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

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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.

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Robert Nelson