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Altar Ego

The Catholic church may be satisfied, but in the criminal justice system, a murder remains unsolved.
Jeff Newton

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:

"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."

In that sentence begins an even deeper mystery, one that may only be solved by understanding a brilliant man's own concepts of faith, contrition, justice and personality.

When asked by a reporter at his Arcadia home if he should be considered a danger to the community, he yelled: "Look at my record for the last 45 years!"

Irene Garza's body was thrown in a McAllen canal on Easter Sunday, 1960 -- 45 years and two months ago.


The week before Easter, 1960, had been unusually hot along the Texas-Mexico border. With highs already touching the 90s, residents of the valley surrounding McAllen were predicting a long, dismal summer.

Throughout the week, young adults raised in the area were streaming back to McAllen from college or new jobs. The Easter vacation was a time to see old friends, maybe even to rekindle or start a love affair.

The scuttlebutt among some returning young men was that Irene Garza was no longer seeing Sonny Martinez.

This was big news. Irene, as one unrequited suitor wrote, "was the closest thing to an angel" he'd ever met.

So bright, so beautiful, such a sweetheart, such a good heart.

Irene was the first in her family to go to college. After graduation, she returned to do what she had set out to do: teach disadvantaged children in McAllen.

She taught second grade at a school south of the railroad tracks, the line between the haves and the have-nots, the Anglos and the Hispanics, the longtime Mexican-Americans and the new immigrants.

She spent her first paycheck on books and clothing for her students. She spent early mornings, late evenings and weekends giving her students extra learning and fun. She worked with the local PTA.

Her students, she admitted in letters, were becoming her children, her life. She wanted her students to be able to cross the tracks if they chose to.

Like she had done. Irene Garza had become the first Hispanic twirler and head drum majorette at the Anglo-dominated McAllen High School, just a year after her parents' prospering dry-cleaning business had allowed them to afford a house north of the tracks.

Irene was Prom Queen and Homecoming Queen at Pan American College. She was Miss All South Texas Sweetheart 1958.

The catty teenage girls in her old neighborhood blamed her success on her light skin and bone structure and on her Doris Day-style clothes. She was tall and thin, as well as proper and dainty in pillbox hats and high heels.

To some of the little girls in her old neighborhood, though, she was a goddess.

"I can still see her," says Noemi Ponce-Sigler, the cousin of Irene's, who was 10 when she died. "She was so beautiful and so good to us kids. [To] a little girl, she just seemed like everything you'd want to be."

Irene Garza, though, never saw herself in such a positive light.

She was humble to a fault, so humble that she sometimes floundered in self-doubt. As she gained confidence in her mid-20s, she came to believe that her longtime boyfriend, Sonny, was a smothering force in her life. In her breakup letter to him, after providing a lengthy list of her own faults ("Extremely sensitive," "withdrawn," "jealous," "fearful," "serious," "my proportions"), she explained how Sonny made her "feel inferior and insecure." She even made a list of what she believed Sonny needed in a girl:

"A self-confident female, a happy girl, a girl with just a little jealousy that's enough to feed your ego, a girl not easily hurt, a girl who makes your burden easier to carry."

And, apparently, from the girls Sonny had liked to ogle when they were out together: "A girl 38-22-38."

Sonny admitted his frustration at having a flat-chested girlfriend who, instead of having sex with him, wanted to talk about children and God.

It was true that Irene was attending church more often, seeking, she told friends in letters, "to better understand and serve God's will." As for men, she told friends she wanted to marry and have a big family, but she wasn't going to push the issue. And she wasn't going to let Sonny define her anymore.

 

Irene wrote to a friend just before Easter that she had gone on a few dates with two men, one of whom she described as "this Anglo boy -- not real handsome, but cute and religious (which is important). He is a member of the Legion of Mary and goes to Mass and receives Holy Communion every morning."

When she disappeared, police first assumed she had run off with a man. Police interviewed dozens of young men who had shown interest in dating her.

Her family and friends knew better.

When she borrowed her father's car the Saturday night before Easter, she said she was going to church for confession and that she would be right back.

Irene always did what she said she would do.

Besides, she was dressed casually. She had taken none of her possessions.

Irene was helping plan the Easter egg hunt the next morning for the children of the parish. Her family speculated that she may have had to talk to a priest about the logistics of the event.

Family members believe that is why she telephoned the church before leaving the house, asking to meet with a priest.

Father John Feit, a guest priest at the church helping out with the pre-Easter confession crunch, answered the phone.

Irene Garza then drove the 12 blocks to the church to meet with Feit.

Feit's story of what happened next changed several times over the following weeks and years. Now, he refuses to speak about that meeting or the critical hours and days that followed.

Two years ago, after the case had been reopened, a Texas Ranger called Feit at his Phoenix home.

The Ranger asked Feit to speak to him about his role in the events that Easter weekend in 1960. Feit's answer was as opaque as it was potentially illuminating:

"That man doesn't exist anymore," he said, hanging up the phone.


John B. Feit grew up on the south side of Chicago in a devoutly German-Catholic household.

It was in the rough and vibrant Chicago of the 1940s, and Feit lived in a neighborhood of working-class families.

Much of the neighborhood was Irish, much of the priesthood was Irish. He developed an accent that faded from south-side Chicago to Irish brogue.

His uncle, also named John, was a priest in Detroit. His parents hoped that one of their sons would become a priest.

At age 13, John was sent to San Antonio to begin his religious education. He became a priest in Texas in 1958 within the Order of Mary Immaculate. A year later, he began a one-year internship program based out of a pastoral house run by the Oblate Fathers in the valley town of San Juan, Texas.

