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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.

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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, who said that he had suspected Feit of Irene’s murder from the start. Under further questioning, he told the Rangers that a few months after the murder, he had confronted Feit about whether he had killed Irene, and the priest had told him everything. O’Brien said he would disclose exactly what Feit, who lived in Phoenix by this time, had told him if he were called to testify before a grand jury.

But that never happened. Hidalgo County DA Rene Guerra (no relation to Maria America Guerra) refused to take the substantial evidence that the Rangers had amassed to a grand jury, citing that it was insufficient. Without DNA or a confession, Guerra said, he could not take such an old case to trial. “I reviewed the file some years back; there was nothing there,” he told the Brownsville Herald in 2002. “Can it be solved? Well, I guess if you believe that pigs can fly, anything is possible.” What he said next wounded Irene’s family even more. “Why would anyone be haunted by her death?” he said. “She died. Her killer got away.”

Local media pounced on the story. “I wonder if he thinks he would be excommunicated if he took the case to a grand jury?” retired police investigator Sonny Miller quipped to reporters. After tremendous negative publicity, Guerra finally agreed to have two of his prosecutors present evidence to a grand jury in 2004. But the DA’s office hardly seemed invested in obtaining an indictment. The Texas Rangers were not called to testify until the proceedings were nearly over. Stranger still, Dale Tacheny and Father O’Brien were never called at all. Nor was 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. On June 9, 2004, the jury declined to indict him and no-billed the case.

And so the case once again hit another brick wall. Father O’Brien died in 2005, having never had the opportunity to recount to a grand jury what Feit had told him. Witnesses died, and others grew older. Guerra clearly had no interest in pursuing the case any futher, so when he announced last year that he would be seeking a ninth term—he has been the Hidalgo County DA for no less than 32 years—Irene’s family had all but given up hope of ever seeing Feit tried for her murder.

That changed when Ricardo Rodriguez stepped forward to challenge the 68-year-old Guerra in the Democratic primary. Guerra has had challengers before, but none who were able to unseat the man who is considered the most powerful person in Hidalgo County. (Detractors like to joke, “¿Es el rey o el DA?” or, “Is he the king or the DA?”) But the popular and well-connected Rodriguez, who stepped down from the bench last year to run, is Guerra’s most formidable opponent yet.

When Rodriguez announced his candidacy last fall, he did not mince words. If elected, he said, he would not “threaten and silence those who are not in political favor.” He added that he had “heard many stories from Hidalgo County residents and families who have suffered many years and many injustices at the hands and at the whim of our present district attorney. Our present district attorney imparts justice and bases decisions not on the fundamental tenets on which this country is based, but rather on his arbitrary beliefs, as when he tells someone that justice will be dispensed when pigs fly.”

The reference to Irene’s case was not an accident. Rodriguez has met several times with Irene’s family, and her relatives were present at his announcement. “I have not been privy to the actual, physical case file,” Rodriguez cautioned when I spoke with him last week, “but the fact that the Texas Rangers and the McAllen police department wanted to see this case prosecuted, and then it wasn’t, tells me that something wasn’t done right.” If elected, he said, he would review the case file and determine whether all the available evidence had been presented to the grand jury. If not, he said, he would consider presenting it to a grand jury again, with a full airing of all the available evidence. 

The son of migrant workers, Rodriguez has a compelling life story. He worked in the fields until he was eighteen then put himself through the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. He returned to the Rio Grande Valley, where he was elected to the Edinburg city council. He was then elected state district judge when he was just 33.

Although the Garza case is more than half a century old, it has been “a big issue” on the campaign trail, he told me. “I hear about it every day,” he said. “Even young people ask me about the case. When I visited the University of Texas-Pan American recently, the students asked me, ‘Why? Why was this case treated this way?’”

In heavily Democratic Hidalgo County, the primary election, which occurs next Tuesday, will effectively decide the race’s winner. Much hangs in the balance for Irene’s family, since the case’s star witness, Dale Tacheny, is now 84 years old. Feit, who left the priesthood in 1972 and went on to live a quiet life in Phoenix, is now 81.

What is Feit like now? The CBS News program 48 Hours—which will devote an upcoming broadcast to Irene’s case—shows the former priest in what might generously be called an unguarded moment. (Full disclosure: I worked as a consultant on the episode.) When CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger tracked Feit down in Phoenix and began asking him about Irene, he responded this way: 

Feit Confrontation from Texas Monthly on Vimeo.


