Ex-Priest Fights Suspicion Again in '60 Rape-Slaying
Case Reopened in Death of Valley Woman Last Seen at Confession

By Brenda Rodriguez, Doug J. Swanson
Dallas Morning News
November 3, 2002

McAllen, Texas - Those who knew and loved Irene Garza remember her as serenely beautiful and deeply religious. When the 25-year-old schoolteacher was raped and murdered in 1960, some of them - devout Catholics like Miss Garza - began to ask a single, corrosive question: Could a man of God have committed such a horrible crime?

Forty-two years later, they're still asking it.

Not long after Miss Garza's muddy, battered body was pulled from a murky canal, the Rev. John Feit, a Catholic priest, denied killing her. Many in McAllen believed he was lying.

As police try to reignite the cold investigation, Mr. Feit continues to insist he is innocent. "I did not kill Irene Garza," he said recently.

And many persist in their suspicion that he's not telling the truth. Clint Mussey, McAllen's police chief in 1960, says he strongly suspected Mr. Feit at the time. That feeling hasn't abated.

"I still believe he did it," Mr. Mussey said. "There's no doubt in my mind."

No one was ever charged with the crime that stunned residents of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. After four decades of inattention, local police and the Texas Rangers have reopened the case.

"We're looking at the whole thing as if it happened today," said McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez.

Details have faded, records have drifted away and some central players have died in the intervening years. But police hope to use DNA-matching technology, which was not available to investigators in 1960. They also seek to take advantage of a change in local attitudes.

Soon after the murder, rumors swirled around Mr. Feit, the last person known to see Miss Garza alive. It was said that the young priest failed a polygraph test, that he was a suspect in an attack on another woman, that church leaders had hidden him away in another city.

All those rumors turned out to be true. In a different time and place, such information might have inspired police and prosecutors to pursue charges.

But the McAllen of 1960 was not the border business hub of today. It was instead a small, insular farm town - graced by tall palms and surrounded by fields and groves. It also was heavily Catholic.

Different times

Some close to the original probe recall that authorities investigated Mr. Feit with hesitance and reluctance, allowing church officials to take the lead.

This time, "the environment's different," Chief Rodriguez said.

Now 69 and no longer a priest, Mr. Feit responds to old accusations with both defiance and acceptance. "That's bullshit," he said angrily of the charges that he lied 42 years ago.

If police request a DNA sample for testing, he said, he'll quickly comply. "You bet, right now. Send them over." Then he added, "In these matters, one either believes in the goodness of God, or one doesn't. I'm going to stand up and accept whatever comes my way."

Such deep religious faith was shared by at least one other person in this case - Miss Garza.

In 1960 she was a second-grade teacher, attractive and graceful. "A beautiful girl," said Hortencia Gonzalez, who was a teenager then.

Her father owned a dry-cleaners, and the family lived in a small brick house near downtown McAllen. Miss Garza was head drum majorette at McAllen High School and a beauty pageant queen at Pan American College. In 1958, she won the title of Miss South Texas.

Despite the local fame, Miss Garza's was a life circumscribed by family and church. She still lived with her parents, and she loved going to Sacred Heart Catholic.

"She was very close to the church," said her aunt, Herlinda De La Vina.

On Saturday, April 16, 1960, Miss Garza phoned her best friend, Maria Alicia Sotelo, to talk about seeing a movie that evening. But first, confession.

It was the day before Easter, so the church drew a crowd. Men and women waited in long lines to confess their sins to a small team of priests, Father Feit among them.

At 28, the priest, a native of Chicago, had recently completed 11 years of seminary training in San Antonio. Sacred Heart parishioners found him cold and a bit odd.

"We always had a warm relationship with other priests," said Mrs. Gonzalez. "I don't remember him as being a warm person."

Mrs. Gonzalez, then 15, had gone to Sacred Heart about 5 p.m. that Saturday. Father Feit heard her confession. Then, she said, "He told me, 'I need to talk to you after confession, so wait for me.'"

The unusual request so rattled her, Mrs. Gonzalez said, "I left the confessional room, went through the side door and ran home."

About 90 minutes later, Miss Garza drove her father's car 12 blocks from home to Sacred Heart.

The pale brick church had two confessionals, one on each side of its front doors. But in a highly unorthodox move, Miss Garza's confession was not heard there. She and Father Feit met in the rectory, in an adjacent building, separated from the main church by a sidewalk.

The arrangement was "at her request," Mr. Feit said recently. He declined to elaborate.

"They had witnesses that saw her go in," said Mrs. De La Vina. "They never saw her come out."

The confession should have been finished by about 7:30 p.m. Mr. Feit said he told Miss Garza goodbye and watched her walk to her car. No one else saw this. And Miss Garza never phoned her friend about the movie.

When she didn't return home by midnight her parents began to worry. By 2:30 a.m. they had begun a search. They found her father's car parked two blocks from the church, but no sign of her.

