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cold case

Priest is Arrested in Cold Case Investigation into Texas Beauty Queen Killing

By Peek & Toland on November 8, 2016

Cold case investigations can uncover evidence years after a crime. But many become dormant.

This was clearly not the case in the probe into the killing of a schoolteacher and beauty queen in a Texas border town. A former priest was charged with murder this year 56 years after the death of Irene Garza.

The dramatic new development in the cold case investigation was reported in People magazine.

The killing shocked the town of McAllen in 1960. Garza, a 25-year-old schoolteacher and beauty queen, was raped and murdered. Reports put the last place she was seen alive as Sacred Heart Catholic Church. She went to confession at the church the night before Easter.

As experienced Austin murder defense lawyers, we represent many people who are charged with homicides. Cold cases raise a number of evidential issues because the evidence is often very old and witnesses may no longer be alive or be able to recall the events.

In February, former priest John Feit was arrested for Garza’s murder. The ex-priest who is now in his eighties is incarcerated in a Texas jail with his bail set at $750,000. Feit was a visiting priest at Sacred Heart in 1960. He has pleaded not guilty to the murder.

The article in People highlighted five key details that led to the arrest of Feit this year.

The article said the priest allegedly talked about the crime with two other priests around the time of the homicide. Police said Dale Tacheny, a retired monk, called them back in 2002. He said a priest he had counseled more than 40 years earlier said he suffocated a woman who he did not identify.

A priest was arrested in the cold case murder of a beauty queen
Father Joseph O’Brien, a second priest, was said to be aware of the killing and of the alleged guilt of Feit who departed the priesthood in 1972.

This information raises as many questions as it answers. For example, if police had this information in 2002, why did they not act on it then?

Family of Slain Beauty Queen Kept Cold Case Alive

The People article claimed Feit was arrested for an assault on another woman at the church. The article said he was arrested for the attempted rape of a woman in a nearby town. The jury failed to reach a verdict and the priest was fined $500 and released from jail after pleading no contest to aggravated assault, the article claimed.

The article also alluded to scratches on Felt’s hands. He said he had counseled Garza on the evening of the crime but then went on to hear the confessions of other parishioners. He said he broke his glasses, accounting for scratches on his hands.

The People article claimed there was other evidence at the murder scene that pointed the finger of suspicion at Feit. Garza’s car was near the church while a long black cord, allegedly belonging to Feit, was found near her body in a waterway.  Relatives of the popular beauty queen and teacher kept pressing police to keep the cold case alive.

The public is fascinated by cold cases and there are many TV shows about them. However, it can be tough for police and prosecutors to establish guilt after so many years. A DNA match is usually a breakthrough in cases that have been under investigation for decades.

However, even DNA has been discredited in recent years. Much of the evidence in the killing of Irene Garza seems to be circumstantial. However, in cold cases, investigators often come under pressure from family members of the victim.

If you are facing murder or manslaughter charges in Texas, you should contact an experienced Austin defense attorney as soon as possible. These charges carry very serious sentences of life in prison or even the death penalty. Call us at (512) 474-4445.

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