AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A former Roman Catholic priest is due to stand trial this week on charges he beat, raped and strangled to death a Texas beauty queen nearly 60 years ago after hearing her last confession.
Lawyers for John Feit, 84, have denied his responsibility for the 1960 murder of Irene Garza, 25, in McAllen, Texas, and said in court filings that he was wrongly accused of “one of the most notorious and heavily publicized crimes in the history of the Rio Grande Valley.”
Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Tuesday and opening statements are expected on Thursday at a state district court in Hidalgo county in south Texas. The trial is likely to take about two weeks, county officials said on Monday.
Former priest John Feit's history of assault accusations
Former priest John Feit's history of assault accusations
John Feit, 83, is shown in this Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) photo tweeted after his arrest in Arizona on February 9, 2016. Feit, a former Catholic priest has been charged with a murder more than half a century ago where he is suspected of beating, raping and killing a 25-year-old beauty queen in south Texas shortly after taking her last confession, authorities said on February 10, 2016. REUTERS/MCSO/Handout via Reuters FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
This is the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Edinburg, where a 27-year-old Catholic priest was charged, August 5th, with the attempted rape of a 20-year-old college coed as she knelt in prayer last March 23rd. Police identified the priest as John B. Feit, and disclosed that the clergyman had also been questioned about the rape-slaying three weeks later of 25-year-old beauty queen Irene Garza.
Reverend John Feit calmly smokes a cigarette as he awaits the convening of his trial a the Austin County Courthouse. Father Feit is accused of assaulting Maria America Guerra (left), 20, last year with intent to rape her as she knelt to pray in the Sacred Heart Catholic church in Edinburg, Texas.
Feit's attorney withdraws his motion of a change of venue for Feit's trial on a charge of assault to rape an Edinburg co-ed last spring. Trial will thus be held in Edinburg unless judge changes venue on his own motion.
John Feit, 83 who was arrested last month in Arizona in connection with the 1960 slaying of Irene Garza, 25, in McAllen, Texas is seen in this booking photo released by Hidalgo County, Texas Sheriff?s office on March 9, 2016. Feit, a former Catholic priest, charged in a 55-year-old murder case in which he is suspected of beating and raping a beauty queen in south Texas was due to be extradited on Wednesday to face justice in the state where the crime occurred, authorities said. REUTERS/Hidalgo County, Texas Sheriff?s office/Handout via Reuters FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Father John Feit (right) walks with his attorney Fred Semaan (left) on his way to the Bexar County Sheriff's office where he turned himself in on an indictment in Edinberg, Texas for assault with intent to rape.
Father John Feit (left) looks at the floor as his attorney, Fred Semaan (right) talks to reporters after Father Feit turned himself in to Bexar County officials. Feit was indicted in Edinberg, Texas on a charge of assault with intent to rape.
The Reverend John B. Feit, 27, a Roman Catholic priest, right, was expected to surrender today to face a charge of assault with intent to rape a 20-year-old Pan American coed. Feit has been questioned about the rape-slaying last April of 25-year-old Irene Garza shown left.
John Feit, a 28-year-old Roman Catholic priest, pleaded no defense to a charge of aggravated assault upon Maria America Guerra in Edinburg's Sacred Heart church. The judge accepted his plea and fined him $500 and costs. This file picture was during Feit's trial in Austin last September on a charge of assault with intent to rape which ended in a hung jury.
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Garza, a former Miss South Texas and second-grade school teacher, was last seen giving confession during Holy Week at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on April 16, 1960, according to the Texas Rangers cold case website.
Her body was found five days later in a nearby canal. An autopsy showed that Garza had been raped while comatose and died of suffocation.
Feit had initially been considered by authorities to be a suspect in the case but was not indicted. He had been implicated in the assault of another woman in the area a few weeks before Garza's disappearance, but pleaded no contest to aggravated assault and served no jail time.
Shortly after Garza's body was found, Feit was ordered by his church superiors to leave McAllen, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Feit later left the priesthood and moved to Arizona, where he started a family.
Texas Rangers investigating cold cases reported in 2002 that a local priest had told them, shortly after Garza's body was found, that he had seen scratches on the hands of Feit, who was a visiting priest at Sacred Heart Church at the time.
The local priest, Father Joseph O'Brien, also told investigators that Feit had confessed to the murder, law enforcement officials said. Feit has denied that.
Charges were only filed in 2016, however, after a new district attorney for the county won his seat in part on a promise to seek justice in the Garza murder.
Attorneys for Feit tried unsuccessfully to have the trial moved, arguing that local residents had been prejudiced against him by decades of biased media reports.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Tom Brown)