Over the next few days more than 70 friends, relatives, police officers and volunteers looked for her. Miss Garza's sister, Josie, said local merchants offered a $ 10,000 reward for information.

Three days after Miss Garza's disappearance, a pedestrian found her purse and a shoe beside a farm road. Her lace head covering - of the type worn by women to church - was discovered close by.

Searchers combed nearby mesquite thickets and citrus groves but turned up nothing else.

Body found

On Thursday, her aunt awoke from a nightmare. "I woke up screaming and crying," Mrs. De La Vina said. "About that time, the phone rang and they told us they had found her body."

A passer-by had noticed something floating in an irrigation canal, across the street from a Sears store, about a mile from the Sacred Heart church. She was face down, fully clothed but for her underwear, stockings and shoes. The body was partially decomposed, and much of it was covered with mud.

An autopsy found that Miss Garza was dead when she was dumped in the canal. She had been beaten severely about the head and face before her death. Vaginal bruising indicated rape, but pathologists could recover no sperm, which they attributed to the interval between death and autopsy.

Scrapings of the material under her fingernails revealed only mud.

"Evidence of strangulation could not be found," the autopsy report said, "but suffocation could have been carried out by placing a cloth over the mouth and nose, especially if the subject was unconscious."

More than 1,000 mourners attended her funeral Mass at Sacred Heart. "A plain gray casket sat before the altar flanked by six candles," the McAllen Monitor reported. "Sobbing could be heard through the church."

The community reeled. Such a kidnap-murder had not happened in McAllen for 17 years.

Police interviewed associates and former boyfriends of Miss Garza, but their attention soon focused on Father Feit.

The story he told investigators about his behavior on the day of Miss Garza's disappearance struck many as implausible, including George Lindberg, now a retired federal judge.

In 1960, Mr. Lindberg worked as an examiner for a polygraph firm. He administered four tests over four days to Mr. Feit.

Mr. Lindberg said he asked Mr. Feit about scratches on the priest's hands and arms. Mr. Feit told him that Miss Garza's confession had so upset him that he was sweating profusely and needed to depart the church for a while.

"He said he was driving around just to cool down because he was so disturbed about Irene Garza's confession," Mr. Lindberg said recently.

Mr. Feit said he needed to change clothes because he was so sweaty, Mr. Lindberg recalled, so he drove to a converted motel that the priests were using as a residence. But the gate was locked.

"His story is he saw an open second-floor window and he climbed up a tree to get into it which is why he was so scratched up when he returned," Mr. Lindberg said. "He said the branches and bricks scratched him."

Mr. Feit said recently he could not remember making such statements. "It sounds very weird to me," he said. "I'm sure what I said at the time were the utterances of a man completely caught up in self-pity."

Polygraph tests

During the polygraph tests, Mr. Lindberg asked Mr. Feit if he killed Miss Garza. The priest denied any role in her death.

"He was untruthful on the relevant question," Mr. Lindberg said he concluded from the test. "He was, in my opinion, consistently giving deceptive responses." Polygraph tests were not then, and are not now, admissible as evidence in criminal court.

In a recent interview, Mr. Feit said that three other polygraph tests he took were inconclusive, meaning the operator could not tell if he was being untruthful or not.

When asked if he knew what really happened to Miss Garza, he answered: "She met a very cruel end."

Did he have anything to do with that? "None whatsoever," he said.

Would he take another polygraph? "Hell, no," he said. "Why? Give me a reason why."

During the test with Mr. Lindberg, Mr. Feit revealed the contents of Miss Garza's confession, the judge said. Neither Mr. Feit nor Mr. Lindberg will discuss that now.

Mr. Lindberg said he told Father Joseph O'Brien, who was then Mr. Feit's supervisor, of the breaking of the seal of confession.

"Father O'Brien said, 'That's more serious than murder,'" Mr. Lindberg recalled.

Initially, Father O'Brien appeared to favor a hard look at Father Feit's possible role, Mr. Lindberg said. "I think he felt Feit did it."

Later, though, that belief seemed to fade. "He seemed to have a change of heart, for whatever reason," Mr. Lindberg said. "He was attempting to make it [the polygraph results] less condemning."

Father O'Brien is now retired and living in San Antonio. He could not be interviewed due to health problems.

Local law enforcement at the time did not seem interested in aggressively investigating the young priest, Mr. Lindberg said. "The problem was that in a 99 percent Catholic community 42 years ago, a different era, it was something public officials wanted to tread very lightly on," he said.

Others agreed with that assessment.

W.L. "Sonny" Miller reviewed the case file before he retired from the McAllen Police Department in 1996. He said a lead investigator with the sheriff's department, now deceased, was "continually a stumbling block" in the original probe.

"He couldn't believe a priest would do something like this," Mr. Miller said.

Mrs. De La Vina, the murder victim's aunt, said that early on, the family did not believe police were doing a good job. So Miss Garza's heartbroken, angry parents went to Sacred Heart Catholic Church to confront Father Feit and Father O'Brien.

