Former Priest Who Murdered Texas Beauty Queen in 1960 Finally Convicted

For more than five decades, the black-and-white image of Irene Garza has haunted the town of McAllen, Tex., her story painfully recounted again and again.

She was a 25-year-old dark-haired former beauty queen, her high school’s first Latina drum majorette, the first in her family to graduate from college. She was named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart, and worked as a teacher for disadvantaged children.

But at the center of Garza’s life was her Catholic faith. In a letter to a friend in April 1960, she wrote about how she was no longer afraid of death. “You see, I’ve been going to communion and Mass daily and you can’t imagine the courage and faith and happiness it has given me,” she wrote in the letter, according to Texas Monthly.

And so when Holy Week came, the most sacred time of year for Catholics, Garza decided to go to confession.

On the eve of Easter, she drove to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen.

She never came home. Two days later, her beige, high-heeled shoe was found inches from the curb near the church. The following Thursday, her body was found floating in an irrigation canal.

An autopsy would later determine she had been beaten, suffocated, and raped while unconscious.

Authorities found few clues and struggled to piece together the moments before her death. But one fact soon became clear. Among the last to see her was a 27-year-old priest with horn-rimmed glasses — the Rev. John Feit.

The young priest admitted he had heard Irene’s confession that night, in the rectory instead of the confessional. But he denied killing the young woman. The priest avoided criminal charges, decade after decade. As the years passed, witnesses died, detectives changed and the investigation into Garza’s murder stalled.

More than 57 years later, the murder’s lone suspect has now been found guilty. On Thursday evening, after a six-day trial in the Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg, a jury convicted Feit, now an 85-year-old ex-priest, of murdering Garza.

The conviction brings long-awaited closure to one of the oldest cases in the Hidalgo County judicial system, according to the San Antonio Express-News. It is a case that captivated the town and the nation, and one that reaches back to a time long before many clergy abuse cases surfaced to the forefront of public awareness.

But even after Feit’s conviction, questions persist about why it took so long to resolve the case, and whether the church and elected officials tried to cover it up.

In Feit’s trial, prosecutors presented evidence that elected law enforcement officials and church officers suspected that Feit killed Garza, the Associated Press reported. But prosecutors allege the district attorney and church leaders cut a deal to stop the investigation, to protect the reputation of the church.

Most elected officials at the time in Hidalgo County were Catholic, according to the AP, and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Catholic from Massachusetts, was running for president that year.

Thomas Doyle, 73, a Catholic priest and expert on sexual abuse and church law, read in court a letter recovered via subpoena of the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the Diocese of Corpus Christi, according to the McAllen newspaper the Monitor.

The letter, sent between clergy officials in October 1960, expressed concerns that if a priest was charged in Garza’s death, Kennedy’s presidential campaign and the reelection chances of the local Catholic sheriff would be at stake.

The Rev. Joseph Pawlicki, a pastor at a church outside Austin, wrote to the Rev. Lawrence Seidel, the head of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate order to which Feit belonged, insisting he hire a private investigator to find “loopholes” in Feit’s case, the Monitor reported.

The letter and trial testimony provide some clues as to why, for decades, Feit’s case went cold.

In the beginning, shortly after Garza’s death, telling evidence all pointed to Feit. A photo-slide viewer with a handwritten note saying it belonged to Feit was found in the same canal where Garza was found dead.

The Rev. Joseph O’Brien, an assistant pastor at Feit’s church, said that when a group gathered to drink coffee after midnight mass, he noticed that Feit had scratches on his hands.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Samantha Schmidt