From that house, Feit and several fellow OMI priests took classes at nearby Pan-American College and helped fill in at parishes in nearby McAllen and Edinburg.

Father Feit often helped Father Charles Moran at Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg. Through the spring of 1960, he also often stopped by the rectory in Edinburg for coffee with Moran and the church secretaries.

Easter weekend of that year, Father Feit was asked to help Father Joseph O'Brien and his two associate priests give confession and offer Mass at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen.

Like every Easter weekend, it was a hectic time for priests. Confession lines and pews were bloated with visitors, children back for holiday and the multitude of Catholics who practice their faith only at Easter and Christmas.

The three priests and the visiting priest gave confessions that morning, then from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday afternoon.

At 6 p.m., they returned to the rectory for dinner. The priests would resume confessions in the church at 7 p.m. Irene Garza phoned the church rectory and spoke to Feit just before 7 p.m.

Witnesses saw Irene walking from her car to the church about 7 p.m.

Witnesses saw three of the four priests return to the church from the rectory at 7 p.m. The visiting priest, Feit, thin, dark-haired, with distinctive horn-rimmed glasses, was not with them.

Witnesses said they then saw Irene Garza walking to the rectory.

At 7:20 p.m., Irene was seen walking from the rectory.

She was last seen by witnesses about 8 p.m. outside the church.


Two days after Irene disappeared, one of her high-heeled shoes was found alongside a road on the edge of McAllen.

 

Her purse was found the next morning.

At that point, it was obvious she hadn't run off with a lover.

By midweek, her disappearance had already sparked one of the largest investigations in McAllen-area history.

Seventy sheriff's department posse members scoured the region on horseback looking for her body. Sixty-five National Guardsmen were called in. Investigators followed dozens of leads, most pointing toward ex-boyfriends, unrequited admirers or transients.

Skin divers dragged irrigation canals. They just dragged the wrong ones.

On a balmy Thursday morning, four days after Easter Sunday, Irene's body rose to the surface of the Second Street Canal and was spotted by several passersby.

Frightened valley residents began locking their doors. The search switched to a manhunt. There was a murderer on the loose.

In the days after Irene's disappearance, investigators learned of an attempted sexual assault three weeks earlier inside another Catholic church in Edinburg, a nearby town in the valley. Again, the victim, Maria America Guerra, was a young Hispanic female.

Investigators quickly linked the two attacks. And investigators in the Garza case began digging deeper for information on the Edinburg attack.

They re-interviewed the victim. She repeated that her assailant was a white male with horn-rimmed glasses in a light-tan shirt and dark trousers -- clothing, she assumed, was that of a priest.

At the time, police were looking for a serial rapist who seemed to lurk around valley Catholic churches preying on attractive young light-skinned Hispanic women. Perhaps the rapist was masquerading as a priest?

The same day Irene's body was found, police investigating the Edinburg case made a stunning discovery:

The priest who last saw Irene Garza alive not only was at the Edinburg church the day of the earlier attack, he matched the victim's and another witness's description of the attacker.

As police continued to publicly state they had no hard leads, they quietly began zeroing in on Father John Feit.

Catholic leaders dreaded the possible fallout if one of their own was the culprit. Not only would it bring scandal to the church, it would give fodder to already deep prejudices within the Protestant community.

Bridges between Anglos and Hispanics, Protestants and Catholics, were just beginning to be built in earnest in deep south central Texas (Irene Garza was seen as an ambassador in that effort).

The investigation of Feit would be kept as quiet as possible.

After Irene's body was found, police spoke again with Feit's supervisor, Father Joseph O'Brien from Sacred Heart Church in McAllen -- who admitted something he had kept quiet from police:

Feit was his prime suspect, too.


Maria America Guerra had returned home in the late afternoon of March 23, 1960, after attending classes at Pan-American College.

At 4:30 p.m., the pretty, light-skinned 20-year-old had gone to the outdoor bathhouse behind her home in Edinburg to get cleaned up.

As she walked outside, she noticed a man watching her from a parked car adjacent to the bathhouse, which sat directly across from Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg.

In her April 1960 statement to police, Guerra described the young man as having black hair and horn-rimmed glasses.

He was sitting in a blue-and-white 1955 or 1956 model car.

Later, after dinner, Guerra said she left the house to go across the street to pray in the church.

As she left, she noticed the same car parked between her house and the church. The man with the horn-rimmed glasses was not in the vehicle.

She entered the church through the main doors and walked to the communion rail.

"As I entered the church, I noticed a man sitting alone in one of the rear benches on my left," she said. "This man also had black hair and horn-rimmed glasses, and the thought that it was the same man that I saw earlier entered my mind. But being in a house of God, I dismissed any thoughts of foul play."

Another lady was in the church praying as Guerra knelt to pray. That lady, whom Guerra did not know, soon stood and left the church.

Moments later, Guerra said, she heard the footsteps of someone coming from the back of the church toward the front.

"I looked to see who it was and noticed that it was a man, the same man sitting at the rear of the church when I entered. I noticed that he was wearing a light beige T-shirt and black pants."

Guerra said the man walked to a side door, looked out in both directions, then quickly walked back in her direction.

 

"The next thing I know, he had turned very quick, come to my rear and grabbed me around the head.

"He placed a small cloth over my mouth, and I fell backward to the floor. I began to scream now as when I fell, the rag fell free from my mouth. Then while I was on the floor, he tried to cover my mouth with his hands to stop me from screaming and when he did this, one of his fingers went into my mouth and I bit it very hard. I know that I bit it very hard because I could taste blood in my mouth.

"When I bit him, he threw me toward the south side door of the church and ran out the north side door."

