A jury in South Texas Thursday night convicted a retired priest in the murder of a young woman who went to his church for confession back in 1960, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.
Prosecutors presented a number of witnesses who had seen Irene Garza, 25, go into the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, where The Rev. John Feit was a visiting priest, during Holy Week of 1960. That was the last time the teacher and local beauty queen was seen alive. Her body was found in a canal near the church a week later, she had been smothered.
Lead prosecutor Michael Garza called John Feit, now 85, a 'wolf in priest's clothing.'
Over five days of testimony, Garza called nearly two dozen witnesses, including a retired monk who said Feit confessed to him that he had killed Garza.
Dale Traciney was a Trappist monk in Missouri where the Catholic Church transferred Feit after the murder. He said Feit, who was then 27, told him he assaulted, bound and gagged Garza, then placed her into a cellophane bag. When he returned, she was dead and the monk said Feit told him he dumped her body along a nearby roadway. Garza told the jury the attack came after Feit told the victimshe was 'too good' for confession and instead invited her to his residence in the rectory next door.
Testimony indicated that Feit's transfer to the monastery was not an accident, in fact, there was an active effort by the Catholic Church at the time to make sure the priest was not prosecuted.
A letter written by a priest to another Catholic church leader three months after Garda vanished discussed transferring Feit 'to another part of the country as a normal obedience,' and referred to putting heat on the Sheriff to quietly drop Feit as a suspect.
"He is also of the opinion that the prosecution must be made to see just how weak their case is, lest they go off half-cocked, and set the wheels into motion that would bring this out in public print, and give the opponents of the Church a field day," the priest wrote, adding that bringing a lurid murder case against a Catholic priest 'could make this a juicy scandal for the opposition to Kennedy.'
John Kennedy was running for President at the time, and his Catholic faith had become an issue in the campaign. The text of the letter was entered as evidence in the case.
Defense attorney Richard Flores declined to call Feit as a witness, but he grilled a retired Texas Ranger who investigated the case in 2002 about other priests who may have been at the church at the time.
He conceded he interviewed another priest in Mexico who 'appeared nervous' and who has later murdered.
The Rangers conducted the investigation as part of an effort to clear high profile cold cases from around the state.
Another defense witness testified that he saw Garza in the church an hour or more after prosecutors said she had been killed.
The case of the murdered beauty queen has become legend in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the area that hugs the Rio Grande just across from Mexico. In fact, current Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez was elected in 2014 on a promise to re-open the case. Feit was extradited to Texas from a retirement home in Arizona earlier this year.
Feit now faces up to life in prison. Sentencing is set to begin on Friday.