EDINBURG, Texas – A former priest was found guilty of murdering a school teacher and beauty queen of Texas for 25 years on Thursday, more than 57 years after Irene Garza went to the Catholic Church Sacred Heart in McAllen with the intention of going to confession.
Garza's crushed body was found days after her disappearance on April 16, 1960. An autopsy revealed that she had been raped while unconscious and had been beaten and suffocated.
A Hidalgo County jury deliberated 6½ hours before returning its verdict in the murder trial of John Bernard Feit, a 85-year-old former priest, after hearing five days of testimony.
Feit, who was 28 years old at the time of her death, was suspected from the beginning, telling the police that she heard Garza's confession – in the church's rectory, not in the confessional – but denying that he killed her .
This week, prosecutors presented evidence that elected and church officials suspected that Feit had killed her but that she wanted to avoid prosecuting it because it could damage the reputation of the church and politically elected officials. The majority of the elected officials at that time in Hidalgo County were Catholics, and Senator John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was running for president that year.
Feit spent more time in a New Mexico treatment center for priests with problems and after that became a supervisor and participated in the cleansing of priests for parish assignments. Among the men Feit helped keep in the ministry was the child molester James Porter, who assaulted more than 100 victims before he was finally expelled and sent to prison.
Feit left the priesthood in 1972, married and worked at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic charity in Phoenix for several years, training and recruiting volunteers and helping oversee the organization's food pantry network.
Among the evidence that pointed to Feit as a suspect over the years: His portable slide viewer was found near Garza's body. Two fellow priests told the authorities that Feit confessed to them. And one of them said he saw scratches on Feit shortly after Garza's disappearance.
In addition, Feit had been accused of attacking another girl in a church in a nearby town, just a few weeks before Garza's death. He eventually pleaded no contest and received a $ 500 fine.
At the trial, Dale Tacheny, a tax consultant in Oklahoma City who had been a priest in a Missouri monastery where Feit had applied for residency in 1963, said that Feit he had confessed that he had murdered a young woman. Tacheny said it was not until years later that he learned that the woman Feit had described was Garza.
Defense attorney O. Rene Flores argued that prosecutors do not have enough evidence to convict Feit, who lived in Arizona at the time of his arrest last year.
Members of Garza's family and friends had long pushed the authorities to reopen the case, and it became a problem in the 2014 district attorney's career. Ricardo Rodríguez had promised that if he was elected, I would review the case again.
Prosecutors Michael Garza, who was not related to the victim, and Krystine Ramon, hugged members of Irene Garza's family after the verdict was read. District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, who campaigned for the election in part on a promise to reopen Garza's murder case, embraced his team of prosecutors and the Garza family, some of whom shed tears of relief.
John Feit from the courtroom to his cell in the county jail.
The jury will begin hearing evidence on Friday morning about what punishment Feit should receive. He could be sentenced to up to 99 years or life imprisonment.