Ex-priest accused in woman's 1960 death extradited to Texas

ABC 15
March 9, 2016

[with video]

PHOENIX - Authorities said Wednesday they used new evidence to help revive a more than half-century-old murder case in which an 83-year-old former priest is accused of killing a Texas teacher and ex-beauty queen, but they declined to give details.

John Feit , who had been jailed in Phoenix since his arrest last month, was turned over to Texas authorities earlier Wednesday and was headed back to South Texas, Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez said. He will be held in the county jail.

"Today we can say that after a long wait of approximately 56 years, is the beginning of bringing justice to ... the victim and the community," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and other officials at a news conference declined to comment on what evidence was presented to grand jurors to indict Feit, only saying "we do have new facts and evidence." Rene Guerra, the former longtime Hidalgo County district attorney who had previously investigated the murder but never brought charges, has said there was no DNA evidence.

Authorities allege the then-27-year-old priest killed 25-year-old teacher Irene Garza on April 16, 1960, after hearing her confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen.

Her body was found days later. An autopsy determined Garza, who was named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart 1958, had been raped while unconscious and was beaten and suffocated.

The now frail Feit, who uses a walker, was arrested Feb. 9 in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, where he's lived for years. He had been indicted in Texas.

His arrest followed other investigations over the years, including a grand jury probe in 2004 that concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge him.

McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said Wednesday that his agency had believed since 2002 "there was probable cause" to charge Feit in the case.

Feit came under suspicion early on, telling police at the time that he heard Garza's confession -- in the church rectory, not in the confessional -- but denying he killed her.

Feit had also been accused of attacking another young woman in a church in a nearby town just weeks before Garza's death. He eventually pleaded no contest and was fined $500.

Evidence that pointed to Feit as a suspect over the years included his portable photographic slide viewer, which was found near Garza's body. Two fellow priests told authorities Feit confessed to them and one of them said he saw scratches on Feit soon after Garza's disappearance.

Feit spent time at a treatment center in New Mexico for troubled priests and after that became a supervisor and had a part in clearing priests for assignments to parishes.

Feit later left the priesthood to marry. He joined the administrative office of the St. Vincent de Paul nonprofit agency in Phoenix in 1983 and retired in 2004.

Garza's family members and friends had long pushed authorities to reopen the case, and it became an issue in the 2014 district attorney's race in Hidalgo County. Rodriguez, who beat Guerra, the longtime incumbent, had promised he would re-examine the case if elected.

"This case is not about politics. This case is not about proving a point. The only motive in this case is to finally bring justice and closure to this cold case," Rodriguez said.



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