tv Anderson Cooper Special Report CNN December 29, 2013 2:00am-3:01am PST
good evening. i'm anderson cooper. tonight a murder that's gone unsolved for more than half a century. a south texas beauty queen sexually assaulted, killed shortly after going to confession. suspicion turned to the priest but nothing stuck. police, though, they never gave up. so, now, 53 years later, evidence points only to the man who heard irene garza's final confession, the man they still suspect took her life. cnn's gary tuchman has the remarkable story. >> she had beautiful, shiny hair. she had this natural effervescence. >> she had the most musical type voice. >> she had a way with children, and she smelled like flowers.
>> reporter: in 1960, irene garza was raped and murdered in mcallen, texas. >> one thing i remember is just screams. >> there was a suspect. who do you believe killed irene garza? >> father john bernard feit. >> father john feit. back then, a catholic priest. no evidence in this case right now points us in any other direction. >> so why is he still a free man? by all accounts, irene garza was a remarkable young woman. >> she kind of broke the mold. >> irene's younger cousin, noemi
sigler. >> at that time, hispanics stayed on one side of town, anglos lived on another side, and she kind of transcended that. >> she was gentle and sweet and beautiful. >> lynda de la vina is another cousin. >> she was really a role model, and to see how she had gone through college, was a teacher, was a beauty queen and yet was just a very sweet and simple person to us as children. >> but in 1960, the body of this inspiring woman was found face down in this canal. she was 25, the age for thinking about getting married and raising a family. >> she didn't have a life. irene never had that chance. >> irene garza lived in this
house in what was a very nice neighborhood near downtown mcallen and remains so today. she lived here with her sister and parents. on the saturday before easter, she hopped in her car for a short, five-minute ride to her church. irene went to confession every saturday. >> she was highly religious. it was very, very important to her. >> on that april day in 1960, irene met with father john feit, a 27-year-old visiting priest. he had come to the sacred heart church from a nearby town to help out on the busy easter weekend. >> kind of a nice guy, but he was a rigid fellow. >> dale tacheny, a former monk, says he spent six months with father feit at this monastery in missouri after irene's murder. tacheny was feit's spiritual counselor and says that in bits and pieces, he told him about a young woman he saw for confession just before easter.
>> he offered to take her to the rectory. >> about sexually assaulting her. >> after fondling her breasts, he took her to the basement. >> about keeping her bound and gagged. >> he put something over her head. >> about her struggle to live. >> she was saying, "i can't breathe, i can't breathe." >> and about dumping her lifeless body at the canal. >> on the way over there, father feit said that he patted her on her breasts, she was in the back seat, and was saying to her, "irene, everything will be okay, everything will be okay, irene." >> even though john feit knew she was dead? >> yeah, yeah. >> while it was not unusual at the time for the church to deal with criminal priests internally, tacheny says he asked feit about the secular authorities. but why was he sent to the monastery, in your opinion, and not to the police?
>> i asked, why are you here and not in prison, and he said, simply the church protected me. >> the autopsy states that irene showed evidence of recent trauma, sexual intercourse, and trauma to the head. evidence of strangulation could not be found, but suffocation could have been carried out by placing a cloth over the mouth and nose, especially if irene was unconscious. the subject was dead when placed into the canal. >> i believe he killed her, and i believed that then. i had no doubt about it because he said he did. >> so you have no doubt at all that john feit killed irene garza? >> correct. >> but dale tacheny did not come forward with any of this until four decades later when he said the guilt became too much to
keep quiet. john feit left the priesthood. he has lived a full life. mr. feit, i'm gary tuchman with cnn. i want to talk to you about irene garza. >> good for you. >> it's not surprising he doesn't want to talk about irene, because not only do irene's relatives and dale tacheny believe he killed her, so does every police officer and law enforcement agency that's dealt with this case. do you believe you know who the murderer is? >> we have developed evidence sufficient to the threshold responsibility of probable cause that john feit was a person involved in the particular homicide. >> but with so much heat, why did the case go cold? early on, why do you think he wasn't prosecuted? >> a cover-up. >> who are they trying to protect?
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mcallen, texas, in the 1930s was segregated. the neighborhoods, the schools. even in the hospital, mexican-americans and anglos were treated in separate wards. but when irene garza was born in 1934, her parents were determined that she and her sister josephine would transcend the discrimination together. >> we were very tight. we were very close because it was like us against all of those that were prejudiced against us. >> prejudiced against hispanics? >> hispanics, yes. and my dad fostered that because we're in it together. >> in their parents' day, the public schools for mcallen's hispanic children only went to fifth grade, but the garzas had bigger dreams for their daughters. >> from the beginning we were told, oh, when you go to
college, when you go to college. it was something that was just a thing that was going to happen. >> if education was to be the way out, religion would show them the way up. parochial school for the elementary grades offered both. >> we were told, don't get mad, pray. the catholic school, don't get mad, pray. so we'd say we have to pray for so-and-so, we start praying. >> later, at the public high school, where girls often aspired to be baton twirlers with the marching band, irene and josie were reluctant. it was the 1940s. was it unusual for mexican-american teenagers to do twirling? >> it was. my mom says, you go ahead and try out. they have a new music director, and we'll see if he'll get you in. and he was impressed with the two of us, and he let us in.
