Killer Priest?

By David J. Krajicek
New York Daily News
April 24, 2005

On the last day of her life, Irene Garza went to confession.

The lovely 25-year-old drove her father's Ford 12 blocks from her family's home in McAllen, Tex., to their Catholic church, Sacred Heart.

The date was April 16, 1960, the day before Easter Sunday.

Garza enjoyed a modest celebrity among the parishioners, and many people noticed her at the busy church that afternoon.

She had been the first Latina head drum majorette at McAllen High School. She was prom and homecoming queen while studying at Pan American College in nearby Edinburg, and in 1958 she won the title of Miss South Texas.

Her parents, who owned a dry-cleaning business, were admired for raising a proper, devout daughter. She was active in the parish Legion of Mary, and after college she took a job teaching school on the poor, Hispanic side of town.

Garza had made plans with a girlfriend to see a movie that night, and she may have been impatient while waiting in the long confessional line. At some point, she left the church and went to the adjacent rectory, where she made a confession to a young priest, the Rev. John Feit. At 27, he had recently been ordained and was at Sacred Heart for a year of pastoral training.

Feit later said Garza left the rectory at 7:15 p.m.

But she did not return home that night. Her parents called police, and officers found her car still at Sacred Heart.

Grim find

Five days later her corpse was found in an irrigation canal off the Rio Grande.

The body was clothed except for shoes and underwear. Her blouse had been unbuttoned. She had two black eyes and bruises to her face and genitals. She had been raped.

McAllen police and the Texas Rangers interviewed more than 500 people and administered lie detector tests to 61 potential suspects.

One of them was Feit.

The priest explained that he heard Irene Garza's confession at the rectory - a breech of procedure - because she had asked to speak with him about a "matter of conscience." Investigators noticed scratches on Feit's hands. He explained he scraped himself while climbing a tree.

Feit denied any knowledge of the murder, but the polygraph did not go well for him.

"He was, in my opinion, consistently giving deceptive responses," the polygraph operator recently told the Dallas Morning News. "He was untruthful on the relevant question."

That question: Did you kill Irene Garza?

Meanwhile, Feit was being scrutinized in another crime.

On March 23, three weeks before Garza was killed, a man wearing black priest's trousers accosted Maria Guerra, 20, while she was praying in another McAllen area church.

The young woman escaped by biting the man's hand. She said her assailant was Feit.

Authorities brought attempted rape charges, but a jury deadlocked, and Feit agreed to plead guilty to aggravated assault. He was fined $500 and was hustled out of Texas by Catholic authorities.

Although public opinion pinned the murder of Irene Garza on the priest, prosecutors failed to bring charges.

The pastor of Sacred Heart, the Rev. Joseph O'Brien, advised the Garza family to let it be.

"He told us that the church's punishment was greater than any sentence handed down by the courts, and we believed him," the victim's aunt, Herlinda de la Vina, told Texas Monthly magazine. "Who were we to question a priest?"

Feit was sent to an abbey in Ava, Mo. In 1966 he joined the Servants of the Paraclete religious order and was assigned to run a treatment center for troubled priests in Jemez Springs, N.M. While there, Feit gave glowing recommendations for the Rev. James Porter, a notorious pervert. Feit helped Porter get a job at a parish in Fall River, Mass. He later molested more than 100 boys and girls and was defrocked in 1998.

Feit quit the priesthood in 1972. He moved to Phoenix, married and had a family, working as a spokesman for a Catholic charity.

An ugly secret

Over time, Irene Garza was forgotten by all but her loved ones.

But in 2002, amid the national priest sex abuse scandal, another former priest stepped forward to reveal a secret he had lived with for 40 years. Dale Tacheny said Feit had confessed the Garza murder to him when the two priests lived together at the Missouri abbey.

Investigators then tracked down the Rev. O'Brien, the former Sacred Heart pastor, by then retired. He admitted that Feit had confessed the murder to him just days after it happened. O'Brien withheld the information from authorities under the Catholic clergy's version of omerta.

When it learned of the new evidence, the Brownsville Herald asked prosecutor Rene Guerra whether he planned to try to solve the murder by calling a grand jury.

Guerra's reply was astounding.

"Can it be solved? Well, I guess if you believe that pigs can fly," he said. Guerra later added, "Why would anyone be haunted by her death? She died. Her killer got away."

For two years Guerra stubbornly refused to impanel a grand jury in the case. When he finally relented, his presentation was bizarre.

The grand jurors heard testimony not on consecutive days but on 15 consecutive Wednesdays in 2004, according to Texas Monthly. No cop was called until the 11th week, and Tacheny and O'Brien were not called at all. Not surprisingly, the grand jury declined to indict Feit.

Many in Texas believe the Catholic Church continues to influence the case, just as it did 45 years ago.

"Church officials told me that [Feit] was a priest and that he didn't have to talk to anyone, but only to the Pope," one investigator, Harry Cecil, now long retired, told the Brownsville Herald. "I think the Catholic Church did everything they could to cover this up ... [Feit] looked at me and said, 'You will never convict me of anything.' He was a very arrogant man."

Feit, now 72, has denied the murder in a series of odd comments to the Texas media.

"I'm just hanging out and having fun," he told the Brownsville paper. "I'm not going to sweat it."

And he told Texas Monthly, "The speculation intrigues me."


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