Guerra ran to the rectory and rang the doorbell. Father Charles Moran, who was inside taking a shower, yelled for her "to wait a minute."

As she was ringing the bell, a young woman came up to her and asked what had happened. The woman had heard her scream. Guerra told her she had been attacked in the church. The woman then walked away.

Guerra, afraid that the man might still be lurking, decided to head quickly back to her home.

She noticed the blue-and-white car was gone.

The woman who asked her what had happened was Maria Cristina Tijerina, who was walking past the church on her way to work at 6:20 p.m.

"As I passed the front door [of the church], I heard some screams coming from inside the church," she said. "I became interested and started trying to see what was happening. I kept walking while I was looking because I was late for work.

"As I passed the side door of this church, a young man about 29 or 30 years old came out walking very fast like he was in a hurry. When I saw the man, I didn't hear any more screams. He was dressed in black pants and had a white T-shirt on. In his hands, he was holding a towel about the size of a face towel."

Tijerina saw the man enter the door to the church sacristy. She saw Guerra leave the church and head toward the rectory. Tijerina said she then went to ask Guerra what had happened.

In early May, Guerra was taken to the McAllen police station by a deputy sheriff. Investigators wanted her to see the lead suspect in the Irene Garza case.

"I looked at this man, and I [said] that I thought he was the one [who had attacked] me. Later that night, I told my mother this was the man who attacked me."

Guerra wrote in a statement two weeks later, "I saw this same man not long after in the library at Pan-American College, but I saw him dressed as a priest, and I was surprised to see him dressed as a priest, as this was the same man I had seen at the Police Station in McAllen. The minute I saw him I felt afraid of him.

"I want to state that this same Priest that I have seen [at the] College and that I saw at the Police Station in McAllen is the same man who attacked me in church in Edinburg. I am positive he is the same man."

The man she identified was Father John Feit.


The interning priest from San Antonio admitted he had visited Father Charles Moran at Sacred Heart Church the afternoon Guerra was attacked. Feit also admitted that he went into the church to pray, but said he exited the building by 5:15 p.m. to talk to Father Moran about "the personal problems of a boy from Edinburg." He said he then returned to San Juan in his blue-and-white 1956 Ford Tudor in time to "ring the 5:30 bell for Adoration."

Moran, however, remembered nothing of a conversation with Feit about a boy's troubles. He just remembered Feit coming "for no good reason I know of." Moran remembered Feit was dressed in black pants and a light-tan shirt with his usual horn-rimmed glasses.

Other witnesses said Feit didn't ring the 5:30 bell in San Juan.

Feit then gave a second police statement in which he tried to explain the contradictions.

"I believe I hurt my cause by trying to be too specific and detailed about my doings on that afternoon of March 23. Frankly, it was just another routine day, and it is very hard to recall my exact whereabouts, actions or what have you at any exact time."

Regarding the bell-ringing: "I left the rectory and drove to San Juan, arriving in time to ring the bell, for supper or chapel service? I don't know for sure."

 

Besides the victim's and the chief witness's identifying Feit -- besides witnesses contradicting his story -- the most damning evidence was Feit's mangled left pinkie finger, which several fellow priests and church workers noticed in the days after March 23.

In Feit's initial statement to police, he explained that his finger had been injured in a church mimeograph machine the day before Guerra was attacked.

"In trying to make the stencil ink better, the little finger of my left hand caught between the revolving drum and the frame breaking the skin and causing a severe bruise."

Feit wrote that on Tuesday night, the day before Guerra was attacked, he asked a Father Houlahan for some rubbing alcohol to soak his finger.

Feit wrote that he also went to the secretary at the Edinburg church on the morning of March 23 asking for a bandage for the injury. Feit said, "She asked me how I hurt my finger, and I said I hurt it in the mimeograph machine."

Father Houlahan, in his statement, said that Feit came to him later in the week regarding his wounded finger.

And a secretary at the church in Edinburg was adamant in her statement that Feit came the morning after the Guerra attack asking for a bandage. And she was vocal in her suspicion that her mimeograph machine could not have done the damage to Feit's finger.

That secretary, Cleotilde "Tilly" Sanchez, still lives in the McAllen area. And she says she still vividly remembers the events of March and April 1960.

She remembers walking in as the church's other secretary, Leonila Sanchez, was putting iodine on Feit's finger.

"I didn't just ask Feit what happened to his finger," she tells New Times. "I asked, 'Who bit your finger?' It had teeth marks on it. It was as clear as day.

"Feit said, 'It isn't a bite.' I said, 'Well, it sure looks like a bite. You can see the mouth shape on it.'"

Sanchez says she had come to know Feit well during that spring. Feit was often over visiting Moran. Feit, she says, was always calling the church asking for Moran or for help with some issue.

"Pretty early on, [Feit] wouldn't have to say his name when he called," she says. "His voice was that distinctive, and he was calling that much."

In late April or early May of that year, after Irene Garza's body was found, after Sanchez had made her statements to police, a call came into the church that chills her to this day.

"It was a Friday," she says. "The phone rings, I pick it up and a man says, 'You're next, Tilly.' I said, 'What?' And he says, 'You're next!'

"It was Feit," she maintains. "I knew his voice immediately. Father Moran walks in, and I tell him Father Feit just called and said, 'You're next,' and Father Moran just says, 'Oh, Tilly, it couldn't be Father Feit.' By that point I was just scared to death."

She quit her secretary job soon after.

Investigators were confident they had an ironclad case against John Feit in the Garza killing.

But they held off pushing for charges. They wanted to have something to offer Feit.