>> irene went on to become mcallen high's first mexican-american drum majorette, an inspiration to her younger cousins. >> in essence, it really did not matter what race she was. she was just irene. >> irene also made an impression in the local beauty pageants, eventually being crowned miss south texas in 1958. >> she was everything i think that all little girls, especially the young cousins, wanted to grow up to be because she was so poised. i don't know if it's just the right word, elegant? >> after graduating from college, both irene and her sister became elementary school teachers in mcallen. it was both a mission and a joy to be with the children. >> she taught second grade. we had hilarious stories to tell each other, and she'd say, oh, i just love him! and she'd say, he has these little cheeks, and i just go over there and do this to him. he says, "stop it, miss garza!"
>> friends and relatives say irene's good looks never went to her head because her heart was so big. >> she would go every saturday to the convalescent homes and do their nails or do their hair, whatever they wanted, so they would look nice when their families would come to see them on sunday. >> irene's good deeds grew out of her deep faith. sacred heart church in mcallen felt like an extension of home. >> i would say the feeling would be love, a gentle quietness. that's where we felt safe. >> did you and your sister regard the priests as godly men, close to god? >> we thought they were, yes. we believed they were and respected that, respected their calling. >> one of those priests was john feit.
living and studying in the south texas pastoral house, members of his order, the oblates of mary immaculate, take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. but at a church in nearby edinburgh, father feit would be accused of sexually assaulting this young woman, maria america guerra. the 20-year-old woman told police she came into the church, which was empty at the time, to pray. the communion rail used to be right up here near the chairs. she knelt down, and then she was attacked by a man. she told police he had dark hair and horned-rim glasses. she bit him in the finger and drew blood, and then she ran away. father feit matched maria america guerra's description of a suspect. she identified him to police, and he had what appeared to be a serious bite mark on one of his fingers. in this sworn statement, feit said the injured finger was from a mimeograph printing machine, an accident.
after a jury deadlocked on a felony charge of assault with attempt to commit rape, feit would plead nolo contendere, no contest, to misdemeanor aggravated assault. the judge found him guilty and fined him $500, no prison time. just 24 days after maria america guerra was attacked, father feit was working at irene garza's church. on the saturday before easter, irene went to confession. she had been doing this routinely for years. but this time, she would meet with father john feit, and this time she would not return home. no, i'm good. ♪ [ male announcer ] every time you say no to a cigarette, you celebrate a little win. nicorette mini delivers fast craving relief
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remembers the day her cousin irene garza disappeared. >> irene had actually called us on saturday before easter. we're going to have the typical easter egg hunt. she had gotten us baskets. late that evening, my parents got a phone call that said that irene had gone to church, and she hadn't come back, and she was missing. >> another cousin, noemi sigler, was at irene's house that day waiting for the easter egg hunt. >> what i remember is the grown-ups talking, whispering, crying. we were wondering what in the world was happening, but we knew something really bad had happened. >> irene was missing, but her car was still parked outside the church. family, friends and neighbors formed search parties and looked frantically. >> everybody was hoping that there was just, you know, some
misunderstanding or that she had maybe gone with friends or something, and everybody was very, very worried. >> two days later, people began to find her belongings. >> i remember when they found her shoe that was thrown in a field, and they found her purse. something was definitely wrong. >> and then on day five, the 25-year-old beauty queen and teacher was found floating face down in this canal about three miles from her church. when you found out, what went through your mind? >> the one thing i remember is just screams, screams from my aunt, screams from my mother, everybody screaming. i just remember the screams. >> the death certificate states the cause of death was trauma to the right side of her head causing hemorrhage of the brain
and suffocation. it also states irene's body had evidence of having been raped while in a coma. noemi, when you stand here at this site, tell me what goes through your mind. >> a great sadness. it just breaks my heart. >> all of mcallen was shaken. nothing like this had ever happened here. >> it was just so horrible to know that this beautiful, beautiful, nice person was found dead, murdered. [ bells toll ] >> since irene's car was still at the church, that's where investigators focused, and on the last man believed to see her alive, father john feit, the visiting priest. in a sworn statement, feit said he had taken a phone call from irene, wanting to speak to one of the priests about an important matter.
but instead of taking irene's confession in the church, father feit had her go next door to the rectory. and after the visit, irene went missing. >> so, immediately my dad and others were wondering, you know, what had happened, and what did this guy know. >> traumatized, irene's family retreated into their home, surrounded by their closest relatives. >> i remember being in the house and the lady sitting on the bed just crying her heart out. >> as painful as the memories are, cousin noemi wanted us to see the family home today to better understand what happened that horrible time more than 50 years ago. we knocked, and a young woman named sarah came to the door. we're doing a story about who lived in this house in 1960. >> oh, yes, uh-huh. >> do you know about this person? >> irene garza? >> irene garza. you knew that? >> yeah.
