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.
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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 department received a call at 7:40 a.m., reporting that a woman’s body was floating in the Second Street canal, across from Sears. A crowd gathered to watch as police detectives and sheriff’s deputies used a tarp to lift Irene’s body from the water. She was fully dressed except for her shoes and underwear, which were missing. Her lavender blouse was unbuttoned, and her petticoat had ballooned over her head. The right side of her face was badly bruised, and she had two black eyes; the autopsy would later determine that she had been beaten with a hard object and suffocated. The state of decomposition suggested that she had been dead for slightly fewer than four days, giving rise to speculation that she had been held captive for up to a day before she was killed. According to her death certificate, she had been raped while in a coma. Her brother-in-law, who positively identified her at the morgue that morning, was so horrified by the sight of her that he ran from the room.
The local newspapers, which ran breathless front-page articles about the murder of the “dark-eyed former beauty queen,” were rife with speculation. “The city has been in a state of near hysteria as rumors flew thick and fast,” wrote the Valley Morning Star the week after Irene’s body was found. “Rumors as to the identity of the murderer went beyond the ridiculous and it appeared that everyone was prepared to believe anything.” One story—first advanced by a newspaper in Monterrey, Mexico, but quickly debunked by police—was that the killer was Leo de Leon, a prominent McAllen citizen who had died of a heart attack days after Irene disappeared. Others hypothesized that she had been killed by a transient, or perhaps a frustrated suitor. But as for the “wild rumors” that were circulating around the Valley, the newspapers referred to them only elliptically. The theory that kept most of McAllen whispering never appeared in print; people wondered about it privately, in low voices, after children had gone to bed. Some made the sign of the cross and offered words of contrition for even entertaining such an unholy idea. Dios, perdónanos, they said—God, please forgive us. Rumor had it that Irene’s killer was a priest.
Even an ordinary house burglary usually yields more clues than McAllen’s most sensational murder case did in the early days of the investigation. There were no eyewitnesses. There were no fingerprints. There was no physical evidence that could tie a person to the crime; any hair, blood, or semen that might have pointed to a perpetrator had been washed away in the canal. The thirty state and local lawmen working the case had no lead suspects to question or crime scene to investigate. The only clue as to the identity of the killer was a muddy shoe print, which a sheriff’s deputy spotted on the banks of the Second Street canal, four blocks south of where Irene’s body had surfaced. Tangled inside the shoe print was a strand of her hair. It was at this location, detectives surmised, that her killer had unloaded her body from a car and pitched her into the water below; on the banks were tire tracks and the faint imprint of her petticoat. But the ground was so soaked with rain that they were unable to make out any details about the sole of the killer’s shoe or even its exact dimensions—only that it could be a men’s size 8 to 11.
Despite the lack of evidence, Hidalgo County sheriff E. E. Vickers vowed that his detectives would “leave no stone unturned.” Mayor Phillip Boeye announced that McAllen’s city commissioners were giving the police department a blank check for the cost of the probe so its detectives would have “whatever money is necessary to help solve the crime.” Local businesses, including the bedrock of the city’s Anglo establishment, the Bentsen Brothers, posted reward money totaling $10,000. The investigation was no less ambitious; detectives questioned more than 500 people in the weeks following the murder, taking statements from Irene’s friends, family members, ex-boyfriends, co-workers, and anyone who might have seen her the night she disappeared. Sex offenders across the Valley were interrogated, as were suspects from as far away as El Paso, seven hundred miles to the west. Polygraph examiners from the Department of Public Safety in Austin administered lie detector tests to no fewer than 61 people, grilling any man who had had the luck to take Irene out on a date. The Texas Rangers, who conducted extensive interviews of everyone who had been at Sacred Heart on the night before Easter, went so far as to reconstruct that evening’s confession lines, mapping out who had stood in front of, and behind, whom.
