South Texas DA Refuses to Pursue Ex-Priest
1960 Murder Case Remains Unsolved Despite New Witnesses
By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
November 21, 2004
[Note: For a better sense of the layout of this story, see this PDF. We will provide a better-quality copy when we obtain one. The Dallas Morning News has also posted a version of the timeline from this article.]
McAllen, Texas - Police thought they had cracked the sensational old murder case and finally could make an arrest. They thought their new witnesses might finally mean justice for Irene Garza, a schoolteacher who vanished from church on Easter weekend in 1960 after meeting a young priest named John Feit.
The police, however, ran into an immovable opponent on their own side of the law: veteran Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, who refused to prosecute.
Mr. Guerra publicly criticized investigators' work and called the case unsolvable unless "you believe pigs can fly." He refused for months to take it to a grand jury before relenting under pressure from the victim's family. He had assistant prosecutors present evidence this year - but they had "no targets in mind," Mr. Guerra acknowledged recently, and the secret proceeding ended with no indictment.
The main obstacles to prosecution, Mr. Guerra said, are contradictory physical evidence gathered in 1960 and the new witnesses' unreliability.
But old police records obtained by The Dallas Morning News call that explanation into question, as do interviews with the new witnesses.
Two of Mr. Feit's former clergy colleagues, for example, say he incriminated himself in individual conversations with them many years ago.
The police records outline several factors that made him the prime suspect almost as soon as the 25-year-old woman's raped and bludgeoned remains were found in a McAllen canal, five days after her disappearance:
• His portable photographic slide viewer lay near where Ms. Garza's body was dumped.
• He changed his statements to investigators.
• He had met privately with the victim at a church residence on the night she disappeared, then was repeatedly absent from work and returned with injuries to his hands.
• He was a suspect in an assault around the same time on a young woman who resembled Ms. Garza, at another area church. Mr. Feit ultimately was convicted in that case.
• He failed lie-detector tests regarding both attacks.
The News obtained the documents from a source outside law enforcement after Mr. Guerra refused to release records and threatened to prosecute McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez if he did so.
The chief said that much of Mr. Guerra's conduct since the murder investigation was reopened in 2002 had been "completely contrary to the role of a prosecutor." He said he was at a loss to explain it.
Mr. Feit, who left the priesthood and married in the 1970s, said he considers the case closed because of the grand jury action.
Told of his former colleagues' statements, he responded: "Oh, that's very interesting. That's a story right there. Go with it."
Mr. Feit, 72, did not answer when a reporter asked about his property's presence at the crime scene. Instead, he walked away and entered his office at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity in Phoenix where he has worked as a high-profile layman.
In 1960, Mr. Feit told investigators that he did not kill Ms. Garza, and he has repeated that denial to reporters in recent years.
He declined to talk to police during the recent investigation, however. According to a law enforcement source, an investigator who attempted to ask Mr. Feit about his work as a priest in McAllen got this response: "That man doesn't exist anymore."
Prosecutors did not subpoena Mr. Feit to appear before the grand jury, which would have forced him to testify or invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
"If everybody has presumed that you are guilty of a crime, that doesn't mean that I'm going to put you there [in front of grand jurors] so that will be the straw that breaks the camel's back," Mr. Guerra said. "I don't work that way."
The documents provided to The News contain no sign of the contradictory physical evidence cited by the district attorney. Mr. Guerra initially would not elaborate, although he did say authorities couldn't determine how and when Mr. Feit's slide viewer ended up in the canal. Later, he said that police had "screwed up" evidence in 1960 - by handling Ms. Garza's purse, for example, before dusting it for fingerprints.
Some statements Mr. Guerra made in a series of recent interviews with The News do not square with the original case records.
'That's a lie'
For example, he said there was no documentation that Mr. Feit suffered injuries on the night Ms. Garza disappeared. Yet the records show that the suspect and a colleague talked with investigators about scratches on his hands, which Mr. Feit blamed on a series of mishaps.
Mr. Guerra said he didn't think his office had the statements Mr. Feit gave police in 1960.
