The Murder of Irene Garza

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EARLY LIFE:

Irene Garza was born on November 15, 1934. Growing up in McAllen, Texas, she was known as being an elegant, likeable and loving person who would do anything for her loved ones.

Irene was the first in her family to attend college and graduate school. During her time in post-secondary education, she was crowned Homecoming Queen and named Miss All-South Texas Sweetheart, the latter of which being unheard of at the time for someone of Mexican-American descent. Upon leaving school, she became a second grade teacher who dedicated her life to her students, so much so that she would spend her own money to buy them school supplies.

Church was a huge part of Irene’s life and she was a devout Catholic. On Saturdays, she could be found attending confession, while on Sundays she would regularly attend mass.

At the time of her disappearance and murder, she was 25 years old.

DISAPPEARANCE:

April 16 fell on Easter weekend in 1960. As with every Saturday, Irene informed her family she would be attending confession and would be back later in the day. She borrowed the family car and made her way to Sacred Heart Church. She was noticed by many upon her arrival.

As evening came about, Irene’s family grew concerned, as the young teacher still hadn’t returned home from church. When midnight hit, they began searching for her.

INVESTIGATION & DISCOVERY:

On April 17, 1960, Irene’s car was discovered down the street from the church.

Two days passed without any leads in the case. That’s when one of her high-heeled shoes was found on the side of the road. The next day, her purse was found further along the same road, along with part of her white lace veil. This ignited a massive search by the local sheriffs office, done via horseback.

Five days after her disappearance, Irene’s body was found in a canal. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and suffocated. Her body was found fully clothed, aside from her shoes and underwear. Her blouse had been unbuttoned.

A lone footprint was discovered near the canal, but police were never able to match it to anyone.

An autopsy was done on Irene’s body and it was revealed she had been rendered unconscious by a blunt object, sexually assaulted and suffocated to death.

The canal was drained a few weeks after Irene’s body was found and a projector slide, along with some cord, were found. Police went public to help identify the owner of the slide, which is when Father John Feit came on their radar. Feit, a 27-year-old priest who was visiting Sacred Heart, wrote a note admitting to owning the slide, but claimed to not know how it had come to be in the canal.

Police questioned around 500 people in the initial investigation, but Father Feit remained their primary focus, given his letter. While they kept their suspicions about him under wraps, they brought him in for questioning, where he offered up varying stories before admitting Irene had given her confession to him in the rectory next to church. This struck investigators as a very unusual thing to do, as confession was normally held in the church.

After Irene sat through confession, Feit claimed to have driven five miles back to the priests’ residence to grab a new pair of glasses, as he’d broken the pair he’d been wearing.

Given his story, it was determined Feit was one of the last people to have seen Irene alive.

Father O’Brien, a pastor at Sacred Heart, approached police and claimed to have seen scratches on the priest’s hand. When confronted by police about the injuries, Feit claimed to have gotten them while scaling the outside of the residence, as he hadn’t been given a key for the front door.

Rumours about the priest’s potential involvement in Irene’s murder began to spread around McAllen.

As the investigation drew on, investigators became aware of an attack on a 20-year-old woman in Edinburg that had occurred three weeks earlier. The woman claimed she’d noticed a man in a blue and white car watching her outside the church. When she entered the church, he attacked her and tried to put a rag over her face. She managed to fight him off and escape.

When asked for a description of her attacker, she described him as having dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses. She said he’d been dressed like a priest, but she couldn’t confirm if he actually was one. When shown a police line-up, she picked out Feit.

When police went to arrest Feit for the attack, he was nowhere to be found. However, he did turn himself in a week later, claiming to have been at an out-of-state hospital seeking treatment for the stress Irene’s case had placed on him. He also claimed to have been developed a newfound fear of women.

Once in police custody, Feit was subjected to a polygraph test, which he failed. While being tested, he told investigators they’d never be able to convict him for the attack in Edinburg due to a lack of evidence.

Feit was proven wrong when, in 1961, he was indicted for attempting to rape the 20-year-old woman. The trial ended in a deadlocked jury. To avoid another trial, the priest pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of aggravated assault and was fined $500.

