Case Not Closed
Senior editor Pamela Colloff on the murder of McAllen beauty queen Irene Garza and confronting the longtime suspect, John Feit.
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When senior editor Pamela Colloff first heard about the Irene Garza case, she was intrigued. It had all the trappings of a good mystery—a beautiful woman, a sinister murder, a town paralyzed with fear. But more importantly, it had a twist: the main suspect was a priest. As she delved deeper into the 45-year-old cold case, Colloff found there was more to the mystery than she had imagined. Here, she talks about the difficulties of reporting a decades-old murder, the likelihood that the case will ever reach trial, and the motivation that led her to the door of the main suspect.
texasmonthly.com: This story was 45 years in the making. How did the Irene Garza case come to your attention?
Pamela Colloff: Skip Hollandsworth told me about an article he had read about the Texas Rangers’ cold-case team, and how its investigators had solved an old murder in Seguin. (A teenage girl had been murdered, and her body had been left on the grounds of a church in the nineties.) I started looking into that story, and that’s how I first heard about the Irene Garza case. I was fascinated by the fact that a priest had been the main suspect in a murder for more than four decades. I first started working on this story in January 2004.
texasmonthly.com: There was clearly a lot of research that went into this story, looking into events that happened nearly half a century ago. How did you organize your reporting? Where did you start and where did the story take you?
PC: This was a very challenging story to report because the case is still open, which really limited what law enforcement could tell me. The Texas Rangers were very reluctant to speak to me about the case. When they finally did—during my last week of reporting—they couldn’t tell me much. So I had to report the story in other ways. I made three trips to McAllen and interviewed many people there. I visited with Father Joseph O’Brien in San Antonio, and Dale Tacheny in Oklahoma City. But the real break in my reporting came when I was given access to copies of the original police files. Those files were the key; they filled in most of the gaps I had in my reporting. In the end, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t get more information into the article. It’s a huge, sprawling case, and I ended up having to cut a lot of material. I feel like my story just scratches the surface.
texasmonthly.com: A lot of people, then and now, talked about fear of excommunication or retribution from God for even considering Father John Feit as a suspect. Was this fear self-imposed? How important is the church’s role in structuring life in McAllen?
PC: I think it’s important to remember the time and place in which this crime occurred. Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to seeing newspaper headlines about priests standing trial for sexual abuse. But 45 years ago, I think most people believed that priests were infallible. Now we know that they are human and flawed like the rest of us, but that just wasn’t the mind-set then. It was a more innocent time. Irene was murdered at the very end of the Eisenhower administration; the whole concept of questioning authority (and institutions like the church) that came in the sixties had not happened yet. McAllen was also overwhelmingly Catholic. Life revolved around churches like Sacred Heart—people attended daily or weekly mass there, their children were baptized there, they were married there, and so on.
texasmonthly.com: The church assured Garza’s parents that even though the state never filed formal charges against Father Feit, the church would send him to a monastery. Where exactly did Feit go in the time between leaving McAllen and leaving the church in 1972?
PC: Most of that time was spent in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, at the Servants of the Paraclete treatment center for troubled priests. (This is the place where he met James Porter and became a supervisor.) Before arriving there, he spent time at the monastery in Ava, Missouri, where he was counseled by Dale Tacheny. And before that, he spent time at the Oblate Fathers’ headquarters in San Antonio. Feit also briefly lived at a monastery in Dubuque, Iowa.
texasmonthly.com: After leaving the priesthood Feit seems to have made a place for himself in his new community. He became an advocate for the poor at St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix and was even quoted by the Arizona Republic regarding sexual abuse scandals in the church. Was the Phoenix community aware of the allegations of his past?
PC: I wish I knew the answer to that question. All I know is that the Arizona Republic has never picked up the Irene Garza story.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think caused Dale Tacheny and Father Joseph O’Brien to come forward after more than forty years?
PC: I think it was a combination of things. They are both in their seventies, and I think they realized that if they were going to say what they knew, they shouldn’t wait any longer. They both denied that the sexual abuse scandals in the church played into their decision, but I’m not sure that I believe them. I think they must have realized that lay people’s attitudes toward the church and the fallibility of priests had changed since 1960. I think Tacheny was moved by his conscience. I don’t know that Father O’Brien would ever have said what he knew had he not been questioned by investigators.
texasmonthly.com: When the grand jury no-billed the case in 2004, Tacheny decided to meet with Garza’s family. How did they receive him?
PC: Initially, when Tacheny first contacted Irene’s relatives, they were apprehensive. But when he came to the Valley, they received him warmly. They were impressed that he had decided to come forward after all these years, when it would have been much easier for him to have just not said a word to anyone.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think there’s any chance that Feit will ever be tried?
PC: I really don’t know. It all depends on whether Rene Guerra—or any district attorney who succeeds him in the future—decides to present evidence to another grand jury. And then, of course, only the grand jury can decide whether or not to hand down an indictment.
texasmonthly.com: What prompted you to fly out to Phoenix and pay Feit a visit? In the end he only gave you two lines. Was it worth it?
PC: Absolutely. I didn’t expect that Feit would want to have a long conversation, given that he had not responded to my interview request. But I wanted to see him in person, even if it was just for a minute. I had spent so much time reading his statements to police and to polygraph examiners, but I still didn’t have a sense of him. I wish that I’d gotten more time with him in Phoenix, because there were a lot of questions I wanted to ask. But I thought that what little he did say—and didn’t say—was important for readers to hear.