After 43 Years, Torment of Slaying Still Lingers
Despite New Evidence, There's Still No Arrest in Woman's 1960 Killing

By James Pinkerton
Houston Chronicle
December 7, 2003

Edinburg - For more than four decades, family and friends have been haunted by the unsolved rape and murder of Irene Garza.

That no one has answered for the violent death of Garza - a 25-year-old elementary school teacher and former beauty queen - has tormented not only her family, but has rankled local police, her friends and members of the elite Texas Rangers.

Garza's body, beaten and sexually assaulted, was pulled from a McAllen canal in April 1960, five days after she was last seen at her local parish.

Suspicion quickly focused on a young Catholic priest who heard her confession the day she disappeared, and was one of the last people to see Garza alive. But the priest, grilled by McAllen police and Texas Rangers and given four polygraph examinations by a nationally known firm in 1960, was never charged or even publicly named as a suspect, according to former McAllen police officers involved in the investigation.

Now, a re-investigation of the Garza case has been completed by the McAllen Police Department, along with the Texas Rangers' newly formed cold case squad, and investigators are pressing for the arrest of a suspect.

But the case has caused an acrimonious dispute between law enforcement and the Hidalgo County district attorney.

District Attorney Rene Guerra, citing problems with evidence, has resisted requests to present the case to a grand jury. And he said the police have refreshed the memories of aging witnesses and leaked evidence to the news media that would prejudice a jury.

"You do know that in this case a lot of people have personal motivations," the prosecutor said, without elaborating. "I know some people are writing books, they want to be in a cold case movie, or on TV, or write a book like John Grisham."

Other than Garza's family, the prosecutor said, "there are personal motivations that have nothing to do with justice."

A source familiar with the investigation said Guerra angrily blocked police plans to arrest the suspect last month, vowing to dismiss any case brought by the police.

McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said an extensive re-examination of the case has yielded new evidence that provides probable cause to arrest a suspect. The chief declined to discuss the nature of the new evidence.

"This case needs to be tried by a jury, not a single person," Rodriguez told the McAllen Monitor newspaper last month. "We're in a holding pattern until the district attorney's office gives us a formal determination."

The chief said he forwarded the results of the re-examination to Guerra's office in September, adding he has not heard back, he told the Chronicle.

"Over the last two years, we have identified new evidence in this case . . . not previously known to the investigation," Rodriguez said. "At this juncture, it is our belief that everyone that is involved in this case, the DA's office included, agrees that probable cause can be established and therefore, an arrest is possible."

But Guerra, while refusing to discuss the new evidence, said it does not include a DNA match to a suspect, or witness accounts of the killing or admissions of guilt by a suspect.

"Some people think there is DNA (evidence) in this case - there's no DNA. . . . If we had DNA in this case, we would have already been selecting a jury," Guerra said. "There is absolutely no DNA that police have brought forth in this investigation that we could tie a target to."

Guerra added: "We do not have anybody who said to law enforcement back then, 'I saw this person with Irene Garza.' We don't have anyone who heard a confession (from a suspect) - that he or she confessed to killing Irene Garza - there's no evidence whatsoever of that nature. Not then or now."

The decision whether to ask for a grand jury review of the case won't be announced until later this month or in January, Guerra said.

Meanwhile, Garza's family waits. Members organized a courthouse vigil on Nov. 1 - the eve of Day of the Dead - to honor her memory. Garza's mother and father have both died.

"We simply want to identify the killer, if possible, because this is an animalist predator," said Noemi Ponce Sigler, the victim's cousin by marriage. "He didn't run her over with a car and drive off. It was intentional, it was brutal."

Sigler said an examination of Garza's body after it was pulled from a canal found she had been bludgeoned on the head, raped while in a coma and then suffocated.

"When I talk to Chief Rodriguez and the Texas Rangers, they are passionate about what a good case they have compiled," said Sigler. "They are very confident this should be heard by a grand jury, at the very least, and that's all we want."

Texas Ranger Lt. Tony Leal, who heads the Texas Rangers' cold case squad in Austin, said the case was re-investigated because Rangers assisted McAllen police during the initial investigation in 1960.

"We have submitted a case to the district attorney for review, and any further action will be up to him," Leal said. "I have not heard anything from him, period."

Leal would not comment on the nature of the evidence turned over to prosecutors, or identify the suspect in the case.