"I don't recall that we have any statements by any target of that investigation back then, because it was truly an investigation where everybody was a possible target," he said.
|John Feit, who has worked as a layman at a Catholic charity in Phoenix, said he considers the McAllen case closed.
The prosecutor became particularly animated when asked about the polygraph tests, which indicated that Mr. Feit was deceptive when he denied attacking the two women.
"That's a lie. That's a lie," Mr. Guerra said, suggesting that media reports that the priest had failed were based on the recollection of polygraph examiner George Lindberg, now a federal judge in Illinois.
When a reporter read him excerpts to the contrary from Mr. Lindberg's 1960 report, Mr. Guerra then said he didn't recall that the test had found deception. Polygraph results, he noted, are not admissible in court.
Mr. Guerra said he had entrusted details of this year's grand jury presentation to two of his top prosecutors, whom he refused to make available for an interview.
"The grand jury heard every detail," Mr. Guerra said. "The final word has been spoken through a grand jury."
The renewed police investigation revived haunting memories for many longtime residents of Hidalgo County, an overwhelmingly Catholic community on the Mexican border.
Chief Rodriguez enlisted the Texas Rangers' elite cold-case unit, which helped turn up several new witnesses to supplement old evidence. Neither the chief nor the Rangers would comment about details of the case.
The most significant new witnesses were the Rev. Joseph O'Brien, with whom Mr. Feit worked temporarily at McAllen's Sacred Heart Catholic Church in 1960; and Dale Tacheny, who was a priest at a Missouri monastery that later sheltered Mr. Feit.
Both men say Mr. Feit made incriminating statements that they had kept private for many years out of a sense of religious obligation. They say they learned only recently about their similar experiences with the priest and each other's cooperation with police.
Mr. Guerra said it would be "unfortunate" if the men had concealed a crime. But he also scoffed at the idea. "The church cooperated 150 percent with the  investigation," he said.
The district attorney was a high school student then and lived, as he has most of his life, in Hidalgo County.
He attended, and sometimes still attends, a Catholic church in the county seat of Edinburg that figured in the original inquiry. A few weeks before Ms. Garza disappeared, another young woman reported that a man had grabbed her from behind as she prayed alone in the church, put a cloth over her mouth and thrown her to the floor. When she bit his finger and screamed, he fled.
The woman identified the assailant as Mr. Feit, who did not work at the church but had visited that day. She testified against him in a trial that ended with a hung jury. Later, he pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of aggravated assault and was fined $500.
Mr. Guerra said he found no significance in the plea: "When I see something like that, a no-contest plea after a hung jury, I consider some of those accommodation settlements. That's like the frivolous lawsuits - sometimes you pay money even though you're not guilty because you can't afford the lawyer who's defending you."
Some of Ms. Garza's relatives and some former law officers have publicly suggested that Mr. Guerra has resisted prosecuting the case for religious reasons. He vehemently denies that.
"The indirect accusation people are making," he said, is "that I want to protect a murderer because he's a Catholic." But "this has nothing to do with Catholicism."
Mr. Guerra said he concluded that Father O'Brien and Mr. Tacheny were unreliable based on information from police and other sources, whom he would not identify. He acknowledged that he and his staff never sought to interview the witnesses.
Told that The News had interviewed Father O'Brien, Mr. Guerra asked, "Is he in a condition to say anything, mental condition?" He said the witness was of "questionable status" and had "a lot of problems," which he would not describe.
Father O'Brien, 76, left active ministry a few years ago and lives in San Antonio at a clergy retirement home run by his religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The News found that the priest was physically weak - slow on his feet, short of breath, easily tired - but alert and quick to recall many names from decades ago.
"I was surprised they didn't talk to me," Father O'Brien said of the prosecutor's office. He said he was disappointed that Mr. Feit was not indicted and added: "I'd love for it to be resolved."
Father O'Brien said he suspected Mr. Feit almost immediately after Ms. Garza was reported missing, because of the scratches on his hands and because he gave conflicting explanations for them. He said that before the body was found, he searched the basement and attic of Sacred Heart's residence for clues but found nothing.
