John Feit, an ex-priest, has been arrested and indicted on charges of murdering Irene Garza, a schoolteacher and beauty queen in McAllen, Texas, in 1960. Feit has been under suspicion for decades: as a priest, he heard Garza’s last confession, and something belonging to him was found near her body in the canal where she was discovered.
Feit, 83, was arrested Tuesday in Scottsdale, Arizona, after a Texas grand jury reportedly indicted him on murder charges. Garza disappeared in April 1960 after going to confession at Feit’s church, Sacred Heart, the Saturday before Easter. She never returned home. Two days later, a woman’s high-heeled shoe was discovered by the roadside. Four days after Easter Sunday, her body was found floating in a canal. Sunken nearby was a slide viewer that Feit later admitted belonged to him. An autopsy determined that Garza had been raped and suffocated, and possibly held captive before her death.
Feit had been arrested weeks earlier for attacking another young woman, Maria Guerra. He was accused of attacking her from behind in Sacred Heart and throwing a rag over her mouth. Guerra escaped when she bit her assailant’s finger. The case went to trial with Feit charged with “assault with intent to rape,” but the jury deadlocked; he pleaded guilty to reduced charges of aggravated assault and was fined just $500.
Feit left the priesthood sometime in the late ‘60s. He had lived in the Phoenix area since the early ‘70s, married, and had children and grandchildren. He had quickly come under suspicion in Garza’s murder, as Pamela Colloff outlined in a 2005 Texas Monthly story “Unholy Act.” But somehow, the case faded from view until 2002, when another former priest contacted the San Antonio police department to say that Feit had confessed the murder to him in 1963.
The case was brought before a grand jury, but Feit, for some reason, wasn’t called to testify, Colloff wrote:
The only person from Sacred Heart who did appear before the grand jury was Elena Sanchez, the church secretary who had been a defense witness for Feit during his 1961 assault trial. “The DA had already made public statements that ran in the papers and on TV that there was insufficient evidence in this case,” said Irene’s relative Noemi Ponce Sigler. “Jurors knew where the DA stood when they were making their deliberations.” On June 9, 2004, the jury declined to indict the named defendant, John Feit, and no-billed the case.
Colloff also detailed Feit’s strange reaction when Colloff showed up on his door to ask about it, years later:
I introduced myself, explaining that I had come all the way from Texas. I said that I would appreciate a few minutes of his time to talk about Irene Garza. For an instant, his brown eyes widened behind his glasses. Then he shook his head, graciously declining to be interviewed. “I know you have a job to do,” he said. “But I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”
He stood there for a moment, as if pondering what to do next. There were many things he could have said that he did not: That he was innocent. That Irene’s murder had been a senseless crime. That he was tired of strangers knocking on his door, asking about a terrible thing that had happened a long time ago. Instead, he said something that I would think back to many times in the weeks to come.
“The speculation intrigues me,” he said. Then, as he turned to shut the door, he added, “God bless you, dear.”
It’s unclear what new information led a grand jury to indict Feit now, 12 years after the last attempt. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s office confirmed Feit’s arrest to CBS and said he is awaiting extradition to Texas.
Feit’s mugshot via Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and AP Images