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

Page 10 of 14

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.

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Robert Nelson