Records show that during the original investigation, Father O'Brien shared his suspicions about the injuries with police. Today, he is blunt: "They were fingernail scratches," he told The News.
Father O'Brien said he repeatedly pressed Mr. Feit in 1960 to admit guilt, once nearly provoking a fistfight. After police had questioned Mr. Feit for the last time, he got the admission he had been seeking, he said.
It came, he recalled, after "I said, 'John, how can I help you if I don't know the truth?'"
Father O'Brien said he could not remember other details of that conversation, which occurred privately at the Oblates' regional headquarters in San Antonio.
He did not report the admission to police then, he said, because he believed his offer of help had put him under a duty of confidentiality to his fellow Oblate. And he said he feared that Mr. Feit might deny the statement and sue him for slander.
Publicly, Father O'Brien steered attention away from the church as recently as four years ago. Interviewed for a city of McAllen cable TV show on unsolved crimes, he said the original investigation may have "focused too much on the church and [Ms. Garza's] friends."
Father O'Brien said he felt free to speak after he was told recently that Mr. Feit had made similar admissions to other clergymen.
Dale Tacheny, a 75-year-old tax consultant in Oklahoma City, said he was one of those men.
In the early 1960s, as a priest in the Trappist order, he worked at a monastery in rural southern Missouri that had little contact with the outside world. His job was to oversee and counsel newcomers, who in 1963 included Mr. Feit.
Mr. Tacheny said the monastery's leader, who is deceased, told him that Mr. Feit had killed a woman.
The new resident gradually began to talk with him about the crime but expressed no remorse, Mr. Tacheny said. He said Mr. Feit eventually recognized that he had a sexual compulsion to attack women from behind and learned to control it.
He said Mr. Feit told him that his religious superiors had helped him avoid a murder charge. Those superiors are now deceased; national representatives of the Oblates did not respond to interview requests.
The priest, Mr. Tacheny said, told him that shortly before Easter, he had heard a young woman's confession in a church residence because she felt uncomfortable going into the sanctuary. These details match Mr. Feit's 1960 statement to police.
According to Mr. Tacheny, the priest said he had attacked and restrained the woman, kept her in the residence basement temporarily, hid her in another clergy residence until she suffocated with a bag over her head, and dumped her body in a canal on Easter Sunday night.
The autopsy report said Ms. Garza, who suffered a major head wound, could have been suffocated. It estimated that her body was put in the canal on Easter.
Mr. Feit never named his victim, Mr. Tacheny said, and never said when or where the crime had occurred. He said he came to assume that it had taken place in 1963 in San Antonio, where Mr. Feit had been before arriving at the monastery that year. Mr. Tacheny finally took this information to police in 2002.
Mr. Guerra, the district attorney, said that because Mr. Tacheny placed the crime in the wrong city and year, he was useless as a witness.
"I can't go into court with something like that," he said. "No explanation can be used."
Mr. Guerra expressed skepticism of Mr. Tacheny because he left the priesthood many years ago and married, and thus might have "an ax to grind" with the church. The prosecutor also said he suspected that Mr. Tacheny hoped to cash in with a book about the case.
Mr. Tacheny said he had no plans to write a book and no grudge against the church. He said he had once agreed to contribute to a book of clergy memoirs but withdrew from the project after reflecting on his encounters with Mr. Feit. He said he realized then that he needed to go to police instead. The editor of the book, which has since been published, confirmed this account.
Speaking out has brought him no financial gain and put him at risk of being sued, Mr. Tacheny said. But it has been a relief, he added, to tell the truth at last.
"I was part of a cover-up," he said.
Earlier this year, Mr. Tacheny visited South Texas to pay his respects at Irene Garza's grave and apologize to her survivors.
His actions and the renewed police investigation have left the relatives feeling somewhat vindicated but frustrated with Mr. Guerra.
They want the case turned over to a special prosecutor, a move that Mr. Guerra refuses to approve. The case could be prosecuted, he said, only if there were DNA evidence or a corroborated confession.
Noemi Ponce Sigler, a distant relative of Ms. Garza's, has spent years digging into the murder, and she's not giving up. She's convinced that Mr. Guerra decided not to prosecute without considering all the facts.