The deal they came up with was this: If Feit would confess to Irene Garza's murder, they wouldn't bring a charge in the Guerra case. He wouldn't have to face two trials.

In reality, it wasn't a very big carrot. Avoid an assault-related charge by confessing to rape and murder?

Feit refused to confess that he killed Irene Garza. In the summer of 1960, Feit was charged with the attempted sexual assault of Maria America Guerra.

Even without a confession, though, investigators felt confident they had more than enough evidence to charge John Feit with the murder of Irene Garza.

That never happened.


On May 3, 1960, two weeks after Irene Garza disappeared, police asked John Feit to give a sworn statement of his whereabouts on Easter weekend.

At 7 p.m. on the Saturday before Easter, he told authorities, he and Father O'Brien were leaving the rectory heading for the church when the phone rang.

Feit said he returned to the rectory to answer it.

He said a woman was on the line asking to see Father Junius, who was already taking confessions in the church.

Feit said he told the woman that Father Junius would be busy until 10:30 p.m., but that he could talk to her if she hurried down to the church.

 

Irene Garza, whom Feit says he didn't know, arrived five minutes later.

"She was a light-complected girl, apparently of Latin-American extraction -- good-looking. She spoke perfect English," he told police.

"For 10 minutes she discussed a personal problem of hers with me, the nature of which I do not feel justified in making public since it involved my obligation of professional secrecy as a clergyman and Catholic priest."

However, Feit did let on that the issue wasn't too serious.

"Her overall attitude and comportment during our brief conversation led me to believe that she possessed a very delicate conscience."

Feit said he sent Garza to the church so she could go to confession.

Feit said he left the rectory, locked the door behind him and headed to the church to help the other three priests give confession.

Feit said he last saw Garza "standing on the sidewalk, in front of the church, arranging a scarf or handkerchief on her head."

At 8 p.m., Feit said he left the church for a short break. He saw Father O'Brien talking to some men outside the church. He went to O'Brien and asked for the keys to the rectory.

From this point on, Feit's story begins to differ from the evidence and the statements of witnesses.

He said he returned to the church at 8:15 p.m. He said he left the church again at 9 p.m. to go to the rectory "because my voice was beginning to give out." There, he said, he had a cigarette and a 7UP and returned to the church to give confession.

However, a host of witnesses within the church said Father Feit's confessional line stopped moving about 8 p.m. As Father O'Brien later told police, that was a sign there was no priest in the confession booth.

Feit said that at 9:50 p.m., near the end of confession, a screw in his eyeglasses came loose and fell out. He told Father Busch that he would have to go to the pastoral house in San Juan to get his other pair of glasses.

The next day, O'Brien and the other priests noticed that Feit's hand was injured.

Feit explained that injury away:

"Upon arriving at the Pastoral House in San Juan, I found all the doors on the ground floor locked." So he said he placed a wood barricade against the building and climbed up and through a second-story window.

"While entering the house in this way, I scraped the back of my right hand slightly, and the index finger and middle finger of my left hand more severely on the brick wall."

He said he changed clothes and headed back to McAllen for the 11 p.m. service.

He said he went to bed at 1 a.m. with a "severe headache," which he assumed was caused by his second pair of glasses. He said the spectacles "never fit me as well as the first" pair.

The next morning, Feit gave Mass at 9 a.m., then asked Fathers Busch and O'Brien if he could use Busch's car to go to San Juan to get his glasses fixed.

Feit said he worked on the glasses "for five minutes," but had no luck. Then, he said, "I drove straight back to Sacred Heart Church."

At 12:40 p.m., he asked another priest to drive him to the Pastoral House in San Juan, where he said he stayed until about 4 p.m.

He returned to Sacred Heart to give 5:30 Mass. Shortly after 7:30 p.m. on Easter Sunday, he said, he was given a ride back to the Pastoral House by Father O'Brien.

Feit said he immediately realized he had left some of his belongings at Sacred Heart, so he borrowed a car and drove back to the church.

There, he said, several priests were talking about the "missing girl." As he stood there, the phone rang. Father Junius answered. It was Irene Garza's parents wanting to speak with the priest who had spoken with her the night before.

The parents came over, and Feit said he spoke with them. He said they asked him if he "had perhaps said anything which might have upset or disturbed their daughter."

In fact, Garza family members say, Nick Garza asked Feit, "What have you done with my daughter?"

Feit said, "I could see the parents were very disturbed and upset themselves, so I sent them home as quickly and as quietly as possible.

"I then picked up my coat, collar and laundry and headed for home. It was about 9:15 p.m. But I did not go straight home. My talk with the girl's parents had disturbed me. Perhaps I had said something, unintentionally, that might have upset that girl? I was worried, and drove around aimlessly for a while."

 

He said he stopped at a nearby Whataburger, got a malt, then drove back to San Juan in time for the 10 p.m. news.

According to investigators, Irene Garza's body was probably thrown into the canal on Easter Sunday evening.


Several dozen young men were considered potential suspects early in the investigation of Irene Garza's death.

One by one, all proved to have credible alibis. And all passed lie-detector tests administered by state police investigators from Austin.

All except John Feit.

Nobody could vouch for Feit's whereabouts at critical times during the weekend. And time after time, Feit attempted to control his breathing as critical questions were asked during the polygraph examinations.

A lengthy report detailing the exams by Texas authorities, then by John Reid -- arguably the top polygraph examiner in the country at the time -- paints an ugly picture of Feit.

The tests "definitely implicated him in both crimes," the report said.

"It is the opinion of the examiner, based on this subject's polygraph test, that [Feit] is purposefully attempting to defeat the recordings."