Had Irene hailed from Southtown, where most of McAllen’s Hispanic population lived, the investigation into her murder might not have been so dogged. McAllen was more tolerant than other towns around the Valley, but it was still deeply divided; when Irene was a child, its one public swimming pool, the Cascade, barred Hispanics, who made do during the scorching South Texas summers by swimming in the town’s irrigation canals. Irene had often been the exception to the rule; at McAllen High School, where Anglos were the majority, she was the first Hispanic twirler and head drum majorette. When she was fifteen, the Garzas’ dry-cleaning business had become prosperous enough that they were able to move north of the railroad tracks. In the predominantly Anglo neighborhood where they settled, which was home to a number of Hispanic doctors, lawyers, and merchants, Irene fit in. Fair-skinned and well educated, she was always perfectly turned-out in pillbox hats and sweater sets and her own worldly glamour. But she never lost her foothold in the old neighborhood. She taught at Thigpen Elementary, south of the tracks, where some of her students came to school barefoot from the nearby colonias. She had spent her first paycheck on them, buying them clothes and books.
Publicly, the investigation into her murder seemed to proceed with little progress: “Police Still Sift for Murder Clue,” read the Valley Morning Star on April 26, and on May 1, “Police Search for Break in Garza Murder Case.” But behind the scenes, detectives had begun to focus their attention on a 27-year-old priest named John Feit who had recently finished his seminary training in San Antonio. Police knew little about the young man with the dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses, except that his name kept turning up in their investigation. He had come to the Valley for a year of pastoral training, performing baptisms and offering communion with his order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He was bright and well mannered, and he delivered his sermons in Spanish with ease. But he struck parishioners as aloof and a bit of a loner. Unlike the warm and good-humored Father Joseph O’Brien, an assistant pastor at Sacred Heart who enjoyed the demands of parish work, Father Feit seemed more ambivalent about his vocation. When he was once asked why he had joined the priesthood, Father Feit did not speak of his deep faith or of hearing the call. “I just wanted to give it a try,” he said offhandedly.
On the night that Irene disappeared, Father Feit had assisted the clergy at Sacred Heart, hearing confessions and taking part in midnight mass. He had also met privately with Irene, he admitted to his superiors, in the church rectory. Father Feit’s account of what took place that night shifted in the weeks after Irene’s murder. Initially, he claimed that Irene had come to the rectory to discuss a “question of conscience” with him that he could not disclose, after which he had sent her to the sanctuary to confess. But in a later telling, the priest said that he had heard her confession in the rectory—viewed by the other priests as highly inappropriate—after Irene had expressed a fear of being overheard. There were other peculiar details: Several parishioners who had stood in his stalled confession line that night told detectives that he seemed to be absent from the sanctuary for long periods of time. Father O’Brien stated that when he and several other clergymen had gathered to drink coffee after midnight mass, he had noticed that the young priest had conspicuous scratches on his hands.
Detectives’ interest in Feit deepened when they learned of another attack in a nearby Catholic church. On March 23, three weeks before Irene was killed, twenty-year-old college student Maria America Guerra had visited Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg, twelve miles from Sacred Heart in McAllen. In a statement that she later gave to detectives investigating Irene’s murder, she said that she had noticed a young man with dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses sitting alone in one of the back pews. He resembled a stranger she had seen late that afternoon who had watched her from his blue-and-white sedan. “The thought that it was the same man that I saw earlier entered my mind, but being in the house of God, I dismissed any thoughts of fear of foul play,” she told detectives. “I went to the altar and knelt at the communion rail to pray my rosary.” No sooner had she begun, Guerra said, than the man grabbed her from behind and tried to clamp a rag over her mouth. Screaming, she fell backward onto the floor, where her attacker struggled to cover her mouth with his hands. She bit down on his fingers until she drew blood. As he threw her to the wall, she ran out a side door of the church. “I was screaming and crying and yelling for help, as I had fear for my life,” she said.
