Wednesday 26 October 2016

Ex-priest is arrested over beauty queen death

Juan A Lozano in Houston

Published 12/02/2016 | 02:30

Former priest John Feit. Photo: AP
Former priest John Feit. Photo: AP

For more than half a century, the unsolved killing of a young schoolteacher and beauty queen who was last seen at church has haunted the Texas city of McAllen.

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But now, nearly 56 years after the bludgeoned body of 25-year-old Irene Garza was pulled from an irrigation canal, police have arrested the man long suspected in her slaying: the former priest who apparently heard her final confession.

Using a walker, a frail-looking John Bernard Feit, now 83, appeared in court on Wednesday in Phoenix, after being arrested a day earlier at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on a murder charge. He was jailed on $750,000 cash bail while he awaits transfer back to Texas.

"This whole thing makes no sense to me because the crime in question took place in 1960," Feit said, adding that he plans to fight extradition to Texas.

Feit's arrest followed other investigations over the years, including a grand jury probe in 2004 that concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge him.

McAllen police would not comment on what evidence was gathered or presented to the grand jury that finally brought the charge.

Authorities said Ms Garza visited Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, where Feit was a priest, on April 16, 1960. Ms Garza, who was Miss All South Texas Sweetheart 1958, had planned to go to confession that evening. She never returned home.

Her body was found days later. An autopsy found that she had been raped while unconscious and had been beaten and suffocated.

Feit came under suspicion early on, telling police that he heard Garza's confession - in the church rectory, not in the confessional - but denying he killed her.

Feit later spent time at a treatment centre in New Mexico for troubled priests and after that became a supervisor and had a part in clearing priests for assignments to parishes. Among the men Feit helped keep in ministry was child molester James Porter, who assaulted more than 100 victims before he was ultimately defrocked and sent to prison.

Feit left the priesthood in 1972, married and went on to work at the St Vincent de Paul charity in Phoenix for a number of years. Director Steve Zabilski said he was shocked by Feit's arrest "because John is one of the most kind and caring and truly compassionate people that I've ever met".

A portable slide viewer belonging to Feit found near Garza's body pointed him as a suspect over the years.

Two fellow priests told authorities Feit confessed to them, and one said he saw scratches on Feit soon after Garza's disappearance.

Irish Independent

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