"The plan of Rene Guerra," she said, "is to bury the facts with Irene."
The prosecutor said the recent police investigation had been a hopeless undertaking.
"It was just a wasted effort and wasted energy and wasted time," he said. "Justice for Irene Garza, I think, was out the window many years ago."
In talking about his reluctance to prosecute Mr. Feit, Mr. Guerra said he knew how it felt to be falsely accused. He referred to various misconduct allegations that have been made against him over the years.
For example, he faces a lawsuit filed by a lawyer whom he has twice tried to prosecute on theft charges. Mr. Guerra called a judge in one of those cases a chimpanzee, drawing a public reprimand from the State Bar.
And in 1995, a grand jury issued a public report concluding that he had failed to prosecute a murder suspect and his associates, whom police accused of destroying the victim's body and other evidence. Mr. Guerra said the report contained lies that he was not given a chance to refute.
"I have walked in the shoes of a target, and that target was innocent," the district attorney said. "I've been there. It wasn't comfortable.
"If John Feit did this," Mr. Guerra added, "I hope that he will atone for his sin."
As for Ms. Garza, he said: "I think if she died leaving that church after confession, that she died in a state of grace and she should be in heaven, as I believe in God."
Anatomy of a Murder Case
John Feit has been the prime suspect in Irene Garza's rape and murder since April 1960, when she vanished after going to church in McAllen on the night before Easter. Here are key dates in the case:
A man attacks Maria America Guerra, 20, while she prays alone at a church in Edinburg. He flees after she bites his finger and screams. Ms. Guerra later identifies the man as Father Feit. A witness says she saw Father Feit running from the church shortly after the screaming.
Irene Garza, 25, disappears after going to Sacred Heart Catholic Church near her McAllen home. Her parents, with whom she lives, tell police she phoned a priest about 6:45 p.m. to arrange for a confession and promised to return home soon. Several parishioners say they saw her that evening at the church, which had long lines of people waiting to make confessions. Her car is found about a block from the church. [Compare Father Feit's Account below.]
April 18 and 19
Searchers find Ms. Garza's left shoe and purse at separate roadside locations a few miles from the church.
Ms. Garza's body is found in an irrigation canal about a mile from Sacred Heart. Police begin to suspect Father Feit after learning that he had been in Edinburg on March 23 about the time that Ms. Guerra was attacked.
Police ask for the public's help in identifying the owner of a film-slide viewer found where Ms. Garza's body was dumped. Two days later, Father Feit acknowledges that the equipment is his.
June 8, 9 and 17
He fails lie detector tests administered by one of the nation's leading polygraph firms. [See On the Lie Detector below.]
The Texas Rangers, who are assisting local police, question Father Feit extensively.
Authorities try to arrest Father Feit on a charge of assault with intent to rape Ms. Guerra but discover that he has left Texas. He is declared a fugitive and surrenders about a week later, saying he has been in a hospital recuperating from the stress of interrogations.
His prosecution on the assault charge ends in a mistrial, with jurors deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction.
Father Feit pleads no contest to aggravated assault, a reduced charge. He is fined $500. His attorney says he will return to an unnamed out-of-state hospital.
The priest enters Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery in southwestern Missouri.
Father Feit joins the Servants of the Paraclete religious order at its New Mexico treatment center, where he had been a patient. He later becomes a supervisor and helps child molesters return to ministry.
Father Feit leaves the priesthood, marries and has children.
1990s to present
He works in Phoenix for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity. For years, he is an administrator and spokesman, sometimes testifying before the Arizona Legislature about homelessness.
McAllen police reopen the Garza murder investigation. Two of Mr. Feit's former colleagues in the clergy say he told them long ago that he was responsible for Ms. Garza's death.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra says the case is too weak to prosecute.
Mr. Guerra, under pressure from Ms. Garza's family, presents the case to a grand jury. In June, it declines to indict Mr. Feit.
ON THE LIE DETECTOR
• The written report of examiner George Lindberg, who asked him about both the Garza and Guerra crimes, states that:
• While being tested, Father Feit limited his breathing to four respirations a minute, down from his usual 16 to 20. "A person who purposely controls his respiration during these examinations is concealing the truth." Mr. Lindberg told Father Feit to stop, but the priest persisted.