What Guerra then told investigators was already widely known by many Catholics around McAllen, since her story had been quietly told and retold in the days following Irene’s disappearance. “I thought that the man that attacked me was a priest,” Guerra said in her sworn statement. She could not point to any specific proof that he was a clergyman, just that he had been wearing black pants, as priests often did. She felt ashamed for even voicing the suspicion, she said, but she was simply repeating her “original impression of the man.” Around McAllen, the theory that a priest had had a hand in both crimes could be broached only discreetly. Priests were viewed as literal men of God, absent of moral failings, not the subjects of criminal inquiries. “The feeling was that if you wanted to remain a Catholic, you’d better not discuss it,” remembered a friend of Irene’s who asked not to be named for fear, she said half-jokingly, of “excommunication.” She recalled attending Sunday mass after Irene’s funeral, at which parishioners were sternly warned not to bear false witness against any member of the clergy. “The priest at Our Lady of Sorrows said he knew that rumors were going around about a priest being involved in Irene’s murder,” she said. “He told us, ‘It is impossible that a priest would commit a crime like this. Don’t speak of it. Don’t even let yourselves think it.’”
In late April, detectives drained and dragged the portion of the Second Street canal where they had discovered the muddy shoe print. Lying on the bottom, a few feet from where investigators believed that Irene’s body had been dumped into the water, was a light-green Eastman Kodaslide viewer with a long black cord. Police appealed to the public for help in finding its owner, and two days later, Father John Feit stepped forward and said that he had purchased it the previous summer at a Port Isabel drugstore.
When the priest finally sat down with detectives in early May, he provided a meticulous accounting of his actions on Easter weekend. That Saturday night, he confirmed, he had counseled Irene in the Sacred Heart rectory. He had last seen her, he claimed, when they exited the rectory between 7:15 and 7:20 p.m. Afterward, he had heard confessions for several hours in the sanctuary and had twice returned to the rectory to smoke cigarettes. As he had sat in the confessional that night, he had accidentally broken his glasses; he had a “nervous habit of playing around” with them when he had to listen to parishioners talk for any length of time, he explained. At ten o’clock, he drove to his residence in the Pastoral House of the Oblate Fathers, five miles away in San Juan, to get his other pair. Upon arriving there, he had found that the doors were locked and that he had no key. “Because of this, I had to make my entrance through a second-floor balcony, propping up a wooden roadblock or barricade against the side of the house and climbing in in this fashion,” he said. “While entering the house in this way, I scraped the back of my right hand slightly and the index finger and middle finger of my left hand more severely on the brick wall.”
Father Feit had been troubled, he explained, when he had learned on Easter that the same woman he had talked to in the rectory the previous night had disappeared. But it had been a busy Sunday for the priest; he had offered two morning masses and a late-afternoon mass and performed baptisms that afternoon. That evening, he had returned to Sacred Heart to pick up his suit coat and Roman collar, which he had left behind. A priest he saw in the rectory asked him if he would speak to Irene’s parents, Nick and Josefina, who were frantic for information about their missing daughter. The Garzas had heard that he had met with Irene the previous night. “They wanted to know if I had perhaps said anything which might have upset or disturbed their daughter,” he said. “I replied in the negative.” Afterward, he did not drive back to San Juan right away. “My talk with the girl’s parents had disturbed me,” he said. “Perhaps I had said something, unintentionally, that might have upset this girl? At any rate, it seemed that no one had seen or heard from her since she left the rectory that Saturday night, since she talked to me. I was worried and drove around aimlessly for a while.”
Father Feit never explained how his slide viewer found its way into the canal, and there was plenty else for investigators to puzzle over. Their questions only multiplied the following day when they sat Father Feit down again to question him about the attack on Maria America Guerra. In a signed sworn statement, he acknowledged stopping by the Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg late in the afternoon on March 23, the day of the assault, to talk to a priest in the rectory. He also conceded that he had entered the sanctuary and knelt in a back pew to say his rosary. And, he allowed, he had been driving a blue-and-white 1956 Ford sedan. But he insisted that he had left Edinburg at least an hour before the attack, returning to the pastoral house in San Juan in time to ring the five-thirty bell. As for his finger, which investigators had learned had been badly cut, he had a simple explanation: The day before he went to Edinburg, he had gotten it caught in a mimeograph machine. Several priests later told detectives that Father Feit had not returned to San Juan in time to ring the bell and that his finger had not been hurt until the night of the attack. They also recalled that Father Feit had been wearing the same clothes that Guerra said her assailant had on. Both she and an eyewitness who had seen her attacker fleeing the church subsequently picked Father Feit out of a lineup.
