After 50 Years, ‘Killer’ Priest Finally Faces Justice

When police found a Texas beauty queen floating in a canal, they suspected the last man to see her alive: her Catholic priest. Now he’s finally been arrested for the 1960 murder.

02.10.16 8:30 PM ET

In the 56 years since the body of a south Texas beauty queen was found floating in a canal, her family, cold-case investigators, and mounting evidence has pointed to one man: the ex-priest who heard her last confession, and who seemed to elude justice until his arrest on Tuesday.

John Feit, 83, was arrested by detectives with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he lives with his wife and family. Arizona law enforcement officials say he’ll be extradited to Texas, where he’ll face charges of first-degree murder by asphyxiation, according to a recently unsealed indictment reported by The Monitor in Texas. He faces up to life in prison.

At his arraignment, a Maricopa County judge set a $750,000 bond and Feit said he planned to fight extradition.

"This whole thing makes no sense because the crime in question took place in 1960,” Feit said. “In 2003 the same gentlemen were here and questioned me extensively and took DNA samples. That was 13 years ago. I’m totally puzzled as to why something is coming up now after the fact.”  

Though half a century old, the case has remained a fascination of crime reporters, townspeople, and local officials, who—no doubt because of the unholy nature of the crime—have refused to let the case go completely cold.

As told in an exhaustive 2005 Texas Monthly profile, Irene Garza, a second-grade teacher, was last seen on the night before Easter attending Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas. The 25-year-old former pageant winner had found comfort in church, writing to a friend, “I’ve been going to communion and Mass daily and you can’t imagine the courage and faith and happiness it has given me.”

The last person to see Garza was John Feit, a then-27-year-old Roman Catholic priest, who admittedly heard the confession that would be the woman’s last. Five days later, her body was found in an irrigation canal near the center of town. At the bottom of the canal, investigators found a candelabra from the church and a Kodak slide photograph viewer that belonged to Feit.

If that evidence didn’t seem damning enough, there was the unsolved mystery of another attack. Less than a month before Garza’s disappearance, another young woman, Maria America Guerra, had been attacked at a different Sacred Heart Church, a stone’s throw away from the one where Garza was last seen.

In a statement given to police investigating Garza’s death, Guerra, 20, said that she had been kneeling at the communion rail, but before she even began to pray, she was grabbed from behind by a man who tried to put a rag over her mouth. She fell back, screaming, and struggled with her attacker until she bit his fingers and was able to escape.

Guerra said she had seen a man matching Feit’s description—short, dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses—sitting in a back pew. It was the same man she had seen earlier in the afternoon watching her from his sedan, but she had dismissed her concerns. What could happen in a church?

After the attack, Guerra and an eyewitness picked Feit out of a lineup. The priest explained away an injury that resembled fingernail scratches on his hands saying he had hurt himself using a mimeograph machine. Then he failed a polygraph test.

Feit was indicted in the attack against Guerra, but the case ended in a deadlocked jury and rather than go through a second trial, Feit pleaded no contest to misdemeanor aggravated assault and paid a $500 fine. As for Garza, Feit was never charged and was relocated by the church to a monastery in Missouri. Meanwhile, it seemed that investigators had thrown up their hands.

Noemi Sigler, a cousin of Garza who was just 10 at the time of the murder, told CNN, "It was impossible for a priest to do such a deed. I mean, if you thought of it, that would be sacrilegious."

Garza’s aunt, Herlinda de la Viña, told Pamela Colloff at Texas Monthly, “Father O’Brien promised the family that the church would punish him if it found that he had done wrong...Who were we to question a priest?”

It was the same Father O’Brien who in 2002 provided one of two accounts of Feit’s alleged confessions about the crime—the other was from Dale Tacheny, a former priest who counseled Feit at the monastery. According to a CNN interview with Tacheny, Feit said he had heard Garza’s confession, then taken her to the rectory where he bound and gagged her, then sexually assaulted her. After keeping her hidden for at least a day, Feit allegedly covered her head and placed her in a bathtub, where she drowned.

Feit had quit the cloth by the time the two men relayed his confession to police, but not even their testimony seemed to threaten his freedom. Investigators in a cold-case unit reopened the case, but the local district attorney, Rene Guerra (no relation to Feit’s victim), decided against bringing the case to trial, telling a local reporter, “Can it be solved? Well, I guess if you believe that pigs can fly, anything is possible.”

The media and Garza’s family leapt on the Hidalgo County DA’s reluctance and in 2004, the case was finally brought before a grand jury. Strangely, none of the important figures—not Feit, nor O'Brien, nor Tacheny—were subpoenaed. Unsurprisingly, the grand jury chose not to indict.

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But the family kept pushing. Relatives stumped for a new DA in 2014—Ricardo Rodriguez, who campaigned partly on the promise to bring justice for Irene Garza. Rodriguez won, unseating an eight-term incumbent, and in no uncertain terms suggested that Guerra had mishandled the case.

Rodriguez’s election brought new media interest to the Garza murder. When CBS News caught up with Feit outside of his home, reporter Richard Schlesinger asked him if he had indeed killed the young school teacher. Feit denied any connection to her murder.

“They’ve been saying that for 50 years,” an elderly Feit snapped back. “Why the hell don’t they do something about it?”

After all this time, someone finally has.