In fact, each time Feit was hooked up to a polygraph machine, he began taking exactly 10 breaths per minute, "indicating that he was purposefully controlling his breathing even though he had been given warnings and instructions throughout."

Examiners secretly monitored Feit's breathing rate during normal conversations. On average, they said, he inhaled and exhaled 16 to 20 times a minute when he didn't believe he was being monitored.

Reid went on to describe Feit's demeanor throughout the tests.

"The examiner pointed out in detail to the subject that he should make an effort to tell the truth concerning his implication in these crimes so that the church and the priesthood would not suffer when evidence definitely implicating him is turned up at a later date.

"The subject, in very deliberate and explicit words, stated there will never be any evidence turning up in the future of this case.

"He also pointed out to the examiner that there are two . . . murders in the area [that] had gone unsolved, one for 15 years and one for 20 years, and that this case, like those, will soon be forgotten."

When asked why he entered the priesthood, Feit answered, "I just wanted to give it a try."

When asked about the attack on Maria America Guerra, Feit's answers bordered on the absurd. At one point, he claimed that Guerra's true attacker had actually confessed to him.

"The subject was queried as to where the confession was obtained, and [Feit] told the examiner that it was not in the confessional box, not in the rectory but out in the open some place and was very vague as to where the open place was."

When asked if the lie detector was incorrect when it indicated that he committed these crimes, he answered, "Your machine is probably functioning correctly, but these men from Austin have told me that I have a vague respiration and a bad heart."

What everyone knew -- Feit's attorneys, the examiners themselves -- was that polygraph exams weren't admissible in court.

In effect, the stated belief by examiners that Feit was "concealing the truth" would mean nothing in a courtroom.

Feit had been taken to Austin and then Chicago for the polygraph tests.

Each time, he was escorted by Father Joseph O'Brien, his supervisor at Sacred Heart Church.

It was clear that O'Brien had been placed in charge of Feit by his superiors within the Order of Mary Immaculate.


Prosecutors finally decided to first move forward with the attempted sexual assault case against Feit.

When charges were filed, John Feit became a household name.

It was the biggest story in the McAllen valley in years. And as leaders had feared, it tore the community apart.

Feit remained confident. As he told investigators, he "had the best attorneys money can buy."

The trial was moved to Austin. It was believed Feit couldn't get a fair trial in Hidalgo County.

His trial ended with the jury deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of conviction.

Rather than face a second trial, Feit pleaded no contest to the reduced charges of aggravated assault and was ordered to pay the $500 fine.

No murder charge was ever filed.

The assumption in McAllen was that a deal had been struck to avoid both further embarrassment to the church and a prolonged fight between the church and elected officials in this predominantly Catholic town.

 

Documents in the case seem to support the assumption.

Indeed, it is clear that the church promised to ship Feit away from the valley and lock him up in the monastery system.

Irene's aunt, Herlinda de la Vina, remembers Father Joseph O'Brien telling her as much.

"He told us that the church's punishment was greater than any sentence handed down by the courts, and we believed him."

Father O'Brien told the family that Feit would be sent to a monastery and kept there so he would be unable to hurt anyone else.

And that's what happened. For the next decade, Father O'Brien essentially served as John Feit's probation officer, as well as the liaison between civil and church authorities in the matter.

O'Brien was even named a "special investigator" by the city manager of McAllen.

O'Brien's role in the case ended with a short letter sent to McAllen police in December 1971:

"Dear Chief:

"I have just received notice that John Feit has left Denham Springs, New Mexico, and is now living in the Chicago area. He is seeking employment as a layman and will no longer function as a priest. This was his own decision and was not due to a problem.

"If any further information is needed please feel free to call upon me.

"Father Joseph O'Brien, OMI."


Noemi Ponce-Sigler was 10 years old when Irene Garza was murdered.

The cousins, part of a close-knit extended Mexican-American family, were often at the same homes, the same family parties, the same town events.

To a 10-year-old girl, Irene Garza seemed to be everything a woman should be.

"She was beautiful, so graceful, so loving," Ponce-Sigler says.

In 1988, Ponce-Sigler was visiting the house of her aunt, also one of Irene's aunts, when she suddenly felt as if someone were watching her. Nobody was in the room. But on the wall was a large portrait photo of Irene.

"I don't know, I'm sure it was the light or something, but it seemed like she was staring at me," Ponce-Sigler says. "I stared at her photo, and just began asking myself questions about what happened to her. From that visit on, I've just continued to knock on doors asking questions."

She contacted Sonny Miller, then a detective with the McAllen police force. Miller was still interested in the case. He pulled the old files on Irene's murder and began digging again.

He found more new evidence. Still, the local district attorney had no interest in filing charges.

"Everything said this guy Feit was as guilty as sin," Miller, who is now retired, tells New Times.

Besides loads of evidence, Miller says he discovered something else. In the year following Irene's murder, it seemed like everyone lost interest, or was told to lose interest.

Police even later found candlesticks near where Irene's body was thrown into the canal that had come from Sacred Heart Church. But, Miller says, investigators never tried to match them to the wounds on her head.

Miller talked to several of the investigators from the time of the murder, as well as to the daughter of then-police chief Clint Mussey. It became clear that from the turmoil caused just by Feit's sexual-assault trial, the powers that be at the time didn't want to see a priest tried for murder in the valley.

"It frustrated the hell out of the people who knew [that] Feit was the guy," Miller says. "Justice was not done."

In 2002, the Texas Rangers reopened the case.

By 2004, the Rangers and the Garza family believed that justice might finally be had.

And by last year, Noemi Ponce-Sigler believed she finally knew what actually happened to Irene Garza.