Investigators brought in the foremost polygraph team in the nation, the Chicago-based John E. Reid and Associates, whose founder had literally written the book on lie detector tests. During two days of intense questioning in a Holiday Inn hotel room that June, Father Feit was evasive, and at times seemed to enjoy baiting his interrogators. When asked to suggest a question that the polygraph examiner should pose to him, the priest put forward one: “Do you believe it is possible that you may have said something or acted in some way to cause Irene’s death?” To his own question, he answered yes. (“The subject stated that he was referring to the harsh way he had treated her in the rectory the evening she disappeared,” the examiner noted in his report, without further explanation.) After urging Father Feit to be candid about the crime, the examiner recorded that “the subject in very deliberate and explicit words stated there will never be any evidence turning up in the future in this case. Further, that without a confession on his part there is not enough evidence in either of these cases to convict him or that a good defense attorney could not tear holes in.” The tests “definitely implicated him in both crimes,” read the report. “The examiner was convinced that the subject was not telling the truth when he denied killing Irene Garza or attacking Maria Guerra.”
In August Father Feit was indicted for assault with intent to rape Guerra. He was declared a fugitive when church officials at the San Antonio headquarters of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate 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. Rather than face a second criminal trial, in 1962 Father Feit pled no contest to reduced charges of aggravated assault and was fined $500.
No murder charges were ever filed against Father Feit. As months passed after Irene’s death with no indictment, the investigation, which law enforcement officials said was still open, seemed to hit a brick wall. Detectives moved on to other cases, and the newspapers eventually dropped the story. South of the railroad tracks, where injustice was an accepted fact of life, people wondered aloud whether a deal had been struck, or whether the elected officials in their overwhelmingly Catholic town were afraid to challenge the church any more than they already had. Nick and Josefina Garza, who would both pass away in the nineties without ever seeing anyone prosecuted for their daughter’s murder, were assured that Father Feit, whom they had suspected from the outset, would be sent to a monastery. “Father O’Brien promised the family that the church would punish him if it found that he had done wrong,” remembers Josefina’s sister Herlinda de la Viña. “He told us that the church’s punishment was greater than any sentence handed down by the courts, and we believed him. Who were we to question a priest?”
Forty-two years after the murder of Irene Garza, the phone rang in the homicide division of the San Antonio police department on a warm spring afternoon in April of 2002. On the other end of the line was a man who identified himself as a former priest living in Oklahoma City. He had information, he told detective George Saidler, about a murder that had taken place in the early sixties. He had left the priesthood long ago, the caller explained, but in 1963 he had resided at a Trappist monastery in Ava, Missouri. “I counseled another priest there who came from San Antonio,” he said. “He told me that he had attacked a young woman in a parish on Easter weekend and murdered her.” Saidler listened with the skepticism that had become second nature after 28 years of police work. Newspapers around the country were running front-page headlines about the sexual abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church, and he suspected that what he was hearing on the phone was the product of an overactive imagination. Priests, even those who had left the priesthood, did not call cops to snitch on one of their own. But the caller was insistent, and he began to elaborate on what he knew. Saidler took down the man’s number and told him to put what he remembered in writing. “I’ll get back to you when I’ve got something,” the detective said, and hung up the phone.
