Altar Ego

In Arizona, John Feit's an angel of mercy. In south Texas, many believe the ex-priest's a rapist and murderer

It is 1988 in McAllen, Texas. Irene Garza's portrait hangs in the living room of her aunt's home. The fair-skinned girl is hauntingly beautiful.

Another family member stops by the house for a visit. Noemi Ponce-Sigler happens upon the portrait and looks into the eyes of the girl. She gets the feeling Irene's looking back.

And a question comes into Noemi's mind that has been troubling her since:

The Catholic church may be satisfied, but in the criminal justice system, a murder remains unsolved.
Jeff Newton
The Catholic church may be satisfied, but in the criminal justice system, a murder remains unsolved.
Irene Garza went to Sacred Heart Church before she was killed.
Irene Garza went to Sacred Heart Church before she was killed.

"Who killed you, Irene?"


It is the Friday following Good Friday, April 1960, in McAllen. Police come to the door of Josephina and Nick Garza's home. They are there to tell the couple that their daughter, Irene, has been found dead in a nearby canal. She had been beaten. It appeared from bruises inside her thighs that her attacker had tried to rape her.

Josephina's body spasms. She collapses to her knees.

And out of her mouth comes a sound so mournful that it has become the stuff of legend in this border town.

"They said it was this long, awful moan from deep inside her body -- almost like the howl of a wolf," a niece of Josephina's describes. "They said it was like nothing they had ever heard or ever heard again."

The family's parish priest, Joseph O'Brien, comforted Josephina by telling her that Irene died in a state of grace. After all, she was last seen alive on her way to confession.

The fact was, though, O'Brien had no idea if the cleric Irene saw, Father John Feit -- a visiting priest at O'Brien's parish -- ever gave her confession.

O'Brien held back another important fact from the Garzas that day:

He was confident he knew who had killed their daughter.


Police had the McAllen canal, in which Irene's body was found, drained a few days later.

They found a nearly new slide projector just feet from the spot where the young woman's body had been dragged into the canal. Police told local newspaper reporters they believed this was the clue that would break the case. Clearly, the murderer had used the heavy chunk of equipment, complete with a long cord, to sink Irene's body to the muddy floor of the canal.

After a headline story in the McAllen paper about the projector, area newspapers never mentioned this clue again.

Police sought the owner of the projector. Eight days after Irene's body was found, they received this note:

"This viewer belongs to Fr. John Feit (Order of Mary Immaculate), of San Juan, Texas.

"It was purchased in Port Isabel, Texas, in July, 1959, at Freddies Professional Pharmacy.

"Terms -- cash.

"Price -- I don't remember.

"April 29, 1960."

Police already knew the young priest was the last person to see Irene Garza alive.

John B. Feit later became the prime suspect in the Garza murder, as well as in an attempted sexual assault of a young woman in a nearby Catholic church three weeks earlier.

Feit wound up pleading no contest to assault charges in the earlier case. He was fined $500.

But Feit was never charged in the murder of Irene Garza.

Instead, according to one of his supervisors, the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the Order of Mary Immaculate "shipped him away" for "rehabilitation" at a series of monasteries in Texas, Iowa, Missouri and, finally, New Mexico.

Feit left the priesthood 10 years later to marry a young AT&T worker he met at a church in Albuquerque. In the late 1970s, Feit, his wife and three children moved to the Arcadia district of Phoenix, where the family became active in the nearby St. Theresa church.

As a layman in Phoenix, John B. Feit has, by all appearances, become a model citizen. For much of that time, he has been a lead organizer of charitable programs for the Phoenix chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, where longtime co-workers describe him as a tireless advocate for the poor.

Phoenix Police Department investigators tell New Times there are no cold-case files in the Valley that match the modus operandi in the Irene Garza murder or the 1960 aggravated assault in which Feit pleaded no contest.

Even in retirement, Feit spends much of his days counseling and helping the infirm or disadvantaged. At his local parish, Feit is one of the organizers of the JustFaith program, an intensive educational program designed to help Catholics put their belief into action on social justice issues.

But this angel in Phoenix remains a devil in McAllen, Texas.

There -- with renewed interest in the murder of Irene Garza, along with new evidence in the case -- citizens are clamoring for an indictment of John Feit.

The old evidence, much of which has been reviewed by New Times, makes a strong case that their quest for justice is warranted.

The new evidence -- which includes testimony from two of Feit's closest associates, who say the ex-priest confessed to them that he killed Irene Garza -- seems to make a case against him a slam dunk.

Yet the district attorney in south Texas, in whose jurisdiction the murder occurred, seems content to let things die.

Feit also wants the case to die. He has said, "I did not kill Irene Garza."

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7 comments
kafkette
kafkette

the most crucial, & most life affirming thing, that could come from this is a detailed explication of what dale tacheny did to cure this man. applying it in other cases would be a tribute to the murdered irene garza, more even than if we dumped fr feit into prison for his remaining eight months [or whatever he has left].


somehow, at least here, a good intellect combined w/stumbling but heartfelt compassion did what hardline imprisonment never does. we, as a culture, misunderstand & malign the lessons of the sixties/seventies/babyboomers/etc ect. we, astonishingly, find their behavior immoral. it was not; instead & in truth, those times & the people who lived w/in them were <i>more</i> moral than what has come after. concerned w/ unbearable horror, then redemption & all but impossible possibility, this dreadful crime & its odd aftermaths are but one proof of the superior quality inherent in that era's decency, taking form, in this case, in the actions of dale tacheny.

mary14nx05y
mary14nx05y

Lynda De La Vina is a piece of Mexican garbage.  too bad she wasn't put in the canal, too.

Je ce
Je ce

I believe that what is done in darkness will be brought to light, even if it is brought out kicking and screaming. The best way to fight against evil is with faith, and courage, truth, and honesty. My word is my bond with God, so I don't hide behind pseudonyms. I fear nothing that man can do to me.

Arnold
Arnold

April, you are obviously catholic and blind by design. Try reading the story by Emma Perez Trevino,Brownsville Herald, 3-23-2004 or Pamela Coloff,Texas Monthly,(Unholy act) 4-2005 and tell me that this could and probably did occur. Priest's have a long history of sexual deviation. What happened to these two women that we know about is a tragedy to the family and to the frustration of law enforcement.

April
April

I am completely disgusted by the things said about John Feit. This is tabloid garbage, write something decent why don't you!What ever happened to Sonny Martinez???The police are trying to pin this murder on someone that took his vows seriously (confession). Everything points to her hands on boyfriend!!

Jean Ce
Jean Ce

God, help you, or your family if one of your loved ones ever gets abused, or murdered by anyone. The are two standards, one here on earth with the evil, and the final judgement by our Lord who knows the truth. As one who was raised a Roman Catholic I know there are truly godly servants, as well as there are pawns of Satan. I feel blessed that that God will be my judge, not someone like you. The Catholic Church is not alone in these troubled times. I met former Bishop O'Brien twice, when my mother passed, and after he was no longer serving. I can tell you that, the weight of the world was carried in his shoulder and felt nothing but compassion, and love for this man. So, don't try to paint anyone as a martyr, or a saint until the Vatican does.

Misscosmicenergy
Misscosmicenergy

and I am completely disgusted with law enforcement for allowing sexual monster John Feit to get away with attacking Maria Guerra. If the police had imprisoned Feit for assualting Maria Guerra, Irene Garza would be alive today. When a man attacks a woman, then later attacks another woman and murders her... the murderer is garbage...

 
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