DA Campaign Battle Rages

The Monitor
April 8, 2006

EDINBURG — After 24 years on the job, Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra has made tough decisions in thousands of criminal cases.

But of those cases, two recent decisions have come back to haunt him in his face-off with challenger Alma Garza in the April 11 runoff election.

The county's top prosecutor is finding himself defending his stance in the 46-year-old unsolved murder case of Irene Garza and his decision not to prosecute State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa after he was caught with a gun at McAllen-Miller International Airport.

Garza, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who has criticized Guerra's position in those cases, is not alone in her criticism.

As Guerra's fight against Garza — likely the strongest challenger he's faced since

first winning election nearly a quarter of a century ago — heats up, he finds himself quickly trying to clear up what he calls the "misconceptions." He said the public needs to know more about his decisions in the cases that have lately defined his tenure.


Some of the staunchest criticism Guerra's faced comes from those who accuse him of mishandling the investigation into the murder of Irene Garza, a 25-year-old second grade teacher who disappeared the day after Easter in 1960 after giving confession at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen. Her body was found five days later in a canal; investigators believe she had been raped.

The priest who heard her confession, John B. Feit, was thought to be the last person to see Irene Garza alive. Feit was never named as a suspect, but many believe he was involved in Garza's murder. Now living in Arizona and no longer a priest, Feit has repeatedly denied the accusations.

A Texas Ranger Cold Case investigator, Rudy Jaramillo, and the McAllen Police Department reopened the case in 2004.

But Guerra refused to take the case to a grand jury for several months before finally doing so in June of that year. Then a Hidalgo County grand jury spent 15 weeks investigating the case and decided there was not enough evidence to indict Feit.

Still, Irene Garza's family members have continued to criticize Guerra for several comments he made to the media and they have accused him of not taking the case seriously.

Guerra said the grand jury did not indict anyone in the Irene Garza's murder because the evidence in the case is simply not there.

"What the public doesn't know, including family members attacking me, is that the investigators mishandled the case then and now," he said.

"Police officers took information to the grave; they had no written reports. They mishandled physical evidence also verbal evidence from the investigation."

And no new evidence has emerged in the case since 1960, Guerra said, despite the new witnesses that have come forward. Guerra said those witnesses, including former monk Dale Tachney, who claimed Feit confessed to him in 1963, are not credible.

Guerra believes Feit did not confess to Tachney because the former monk did not know certain details about Irene Garza's murder, including the town where the murder took place, until after he spoke with the Texas Ranger investigating the case.

"I have proof in writing that the Ranger gave a witness all the information he needed to testify in court on the person he suspected. The monk was not truthful when he said he knew about Irene Garza before he talked to law enforcement," Guerra said.

"The monk did not know the city, location of crime, date of crime, cause of death of Irene. He did not know specifics that only the killer could give him. He cannot ever be used as a witness to convict anybody for the death of Irene Garza."

Allowing Tachney to testify would be a violation of the oath Guerra took upon taking office, the district attorney said.

"My oath says I cannot allow a person to commit perjury on the stand. If I allow a person to commit perjury on the stand I am guilty of subornation or perjury," he said.

Guerra, a Catholic, said he does not have a problem with prosecuting a man of the cloth who commits a serious crime.

But he said the media has "twisted his words" and taken quotes of out context that have painted him as not caring about the case. Regardless, he said he has no regrets about he how handled the incident.

Alma Garza acknowledges the problems with prosecuting a 46-year-old case, because of the age of the evidence and witnesses. But she said Irene Garza's family needs closure and, if elected, she will likely revisit the case.

"McAllen PD is a very able police department. If they think there is enough evidence, I would think it would be highly possible there would be enough evidence," she said.


Another case Guerra has had to repeatedly explain is his decision not to prosecute State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, after the McAllen Democrat tried to board a plane with a 9mm handgun in his briefcase at McAllen-Miller International Airport in October.

Hinojosa, who has a concealed handgun license, said he forgot he had placed the gun in his briefcase days before the incident.

McAllen police arrested the senator, and took him before Municipal Judge Kathleen Henley, who dismissed the charge and let the senator free.

However, McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez requested McAllen police continue the investigation and turn the case over to the U.S. Attorney's office and the District Attorney's office.

Before a grand jury could review it, though, Guerra dismissed the case, explaining he did could not prove Hinojosa had the intent to break the law.

State law requires that prosecutors prove a person "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly possesses or goes with a firearm," or other illegal weapon into a prohibited place, such as an airport. Known as the "place weapons prohibited" violation, it makes it a third-degree felony that is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and an optional $10,000 fine.

The grand jury does not make legal decisions; rather, their purpose is to decide if the case has enough merit for trial, Guerra said.

"People still don't understand the senator's case is a question of law, not of fact. Grand jurys don't decide law," he said.

Guerra points out that the international airport is also governed by federal law. If he made the wrong decision in not prosecuting Hinojosa, he questions why the federal government has not arrested the senator for a federal crime.

"The truth is they are bound by the same law as we are on criminal intent."

Garza said she would have brought the case to a grand jury, giving the senator the chance to tell the grand jury his side of the incident.

"I think he should have gone through the process. If the grand jury decides not to indict him, that is our community speaking," she said.


In the days leading up to the election, the race has turned particularly contentious as the two battle it out for the county's top prosecutorial position.

Guerra has turned the criticism toward Garza, with a television commercial revealing her husband, defense attorney Hector Villarreal, failed to pay county and federal taxes. Villarreal, a former state district judge who unsuccessfully challenged Guerra in 1998, is Guerra's longstanding political adversary.

In turn, Villarreal on Friday filed a lawsuit against the district attorney.

Guerra claims that if Garza is elected, her husband could influence her prosecutorial decisions — Guerra said that when Garza worked in his office, he placed her in the civil section because of her relationship with Villarreal.

"The history she had here in the office is less than she projects to the public. I put her in the (civil) section because of her friendship with her now-husband," he said.

Both Garza and Villarreal staunchly deny Guerra's allegation and Garza's recollection of her time in Guerra's office is quite different. She said Guerra made her a supervisor in the civil section because she was the most qualified and he needed someone to run the office.

"I've run a clean campaign up to now and I don't want to start slinging mud at this point," Garza said.

Brittney Booth covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4437.


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