57 Years After Young Teacher’s Murder, Former Priest Faces Trial

57 Years After Young Teacher’s Murder, Former Priest Faces Trial

Erik De La Garza, September 12, 2017, Courthouse News

EDINBURG, Texas (CN) — A state judge on Monday delayed until early October the trial of the former Catholic priest charged with the 1960 murder of a South Texas beauty queen, because of scheduling conflicts with one of his attorneys.

O. Rene Flores, one of two attorneys representing 84-year-old John Feit, is scheduled for trial next week in another high-profile murder case making local headlines. Prosecutors in that case accuse the daughter of a former Hidalgo County commissioner, Monica Melissa Patterson, of the death of a 96-year-old man who was under her care as director of Comfort House, a hospice facility.

Feit appeared trial-ready at a Monday morning hearing, for the first time out of prison clothes, dressed in a blue blazer, slacks and a button-down shirt. He was expected to face trial as early as this week, with jury selection scheduled for Wednesday.

Instead, Hidalgo County state court Judge Luis Singleterry set an Oct. 3 trial date and considered a proposed 13-page, 61-question jury questionnaire to which attorneys on both sides have agreed.

“We are going to keep that October third setting,” Singleterry said Monday.

Feit was a 27-year-old visiting priest in McAllen when the partially decomposed body of Irene Garza was found in a canal, five days after she was last seen going to confession at Sacred Heart Church.

An autopsy determined that the 25-year-old elementary schoolteacher and former Miss All South Texas Sweetheart had been beaten, suffocated and raped while unconscious on the day before Easter in 1960.

Feit, who left the priesthood under a cloud of suspicion in 1971, emerged as the prime suspect in Garza’s murder but was not charged until more than half a century later when a new district attorney took a fresh look at the cold case. Feit, now an aging father and grandfather, has been in the Hidalgo County Jail infirmary receiving 24-hour medical attention since March 2016.

Feit acknowledged in the early days of the investigation that a Kodak slide viewer found at the bottom of the drained canal belonged to him. Police also found candlesticks in the canal that reportedly came from Sacred Heart Church.

More evidence came to light in 2002, when two former priests testified in a Texas Rangers examination that Feit had confessed to the killing. Only one of the men, Dale Tacheny, is still alive.

Tacheny, 87, testified against Feit at a closed deposition as a prosecution witness in March this year. Texas law allows state prosecutors to take a witness deposition if their age and exclusive knowledge constitutes good reason for it.

Monday’s delay was the second setback in Feit’s trial. An April trial date was postponed after an unsuccessful defense request to move the trial out of Hidalgo County.

Judge Singleterry told attorneys Monday that opening arguments would come immediately after jury selection, but if the jury process finishes midweek, “We would start on a Monday, versus on a Thursday or Friday.”

“We would like to start with the evidence preferably on a Monday, maybe a Tuesday, depending on how things work out,” Singleterry said.

Feit faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted of murder.

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