Ex-priest convicted of murdering Texas woman in 1960

Former priest John Feit leave the courtroom following closing arguments in his murder trial, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, at the Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg, Texas. Feit is accused of suffocating Irene Garza in April 1960, after she went to confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen. (Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor via AP)

EDINBURG, Texas (AP) — A former Texas priest convicted of murder in the rape and strangulation of a 25-year-old beauty queen who went to him for confession almost 60 years ago is set to hear testimony Friday in the punishment phase of his trial.

John Bernard Feit, 85, was found guilty Thursday in the slaying of schoolteacher Irene Garza in McAllen, Texas. The Hidalgo County jury that convicted Feit can sentence him to up to life in prison.

Garza disappeared April 16, 1960. Her bludgeoned body was found days later. An autopsy revealed she had been raped while unconscious, beaten and suffocated.

Feit, then a 28-year-old priest at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, came under suspicion 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.

Among the evidence that pointed to Feit as a suspect over the years: Two priests 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.

This week, prosecutors presented evidence that elected and church officials suspected Feit but didn’t want to prosecute him because it could harm the reputations of the church and Hidalgo County elected officials, most of whom were Catholic. Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was running for president that year.

Feit was sent to a treatment center for troubled priests in New Mexico, later becoming a supervisor with responsibility in the clearing of priests for parish assignments. Among the men Feit helped keep in ministry was child molester James Porter, who assaulted more than 100 victims before he was defrocked and sent to prison.

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.

Garza’s family members and friends had long pushed authorities to reopen the case, and it became an issue in the 2014 district attorney’s race. Ricardo Rodriguez had promised that if elected, he would re-examine the case.