The 48 Hours broadcast—a comprehensive look at the case that was many months in the making—will air at 9 p.m., central standard time, on Saturday, March 1. 

Irene’s family members are hopeful that the show will be widely watched in Hidalgo County. They have been trying, on their own, to rally support for Rodriguez before the election. Irene’s first cousin Lynda de la Viña wrote an impassioned letter to the McAllen Monitor last week in which she talked about Guerra’s insensitivity to her family and his refusal to pursue charges against Feit. Her letter read, in part:

In essence he said that no one cared [about this case]. But really, it was he who didn’t care. We cared. We were there through the days of terror before her body was found; through the days of sorrow after her death; through the days of hope that her killer would come to justice; and through the years that followed of dismay and frustration with the district attorney. We have cared for 53 years. We have been pained for 53 years, and we have been patient for 53 years. . . . We care about violence against women. We care that those from the highest to the lowest stations in life receive the same equal dignity and attention that is merited by our legal system. I do not believe that Guerra cares.

In closing, she wrote, “Cast your vote for Judge Ricardo Rodriguez for district attorney. Judge Rodriguez cares!”

This weekend, a member of Irene’s family by marriage, Noemi Sigler, plans to hold a press conference for local media at which Tacheny—who will travel to the Valley from Oklahoma City—is expected to speak. Sigler and de la Viña feel that such attention is critical in the days leading up to the primary. This may be the last chance they have to see anything happen to Feit. “People say to me, ‘Well, he’s already so old,” de la Viña said. “And I say, ‘What does that matter?’ No matter how many years have passed, we still want justice for Irene.”

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  • Yuvicela Luna Guerra

    Really good story everyone needs to read

  • Brenda

    What?!? This is like a movie!

    • TopTaciturn

      ID (Investigation Discovery) on cable needs to film this.

  • melissa26

    Idk why I cant find a way to contact rene gurerra but I’m so disgusted how he handled the case I believe he did this and maybev we should put rene on trial for his actions I’m sure in today’s times there has to be a way to make him pay for something

  • Don

    If this is the way he tryed cases with a can’t win attitude . You people need to vote him OUT !

  • Keri J VanNuland

    This is not a shock… The Catholic Church has been getting away with covering up murders, rapes, money laundering, pedophelia and every other crime possible since the very first days of the church. They have killed many on orders of previous popes. The Vatican is the dirtiest and crime filled place on earth! This is very well known. Look up a new tv program: Frontline, Secrets of the Vatican. It is all true and proven info.

    In my city where 100’s of children were molested in the last 50 years, the church was convicted of hiding the crimes and transferring the guilty to another place where they could molest a whole new batch of children. It has been proven that the church transferred almost 1 billion dollars to a supposed fund for the upkeep of a small cemetery and then suddenly were broke and filing for bankruptcy so they don’t have to pay any money to the tons of children they have destroyed. How disgusting can people be? How can so many not see through their facade? DISGUSTING!!

  • TopTaciturn

    “…Josefina’s sister Herlinda de la Viña told me in 2005, “Who were we to question a priest?” and that’s how he church likes it. Keep the flock uniformed, uneducated, telling them to have as many kids as posible but way above all of this, lie to the flock about what God requires..

  • TopTaciturn

    Part One:
    The Catholic Church and all the others are failing to teach what God wants us to know. History has an abundance of examples of Church Leaders mingling, rubbing elbows, dining and partying with the other two culprits that have a strangle hold on humanity. Who are the other two Spiritual Felons?
    See Part Two.

  • TopTaciturn

    Part Two:
    Who are the other two Spiritual Felons? World Governments & Commerce. The men and women talking the lead in these three areas of world affairs, make claims about “In God We Trust” (or Allah) but all are bathetic in nature and character.
    God’s Word personifies them and reveals that all three are in a spiritual, unclean and demonic tryst. As the Scriptures point out, very soon Governments and Commerce will turn on their companion, Religion, whom the Bible calls “Babylon The Great Harlot.”

  • TopTaciturn

    Part Three:

    As incredible and crazy as it may sound, Organized Religion is on the decline and why? They have cried “WOLF” too many times and people are getting numed out. The Catholic Church isn’t the only faith guilty of transgression. Look at the Methodists, Evangelists and others that, in one way or another, imposed their beliefs on others. Not permitting them to choose but imposed, forced. All of this has got to stop. If you are an informed peson, your feelings must be put aside and focus on facts. “Enough said,” Garcia added, smiling.

  • Galaxy
  • Galaxy

    After watching 48 hours last night, I had nightmare, I feel so disgusted by the dirty evil pervert.