Ten miles away, in a spare, fluorescent-lit office on the north side of San Antonio, Texas Ranger Rudy Jaramillo kept a framed black and white photograph of Irene on his desk. It is a haunting portrait—she is young and beautiful, a half-smile gracing her face—and sometimes it looked as if she were staring back at the detective as he pored over old witness statements and police reports late into the night. Jaramillo was one of eight detectives on the Texas Rangers’ new cold-case unit, which had, at the request of McAllen law enforcement, begun to reinvestigate the case that spring. McAllen police chief Victor Rodriguez hoped that the Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team, with the assistance of his own department, could solve the murder that residents still talked about. But Jaramillo had little to work with; DNA testing of Irene’s clothes had turned up nothing new, and many people who were knowledgeable about her murder, including nearly all of the detectives who had originally investigated it, had died years before. He was fortunate that the 1960 investigation had been remarkably methodical and well documented, but the case file did not answer some of the most basic questions that a jury would ask: Where exactly had Irene been murdered? What was she killed with? When was her body dumped into the canal?
The clues lay in a neatly typed, two-page letter that detective Saidler received from the former priest in Oklahoma City. It recounted a few details that the man had gleaned during his time at the Trappist monastery, and it named the priest whom he had counseled. Saidler read the letter over and over again—The priest took her to the parish house to hear her confession. After hearing her confession he assaulted her, bound her, and gagged her—but he couldn’t make sense of it. Had Jaramillo had the opportunity to read what was written, he would have immediately understood its significance; he had spent thousands of hours learning the facts of the case, interviewing more than seventy people, in places as far away as Mexico City. But detective Saidler knew none of this. He had diligently exhumed hundreds of old newspaper articles and what meager police records still existed from the early sixties, yet he could find no murders that matched the details in the letter. No young women in San Antonio had been attacked in a church. No bodies had been dumped around Easter. Saidler had other work to do; he was in charge of San Antonio’s backlog of 1,420 unsolved murders. He set aside his notes in the case and moved on.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, Texas Ranger Rocky Millican stopped by Saidler’s office to pick up some evidence in a case he was working. As he talked about the progress of his investigation, he mentioned that the Texas Rangers’ cold-case unit had been busy. It was amazing, Millican marveled, how old some of the cases were. “They’ve got one out of the Valley that dates all the way back to 1960,” he said. “A woman was murdered on Easter weekend, and the main suspect was a priest.”
Saidler couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He pressed Millican for more details, and the Texas Ranger relayed what little he knew. Early that evening, Saidler stopped and talked with Jaramillo in a parking lot in the same small town where they both lived outside San Antonio. The two men had never met before, although they lived less than two miles apart. The two detectives talked until it grew dark, and as they compared notes, they agreed that their separate investigations were in fact one and the same.
Nearly all cold cases stay cold: Witnesses die, memories fade, evidence languishes or is eventually thrown away. Only a fraction of them are ever revisited. What small number of unsolved crimes that happen to spark the interest of detectives have no guarantee of ever being solved. The odds that the key witness in a cold case would decide to contact law enforcement 42 years after the fact was extraordinary enough. That the case was being actively investigated at that same moment—in the city where the witness mistakenly thought the crime had taken place—was beyond anything that its seasoned detectives had ever experienced. “There were times when I felt that Irene was pointing us in the right direction,” Jaramillo says.
The man whose name appeared in the letter from Oklahoma City was still alive and well. John Feit had left the priesthood in 1972 and had gone on to live a quiet, ordinary life in Phoenix—marrying, having children, and working for six years as an insurance salesman. He later became a spokesperson for the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul, where he was an impassioned advocate for the poor and the homeless. When the Texas Rangers began to reinvestigate the case, he was 69—two years older than Irene would have been were she still alive.
Feit’s name had briefly surfaced in legal documents in the early nineties, after the defrocked priest James Porter was imprisoned for molesting 28 children. Porter was one of the most notorious pedophiles to ever find refuge in the church; before his death earlier this year, he admitted to molesting up to 100 children. Feit had crossed paths with him in the sixties in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, at a home for troubled priests, where Feit was sent by his superiors after his stay at the monastery in Missouri. At the Order of the Servants of the Paraclete treatment center, where Feit lived for six years, he managed to work his way up to the position of superior, a role in which he rubber-stamped weekend furloughs and secured new parish assignments for Porter despite the fact that he continued to molest children. Feit did not reveal his connection to Porter when he was quoted in the Arizona Republic in April 2002 praising the church’s new guidelines that required that any sexual abuse allegations made against a clergy member be reported to civil authorities. “It has to be that way,” Feit said. “It means that if someone is doing something wrong, they are not above the law simply because they are an ordained minister.”
