledges that the equipment is his.
JUNE 8, 9 and 17
He fails lie detector tests administered by one of the nation's leading polygraph firms.
The Texas Rangers, who are assisting local police, question Father Feit extensively.
Authorities try to arrest Father Feit on a charge of assault with intent to rape Ms. Guerra but discover that he has left Texas. He is declared a fugitive and surrenders about a week later, saying he has been in a hospital recuperating from the stress of interrogations.
His prosecution on the assault charge ends in a mistrial, with jurors deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction.
Father Feit pleads no contest to aggravated assault, a reduced charge. He is fined $500. His attorney says he will return to an unnamed out-of-state hospital.
The priest enters Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery in southwestern Missouri.
Father Feit joins the Servants of the Paraclete religious order at its New Mexico treatment center, where he had been a patient. He later becomes a supervisor and helps child molesters return to ministry.
Father Feit leaves the priesthood, marries and has children.
1990s to present
He works in Phoenix for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity. For years, he is an administrator and spokesman, sometimes testifying before the Arizona Legislature about homelessness.
McAllen police reopen the Garza murder investigation. Two of Mr. Feit's former colleagues in the clergy say he told them long ago that he was responsible for Ms. Garza's death.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra says the case is too weak to prosecute.
Mr. Guerra, under pressure from Ms. Garza's family, presents the case to a grand jury. In June, it declines to indict Mr. Feit.
ON THE LIE DETECTOR
The written report of examiner George Lindberg, who asked him about both the Garza and Guerra crimes, states that:
•While being tested, Father Feit limited his breathing to four respirations a minute, down from his usual 16 to 20. "A person who purposely controls his respiration during these examinations is concealing the truth." Mr. Lindberg told Father Feit to stop, but the priest persisted.
•Asked if he would like to suggest additional questions, Father Feit offered: "Do you believe it is possible that you may have said something or acted in some way to cause Irene's death?" He said the answer was yes, because of "the harsh way he had treated her in the rectory the evening she disappeared."
•Mr. Lindberg asked Father Feit "why the lie detector charts showed that he was not telling the truth when he denied committing either of the crimes." The priest said that, contrary to his previous sworn statement to police, he had heard Ms. Garza's confession in the rectory.
•When urged to admit guilt, Father Feit said "there will never be any evidence turning up" and that "without a confession on his part, there is not enough evidence in either of those cases to convict him or that a good defense attorney could not tear holes in." He referred to two long-unsolved murders in the area and said that the Garza case, "like those, will be soon forgotten."
•Father Feit ultimately tried to explain his test performance by saying that a man he didn't know confessed to him that he had attacked Ms. Guerra. "The subject was queried as to where the confession was obtained, and he told the examiner that it was not in the confessional box, not in the rectory, but out in the open someplace and was very vague as to where this open place was."
FATHER FEIT'S ACCOUNT
The priest, who was helping out at Sacred Heart during Holy Week, initially gave police this sworn account of his actions on the weekend Mr. Garza disappeared:
He receives a phone call at the priests' residence from a woman he does not know. She insists on meeting with a priest privately because she fears being overheard in a confessional. He agrees to see her.
7:10 to 7:20 p.m.
Ms. Garza and Father Feit meet alone at the residence, next door to the church, where she talks about "a personal problem" that he won't reveal. He sends her to the sanctuary to make her confession with one of Sacred Heart's three full-time priests. He enters the fourth confessional.
He later changes his story and says he heard her confession in the residence - an unusual move.
8 to 8:15 p.m.
Father Feit gets the rectory keys from the Rev. Joseph O'Brien and takes a short break alone next door, then returns to the confessional.
Father O'Brien tells police he did not see his colleague return. Parishioners say Father Feit's confessional line stopped moving for much longer than 15 minutes.
He takes another short break alone at the rectory.
His glasses break because of his "nervous habit of playing around" with them. He borrows a colleague's car and drives to his clergy residence, which is in San Juan, 12 to 15 minutes away, to get his extra pair of glasses. He says he doesn't have keys to the facility so he props a wooden road barricade against the house and climbs up it to enter through a balcony, scraping his hands on the brick wall. He washes up, changes clothes and drives back to Sacred Heart in McAllen, where he helps with an 11 p.m. service and spends the night.
Here is Father Feit's sworn account of his actions:
He celebrates Easter Mass at a chapel near Sacred Heart, suffering from a headache that he blames on the substitute glasses. He borrows a car and drives to San Juan to try to fix the broken pair. He fails and returns to McAllen for another Mass.
Father Feit returns to San Juan with colleagues, realizes he has left clothes in McAllen and borrows another colleague's car to retrieve them. Ms. Garza's parents, who have reported her disappearance to police, come to speak with him at Sacred Heart. He tells them he said nothing to their daughter that might have upset her.
Father Feit begins to fear he "had said something, unintentionally, that might have upset the girl. ... I was worried, so I drove around aimlessly for a while." He stops for a root beer at a burger stand around 9:45 p.m.
Police records say the burger stand closed at 9:30 p.m. Father Feit later tells investigators that Ms. Garza cried when he rebuked her for seeking to confess at the residence instead of standing in line next door.
•"On several occasions throughout the day and evening Feit offered to make a statement of admission, but always adding that it would not be true. We declined to take a statement of this type."
•"On several occasions when pointed questions were asked, he would reply, 'I don't remember.' When we insisted that he could remember, he would say, 'They told me to say that.'"
•"He repeatedly told the writer that he did have a guilt but would never state the extent of his guilt."
•"Information received and partially confirmed by Feit indicates that he will be sent to a monastery."
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