SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — John Feit, a former Catholic priest, has been arrested in a 56-year-old murder case.
Irene Garza was last seen alive the night before Easter 1960 when Feit heard her confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas. Five days later, searchers found the lifeless body of the 25-year-old former Miss South Texas face down in a canal.
Feit, 83, has long been the main suspect in the case, but he wasn’t arrested until Tuesday in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office arrested him on a murder charge out of the state of Texas, according to the Hidalgo County, Texas, Prosecutor’s Office and the Texas Rangers. Authorities are working to extradite him from Arizona.
In 2004, a grand jury decided not to indict Feit.
In a sworn statement to authorities and during an interview with CNN in 2013, Feit denied he killed Garza.
Feit told police Garza left the rectory after he heard her confession and the last time he saw her, she was standing outside the church.
The case that shook a city
An autopsy determined Garza had been raped while in a coma and then had died from suffocation. Near Garza’s body investigators found items that belonged to the church, including a candelabra.
One item, a metallic Kodak slide photo viewer, belonged to a 27-year-old priest who was assigned to the church: the Rev. John Feit.
Questioned by police, Feit failed lie detector tests.
What was also suspicious was that just 24 days before the killing, Feit had been arrested for attacking another young woman at a church in a town about 10 miles from McAllen.
Feit pleaded no contest to misdemeanor aggravated assault. A judge found him guilty and fined him $500 with no prison time.
To say the scandal rocked McAllen is an understatement.
For folks growing up in McAllen at the time, it was unthinkable that a Catholic priest would commit such a crime. That’s the way Garza’s cousins remember it.
“We were accusing a priest that — in those days priests were infallible, ” said Lynda De La Vina, who was 9 years old at the time.
Another cousin, Noemi Sigler, was only 10 when Garza was killed. “It was impossible for a priest to do such a deed. I mean, if you thought of it, that would be sacrilegious.”
But Feit was the likely suspect, said former Texas Ranger Lt. Rudy Jaramillo, who started investigating the murder in 2002 when he served with a Rangers cold case unit. The evidence, he said, “suggests and indicates that that’s who it’s pointing to.”
Garza cousin: It was ‘a cover-up’
Authorities at the time protected Feit, said Sigler. “I don’t know whether it was out of respect for the church or anger or fear, I have no idea,” she said. Shortly after the killing, the church transferred Feit far away to a monastery. He would be moved to other locations over time, and about three years after the killing, the church transferred Feit to Our Lady of Assumption monastery in Ava, Missouri.
Sheltering Feit “was about protecting the church and somehow believing that the church takes care of their own,” said De La Vina. “It was the best that could have happened at that point. Because nothing else was being done.”
Sigler describes her view in more succinct terms: It was “a cover-up.”
During the next four decades, the case grew colder and eventually faded from the headlines. But the cousins kept pushing until 2002, when the Rangers and Jaramillo reinvigorated the investigation.
Hopes for solving the case were never higher when two surprise witnesses independently come forward — each separately claiming that they heard Feit confess.
But then-District Attorney Rene Guerra delayed bringing the case before a grand jury for years, saying their testimony wasn’t credible.
Eventually, in 2004, a grand jury did hear the case, but voted not to indict Feit.
Another 12 years went by before Feit was arrested on Tuesday.
Additional details are expected from Ricardo Rodriguez, the district attorney of Hidalgo County, while Feit awaits extradition from Arizona to Texas.