At the outset of the renewed investigation, Texas Rangers worked with the McAllen police department to explore every avenue. “We pursued numerous suspects: Irene’s friends, ex-boyfriends, family members, other priests,” says Jaramillo’s lieutenant, Tony Leal. “But the facts that led investigators in 1960 to focus on one person led us to the same conclusion.” Hoping to shake loose any new information from the man who had once been the main suspect, a lawman associated with the probe, who asked not to be named, called Feit to tell him that the decades-old murder case had been reopened. Was there anything he wanted to share with law enforcement, anything that, as someone who had seen Irene on the night she went missing, was important to know? The former priest’s answer was succinct. “That man doesn’t exist anymore,” Feit said.
As with most of Feit’s comments to investigators over the years, his statement was bizarre, but it did not prove that he had committed murder. What the Texas Rangers needed to do was develop a case that could be presented to a jury. They found their star witness in Dale Tacheny, the former priest from Oklahoma City. A silver-haired tax specialist who had left the priesthood more than thirty years earlier to marry, he made the long drive to San Antonio in late November and proceeded to tell Jaramillo what he knew. In the summer of 1963, he said, his superior at Our Lady of Assumption Abbey, in Ava, Missouri—an abbot who had since passed away—told him of a young priest from San Antonio who had murdered a woman. The abbot asked Tacheny to counsel the young man while he stayed at the monastery and to have him live with the novices to see if he might have a vocation as a monk. The priest was named John Feit, and what he had revealed during their six months of counseling sessions Tacheny had kept to himself out of a sense of religious obligation for more than four decades. Now in his seventies, he had had a change of heart. “I did not feel comfortable with the idea that I had in fact been part of a cover-up, along with my abbot, of a priest that had committed murder,” he said.
As Tacheny sat and shared what he remembered, Jaramillo listened in amazement. Tacheny did not know the victim’s name, but he recalled that she had gone to church during Holy Week to say confession. He then repeated what he claimed the priest had told him long ago: Father Feit had asked her to come to the church rectory and had heard her confession there. After the confession, he had restrained the woman—Tacheny thought that she might have been bound and gagged, but he was not certain—and he had fondled her breasts. Before he returned to the sanctuary to hear confessions, he had moved her to the rectory basement. Later that evening, or in the days that followed, he moved her to another location. Then, on Easter Sunday, he put her in a bathtub and placed a bag over her head. “He heard her saying, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,’” Tacheny recalled. “When he came back later on that day or early evening, he found her dead in the bathtub. And then that night, at what hour I’m not certain, he put her in the car that was available to him and removed her and said he dropped her off along the roadside where there was a canal.”
Tacheny’s account seemed to answer questions that detectives had been knocking around since the original investigation: Why had Father Feit driven around McAllen aimlessly on Easter Sunday night? Why had he left Sacred Heart the previous evening to drive to the pastoral house in San Juan? His story also dovetailed with key facts in the case, with one glaring exception: Tacheny thought that the murder had occurred in San Antonio in 1962 or 1963. (He explained that because Father Feit had come to the monastery in 1963 from San Antonio, he had been under the impression that the crime had occurred there.) “He didn’t show what I would consider to be compunction or sorrow or grief or anything like that,” Tacheny said, remembering his conversations with the young man. “I felt at the time rather appalled by what had come about. But that wasn’t my job to judge him.” As the interview wound to a close, the tension in Tacheny’s face slackened. He thanked Jaramillo and the other detectives for allowing him to unburden himself of the secret he had carried with him for so many years. When Jaramillo turned the tape recorder off, the former priest broke down and wept.
