Beauty and the priest: Final confession before murder
04/26/2016 12:11 pm PDT
UPDATE Feb. 14, 2020:
John Feit, 87, was found unresponsive in his cell early on the morning of Feb. 11 and pronounced dead at the hospital, CBS News reports. The preliminary cause of death is cardiac arrest. Feit was in the process of appealing his life sentence in the murder of 25-year-old Irene Garza. His death will not affect his conviction, prosecutors say.
Jury selection is set to begin Monday in Hidalgo County in the case of John Feit, accused of the April 1960 beating and suffocation of 25-year-old Irene Garza. She was found dead in a canal five days after going to a McAllen church for confession, KABB-TV reports.
April 26, 2016
The words Irene Garza spoke at confession would be some of her last. Days later she was found murdered in a canal, her killer never caught.
Irene Garza was a talented young woman living the American Dream: Homecoming queen, beauty queen and a respected teacher. All that would end when she left her home one day to go to church.
Confessions: Divulging desires, secrets and sins, often meant to cleanse the soul. But sometimes sharing truths can have far more sinister results. Ones that can get the confiding confessor caught -- or killed.
A young beauty queen goes to confession, then goes missing. Her belongings are found: a shoe here, a purse there. Then her body was found in a canal.
Did her confession get her killed? And when she looked into the eyes of her murderer, did she see the devil?
This, the unholiest of mysteries, began more than five decades ago.
After 50 years of prayers and police passion, whose confession got this frail 83-year-old man arrested for the woman's death? And where will the ultimate judgment come from -- a court of law or his maker?
Back in the day, 25-year-old Irene Garza was truly one in a million. Growing up in McAllen, Texas, the Mexican-American achieved, for the times, the unachievable.
She went to college and became a schoolteacher, and she possessed enviable good looks.
The beauty queen, a former Miss South Texas, had everything going for her, and a bright future ahead of her.
So the ghastly fate Irene met would shock and devastate her family and her community for a long time to come.
The day before Easter 1960, Irene told her family she was going to confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, then would be home right afterward.
Hours ticked by with no word from Irene.
The next day Irene's left shoe was found along the road. A day later her purse was found in a field.
Then six days after Irene went missing, her body was found dumped in a canal. Reportedly, she was found with two black eyes, bad bruises on the right side of her face. She was missing her shoes and underwear and her blouse was unbuttoned.
The autopsy listed her cause of death as asphyxiation.
The hunt was on to find the beauty queen's killer. More than 500 people were interviewed. None of them panned out.
But one name in particular kept coming up: John Feit.
When cops drained the canal, they found a slide projector near her body. It was later determined the projector belonged to John Feit.
To everyone in the small community, he was better known as Father John Feit, a visiting priest from San Antonio, the man police would soon learn had heard Irene's last confession.
When police talked to Feit they learned three important things: Feit had heard Irene's confession in the rectory, not in the confession booth, which was highly unusual. Small details in his story kept changing, and he had scratches on his hands.
Within days, Father John Feit became an even more attractive suspect when 20-year-old Maria America Guerra made her own confession: Guerra said Feit attacked her at another parish three weeks before Irene Garza was killed.
Feit was indicted for assault with intent to rape Guerra. The case went to trial but ended in a hung jury. Then, before a second trial could begin, John Feit pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of aggravated assault. He paid the $500 fine for that crime.
No murder charges were ever filed against Father Feit in the death of Irene Garza. And with that, Feit went to another parish in Texas, spent some time at a Missouri monastery and at a religious order in New Mexico, where he helped counsel child molesters.
Then Feit left the church, dropping out of the priesthood altogether.
He eventually married, became a father and settled in Arizona. Decades went by and it seemed the case had gone cold.
But things were about to heat up when yet another confession would breathe new life into this old case.
The words beautiful Irene Garza spoke at confession would be some of her last. Days later she was found murdered in a nearby canal. Her killer was never caught.
But Irene's family believed the man who heard her final words is Father John Feit.
Other than the slide projector, there was no physical evidence tying Feit to Irene's murder. The lone shoe print found at the scene was never linked to him.
Then, 42 years after Irene Garza's death, divine intervention: Former monk-priest Dale Tacheny was desperate to make a confession of his own.
Forty years before, Dale Tacheny and John Feit spent time together at a monastery in Missouri. Allegedly, Tacheny had been asked by a superior to counsel a new priest coming to the monastery who had murdered a young woman. That priest was father John Feit.
In the six months of counseling sessions, Feit allegedly confessed to Tacheny that he committed the horrific crime Easter weekend.
Because he knew Father Feit had spent time in San Antonio, Tacheny called investigators there.
Cops asked Tacheny to follow up with a written statement. Recounting Feit's alleged confession, he wrote: "After hearing her confession, he assaulted her, bound her and gagged her."
It went on to say: "He moved her to another location. After some time he placed her in a cellophane bag and put her into a bathtub. As he left her he could hear her saying 'I can't breathe. I can't breathe.' When he later returned to the residence the woman was dead."
In a recent interview with CNN, Dale Tacheny explained why he believed Feit had eluded arrest at the time of the murder.
"I asked 'Why are you here and not in prison?' And he said simply, 'The church protected me,'" said Tacheny.
Reportedly, Tacheny said he was taught as a monk his job was to counsel and obey and do what his superiors said.
Now, as a way to strengthen their case, investigators asked Dale Tacheny to reach out John Feit to see what he'd say. The call was recorded.
"I have no recollection what I may have told you at that time," Feit ultimately told Tacheny on the call.
But Feit wasn't going to be absolved so simply. Another thunderbolt was about to strike from the heavens.
Father Joseph O'Brien, an assistant pastor at Sacred Heart while Feit was there, also reportedly knew what he had allegedly done.
Reportedly, Father O'Brien had talked to investigators at the time of Irene Garza's murder, and again after Tacheny came forward. He told investigators Feit had allegedly admitted to killing Irene.
It seemed like arresting John Feit was imminent. But then another crushing blow. District Attorney Rene Guerra eventually took the case to the grand jury, but they declined to indict Feit.
Years later the new district attorney, Ricardo Rodriguez, re-investigated the case, and Irene's family got the news they'd been praying for.
Former Father John Feit was arrested in Arizona and charged with Irene Garza's murder.
Six weeks ago 83-year-old John Feit found himself back in Texas to face a higher power -- the judge -- at his arraignment. Feit pleaded not guilty.
Feit is currently being held on a million-dollar bond. His attorney told the court that the former priest is suffering from stage-3 kidney disease and bladder cancer. Feit's trial is not expected to start until later this year.