Murdered by a Man of the Cloth

There once was a time when people could trust priests. I know it’s tough to remember—especially since it was decades ago, if not longer—but I kid you not. Priests were among the most trusted members of any community in which they lived.

Of course, this was long before the stories of child molestation and sexual assault started to surface. Yes, there were likely priests fondling children and such, but it was much more discreet and, oftentimes, concealed by the church.

Actually, the church has been known to conceal quite a lot, even in the face of all these child sex revelations (for lack of a better word). And this has been going on for so long that eventually, the years pass quickly enough to dim the memories of past crimes and transgressions.

Such was the case for former Catholic priest John Feit of Arizona, at least until recently. His story allegedly begins with the disappearance of a 25-year-old schoolteacher in McAllen, Texas in 1960.

Irene Garza was a beautiful young woman and former Miss South Texas who was loved by many in her small hometown. The day before Easter, she decided to visit Sacred Heart Catholic Church to give confession.

No one ever saw her alive again.

Easter Sunday, Garza’s father finally reported her missing to police and a search ensued, one joined by numerous members of the close-knit community. Four days later, her body was found face down in a canal. An autopsy would later show that Garza had been raped while in a coma, suffocated and killed before being dumped in the murky water.

Irene Garza (courtesy of Noemi Ponce-Sigler family)

Near Garza’s body, police found a number of suspicious items. Among them were a candelabra—which authorities determined had come from Sacred Heart Church—as well as a Kodak slide viewer belonging to one of the priests there: Reverend John Feit.

Feit was immediately brought in for questioning and underwent numerous lie detector tests about the murder; he failed them all. Feit did admit to hearing Garza’s confession that fateful night, but claimed that he left the rectory shortly thereafter and last saw her standing outside the front of the church.

The cops weren’t buying it, though. In their official report, one of the interrogating officers wrote that “Feit was responding in a manner that would indicate beyond doubt that he was concealing facts and had guilty knowledge.”

The investigation continued and soon, police learned something very interesting. Mere weeks before Garza’s disappearance, Feit had been arrested for attacking a woman at another church a few miles from McAllen. In that case, he pleaded no contest to a charge of misdemeanor aggravated assault and got only a slap on the wrist: a $500 fine and no prison time.

Pieces of the proverbial puzzle were starting to fall into place. And Garza’s family was certain they had found her killer.

Unfortunately, nothing would ever come of Garza’s case because—and bear in mind this is all hearsay—the church and the district attorney conspired to sweep this terrible crime under the rug, in a manner of speaking. Feit was insulated from prosecution and immediately transferred to Our Lady of Assumption monastery in Ava, Missouri.

He left the priesthood near the end of the decade and eventually settled in Arizona, where he currently resides. For years, the Garza case grew cold, despite the continued efforts of several family members to keep her on law enforcement’s radar.

A break finally came in 2002 when Texas Ranger Lt. Rudy Jaramillo and his cold case unit started investigating the Garza murder. After reviewing the case evidence, Jaramillo agreed that it pointed to Feit as the killer. The problem was that he had to prove it by finding something more concrete and substantial.

And that something came in the form of two surprise witnesses: Joseph O’Brien, a priest who once worked with Feit at Sacred Heart, and Dale Tacheny, a monk at the Missouri monastery where Feit was sent in 1963.

When John Feit was a 27-year-old Roman Catholic priest, he was questioned in Garza\'s killing.

Rev. John Feit in 1960 (courtesy of Bettman/Corbis)

Tacheny also served as Feit’s spiritual advisor.

According to both men, Feit confessed to killing Garza and basically knew that he got away with murder. He also seemed to understand how the church protected him from prosecution, sparing him from a life behind bars and granting him freedom even he knew he didn’t deserve.

O’Brien was working at Sacred Heart when Garza disappeared and was found murdered, and he suspected Feit was trouble. “We knew he was dangerous, so we shipped him off to a monastery,” the priest told CNN recently. O’Brien also mentioned how Feit confessed to him directly about the murder. Unfortunately, O’Brien lied to police, told them he knew nothing and carried this terrible truth for decades before finally coming forward.

Tacheny first met Feit when he arrived at Our Lady of Assumption in Missouri and began to counsel him spiritually. Soon Feit confessed to Garza’s murder, but unlike his confession to O’Brien, this one was much more detailed.

Feit told Tacheny that he heard Garza’s confession that April night in 1960 and invited her to join him in the rectory. She did and that’s where he sexually assaulted her, fondled her breasts, tied her up, gagged her and put something over her head. Feit then smuggled her out of the church and took her home, where he kept her overnight.

On Easter morning, Feit wrapped Garza in plastic—still bound and gagged—and put her in the bathtub. She complained about not being able to breathe, but he ignored her pleas and instead went to church to hear more confessions. By the time he returned, however, Garza was dead. He quickly tossed her body into his car, drove to a nearby canal and dumped her there.

She would be found four days later.

Given these new witnesses and their shocking accounts of Feit’s guilt, Jaramillo was convinced he could get a warrant for the former priest’s arrest. He approached the county district attorney, Rene Guerra, and presented his evidence. Unfortunately, the D.A. was not convinced.

Now living in Arizona, John Feit told CNN\'s Gary Tuchman he did not kill Irene Garza.

Feit today in Arizona (courtesy of Rich Brooks/CNN)

Guerra claimed that neither O’Brien nor Tacheny were credible and demanded more solid evidence that would result in what he called a “slam-dunk conviction.” In his opinion—and despite numerous others having different views—O’Brien was a senile old man who lied to police and Tacheny did little more than present evidence fed to him by Jaramillo.

It didn’t matter that McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez found O’Brien “very credible” or that Tacheny told his story to San Antonio Police detective George Saidler months before Jaramillo ever heard of him. Guerra would not issue a warrant for Feit’s arrest.

In 2004, a grand jury finally did hear Garza’s case again, only Feit was never called to testify. Neither was O’Brien or Tacheny, even though transcripts of their testimony were supposedly shared with jurors. Sadly, O’Brien died a year later and the grand jury decided not to indict Feit.

There would be no justice for Irene Garza, but her family has not given up hope. They still believe that someday Feit will answer for his crime. And since he was once a “man of God,” I hope he understands that while a human court may not get him, a certain archangel named Satan might.

We all pay the piper eventually. It’s just that for John Feit—who is elderly and basically has one foot in the grave already—the price will be especially high.

Posted on June 2, 2013, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Bridget Ames

    Didn’t they say she was raped too, but one of the accounts talk about he just having breast fondled, Also this would be the rareity not the norm, not that it is okay. But it is pretty hard to slander the Priesthood due to a few people sins. Also it is not Priest preying on young children, It is homosexual Priest preying on post-pubesent boys 15-18. That’s not pedophilia, it is pedandastry. So for my part I will rely on Good Holy Priest who put the Sacrifice into practice, not self indulgent pansies that are coming out of the woodwork.

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