Longform

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

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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.

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Robert Nelson