How a 53-Year-Old Murder Case Became an Issue in the Hidalgo County District Attorney Race

Irene Garza was murdered in 1960, and if a new DA is elected, the priest who has long been the prime suspect may finally be prosecuted.
Wed February 26, 2014 10:30 am
Noemi Sigler, a member of Irene Garza's family, photographed next to a campaign poster for Ricardo Rodriguez, who is running against Rene Guerra, Hidalgo County's district attorney.
Brad Doherty

At a recent campaign event for Ricardo Rodriguez, a former district judge who is running to replace Rene Guerra as Hidalgo County’s district attorney, Edinburg mayor Richard Garcia took to the podium to warm up an already enthusiastic crowd. Garcia offered boilerplate campaign rhetoric, trumpeting the 41-year-old candidate’s accomplishments and his desire to bring sweeping change to the DA’s office. But near the end of his statements, Garcia brought up Irene Garza, a young woman from McAllen who was murdered nearly 54 years ago. Garza’s killer has never been prosecuted, and the mere mention of her name moved the spectators. “How many of you want justice for Irene Garza and all the rest of us here?” he said to a deafening cheer. “Enough said,” Garcia added, smiling.

It may seem strange that a half-century-old cold case could elicit such a strong reaction, but the memory of Irene’s murder haunts the Valley. More than five decades after her body was pulled from an irrigation canal, there is still only one suspect: the priest who heard her final confession.

Irene led a short but remarkable life. At McAllen High School, where Anglos were the majority, she was the first Hispanic twirler and head drum majorette. She was the first person in her family to attend college and graduate school. A former prom and homecoming queen at Pan American College, she was crowned Miss All South Texas Sweetheart 1958. At the time of her death, she was a 25-year-old schoolteacher who worked with McAllen’s poorest children. She spent her first paycheck on them, buying them books and clothes.

On April 16, 1960, Irene borrowed the family car to drive to Sacred Heart Church, where she planned to go to confession. As she walked out the door, around 6:30 that evening, she promised her mother she would not be long. A number of parishioners saw her at the church that evening, but no one saw her leave. The next morning, Easter Sunday, her car was still parked down the street. 

Four days later, her body was found floating in a nearby canal. An autopsy determined that she had been bludgeoned and suffocated. According to her death certificate, she was raped while in a coma.

The exhaustive investigation that followed turned up one prime suspect: Father John Feit. The 27-year-old priest admitted that he had heard Irene’s confession that evening, and that he had done so in the privacy of the rectory rather than the confessional. There were other odd details. Several churchgoers who stood in his stalled confession line that night told detectives that he seemed to have been absent from the sanctuary for long periods of time. Another priest, Father Joseph O’Brien, reported seeing conspicuous scratches on Feit’s hands when they drank coffee together after midnight mass.

Investigators’ interest in Feit only deepened after they dragged the portion of the canal where Irene’s body appeared to have been dumped. There, they made an intriguing discovery. Lying on the bottom of the canal was an Eastman Kodaslide viewer with a black cord—a cord long enough to have bound together Irene’s hands. Police appealed to the public for help in finding its owner. Two days later, Feit stepped forward and said that he had purchased it the previous summer at a local drugstore.

Detectives also discovered that a priest who closely fit Feit’s description had attacked a young woman named Maria America Guerra inside a church in nearby Edinburg two weeks before Irene’s disappearance. Curiously, Feit did not deny being in the church that afternoon or even driving the same car that the attacker was spotted in. But he insisted that he had left Edinburg at least an hour before the attack. He flunked a subsequent polygraph test, which “definitely implicated him in both crimes,” read the report. “The subject was not telling the truth when he denied killing Irene Garza or attacking Maria Guerra.”

In the summer of 1960 Feit was indicted for “assault with intent to rape” Guerra. He was declared a fugitive when church officials told arresting officers that he had left the state. The priest later surrendered, claiming that he had suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by the police interrogations, and stood trial the following year. The jury deadlocked nine to three in favor of conviction, and the proceedings ended in a mistrial. In 1962 Feit pleaded no contest to reduced charges of aggravated assault and was fined $500. And that was it. No charges were ever filed against Feit for Irene’s murder. 

As I wrote nine years ago in a lengthy article about the case (“ Unholy Act,” April 2005), people wondered whether a deal had been struck between the church and the DA’s office, or if the elected officials in the overwhelmingly Catholic town were afraid to challenge the church any more than they already had. Irene’s parents, Nick and Josefina Garza, who would both pass away without seeing anyone prosecuted for their daughter’s murder—and who had suspected Feit from the outset—were assured by Father O’Brien that the young priest would be sent to a monastery and kept away from the public. As Josefina’s sister Herlinda de la Viña told me in 2005, “Who were we to question a priest?” 

When the Texas Rangers’ cold-case unit reopened the case four decades later, in 2002, its investigators turned up even more compelling evidence. A former priest from Oklahoma City named Dale Tacheny came forward to say that during his time at a Trappist monastery in Missouri in the sixties a young priest from Texas had told him of murdering a woman. According to Tacheny, the young priest said that one year during Holy Week, he had taken the woman to the parish house of her church to hear her confession. Then he assaulted, bound, and gagged her. Later, he put a bag over her head, suffocated her, and dumped her body by a canal. The priest, Tacheny said, was named John Feit.

The Rangers also interviewed Father O’Brien,

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