EDINBURG — A Texas plane took off from an airport in Maricopa County, Arizona, Wednesday afternoon carrying 83-year-old John Feit, a former Sacred Heart priest accused in the 1960 rape and murder of Irene Garza.
Meanwhile, in Hidalgo County, where he awaits his day in court to face a first-degree felony murder charge, officials held a news conference to update the community on the status of the case and the details behind his extradition.
“We can say that today, after nearly 56 years, is the beginning of bringing justice to the accused, the victim and the community,” said District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez.
After taking office in January 2015, it took Rodriguez and his team one year and two months to review the case, along with the Texas Rangers and the McAllen Police Department, and for prosecutors to convince a grand jury to indict Feit for the 1960 murder.
According to investigators, Garza, a 25-year-old schoolteacher and beauty queen, had gone to Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, where she had planned to attend confession during Holy Week, only to never be seen alive again.
Her body was found on April 21, 1960, five days after she disappeared, in a canal near the intersection of Second Street and Business 83.
Feit was questioned during the initial investigation after he was linked to evidence at the scene and witnesses placed him in the church the night Garza disappeared, but he was never charged.
McAllen police led the investigation more than five decades ago and are again at the forefront of the case. Chief Victor Rodriguez said during the news conference he has always believed that there was probable cause to charge Feit with the death of Garza but did not say why the case went cold for so long.
“This is a matter that is pending trial and because of that it is important to recognize our role in the justice system,” Chief Rodriguez said. “We always must work within that system.”
Garza’s cousin Noemi Sigler walked in quietly and sat in the back of the conference room Wednesday moments before the conference kicked off. She and other family members related to Garza have blamed former district attorney Rene Guerra for halting the case.
After the news conference, Sigler thanked McAllen Police Chief Rodriguez and DA Rodriguez for giving her and her family hope and for holding up their promise to reopen the case.
“I can’t believe this day is finally here,” Sigler said. “Everyone has worked so hard, and we have all been waiting for so long, I just can’t believe it.”
In 2004, Guerra presented Garza’s case to a grand jury, which decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Feit. District Attorney Rodriguez said Wednesday there are new facts and evidence in the case but said he was not at liberty to speak about the details.
“We are confident that after a jury hears all the facts and the evidence, they will be able to get past the threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt,” DA Rodriguez said.
“I want to make one thing clear, this is not about politics. This case is not about proving a point. The only motive in this case is to finally bring justice and closure to this cold case,” he added.
The white jet plane carrying Feit landed on Texas soil about 7 p.m. and rolled into a hanger beside the runway of the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg. He disembarked out of sight from all the cameramen and reporters that waited in the rain outside the airport’s chain-linked fence since Wednesday morning.
Sheriff Eddie Guerra said the jail can accommodate Feit’s age and medical conditions and deputies can place him in a cell by himself with 24 hour monitoring if necessary.