• Asked if he would like to suggest additional questions, Father Feit offered: "Do you believe it is possible that you may have said something or acted in some way to cause Irene's death?" He said the answer was yes, because of "the harsh way he had treated her in the rectory the evening she disappeared."
• Mr. Lindberg asked Father Feit "why the lie detector charts showed that he was not telling the truth when he denied committing either of the crimes." The priest said that, contrary to his previous sworn statement to police, he had heard Ms. Garza's confession in the rectory.
• When urged to admit guilt, Father Feit said "there will never be any evidence turning up" and that "without a confession on his part, there is not enough evidence in either of those cases to convict him or that a good defense attorney could not tear holes in." He referred to two long-unsolved murders in the area and said that the Garza case, "like those, will be soon forgotten."
• Father Feit ultimately tried to explain his test performance by saying that a man he didn't know confessed to him that he had attacked Ms. Guerra. "The subject was queried as to where the confession was obtained, and he told the examiner that it was not in the confessional box, not in the rectory, but out in the open someplace and was very vague as to where this open place was."
FATHER FEIT'S ACCOUNT
The priest, who was helping out at Sacred Heart during Holy Week, initially gave police this sworn account of his actions on the weekend Mr. Garza disappeared:
He receives a phone call at the priests' residence from a woman he does not know. She insists on meeting with a priest privately because she fears being overheard in a confessional. He agrees to see her.
7:10 to 7:20 p.m.
Ms. Garza and Father Feit meet alone at the residence, next door to the church, where she talks about "a personal problem" that he won't reveal. He sends her to the sanctuary to make her confession with one of Sacred Heart's three full-time priests. He enters the fourth confessional.
He later changes his story and says he heard her confession in the residence - an unusual move.
8 to 8:15 p.m.
Father Feit gets the rectory keys from the Rev. Joseph O'Brien and takes a short break alone next door, then returns to the confessional.
Father O'Brien tells police he did not see his colleague return. Parishioners say Father Feit's confessional line stopped moving for much longer than 15 minutes
He takes another short break alone at the rectory.
His glasses break because of his "nervous habit of playing around" with them. He borrows a colleague's car and drives to his clergy residence, which is in San Juan, 12 to 15 minutes away, to get his extra pair of glasses. He says he doesn't have keys to the facility so he props a wooden road barricade against the house and climbs up it to enter through a balcony, scraping his hands on the brick wall. He washes up, changes clothes and drives back to Sacred Heart in McAllen, where he helps with an 11 p.m. service and spends the night.
Here is Father Feit's sworn account of his actions:
He celebrates Easter Mass at a chapel near Sacred Heart, suffering from a headache that he blames on the substitute glasses. He borrows a car and drives to San Juan to try to fix the broken pair. He fails and returns to McAllen for another Mass.
Father Feit returns to San Juan with colleagues, realizes he has left clothes in McAllen and borrows another colleague's car to retrieve them. Ms. Garza's parents, who have reported her disappearance to police, come to speak with him at Sacred Heart. He tells them he said nothing to their daughter that might have upset her.
Father Feit begins to fear he "had said something, unintentionally, that might have upset the girl. ... I was worried, so I drove around aimlessly for a while." He stops for a root beer at a burger stand around 9:45 p.m.
Police records say the burger stand closed at 9:30 p.m. Father Feit later tells investigators that Ms. Garza cried when he rebuked her for seeking to confess at the residence instead of standing in line next door.
• "On several occasions throughout the day and evening Feit offered to make a statement of admission, but always adding that it would not be true. We declined to take a statement of this type."
• "On several occasions when pointed questions were asked, he would reply, 'I don't remember.' When we insisted that he could remember, he would say, 'They told me to say that.'"
•"He repeatedly told the writer that he did have a guilt but would never state the extent of his guilt."
•"Information received and partially confirmed by Feit indicates that he will be sent to a monastery."
SOURCES: Police records; court records; newspaper archives; Dallas Morning News research