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Altar Ego: The Ex-Priest and the Death of a Beauty Queen

UPDATE: Former priest John Feit has been arrested in Scottsdale and formally charged with the 1960 murder of 25-year-old beauty queen Irene Garza. He was convicted in December 2017.  This story was originally published in July 2005.

 
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.

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Robert Nelson