The first hint that a jury would not hear the case came in July 2002, when the Brownsville Herald ran a front-page story on Irene’s murder and the suspicion that continued to surround John Feit. Hidalgo County district attorney Rene Guerra was asked if he planned to pursue an indictment in the case. “I reviewed the file some years back; there was nothing there,” he said. “Can it be solved? Well, I guess if you believe that pigs can fly, anything is possible.” What he added next still galls Irene’s family—more than a dozen first cousins, aunts, and uncles who live scattered around Hidalgo County. “Why would anyone be haunted by her death?” the district attorney wondered. “She died. Her killer got away.”
Much had changed in McAllen since Irene’s murder; the booming border economy had transformed the once-insular town into one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, a place where citrus orchards had been transplanted by big-city traffic and suburban sprawl. The Anglo population had dwindled to 10 percent, and the railroad tracks had ceased to be a dividing line. Guerra, who was voted into office in 1982, had been part of the wave of Hispanic politicians who succeeded the county’s Anglo establishment and helped alter the political landscape. So influential was Guerra that his detractors liked to joke, “¿Es el rey o el DA?” (“Is he the king or the DA?”) But beneath the veneer of decades of change, McAllen was still a place where the notion of prosecuting a priest, even a former priest, on murder charges met with resistance. When the Texas Rangers submitted the findings of their investigation to the district attorney’s office in the spring of 2003, Guerra dragged his feet. “It was a good, solid case,” says Ranger Tony Leal. But Guerra declared that the evidence was weak and that he would not be presenting it to a grand jury.
To the investigators who had worked for more than a year exhausting every lead, it was a demoralizing blow. Dale Tacheny was not their only witness. That spring, they had visited Father Joseph O’Brien, who was living at a retirement home for priests run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in San Antonio. He told investigators that he had suspected Father Feit from the very start; the lacerations on his hands that Easter weekend were plainly fingernail scratches, he said. He had been suspicious enough of Father Feit that he and another priest had searched the attic and the basement of Sacred Heart on Easter Sunday, looking for any sign of Irene. Later that day, he had followed Feit when he drove back to San Juan and had lost the priest at a red light. But he did not know anything more than that, Father O’Brien assured investigators. “We felt that he was holding back information and not giving us everything he knew,” Jaramillo says. During the last round of questioning, which chief Rodriguez took part in, the priest came undone. He pounded his fists on the table and said that during the summer of 1960, when he had confronted Father Feit about whether he had killed Irene, the young priest had told him everything. And he would be willing to say so in court. But because of Guerra’s decision, the priest’s account would go unheard.
Local media jumped on the story and demanded to know why the district attorney was not pursuing murder charges. At first, Guerra said that there was insufficient evidence; without DNA or a confession from the killer, he could not present such an old case to a jury. Later, he would cast doubt on the integrity of the investigation as a whole, accusing the Texas Rangers and local police investigators of refreshing the memories of old witnesses, a charge that law enforcement heatedly denied and one that Guerra never substantiated. A public war of words soon erupted between the district attorney and chief Rodriguez. “This case needs to be tried by a jury, not a single person,” Rodriguez told the McAllen Monitor. Letters to the editor criticizing Guerra flooded local newspapers. Vigils were held on the anniversary of Irene’s death and on the Day of the Dead to call attention to the fact that her murder remained unsolved. Former police investigator Sonny Miller, who had tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the case during the nineties and who remained certain that the original investigation had been impeded by church officials, lobbed a grenade at Guerra in the Brownsville Herald. “I wonder if he thinks he would be excommunicated if he took the case to a grand jury,” Miller told the newspaper.
After months of negative publicity, Guerra relented, and in March 2004, he asked two of his prosecutors to present the evidence to a grand jury. The panel met every Wednesday for fifteen weeks while hearing other cases. From the start, the proceedings struck those who waited outside the courtroom—several of Irene’s relatives and a clutch of reporters—as unusual. Law enforcement was not called to testify until the eleventh week. Stranger still, Dale Tacheny and Father O’Brien were never called at all. Nor was John Feit ever subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, which would have compelled him to either testify or invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The only person from Sacred Heart who did appear before the grand jury was Elena Sanchez, the church secretary who had been a defense witness for Feit during his 1961 assault trial. “The DA had already made public statements that ran in the papers and on TV that there was insufficient evidence in this case,” said Irene’s relative Noemi Ponce Sigler. “Jurors knew where the DA stood when they were making their deliberations.” On June 9, 2004, the jury declined to indict the named defendant, John Feit, and no-billed the case.