"He [Feit] was behind the desk and Father O'Brien was right there with him, and my sister said, 'I want you to tell me what you did with my daughter,'" Mrs. De La Vina said. "Just like that, you know. [Feit said] 'Oh, well, nothing, she just came here. She said she wanted to go to confession and I told her just to go on to the church, that all the priests were there.'"

Father O'Brien assured the family, Mrs. De La Vina said, that the church would punish Mr. Feit if they found he had done wrong. He also told them, she said, that "church punishment was greater" than he might receive from the courts.

"We always thought they [priests] were so saintly," she said, "but this guy was just a devil in disguise.

"They [police] had everything," Mrs. De La Vina said. "Why didn't they pursue it further? I don't know. It was just a big, big cover-up. At that time, you know how they covered up everything for the church."

Former McAllen Chief Mussey, now 88, acknowledged that his memory of details of the case is spotty. But he insisted repeatedly that the investigation was stymied when church officials removed Mr. Feit from McAllen.

"Father Feit, they put him out of here real quick," Mr. Mussey said. "By the time we got the girl out of the water, he was gone, and nobody here got to talk to him at all."

Edinburg case

Mr. Feit explains it now as necessary refuge. "I had a complete nervous breakdown. My friends took care of me," he said. He won't say where he was taken or for how long.

"I just folded under the pressure," he said. "I was not equipped to handle this at the time it happened."

He denies that police went easy on him, because he recalls being "grilled" by the Texas Rangers. The Rangers, he said, offered to drop the murder charges if he would plead guilty to the attack of a woman in an Edinburg church.

"They said, 'Listen, we've got you dead in the water on this Edinburg thing, so plead to it, and we'll forget about that other thing,'" he said. "I thought what am I gonna do now?"

Mr. Feit refused the deal. Although the murder investigation faded, he was indicted in the Edinburg case for assault with intent to rape.

Maria America Guerra, 20, was attacked as she knelt to pray in an empty church. A man tried to grab her and stuff a white handkerchief in her mouth, she said. She escaped by biting the man's hand and running away.

The incident occurred less than a month before Miss Garza's murder, and only about eight miles from the McAllen church.

On the witness stand, Miss Guerra identified Father Feit as the man who assaulted her.

"It looked like a slam dunk," Mr. Feit recalled last month. "She pointed at me [and said], 'He's the one who did it.' But the jury didn't hear enough to believe the poor child's story."

The jury deadlocked, and a mistrial was declared.

Miss Guerra later married and moved to the border town of Roma, where she worked for many years as a school librarian. She declined through a family member to be interviewed for this story.

Authorities say Mr. Feit ultimately pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of aggravated assault in the Edinburg case. Mr. Feit says now that his "religious superiors" told him that a plea had been entered for him. "But to this day I don't know what I pled no contest to."

Left the priesthood

In 1966 Mr. Feit joined the Servants of the Paraclete, the religious order that ran a New Mexico retreat for troubled priests. He left the priesthood in 1972 and married.

He lives now in Phoenix and works for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Catholic charity.

In McAllen, the Garza murder has remained a painful memory.

"The case has not faded away," Chief Rodriguez said. "There continues to be interest in this case and there continues to be a need for resolution It's kind of just hung over us for a long, long time."

But the investigation lay dormant until this past summer. Then, national revelations about priests sexually assaulting children and young adults made headlines.

In August, at Chief Rodriguez's request, a cold-case unit of the Texas Rangers agreed to help reopen the Garza matter. "We are examining what we have and trying to determine what the evidence tells us today," he said.

The chief would not say what that evidence is. But investigators are believed to be analyzing Miss Garza's clothing - still in police possession - for any material that could be tested for DNA, such as hair, blood or semen. The chief would not address questions about how well it would have been preserved after five days in a canal and 42 years in storage.

Mr. Feit said this month that he has not been contacted by authorities. "I've heard nothing from my friends in Texas," he said.

Some of Miss Garza's family welcome the renewed police interest. "It's about time," said her aunt, Mrs. De La Vina.

Josie Cavazos, Miss Garza's sister, said she has made her peace with the past.

"I've already forgiven the person, whoever did it, whoever it is," she said. "And my mom and dad had forgiven him and let it go." Both parents are dead.

Miss Garza is buried in McAllen next to her father. Faded peach fabric flowers rest in a vase on her grave.

Now living in California, Mrs. Cavazos said she has no interest in vengeance. "I feel like that's between the person who murdered my sister and God," she said. "And if he's asked God for forgiveness, he's going to heaven just as much as anybody else, so what's the point in all this? The Lord takes care of all these things."

Mr. Feit said he remains unworried by the possibility, however faint, of a murder indictment.

"What the district attorney in Hidalgo County chooses to do at this time is completely out of my hands. I'm not going to sweat it," he said. "I'm just hanging out and having fun."


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