Irene Garza was a devout Catholic and a brunette beauty, her high school’s homecoming queen, and Miss All-South Texas Sweetheart. The first person in her family to go to college, Irene taught disadvantaged children in second grade at Thigpen Elementary in McAllen, Texas.
In 1960, Irene’s corpse was found in an irrigation canal a mile from Sacred Heart Catholic Church where a 27-year-old man named John Feit served as a priest, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Garza was only 25-years-old. An autopsy revealed she’d been raped while comatose and bludgeoned. Her body was bruised, but the canal had washed away any evidence, the Washington Post added.
Garza was last seen on April 16, 1960, at the church. She had gone to see Feit for confession the night before Easter Sunday. The day after she vanished, her belongings — a high-heeled shoe, a purse, and a piece of white lace — were found along the road near the church. Irene’s body was found on April 21.
The priest told police he was disturbed by the thought that he’d been the last person to see Irene alive but denied killing her. Father Feit was considered an easy-going, aloof man, and despite the fact that was a man of the cloth, people whispered behind their hands that he’d killed Garza.
“We were accusing a priest that — in those days priests were infallible,” recalled Garza’s cousin Lynda De La Vina.
Evidence pointed to him in the beginning. Investigators’ suspicions grew after learning that he’d allegedly tried to rape another woman in a church. Three weeks before Garza was murdered, Maria America Guerra said she was praying alone in a Sacred Heart Church in a neighboring town. A man grabbed her from behind, put a rag over her mouth, and pushed her to the ground. She bit his finger, he fled, and then she identified Feit in a lineup as her attacker.
He was arrested for assault with intent to rape, but the trial ended with a deadlocked jury; he pleaded to a lesser charge and paid a small fine.
After the murder in Texas, Feit headed to a Trappist monastery in Missouri in 1963, but by the 1970s, he’d left the priesthood, got married, and had kids. Over the years, he remained a person of interest in the death of Irene Garza, but there was never enough evidence and he wasn’t arrested.
Decades later in 2002, the case was reopened after two men came forward to share secrets about the night Garza died. Fellow former priest Dale Tacheny was Feit’s spiritual counselor at the Missouri monastery and claimed that he’d confessed to murdering Irene. The Rev. Joseph O’Brien, an assistant pastor who also worked at Sacred Heart, said the same.
Tacheny revealed the details of Garza’s last moments. Feit allegedly said he bound, gagged, and fondled Irene in the rectory, then shrouded her head and put her in a bathtub. Garza died there eventually, unable to breathe, and he dumped the body.
He’s denied confessing.
Despite the men’s testimony, the county district attorney didn’t prosecute, but times have changed. Five decades of police work have led to an indictment, brought forth by a different district attorney, charging the former priest with murder just this week.
He’s now 83, has children and grandchildren, and lives with family in Scottsdale, Arizona. On Tuesday, he was taken into custody outside his apartment and is now sitting in jail pending extradition to Texas. The DA hasn’t revealed what new evidence came to light to finally arrest the former priest, if any, NBC News reported.
Fifty-six years after Irene Garza’s death, her family’s website, Justice for Irene, announced that justice has finally been served.
As for her alleged killer, back in a 2013 interview at why, following Irene’s death, he managed to evade justice.
“The church protected me, the people in my church, my superiors, protected me.”
[Image via Justice for Irene Facebook]