McAllen Slaying Still Not Solved
Grand Jury Returns a No Bill in the 44-Year-Old Homicide Case

By Mariano Castillo
San Antonio Express-News [Texas]
June 10, 2004

Edinburg - McAllen police closed the books on a 44-year-old homicide case Wednesday after a grand jury decided not to indict a former priest who was the last person to see the victim alive.

The 1960 disappearance and killing of Irene Garza remains unsolved.

"This is the end of the criminal investigation," Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said after his department presented new evidence he believed pointed to one suspect.

The grand jury's no bill came after more than 100 hours of testimony heard over a 14-week period. The jury's decision marked the first time John B. Feit, a former priest, was publicly named in a court document as a suspect.

Garza, 25, was an elementary school teacher known both for her heart and her striking beauty, relatives said.

The one-time Miss South Texas disappeared April 18, 1960, after she left her McAllen home to go to confession at church. Her body was found floating in a canal three days later, beaten and violated, according to news accounts at the time.

Feit, a young Catholic priest at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, told police he heard Garza's confession, making him the last person known to have seen her alive.

Police never named Feit - or anyone else - as a suspect, but he was questioned extensively by police.

Feit later was charged in a separate incident in connection with the sexual assault of a college student while she prayed in an Edinburg church. Jurors did not reach a verdict in that case, resulting in a mistrial, and Feit pleaded no contest to an attempted assault charge.

Feit, who left the priesthood and currently resides in Phoenix, could not be reached for comment.

"I was meditating, I was in prayer, I was hoping and praying for an indictment," said Noemi Ponce-Sigler, cousin of Irene Garza and one of a small group of friends who kept vigil outside the grand jury room.

"It hurt my heart. I had a pain in my heart knowing how much Irene Garza had suffered," she said after the no bill was presented to state District Judge Rose Guerra Reyna.

In 2002, the McAllen Police Department and Texas Rangers' cold case units announced they were reopening Garza's case, citing new evidence.

But not everyone was convinced of the strength of the new evidence, which police and prosecutors declined to discuss.

"Ever since I was given a summary of the case after a preliminary investigation by the Rangers and the McAllen Police Department, I had some very serious concerns about a 44-year-old case coming into the criminal justice system," Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said. "Absent fingerprints, absent any scientific testing, you have to rely on 40-plus-year-old memories."

Homer Vasquez, one of the prosecutors who presented the case to the grand jury said that if people were upset with the outcome, it was not by lack of effort by the district attorney's office.

"Everything that was gathered, every witness that was talked to, every piece of evidence and lab report, this grand jury looked at," he said.


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