The former priest who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison 57 years after he murdered a woman in McAllen has died.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. confirmed Thursday afternoon that John Bernard Feit died of natural causes.
He was 87.
“Offender Feit was pronounced dead at 5:38 a.m. Tuesday at Huntsville Hospital,” the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a statement. “He had been found unresponsive just before 5:00 a.m. in his cell at the Estelle Unit. His next of kin have been notified. Preliminary cause of death is cardiac arrest.”
A jury convicted Feit of murdering 25-year-old schoolteacher Irene Garza during Easter weekend in 1960 on Dec. 8, 2017.
She never returned home after attending confession at McAllen’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church on April 16, 1960. Five days after her disappearance, authorities pulled her body from a canal.
The autopsy revealed she had been beaten, raped while unconscious and asphyxiated.
Meanwhile, Feit got married, hid behind the church and mocked the system because he got away with murder, lead prosecutor Michael Garza said at his sentencing.
Rodriguez said Feit’s death finally brings closure for Irene Garza’s family and for the residents of Hidalgo County.
“You know, unfortunately, when John Feit passed away in custody … and I know it must be a difficult situation for his family as well. Again, now there’s complete closure,” Rodriguez said. “The passing of John Feit will have no effect on the conviction. The conviction will stand and the appeal will be abated in the case.”
Feit’s arrest and trial became a sensational story that found its way into newspapers and living rooms across the nation, with articles in newspapers and a prime time Saturday night broadcast on CBS’ popular “48 Hours” show.
The former priest’s trial lasted through five days of testimony that included McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez taking the witness stand, recalling accounts from women who detailed encounters with Feit in 1960 where the man asked about taking photos at a cemetery while warning another that she was “next, honey.”
Rodriguez said during the trial that he long believed there was sufficient evidence to charge Feit with murder and had been working the case since 2002.
A former monk named Dale Tacheny also took the stand during the trial, telling jurors that Feit confessed to killing a woman in South Texas in 1960s while the two clergymen were at a monastery.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Michael Garza, presented evidence and brought witness testimony that showed Feit attacked Irene Garza in the church’s rectory while describing Feit as a man with deviant tendencies who was excited by the sound of women’s heels and the sight of them kneeling for prayer.
When Irene Garza’s body was found at the canal, authorities also found a viewfinder that Feit later claimed ownership of.
Evidence in the trial also revealed that the Catholic Church conspired with local law enforcement at the time to prevent a scandal, shielding the then 27-year-old man from being charged. The investigation died and the church moved him out of the Valley — a theme reminiscent of the church’s current sexual abuse scandal involving hundreds of priests across the country.
The case also became an issue in local politics when former Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra refused to indict Feit, saying the case was unsolvable unless “you believe pigs can fly.”
Rodriguez made bringing justice to Irene Garza’s family a campaign promise when he defeated Guerra in 2014.
But on Thursday, Rodriguez said the decision to prosecute Feit was not about politics.
“Well, like I’ve said from the beginning, when I took office, obviously, you know, it seemed like some people wanted to make it a political thing,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t make decisions based on politics at the office. We made the decision based on all the information that we have, all the evidence that we had and the potential evidence that was out there.”
Simply put, Rodriguez said that his office felt if a jury heard the evidence against Feit, it would agree the former priest killed Garza.
“The jury spoke and we respected the decision of the jury,” Rodriguez said. “Again, we wanted the opportunity to place it in front of a jury and based on the evidence that we had and that we gathered and the cooperation of McAllen police and the Texas Rangers and other witnesses, we had enough to meet the elements of the crime John Feit committed, which was murder and the jury agreed.”