Later that week, chief Rodriguez announced that he was closing the investigation, a move that he believed would make the case files subject to open-records requests. But Guerra threatened to prosecute the chief if he showed the files to the media, insisting that it was still an open case. (The police records on which much of this article is based were obtained from a source who is not affiliated with law enforcement.) A grand jury will hear the case again, Guerra has said, only if a confession is forthcoming. When I visited him at the Hidalgo County courthouse in January, Guerra defended his prosecutors’ decision not to call key witnesses, stating that the usual policy of his office in grand jury proceedings is to rely on their recorded statements to police. He insisted that he had been supportive of the investigation from the start—“I gave them my blessing”—and that he hoped to see justice in the case. As for the widely held belief that he had failed to convene a grand jury for nearly a year because the target of the inquest would be a former priest, Guerra called the attacks “unfair and unsubstantiated.” He and the case’s lead prosecutor, Homer Vasquez, grew up attending Sacred Heart in Edinburg, he allowed, but his faith would always be subordinate to his oath of office.
Dale Tacheny and Father O’Brien had both waited for the call last spring that would have summoned them to the Hidalgo County courthouse, but it never came. After the no bill was handed down, Tacheny drove to McAllen and apologized to Irene’s family for the role he had played. “For me, talking to the Rangers didn’t fulfill the moral obligation that I felt I had,” he told me. He spent several days in the Valley, where he met with Irene’s relatives and visited her grave. On his way back to Oklahoma, he stopped by the courthouse and introduced himself to Guerra. “I stuck out my hand, and he took awhile to extend his,” Tacheny said. “The feeling I got was that he wanted me, and this whole thing, to go away.” Tacheny, who is 76, noted that Father O’Brien, who is a year his senior, is in poor health. “It’s a waiting game,” Tacheny said. “When O’Brien and I are dead, that’s the end of it.”
John feit lives in central Phoenix near the foothills of Camelback Mountain, where the desert blooms with orange trees and the sun always seems to shine. The air was cool and dry on the day I visited in January, turning down a succession of straight, orderly streets that led north from the airport toward his condominium. Two weeks earlier, I had sent Feit a letter asking if he might tell me his side of the story and had received no response. Others had come to the desert to talk to him—Kristine Galvan, a pretty young TV reporter from the Valley, had put a microphone in his face and asked, “Did you kill Irene Garza?”—with little luck.
I knocked on the front door and waited. What sounded like a small dog padded around inside, his toenails clicking on the tile floor. After a while, a man came to the door. He was neatly dressed, in a plaid button-down shirt and tan slacks, and he was taller than I had expected. His hair had thinned, and he had gone soft in the middle; he was no longer the serious young man in the Roman collar and horn-rimmed glasses. Beyond him, through the door, was a tidy living room, where sun streamed in through the windows. His wife did not appear to be home, but there was a kitchen table in an alcove where, I imagined, they probably drank coffee and talked about their grandchildren. I wondered what he had told her, or not told her, while they sat at that table. He greeted me with a genial smile.
I introduced myself, explaining that I had come all the way from Texas. I said that I would appreciate a few minutes of his time to talk about Irene Garza. For an instant, his brown eyes widened behind his glasses. Then he shook his head, graciously declining to be interviewed. “I know you have a job to do,” he said. “But I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”
He stood there for a moment, as if pondering what to do next. There were many things he could have said that he did not: That he was innocent. That Irene’s murder had been a senseless crime. That he was tired of strangers knocking on his door, asking about a terrible thing that had happened a long time ago. Instead, he said something that I would think back to many times in the weeks to come.
“The speculation intrigues me,” he said. Then, as he turned to shut the door, he added, “God bless you, dear.”