  • John Cameron

    Father Feit did not kill Irene Garza. If you would like to read about the man that did, please visit http://www.coldcasecameron.com. The killer was on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list 1960-61 and was on parole out of Oregon and Montana at the time. The killer repeatedly killed NUNS and attempted to setup priests his entire life. There are many other killings and setups Edward Wayne Edwards did. He got caught in 2009 for the first time for murder. He was 76 years old and had been killing since 1945…

    • ValkyrieJen

      Except that the priest in question here has other incidents of attacking women.

    • Jason Shwagner

      Wrong. This priest admitted, and was found guilty of attacking a woman in a neighboring town only 2 weeks prior. Feit also left the priesthood a few years later. He also confessed to other church clergy. Not everyone needs a dumb conspiracy theory. It just muddies otherwise clear waters. The worst part is, this was never even a tough case, he should have been convicted by the early 1960s, it is blatantly obvious this was deliberately derailed by the catholic church and the local authorities. The biggest piece of glaring evidence is the fact that Feit got ZERO jail time for the assault he was CONVICTED of. The proof is easy to see when you look between the lines as they say.

      • John Cameron

        And that is what Edward Wayne Edwards thrived off of. Ignorance, not looking at the big picture.1960-55 years ago Edwards was married to Marlene Harmon. Ed was 27 years old in 1960, married, on Parole for Robbery, and had just killed dozens throughout the USA. Jason, Here is the lines to look between. follow the evidence not the ignorance. Edwards loved people like you that claimed to be the expert. There is no conspiracy. http://www.coldcasecameron.com
        Respectfully, John A Cameron

        • jon

          @john cameron, you must be the the 007 of the Catholic church.

    • jon


    • Softballumpire

      shove the bs back up where it belongs… yes he killed he is gulity end of story

  • Repmgtnet

    It’s on ID now and HE did do it John Cameron!

    • Ben

      Ok when is the case going to open

  • Jennifer

    I just watched this story on ID and I’m disgusted this man was allowed to roam free. I understand why they didn’t charge him in 1960, the former D.A. is disingenuous when he said he would have prosecuted it back then. Please. Back then people were still buying in to the fallacy that men of god were beyond approach. Today most of us know better

    If the Church was going to protect him to protect themselves, they shouldn’t have allowed him to leave the church and kept him in a monastery locked away. How? Blackmail, you walk we go to the police. Instead they turned a blind eye and let him walk.

    How many people has he killed since Irene? People who do this don’t just stop.

    I’ll bet he dies before facing justice but at least there is some solace that now most people know what type of monster is living in their neighborhood.

    • Jennifer

      beyond reproach not approach… sorry.

  • Jason Shwagner

    Crap like this happens when podunk towns keep re electing lazy trash to high positions. No DA should be in office more than 10yrs as fresh eyes need to be in office from time to time to minimize fraud, bribery and other corruption. Not to mention reigniting old unsolved cases. Our podunk town had the same DA, judges and county sheriff for over 40yrs it was such a joke. Bunch of ego riddled good ol boys.

  • Jason Shwagner

    I wish the family knew they had other tactics they could have used that might have helped. Pressuring state politicians, filing a civil suit against Feit to force testimony, contacting FBI etc. Any of those might have helped bring about a genuine investigation and probably would have put a light on obvious corruption with the local law enforcement/DA. Hopefully this new DA actually follows through on his promises.

  • madfam004

    This 1960 rape/murder in South Texas left everyone stunned. For decades there were rumors about a priest being responsible. Now that finally the truth comes out we find that not only did the Catholic Church protected this criminal fully knowing that he committed the crime and refused to report it to the authorities but also our criminal justice system did the same thing by manipulating on what the grand jury was allowed to hear by keeping two witnesses who were priests and heard from the killer’s own mouth say how he killed the young 26 year old Irene Garza in 1960. Based on this, one of the last things I did before moving to Arizona from Texas was to vote against Rene Guerra out of office for his reckless and intentional way to avoid prosecution for this killer and ignoring the victim altogether. Victims count on the district attorney for justice and not to sweep the case under the rug. I count on Ricardo Guerra to turn things around and focus on the victims for justice instead of the criminals.

  • olinross

    Does anyone think just because he beat the system earthly it’s all over…….What about when he stand before Jesus at the gates…….Justice will be serve…..



  • jon

    the evil tentacles of the Catholic church is manifested and personified as rene gurerra. guerra is protecting a foreign organization based in rome interferring with our legal system to protect it’s minions.