"Once I was able to talk to Dale Tacheny and Father O'Brien, it was all pretty clear," she says. "The only thing left is justice for the killer."


Dale Tacheny was a guilt-ridden young man. When he left the U.S. Army in the late 1940s, he decided to become a monk to save his eternal soul.

"It was a very selfish decision," says Tacheny from his home in Oklahoma City. "I wanted to save myself. I wasn't thinking about others."

Forty years later, it was guilt, Tacheny says, that finally led him to speak publicly about his involvement with John B. Feit.

Tacheny began his religious training in 1949 at age 20.

By 27, he was already something of a golden boy in the Trappist order.

 

In the fall of 1958, Tacheny, known as Father Emmanuel, was sent to Rome for two years of study. When he returned to the United States, he was promoted to second in command at Our Lady of Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri.

Tacheny was Novice Master. As such, he was the abbot's right-hand man and the priest in charge of all of the abbey's newest postulants.

He was a sort of spiritual drill sergeant for seven to 10 young men seeking to become monks within the Order.

In 1963, Tacheny says, he was given his strangest assignment ever.

"The abbot called me in and said, 'There is a priest who murdered a woman who is in the guest house. He wants to become a monk. We are instructed to take him in.'"

Tacheny was told that the priest had been sent to Assumption Abbey from New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, where, a month earlier, he had attempted to attack a woman as she got into her car outside the abbey.

This attack, he was told, had followed similar attacks in Texas, one of which had led to the death of a young woman.

Tacheny says he then went to the guest house, where he met Father John Feit.

In the days that followed, Tacheny started his new novice down the quietly arduous path to becoming a monk.

The novices rose at 2 a.m., and their day included classes, meditation, manual labor in the fields surrounding the abbey, and vespers. They were to be in bed by 8 p.m.

Once a week was the Office of Faults, when novices professed or found themselves accused of sinful thoughts or actions. The novices then self-flagellated for one minute by beating their bare shoulders with a knotted rope.

Tacheny met with each of his novices weekly to explain, or be told, how they were doing.

Tacheny remembers Feit having trouble adjusting to the abbey and his fellow novices. For one, he didn't fit in. He was an ordained priest in his late 20s. The others were barely out of high school.

It was during one of their weekly meetings, Tacheny says, that he finally began asking Feit about his past.

"I just asked, 'Why are you here and not in prison?'" Tacheny says. "It was very matter-of-fact.

"Feit said, 'The church is behind me.' Feit said that any time the authorities would get close to anything, he would just say he couldn't speak because of confessional secrecy."

Then, Tacheny says he remembers asking Feit why the church would stand behind him.

"Feit said he was told by his superiors that they didn't want the faithful to be scandalized," Tacheny says.

"To be honest, at the time, it all didn't seem that strange," Tacheny says. "Over the whole issue was our belief that we could help him more than some prison and that he wouldn't be a threat because he was locked up in a monastery somewhere. Civil justice wasn't part of the equation at that time."

As the months passed, it became clear that John Feit would not be able to handle the monastic life. Tacheny says Feit himself asked to be transferred.

Tacheny was then told that it was his job to prepare Feit to return to society.

Tacheny had studied psychology, but he admits he was completely unqualified to "try to cure him, whatever that means."

At that point, Tacheny says, his relationship with Feit changed. It was now his job to probe Feit's mind, get the truth about "this murder" and break Feit of whatever impulses led him to attack women.

Tacheny says he did his job. And he still believes he was successful.

But in the decades that followed, as he left the abbey, then the priesthood, Tacheny again became eaten by guilt.

He increasingly felt as though he was an accomplice to murder and that he may have unleashed a dangerous man on society.

In 2002, Tacheny sent a two-page letter to the Texas Rangers. In it, Tacheny laid out to detectives what he remembered being told by Feit in 1963.

The problem: Tacheny wasn't ever told where the murder took place or on which Easter it had taken place. Since he knew Feit had been shipped to the Midwest abbeys from San Antonio, Tacheny says, he assumed the murder Feit described to him had taken place in San Antonio the year Feit came to Assumption Abbey in 1963.

The Ranger who received the letter, Detective George Saidler, went hunting through records of unsolved murders in San Antonio. Nothing matched. So he moved on.

Late in 2002, another Ranger, Rocky Milligan, stopped by Saidler's office to talk about an investigation. During that conversation, Milligan went on to talk about the Rangers' cold-case unit, which, he said, was working on cases more than 40 years old.

 

"[There's] one out of the [McAllen] valley that dates all the way back to 1960," he told Saidler. "A woman was murdered on Easter weekend, and the main suspect was a priest."

The Rangers called Tacheny.


Once it was clear that John Feit was not going to be a monk, Dale Tacheny says, it was his job to make sure Feit would not be a danger once he left the monastery.

"We were very concerned," Tacheny says. "By that point, he had a history of attacking women. We needed to get to the bottom of his problem and help him control it."

There was the mindset within the Trappist order at the time, he says, that priests could be healed. The order was intent on forgiveness. It would hate the sin, not the sinner.

If sin and sinner continued to live as one, punishment was better meted out by God than some secular judge, in purgatory or hell rather than a Texas prison.

The idea of justice here on Earth was of no concern. It was many years later before Tacheny began ruminating over the plight of the victims and their families.

He now believes he did the wrong thing. That, he says, is why he is talking now.

At the time, though, he firmly believed he was doing the right thing.

Which began, he says, by getting to the bottom of what happened in the slaying.

"I remember [Feit] said it happened Easter weekend," Tacheny says.

