A former parish priest was convicted Thursday of strangling to death a woman who vanished in 1960 after going to confession at a Texas church he was serving.
John Feit, now 85, faces life in prison for the murder of Irene Garza. The 25-year-old teacher and former beauty queen visited Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen the evening of April 16, 1960, during Holy Week, and was never seen alive again.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, Garza’s body was found in a canal five days later, beaten and asphyxiated. Her autopsy showed that she had been raped while unconscious, then slain.
Feit, who was living at the pastoral house in nearby San Juan and filling in as needed at area churches, gave investigators conflicting statements, initially stating that another priest who was present at Sacred Heart the night of the murder took Garza’s confession, the Express-News reported. Two months later, he contradicted himself, telling detectives that he was alone on duty that night.
He admitted hearing Garza’s confession in the church rectory, but denied involvement in her death.
The Dallas Morning News reported that Feit, then 27, was an early suspect in Garza’s murder, but prosecutors in the case presented evidence that elected officials in Hidalgo County conspired with church officials to block the investigation and avoid scandal in the Catholic Church.
The young priest, who later spent time at a New Mexico treatment center, was later assigned to a supervisor role in which he cleared priests for assignment to parishes, the Morning News reported. One of the men he placed was James Porter, a priest who molested more than 100 victims before being defrocked and sentenced to prison.
Feit left the priesthood in 1972 and later married.
The Express-News reported that there was a lack of physical evidence pointing to Feit, but that two former clergymen came forward over the years and admitted that the former priest confessed his crime to them.
One of those men, former monk Dale Tacheny, testified Monday that Feit confided in him about the murder in 1963, three years after the fact. Feit showed little remorse, Tacheny said.
He did admit that he was still “haunted” by the sound of the heels Garza wore to the church the night he killed her, Tacheny testified. Those heels, along with other items of the victim’s clothing, were introduced into evidence at the trial.
Tacheny told the court that Feit confessed to attacking Garza in the church rectory before putting her unconscious body in the basement while he went next door to the church to hear another parishioner’s confession.
Feit took a break from his duties to move Garza to the pastoral house, the witness said. It was there that he left her to die, Tacheny said.
“He put the young lady in a bathtub,” Tacheny, 88, testified, according to the Express-News. “As he was leaving, the young lady said, ‘I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe.’ Then he left.”
Feit returned to the church to continue offering confession, Tacheny said. When he returned to the pastoral house the following day, Garza was dead.
Tacheny, who worked with Feit at a monastery in Missouri, told the court that it was not his place in 1963 to take the priest’s confession to authorities, the Express-News reported. Instead, the monastery tried to modify Feit’s behavior toward women.
When asked by prosecutors why he finally approached San Antonio police after decades of silence, Tacheny wiped tears from his eyes.
“She had parents,” he said, according to the newspaper.
Another colleague of Feit’s, Father Joseph O’Brien, told the Dallas Morning News in 2004 that Feit confessed to him that he killed Garza, the Express-News reported. O’Brien has since died and could not offer testimony at trial.
Prosecutors stated at trial that O’Brien helped cover up the crime, getting rid of some of Garza’s belongings found at the rectory.
Jurors heard from at least one acquaintance of Feit’s in 1960, who testified to seeing scratch marks on the young priest’s hands in the days after the murder, the newspaper said.
They also heard testimony from Ana Marie Hollingsworth, a friend of Garza’s, who said that Feit had previously pulled Garza from the confessional in the church to hear her confession in the rectory, a highly unusual practice. Garza was “disturbed” by the priest’s actions, Hollingsworth, now 83, said.
Hollingsworth’s testimony contradicted Feit’s 1960 statements to police, in which he claimed he had never met Garza before taking her confession the night she disappeared.
Jurors also heard about Feit’s threatening behavior toward women in the weeks before Garza was killed, including an attack on a woman at a church in Edinburg. He later pleaded no contest to assault and paid a $500 fine, the Express-News reported.
A former television reporter testified that the Hidalgo County district attorney, who is now deceased, admitted to him off the record in 1960 that Feit’s plea deal in the assault case was part of a deal struck with church officials.