Former Priest Convicted of 1960 Murder of Woman Killed After Going to Confession
A former priest has been convicted in the brutal killing of a beloved teacher and former beauty queen who was found beaten, raped and suffocated after going to a Texas church for confession nearly six decades ago.
On the eve of Easter in 1960, Irene Garza drove to Sacred Heart Church in McAllen to make her confession during Holy Week, the most sacred time of the year for Catholics.
It was the last time she was seen alive.
Two days later, one of the 25-year-old woman's high-heeled shoes was found on the side of the road near the church. Three days after that, on the Thursday after Easter, Garza's body was found in an irrigation canal.
She had been beaten, raped and suffocated.
Investigators tasked with finding who was responsible for the horrific murder interviewed Rev. John Feit, a 27-year-old priest who was visiting the parish and was the last person to see Garza alive.
He told detectives he heard Garza's confession the night she went missing, but denied having anything to do with her death.
Feit, who had previously been accused of attacking a young woman, was the only suspect in Garza's murder, but for more than 57 years, her death was without justice.
That changed on Thursday, when a jury found the now-85-year-old ex-priest guilty of the young teacher's murder.
Feit was arrested last February in Phoenix, where he eventually settled after leaving the priesthood in 1972, The Washington Post reported.
He had spent time in a treatment center for troubled priests in New Mexico and in monasteries in several states. He was also charged with clearing priests for assignments to churches, including James Porter, who was convicted of assaulting more than 100 victims, including children, according to The Associated Press.
His arrest came several years after investigators in 2002 received a phone call from Dale Tacheny, a former priest who said Feit told him in 1963 that he assaulted, bound and gagged a woman after hearing her confession.
Tacheny said he kept the confession to himself out of religious obligation, but changed his mind decades later.
Now in his 80s, Tacheny was the prosecution's star witness.
“So I asked Father Feit, why are you here and not in prison?” Tacheny testified, according to footage from KRGV-TV. “He said there were three things. Number one, the church helped me, primarily through a priest. Law enforcement helped him. Finally, the seal of confession helped him.”
Tacheny said it wasn't until years later that he learned the murdered woman was Garza.
Garza was remembered as a dark-haired beauty whose intelligence matched her good looks.
The former Miss All South Texas Sweetheart was her high school’s first Latina drum majorette and the first in her family to graduate from college.
After graduating, Garza worked as a teacher with the community's disadvantaged youth.
She had reportedly been elected secretary of the PTA shortly before her death, achieving a sense of accomplishment in her work of which she was extremely proud.
"This may not sound like much, but to me it means a great deal," she wrote in the spring of 1960 to a friend. The letter was obtained by Texas Monthly.
It was in that same letter that Garza shared she was no longer afraid of death.
“You see, I’ve been going to communion and Mass daily and you can’t imagine the courage and faith and happiness it has given me,” she wrote.
But things at church had become different for Garza before her death, testified Garza's childhood friend, Ana Maria Hollingsworth.
“She said, ‘It’s not the same going to confession anymore because I don’t get to stay in the confessional. He comes to pull me out and says, 'Oh, this place isn’t good enough for you. Let’s go to the rectory, where you’ll be more comfortable.’ And then they would walk off and go to the rectory,” Hollingsworth said.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Garza, who is not related to the victim, described Feit during closing arguments as “a wolf in priest’s clothing waiting to attack” who traveled to the Rio Grande Valley “to find his prey."
Feit was reportedly emotionless as the verdict was read. He could be sentenced to up to 99 years or life in prison.