"No new suspects were developed in addition to those already identified in 1960. However, we feel that we have conducted a thorough and complete investigation, and that investigation has been forwarded to the DA for review," Leal said. "If there are any further investigative studies that the DA is wishing to be pursued, we are more than willing to conduct any further investigation he requests."

Garza's disappearance on April 16, 1960 - the day before Easter - triggered an extensive search operation in the McAllen area, the family recalled.

At one point, carloads of police officers rushed to the neighboring community of Hidalgo after receiving a false tip she was being held in a hotel. It was an agonizing wait, and the family even received a hoax call from someone posing as the missing woman, pleading to be rescued, family members said.

Garza's aunt, Herlinda De La Vina, recalled that her sister was "in a state of shock" when her daughter did not return home from going to confession at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen. Her car was found parked near the church.

"It wasn't like her to stay out, so they (her parents) knew something happened, but they didn't know what," De La Vina, 86, recalled.

Five days later, on April 21, her sister was notified that Garza's body was found in an irrigation canal in McAllen.

"My sister was screaming," De La Vina recalled. "My son was 4 years old then, and he remembers her screams. It's very hard for me to go through this."

Soon, local police were focusing on the Rev. John B. Feit, then 27, an assistant priest who was assigned to the Sacred Heart Church.

"Well, as far as they knew, he was one of the last ones to see her alive. She had gone to confession with him at the church. Someone saw her walk out of the church and go down the street. And then she disappeared," said Detective Bob Jeffreys, who was with the McAllen police from 1958 to 1980. "He's the only one they concentrated on."

Feit told police he heard Garza's confession in the parish rectory because she was concerned they would be overheard. He said the young woman's request for a confession outside the sanctuary upset him, but he heard it, gave her some advice and she left.

He denied any role in her death both to police, and to Garza's parents, who visited the church and confronted him.

"He didn't know anything about it," Jeffreys recalled.

Jeffreys, who helped recover Garza's body from the canal, said there was no physical or forensic evidence that directly linked Feit to the crime.

But investigators were suspicious about a deep scratch or cut Feit had on his wrist, Jeffreys said. The priest's explanation was that he returned to the church and found it locked, and cut his wrist while attempting to gain entry, Jeffreys said.

As the priest was questioned about Garza's murder, he became a suspect in an unrelated attempted rape of a young woman attending church. Maria America Guerra, a college student who was attacked while kneeling in prayer at a Catholic church in the neighboring city of Edinburg in March 1960, identified Feit as the man who attempted to assault her.

U.S. District Judge George W. Lindberg of the Northern District of Illinois was the polygraph examiner who questioned Feit about the Garza murder and the attempted rape of Guerra.

"I do remember that I tested him on several days, and right from the beginning the polygraph records indicated he was untruthful in his denial of killing Irene Garza," Lindberg said, adding that he believes Feit lied when he denied assaulting Guerra.

That investigation led to Feit's indictment in August 1960 on felony charges of assault with intent to rape Guerra. The trial was moved to Austin because of extensive publicity, and in September 1961 the trial judge declared a mistrial after the jury could not agree on a verdict.

Feit returned to the Rio Grande Valley and pleaded nolo contendere to a misdemeanor charge of assault in March 1962 and paid a $ 500 fine.

Feit, no longer a priest, did not return messages left by the Chronicle at his home and work in Phoenix, where he is married and does volunteer work for Catholic charities.

In August, the former priest flatly denied any involvement in the murder in an interview with the Brownsville Herald.

"If you are asking me if I am the man that killed Irene Garza, I am not that man," Feit told the newspaper. "I did not kill her."

At home in Edinburg, De La Vina is again waiting for news about her niece, this time hoping a case against her killer can be made. While she waits, she showed visitors a family scrapbook containing photographs of Garza, from a toddler to a young woman.

There were snapshots of Garza at her parochial school, and during her years at McAllen High School, where she was drum major and homecoming queen. Garza had won local beauty competitions sponsored by Pan American University, the Catholic War Veterans and the Miss South Texas pageant, De La Vina recalled.

"She was beautiful, she was a perfect girl. She had high morals, very high morals," her aunt said.

De La Vina, and others in the family, hope the new investigation will answer the question that has tortured them for 43 years.

"We've always wondered what happened to Irene Garza," said Sigler, the victim's cousin.


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