A jury deliberated for more than six hours before finding John Feit guilty of murdering Irene Garza in 1960, according to multiple news reports

By KC Baker
December 08, 2017 05:58 PM
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Credit: Delcia Lopez /The San Antonio Express-News/AP

A former priest accused of killing a Texas beauty queen in 1960 was convicted of murder on Thursday, according to multiple news outlets. On Friday, he was reportedly sentenced to life in prison for his crime.

John Feit, 85, was emotionless as he learned jurors had reached a guilty verdict after deliberating for more than six hours, according to the Associated Press and the San Antonio Express-News.

Relatives of the victim, Irene Garza, who was 25 when she was murdered in McAllen, Texas, hugged each other after the verdict was read, the Express-News reports.

Feit, of Scottsdale, Arizona, was convicted of killing Garza more than 57 years ago when he was a 27-year-old visiting priest. He chose to have the jury decide on his punishment, the Monitor of McAllen, Texas, reports.

Feit was working at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen when he beat Garza, sexually assaulting her and suffocating her after putting her in a cellophane bag and leaving her in a bathtub in the basement of the rectory while he went to the church, according to court testimony.

She was dead when he returned.

Some of her last words to her killer, according to a prosecution witness, were “I cannot breathe,” which she uttered as she gasped for air while Feit exited the basement where she later died, the Express-News reported.

On Monday, jurors heard testimony from former monk Dale Tacheny, 88, who said that in 1963, Feit told him about the killing when he was sent to Tacheny’s monastery, according to the Express-News.

“He put the young lady in a bathtub,” Tacheny testified. “As he was leaving, the young lady said ‘I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe.’ Then he left.”

Calls for comment to his defense and to prosecutors were not immediately returned. It is unclear if Feit intends to appeal.

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John Feit (center) in court on Nov. 30, 2017
| Credit: Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/AP

Priest Said He Heard Victim’s Confession Before She Died

Garza, a second-grade teacher and former homecoming queen who was named Miss All-South Texas Sweetheart in 1958, was a devout Catholic who was found dead in an irrigation canal in 1960 — five days after she went to Sacred Heart on Easter weekend and Feit said he had heard her confession.

Authorities at the time questioned Feit after they found items belonging to the church near her body, such as a candelabra. They also found a photo slide viewer that authorities said belonged to Feit.

Still, the case went cold for decades until new evidence led authorities to arrest Feit in February 2016 in Scottsdale, where he was living, Hidalgo County, Texas, District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. told PEOPLE at the time. Feit reportedly left the priesthood in 1972.

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A month after he was indicted, in 2016, Feit pleaded not guilty to murder, maintaining that he had nothing to do with Garza’s death. His defense reportedly argued that the physical evidence was insufficient to tie him to the crime — but the jury was unconvinced.

More than a year after his arrest, Feit’s trial began on Nov. 30 in Edinburg, Texas. In his opening arguments, prosecutor Michael Garza argued that Feit committed the murder “with malice and forethought,” the Monitor reports.

Prosecutors said at his trial that while Feit had been suspected of killing Garza soon after she died, local political and church officials wanted to avoid charging him for fear of a scandal.

The prosecutor also told jurors that Feit allegedly attacked a woman in a nearby church two weeks before Garza disappeared, according to the Express-News. Feit was charged with assault and attempted rape in that case, but it ended in a mistrial. He later pleaded no contest to aggravated assault and was fined $500.

“This is a case about betrayal, murder and a cover-up,” the prosecutor reportedly said in his closing argument at Feit’s murder trial. “[He] was a wolf in priest’s clothing.”