DA Won't Prosecute Suspect in 43-Year-Old McAllen Slaying;
He Says Staff Attorneys Will Review File for 'Conclusive Evidence'

By Doug J. Swanson
Dallas Morning News
October 16, 2003

Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said Wednesday that he has decided for now not to prosecute a suspect recently identified by police in the murder 43 years ago of McAllen teacher Irene Garza.

But Mr. Guerra said he would not make a final decision until two attorneys on his staff have reviewed the file prepared by McAllen police and the Texas Rangers. For the moment, though, the district attorney said he does not find "any new conclusive evidence that would warrant a prosecution."

That review should be done by next month, he said.

Ms. Garza, a 25-year-old second-grade teacher and former beauty pageant queen, disappeared April 16, 1960. She had gone to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown McAllen for confession.

Several days later, her body was discovered in a canal. An autopsy found that she had been sexually assaulted and beaten.

Suspicion quickly fell on John Feit, the priest who heard her confession. He could not account for his whereabouts when Ms. Garza vanished. He also failed a polygraph test and was a suspect in an attack on another woman.

Neither the priest, who has denied any involvement, nor anyone else was charged in Ms. Garza's death. Authorities reopened the case last year.

Last month, McAllen police and the Rangers gave Hidalgo County prosecutors the results of their investigation. "We sent them a completed case with what we thought was a viable suspect," said Lt. Tony Leal of the Rangers' cold-case unit.

Lt. Leal would not identify the suspect but said he was confident that his investigators had assembled a good case.

"We are the Texas Rangers, and we know what we're doing," he said. "We have sent a completed file there. We don't know what else we could do."

Mr. Guerra said the investigation produced contradictory statements from witnesses and no new physical evidence. "There's no DNA," he said. "If there was DNA, we'd already be selecting a jury."

Because of the high-profile nature of the case, he said, he will have two assistant district attorneys review the file.

Mr. Feit left McAllen shortly after Ms. Garza's death - on orders from his church superiors - and later left the priesthood.

Now living in Phoenix, he did not respond to requests for comment. A man who answered his phone Wednesday hung up when a reporter identified himself.

In an interview last year with The Dallas Morning News, Mr. Feit said he had nothing to do with the woman's death. "I did not kill Irene Garza," he said.

Lt. Leal of the Rangers would not say whether his officers interviewed Mr. Feit but said he is satisfied that no further investigative work is needed.

"It's like we painted a room and all the walls," he said. "We can only paint it so many times."

But the district attorney said the absence of fingerprints, blood or any other physical evidence makes the case very difficult to prosecute.

"Going to court on a case 43 years later without some scientific evidence really puts us at a disadvantage," he said.

All the new findings, Mr. Guerra said, arise from "people coming forth and saying they know this and they know that."

Their statements are sketchy and contradictory, he said.

"I want someone to come in and give me details only the killer would know," Mr. Guerra said. "I haven't gotten it. That's my concern."

He also objected to any suggestion that he was protecting the church.

"I'm a Catholic. That doesn't mean I'm going to dishonor my oath of office," Mr. Guerra said.


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