Unholy Act

Forty-five years after the body of beauty queen Irene Garza was pulled from an irrigation canal in McAllen, there is still only one suspect: the priest who heard her final confession.
Photography by Dan Winters

It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the honor of kings is to search out a matter.—Proverbs 25:2

You don’t know what a welcome surprise it was to hear from you,” Irene Garza wrote in her graceful longhand, in a letter to an old friend postmarked April 9, 1960. As she filled five pages of unlined paper, the 25-year-old schoolteacher seemed content for the first time in a long while. “I’ve made quite a few friends this year and am much happier than I’ve ever been,” she wrote. Of her love life, she reported that she had been dating two men but was coy with her friend about one of them: “I won’t mention his name, but we double-dated the last time you were here.” The other, she wrote without much enthusiasm, was an “Anglo boy—not real handsome, but cute and religious (which is important).” She noted that her ex-boyfriend had sent her several cards and a box of candy on Valentine’s Day. “I can’t lie—I think of him often and wonder if I’ll ever get over him (between you and me and the four walls),” she confided. “I pray constantly that if it be God’s will, I will get over him eventually.”

To her friends and admirers, Irene was many things: a natural beauty who had been crowned Miss All South Texas Sweetheart 1958; a former prom and homecoming queen at Pan American College; an accomplished teacher who worked with McAllen’s most disadvantaged children; a devout Catholic who was active in the Legion of Mary; the first person in her family to attend college and graduate school. But in her letter, Irene appeared more fragile than anyone might have suspected. At the elementary school where she taught second grade, she wrote, she had been elected secretary of the PTA. “This may not sound like much, but to me it means a great deal,” she explained. “It means I’m overcoming my terrible shyness and becoming surer of myself.” Her job was a source of great pride (“These children I am teaching have been such a joy to me”), but it was her faith, which she returned to again and again in her letter, that sustained her. “Remember the last time we talked, I told you I was afraid of death?” she wrote. “Well I think I’m cured. You see, I’ve been going to communion and Mass daily and you can’t imagine the courage and faith and happiness it has given me.”

The following Saturday, April 16, 1960, Irene borrowed the family car to go to church, promising her mother she would not be long. She left her parents’ house around six-thirty in the evening and made the twelve-block drive to Sacred Heart Church, where she planned to go to confession. Irene rarely went unnoticed; some would-be suitors came to mass just to admire her, and that night, as people waited for absolution, many caught sight of her. One parishioner noticed Irene make the sign of the cross as she entered the sanctuary. Another parishioner saw her kneeling by herself in a pew on the fifth row. A third remembered Irene asking if she might edge in front of her in the long confession line because she was running late. Some recalled her draping a white lace veil over her head, while others said she had stepped out of line, as if turning to go. Yet no one ever saw her leave the church that night. The next morning, Easter Sunday, her car was still parked down the street from Sacred Heart. Irene never came home.

A single high-heeled shoe, which had been cast to the side of the road, was the first clue that she was dead. A passerby named P. W. Miller happened upon it two days later, on an empty stretch of McColl Road, where it lay two inches from the curb. It was a small, beige, Fiancées brand pump, which fit a woman’s left foot; it was slightly scuffed, and its heel tap was missing. Irene’s family confirmed that she had worn the same shoe to confession.

The trail of evidence continued north, scattered beside the road. Three hundred yards from the spot where the shoe had landed on the pavement, a fellow teacher, Alfredo “Peewee” Barrera, caught sight the following morning of what appeared to be a black patent-leather purse lying in the middle of a field. It looked as if it had been flung out the window of a passing car. Barrera used a stick to pick it up so that investigators could dust it for fingerprints; none were found, but Irene’s driver’s license was discovered inside. Still farther north, investigators came across a piece of white lace crumpled in the brush.

Seventy members of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Posse, many on horseback, fanned out through the orange groves and mesquite thickets east of McColl Road in the days that followed to look for Irene. Detectives combed through the brush on foot and canvassed the 32-square-block area surrounding Sacred Heart, going house to house. Skin divers dragged irrigation canals that fed off of the Rio Grande, and two Border Patrol planes circled overhead. Sixty-five National Guardsmen were called out to assist with what had become, at that time, one of the most extensive investigations in Valley history. Detectives followed up on hundreds of leads, including the boasts of a tourist at the Highway Grill, in nearby Edinburg, who told a waitress that he had killed Irene, warning, “You are next.” (He later admitted that he had drunk half a bottle of tequila across the border and was only joking.) Then came what seemed to be a break in the case; a woman identifying herself as Irene called home and pleaded for help, claiming she had been kidnapped and was being held in a motel room in the neighboring town of Hidalgo. Dozens of police officers raced there only to discover it was a hoax.

On the Thursday following Easter, the McAllen police

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