Break in McAllen cold case: Police arrest former beauty queen’s priest in her 1960 killing

Fifty-six years ago, a young schoolteacher went to church during the Holy Week and never came home.

The next day, a few of her possessions were found scattered along the road outside the local Sacred Heart Church, as Texas Monthly recounted. One high-heeled shoe, a patent leather handbag, a piece of crumpled white lace.

The following week, her body was found, fully-dressed and badly bruised, retrieved from a canal in which someone had left her to decompose, her corpse washed clean of evidence. An autopsy found that she had been raped while comatose.

This was Irene Garza, a 25-year-old dark-haired belle of McAllen, Texas, who was once named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart. She was her high school’s homecoming queen, the first person in her family to graduate from college and a teacher for disadvantaged children.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

Above all, Garza was a devout Catholic. The last place she was seen was at confession.

The last person to see her? Her priest.

The then 27-year-old John Feit was known to be easygoing, if not a little aloof. He had dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses, according to Texas Monthly. On the night of Garza’s disappearance, the priest heard confessions and took part in midnight Mass. That was the extent of his activities that night – or, at least, the extent of what he has disclosed to authorities in the last five decades.

Nevertheless, speculation festered. Many in the valley town knew that there was a chance Feit could have been Garza’s killer, but few dared to say it out loud. He was never indicted in the years just after her slaying, nor was he indicted when the case against him was presented to a grand jury in 2004.

- Advertisement -

Suspicion lived on mostly in disbelieving whispers: How could a priest commit such an act, after all? It was so unholy.

A now-83-year-old Feit, no longer a priest, has been arrested in connection with Garza’s killing, The Monitor in McAllen reported. He was apprehended in Phoenix, where he now resides with his family, and authorities are waiting to see whether he will contest extradition to Texas. While always denying any part in the case, Feit has not commented since his arrest and has yet to file a plea.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez told The Monitor that he is confident Feit will be tried in Hidalgo County, where the crime was committed. He said his office presented the case to the grand jury last week, and it came back with a true bill, the Monitor reported.

“We had kept it quiet as much as we could – we sealed the indictment,” he said.

- Advertisement -

The indictment comes after former Hidalgo DA Rene Guerra failed to produce one more than 10 years ago. When Rodriguez beat him in the 2014 election, Guerra challenged him to finally solve the case.

It took several police forces, including the Texas Rangers, more than five decades of sleuthing to arrive at this moment.

In the beginning, the evidence pointing to Feit was telling but not sufficient to sustain a charge. While the investigation into Garza’s slaying went on for months after her death, Feit was charged with a separate but eerily similar crime. At a Sacred Heart Church in a neighboring town, a college student named Maria America Guerra reported that she had been attacked three weeks before Garza disappeared.

While she was kneeling at the communion rail, CBS reported, a man matching Feit’s description grabbed her from behind and tried to put a rag over her mouth.

When asked to pick her assailant out of a police lineup, Guerra chose Feit. When he took a polygraph test and denied that he had harmed either Garza or Guerra, the examiner concluded that he was lying.

Feit went on trial for assault with intent to rape Guerra, but the proceedings ended in a deadlocked jury. Instead of facing another trial, Feit pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of aggravated assault and served no jail time. His punishment was a $500 fine.

Feit was never charged in the Garza case, though a few other pieces linked him to the crime. He admitted that a Kodak slide photo viewer found next to Garza’s body near the canal belonged to him and he had cuts on his hands that looked like fingernail scratches.

He told investigators that he had nothing to do with Garza’s death, commenting that it “disturbed” him that he was the last person to see her, according to the Texas Monthly.

At the same time that Garza’s family wondered whether Feit’s vestments had saved him, they told themselves that it was inconceivable that he was behind it.

“We were accusing a priest that – in those days priests were infallible,” Garza’s cousin Lynda De La Vina, told CNN.

Another cousin, Noemi Sigler, agreed: “It was impossible for a priest to do such a deed. I mean, if you thought of it, that would be sacrilegious.”

De La Vina and Sigler were 9 and 10 years old, respectively, when Garza was killed.

For awhile, it seemed like the case would be left at that. The more time that passed, the more unlikely it was that new evidence would surface.

And yet it did, 42 years later, from two unlikely sources.

One was Dale Tacheny, a former Oklahoma City priest who had once served as Feit’s spiritual counselor at a monastery. According to Texas Monthly, the police officer who received Tacheny’s call was skeptical; it was exceedingly rare for priests to inform on other priests.

The other witness was even more astonishing: The Rev. Joseph O’Brien, the assistant pastor who had worked alongside Feit at Sacred Heart. After an extended interrogation at his retirement home, O’Brien told investigators exactly what they had already heard from Tacheny.

In the company of both Tacheny and O’Brien, on separate occasions, Feit had allegedly confessed to the murder.

Tacheny told the police that Feit had described in detail Garza’s last moments, according to CNN. Feit allegedly told Tacheny that he sexually assaulted, bound, gagged and fondled Garza in the rectory before putting something over her head. He placed her in a bathtub, Feit told Tacheny, where she had trouble breathing and eventually died. Then he dumped her body near the canal, Feit said.

In a recorded call between Tacheny and Feit in 2003, Feit denied that he had ever confessed.

“At the time I was in the monastery I was pretty much a broken man,” Feit told Tacheny over the phone, according to CBS. “Psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. I have no recollection what I may have told you at the time. And I am telling you this evening that I am not the man who killed Irene Garza.”

A grand jury heard the case in 2004, but prosecutors under Guerra called on neither Tacheny nor O’Brien to testify. No indictment was handed down.

In 2007, a CNN reporter approached Feit in a Phoenix grocery store parking lot and asked him if he murdered Garza.

“Interesting question,” Feit responded. “Answer is no.”

Hidalgo DA Rodriguez declined to tell The Monitor what new evidence he had to secure the indictment at last. Feit has lived in the Phoenix area since the early ’70s, KRGV reported, and is married with children and grandchildren. He no longer works as a priest, but is a regular volunteer at church.

While O’Brien has passed away, Tacheny’s testimony may prove crucial to Feit’s trial.

Tacheny told CNN in 2013 that Feit said: “The church protected me, the people in my church, my superiors, protected me.”

“I believe he killed her,” Tacheny said. “I had no doubt about it because he said he did.”