"Feit said he was hearing confessions with several other priests, four to six priests. He said a woman came, and he suggested going to the rectory to hear confession. He took control of her somehow. He told me the only thing he did sexually was take her blouse off and fondle her breasts.

"He said he tied her up, took her to the basement, then went back to the church to hear confessions. That night, he said, he took her back to someplace where the [interning priests] were staying. Feit said he put her in a room and locked her up there until the next day. He told me he went to Sunday services, then came back . . . for lunch in his room. Before he left, he said, he put a bag or something over her head and put her in a bathtub.

"I remember Feit saying that, as he left, the woman says, 'I can't breathe,' but he goes on anyway. He said that when he returned, he found her dead in the bathtub."

Tacheny says Feit would never say the woman's last name. He just called her "Irene."

Tacheny says Feit then explained how he disposed of her body: "That night he put her in a car and drove her to a canal. I remember him saying he patted her on the chest as he drove, saying, 'Everything is okay, Irene.'

"It was very disturbing, I had never had to deal with anything like this," Tacheny says.

But Feit, he says, talked about Easter, 1960, as if it was any other weekend.

"He was usually very nice and cooperative, but it was chilling that there didn't seem to be any remorse," Tacheny recalls.

Tacheny says he then began questioning Feit about "the things that bothered him."

"Feit said one thing that really bugged him was the 'click, click, click of women's heels on solid flooring,'" Tacheny says.

"Which led to discussions about whether he believed he would have a problem leaving. At that point, he tells me he sometimes has this urge to attack women from behind. Especially as they are kneeling. A compulsion. So we began working on that. We talked it through."

Tacheny says they finally got to a point in the therapy when Feit said he thought he could control his urges in the future.

So, Tacheny says, Feit was sent on a mission.

Amazingly, Feit was told to go to several churches -- in St. Louis and then in his home of Chicago -- and see if he could stand behind women without feeling a compulsion to attack them.

"He came back and said he had accomplished the task," Tacheny says. "So I made a judgment after that that he could go back into the world."

Tacheny says he remembers hearing that a priest who knew Feit before he came to the monastery was arguing that he should not be allowed to leave. Tacheny later found out the priest was Father Joseph O'Brien.

 

Feit was then transferred to Jemez Springs, New Mexico, to a treatment center for troubled priests run by the Order of the Servants of the Paraclete.

That treatment center (and Feit himself, who rose to the position of superior at Jemez Springs) later became notorious for quietly sending pedophile priests back into communities around the country.

While in New Mexico, Feit met a young light-skinned Hispanic woman in a church in Albuquerque. Her Spanish ancestry dated back to the 1600s in northern New Mexico.

They fell in love. In 1971, Feit sent a letter to Rome asking that he be released from his priestly duties.

He headed back to Chicago with his new wife to start a family. He bounced through several jobs in the Midwest before finally moving to Phoenix and into the parish where his brother was a pastor, St. Theresa.


Noemi Ponce-Sigler couldn't believe what she was hearing when she picked up the phone last year. It was the voice of Father Joseph O'Brien.

He was calling from a nursing home for retired priests. He had decided it was time he told the family what he knew before his mind slipped or his body failed.

By 2004, both O'Brien and Tacheny were willing to become vocal about Feit's role in the Irene Garza case. They were also willing to talk about their frustration with Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra.

It was Guerra's job to consider charges in the reopened case against Feit in the slaying of Irene Garza.

For years, Guerra avoided the case. In 2002, when asked if he would pursue charges now that evidence seemed overwhelming in the old case, Guerra told the Brownsville Herald: "I reviewed the file some years back; there was nothing there. Can it be solved? Well, I guess if you believe that pigs fly, anything is possible."

He concluded, "Why would anyone be haunted by her death? She died. Her killer got away."

Guerra's comments naturally angered the Garza family, which still includes more than a dozen first cousins, aunts and uncles (her parents passed away in the 1990s). But it did not surprise them.

"Guerra is just known to be politically motivated, pretty dang bad at his job and also arrogant as hell," Noemi Ponce-Sigler says.

He is also part of a powerful Catholic family in the McAllen valley.

In 2003, the Texas Rangers submitted information from the agency's new investigation into the case to Guerra, but the DA refused to present the findings to a grand jury.

Leaders and media across Texas jumped on Guerra. Finally, in 2004, he agreed to let grand jurors consider the case.

Incredibly, though, Guerra refused to call witnesses such as O'Brien and Tacheny. And Guerra continued to trash the case even as he presented it to a grand jury.

In fact, Guerra called only one witness, a secretary from Sacred Heart Church in McAllen who had served as a defense witness for Feit in the 1961 assault trial.

The grand jury came back with a no bill, meaning Feit was off the hook again.

To investigators, witnesses, family and many in McAllen, it was clear what was happening.

"[Guerra] didn't want to stir this up again," says retired McAllen detective Sonny Miller. "He badly wants this thing to die."

Soon after the grand jury decision, Father Joseph O'Brien called Noemi Ponce-Sigler to get some things off his chest.

With O'Brien's consent, Ponce-Sigler recorded O'Brien's comments for posterity:

Noemi: "Feit told you that he had killed [Irene]?"

O'Brien: "Yes."

Noemi: "Oh my God!"

O'Brien: "I suspected him from the very beginning."

Noemi: "What happened that night? You're the only one who knows besides him."

O'Brien: "It was Easter week. We had a lot of confessions. After the Mass, we sat down and [Feit's] hands were all scratched. He gave me two different reasons. 'Well,' I said, 'okay, something is wrong here.'

"So, then, Father Busch -- he's dead now -- [and I] searched the attic for her. That's how suspicious we were."

