A jury in Hidalgo County in South Texas on Friday sentenced an 85-year-old former priest to life in prison for the 1960 killing of a schoolteacher and former beauty queen who was his parishioner.
The jurors found John Bernard Feit guilty of murder on Thursday night then they sentenced him on Friday. 25-year-old Irene Garza was killed by Feit after she went to him for confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas.
Irene disappeared on April 16, 1960. Her bludgeoned body was found days later. An autopsy revealed she had been raped while unconscious, and beaten and suffocated. Prosecutors asked jurors on Friday for a 57-year prison term, one year for each year he had walked free since killing Irene Garza. Prosecutor Michael Garza, who is not related to the victim, had asked the jury not to view the now elderly and weak Feit as he is today, but to try to imagine him as a 28-year-old man capable of subduing the woman.
The jury eventually decided on the maximum sentence. Afterward, Garza said at a news conference that he wished that he could take credit for the conviction and sentence, “but it was God-driven.”
“I can say this: Pigs are flying, and Irene is resting,” he said.
Feit, then a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, came under suspicion in the investigation early on. He told police that he heard Garza’s confession in the church rectory rather than in the confessional, but denied he had killed her. One of the evidence that pointed to Feit as a suspect over the years was the testimony of two priests who told authorities that Feit had confessed to them. One of them said he saw scratches on Feit soon after Garza’s disappearance. His portable photographic slide viewer was found near Garza’s body. Feit had also been accused of attacking another young woman in a church in a nearby town just weeks before Garza’s death. He pleaded no contest and was fined $500.
Feit left the priesthood in 1972, married and went on to work at the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix, training and recruiting volunteers and helping oversee the charity’s network of food pantries.