At the time, no murder charges were filed against Feit in relation to Irene’s death. Her family believes there to have been an agreement made between the Catholic Church and police that prevented this.

Not long after, Feit left Sacred Heart and would go on to live in a monastery and then with a religious order in New Mexico, where he counselled child molesters. In 1972, he left the priesthood and moved to Arizona, where he got married and started a family. He worked at the St. Vincent de Paul charity in Phoenix, where he trained new volunteers and oversaw the charity’s network of food pantries.

Irene’s case sat cold until 2002, when the Texas Rangers were asked to get involved. It had been 42 years since the young teacher had been killed.

DNA testing was ordered on the Irene’s clothes. However, given how long her body had been in the water, no DNA evidence was present.

San Antonio Police got a call from a retired monk by the name of Dale Tacheny around the time the Texas Rangers got involved. Tacheny told them about a priest who had confessed during a therapy session to suffocating a woman around Easter in the early 1960s. That priest was John Feit.

Tacheny explained he was charged with overseeing if Feit could become a monk, when he was told the priest had heard a woman’s confession in the rectory, then attacked her. After the attack, he took her to the basement and then moved her to the bathroom, where he left her in the tub with a plastic bag over her head. When he came back, she was dead, and he dumped her body in the canal.

When asked why he hadn’t been arrested, Feit claimed those within the church had protected him in the hopes of avoiding a scandal. It was not long after this that Feit was deemed not a suitable candidate for becoming a monk and was asked to leave the monastery.

Tacheny hadn’t gone to police at the time because he felt his job as a monk was only to counsel priests. He had tried to suppress what he’d heard, until he was approached by a writer interested in writing about his life as a monk.

Police attempted to use Tacheny to get Feit to confess over the phone, but when pressed by the retired monk he claimed to not remember the 1960s conversations.

Police approached Father O’Brien to corroborate Tacheny’s story. He told them he had felt the scratches on Feit’s hand had been caused by fingernails and that he had been suspicious of the priest. In fact, he had been so suspicious that he and another priest had searched the rectory for Irene around her disappearance.

Given the new evidence, police approached the District Attorney in the hopes of getting a grand jury indictment. However, he claimed the case was too old and weak, citing police could have fed Tacheny information and O’Brien was suffering from dementia. Irene’s family, on the other hand, believed he simply didn’t want to prosecute the case, so they held a candlelight vigil outside the courthouse in protest.

With the added pressure, the DA brought the case to a grand jury in 2004. However, O’Brien and Tachney never made an appearance, and Feit wasn’t subpoenaed. The jurors only had access to audio recordings and transcripts. They declined to indict the former priest.

ARREST & SENTENCING:

A few years after the initial attempt to indict Feit, the new DA launched a renewed investigation into Irene’s case, leading to a new grand jury indicting him for murder.

On February 6, 2016, Feit was arrested in Scottsdale, Arizona and charged with murder. At his arraignment in Texas, he pleaded not guilty to the charge, with his attorney claiming there was no DNA evidence, witnesses or forensic evidence tying his client to the murder.

Feit’s trial saw five days of testimony. Prosecutors had subpoenaed records from The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Feit’s former order. They also presented evidence that showed both elected and church officials hadn’t wanted to prosecute Feit for the murder in the 1960s in order to protect their reputations.

Tacheny was brought in to testify. O’Brien had passed away in 2005.

After both sides had settled, the jury took six and a half hours to deliberate before returning a guilty verdict for murder with malice afterthought. At his sentencing on December 8, 2017, Feit was sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 2028, when he’ll be 95 years old.

Feit is currently serving out his sentence at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison for men in Huntsville, Texas.

AFTERMATH:

Irene’s murder haunted McAllen for decades, with the majority of residents across generations aware of the case.

John Feit’s defence attorney is currently filing an appeal. His client continues to insist he isn’t guilty of the murder.

The alleged cover-up of Feit’s crime by the Catholic Church was yet another scandal to rock the religious organization. While there is no physical evidence to confirm one occurred, documents have been found alleging so and Irene’s loved ones strongly believe it to be the case.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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