Noemi: "She did go to church?"

O'Brien: "Yes. She went to the rectory. I was in the church. Father Busch was in the church. [Feit] went back to answer the phone. We went and heard confessions. [Feit] goes back to the rectory. [Feit] took her to the pilgrim house in San Juan, kept her overnight.

"I'm just speculating that he hit her in the head with the candlestick."

Noemi: "Was [the candlestick] found in the canal?"

 

O'Brien: "Yes."

Noemi: "When in the world did he ever tell you about the murder?"

O'Brien: "To be honest, I sort of tricked him. I said, 'How can I help you if you don't tell the truth?' I kept asking him the question, over and over. Then he came at me. I said, 'Oh, this is great, one more step and [I'm] dead.' Then he went back to reading the prayer book he was reading. Then he finally admitted it."

Noemi: "When he admitted that he killed her, did he say, like, 'Sorry?'"

O'Brien: "No. Well, I don't know if he did later. I imagine so. We took him to Chicago to John Reid, the guy who literally wrote the book on polygraph tests. He said, 'This man is guilty.'

"What happened is, we knew he was dangerous, okay? We shipped him off to [monasteries]. Stayed 10 years. Then he got married."

O'Brien is currently in the hospital. His health appears to be failing.

But the Texas Rangers have his complete story on tape. Now they just need a prosecutor.


More than a million meals go out to the needy each year from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's sprawling kitchen and warehouse facility in south central Phoenix.

The Society would be unable to feed the city's disadvantaged, as well as offer them clothing, medical aid and numerous other forms of assistance, if it was not for the charity's 6,000 volunteers in the Valley of the Sun.

From the 1980s to 2003, it was John Feit's job to recruit and coordinate the activities of the Society's volunteers. There are thousands.

The Society's Steve Jenkins and Steve Zabilski were asked to talk about the John Feit they know.

"He was phenomenal at reaching out to the community and teaching volunteers what it meant to grow closer to God through charity," says Jenkins, a longtime co-worker and friend. "He is so clearly a man who has a genuine love for serving others."

"John often went beyond what anyone would remotely imagine a man doing," says Society executive director Zabilski. "He truly lived his beliefs. And his passion motivated many others to do more than they otherwise would have done."

The man they described is humble, deeply charitable, wise, kind and gentle. Their John Feit has a mind that is nimble with history, scripture and philosophy.

Their friend is nothing like his alter ego, the lead suspect in the brutal slaying of Irene Garza.

"It's black and white," Jenkins says. "We knew nothing about these past issues. We've only seen the white."

Feit began volunteering for the Society soon after joining the parish of St. Theresa near his home in the early 1980s. In the mid-'80s, Jenkins says, Feit was asked to join the Society's staff to liaise with volunteers.

"He was perfect for the job," Jenkins says. "He spoke with such passion and clarity about the mission of the Society."

Jenkins and Feit worked countless hours together, including during a trip into Mexico to do the charity's work. There, he says, Feit was the interpreter: "He speaks fluent Spanish."

Zabilski, director of the Society since 1997, says Feit's personal charity "knew no bounds." Several years ago, Zabilski says, one of Feit's co-workers was facing financial difficulties trying to support a family.

"So John comes to me and asks that I reduce his salary and give the other person the money," Zabilski says. "He's the only person in my 25 years of doing this who has ever done that. His only request was that I don't tell anyone where the money came from."

Feit also was instrumental in raising $55,000 to purchase and renovate a house for a poor couple trying to raise their 12 grandchildren. It was the first time the Society "got into the extreme makeover business," Zabilski says.

Feit retired from his Society job in 2003.

Jenkins and Zabilski were asked to read through the evidence and allegations from the 1960 cases.

"This is simply not the John Feit we know," Zabilski says. "To us, it's like two completely different people."


A visitor comes to John Feit's door asking for information about the JustFaith program he's involved with at St. Theresa's church.

Feit opens the door to the guest with a broad smile. He says he would be pleased to tell the visitor more.

Feit's hair is no longer black, the glasses no longer horn-rimmed. His thick shoulders are somewhat hunched, but he is vibrant and expressive. He still has that south Chicago accent tinged with the Irish brogue.

On the wall of his small condo is a picture of his two daughters and his son.

 

His wife, Mary, is at the store. On the wall is a knitted plaque: "Dull Women Have Immaculate Homes."

Feit shows the visitor something he wrote about JustFaith to the pastor at St. Theresa:

"My experience," Feit wrote, "has been that Stephen A. Covey's observation -- 'The enemy of the best is the good' -- applies in a peculiarly perplexing way in Catholic parishes. Too often a 'Put on your blinders, hunker down and do your own thing' mentality divides rather than unites the community."

Feit discusses the Catholic Church's early history in Rome and its original concepts about charity to the poor.

Near the end of the conversation, he observes, "You know, we all [would] like to write the story of our life. And we all like happy endings."

In Texas, investigators and the Garza family are fighting to have a special prosecutor brought in to review the murder case. They hope state and federal officials will work around the local DA and get all the information in the case to a grand jury for a change.

For Garza's family and many others in south Texas, the happiest ending they could hope for would be seeing Feit sitting in court facing charges in the murder of their beloved Irene.

On a return visit, Feit implores the visitor to judge him by his last 45 years of service to his church and community. Remember, he told that Texas Ranger two years ago that the Father John Feit who lived in south Texas in 1960 no longer exists.

"Perhaps we're all operating with different ideas of justice," says Noemi Ponce-Sigler. "All I know, though, is [about] the pain this has caused so many people.

"All I know is that Irene was murdered, and that nobody has seen justice."


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