>> this is irene garza's cousin. sarah had learned about irene's murder when she was in high school. how old are you now? >> i'm 25. >> 25 years old, the same age as irene when she died. and like irene, sarah lives with her parents. in fact, irene's old bedroom is now sarah's bedroom. sarah even bears an eerie resemblance to irene. >> you almost have the same hair, i must say. she had long, dark hair. >> noemi asked if she could go in the house. >> see what it triggers back because i was here as a child. the day that she went missing, i was here. >> oh, you were here. wow. >> sarah welcomed her inside where the past came back in a way noemi never imagined. inside, sarah gave something to noemi. after all these years, a high
school yearbook from 1949 had remained in the house through three different owners, waiting for the family that would cherish it. >> bye-bye! thanks. >> bye. thank you. >> god bless you. >> what is that? >> they found it in there. >> this is irene's sister's yearbook? >> mm-hmm. irene might even be in here. >> oh, here she is. here is irene garza. >> thank you. you have no idea what you did. thank you. >> you're welcome. i'm sorry for your family's loss. >> wow. >> you're a remarkable family to save this. i think it's going to bring a lot of joy to this family. >> i never would have expected this.
>> to noemi, the unexpected gift was a sign from irene, a pointed reminder that the murder case is still open and that irene's cousins still have work to do. >> i want to give her a voice from the grave. she is here. she is here, and she wants justice. [ male announcer ] no matter what city you're playing tomorrow.
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>> these three lawmen who have led this investigation say the evidence takes them straight to john feit, starting the day irene's body was pulled from the canal. in the water, police recovered two candelabra. they were from irene's church and the slide viewer. >> that slide viewer was found next to her body. >> sonny miller is the former supervisor of mcallen's crime scene investigations. the slide viewer that was found, whose slide viewer was that? >> investigators found out that it had belonged to father feit. >> father feit has always denied to police that he killed irene garza. he acknowledged taking irene's confession at the rectory and told investigators she left, but family members suspected him immediately.
>> certainly that was in everyone's mind since her car was still at the church, she had gone to confession. >> late that night, father feit had cuts and injuries on his hands. he told fellow priests and investigators he got them when he was locked out of his home and climbed to a second floor balcony to get in. but when experts administered a lie detector test, they concluded feit was concealing facts and showing guilt. they thought definitely he was guilty of the murder, but there were no eyewitnesses, and soon after the murder, the church moved feit far away to a series of monasteries. he was never charged, and the murder of irene garza went cold for decades. early on, why do you think he wasn't prosecuted? >> a cover-up. in those days, it was impossible for a priest to do such a deed.
if you thought of it, that would be sacrilegious. and i don't know whether it was out of respect for the church or anger or fear. i have no idea, but protect him, they did. >> in 2002, 42 years after the murder of irene garza, the cold case heated up. two witnesses came forward, independently, both men of the church, saying they knew, without a doubt that father john feit murdered irene garza. for the police, it was a bombshell. rudy jaramillo was a lieutenant with the texas rangers. before retiring in 2012, he worked cold cases. >> it was just incredible. i just couldn't believe that we had been looking for something that could help us in this case and all of a sudden, here it is. >> one of the new witnesses, father joseph o'brien, the lead
priest from irene's church, admitted being part of a cover-up. >> he said he was following direction. >> victor rodriguez is the mcallen police chief. >> he knew the complicity of john feit in this particular case and his own complicity in this case. >> was he emotional when he talked to you? >> yes. it was obvious that he was parting ways with a heavy burden that he had carried for a long time. >> father o'brien died in 2005, but before his death -- >> noemi, this is father o'brien. i'll call you later. >> -- he spoke with irene's cousin about what he knew, and she recorded the conversation. >> so he told you also, sir, that he had killed her? >> yes. >> oh, my god. >> well, i suspected from the very beginning. we searched the attic and searched the basement looking for her. that's how suspicious we were. >> and father o'brien told noemi
that the church sent feit away for a reason. >> we knew he was dangerous. >> yeah? >> so, they shipped him off to a trappist monastery. >> and then there was the second witness, dale tacheny, the former monk at our lady of the assumption monastery in missouri who finally decided to end his silence. >> i was told a priest was coming to the monastery who had murdered a young woman. >> and what was that priest's name? >> father john feit. >> at that time in 1963, you're not thinking, why don't you call the cops? >> it never entered my mind. >> how come? >> we were taught to obey and to do as a superior tells us. >> tacheny was assigned to be feit's spiritual counselor. >> but i remember in telling, it was very close to easter, and a young woman came to him to confession.
>> tacheny told police that feit gave up more details over time about sexually assaulting irene and holding her bound and gagged. >> he put something over her head and put her in the bathtub. >> this is what he told you? >> yes. and as he was leaving, she was saying, "i can't breathe, i can't breathe." later on that day, he came back and she was dead in the bathtub. >> with father o'brien and dale tacheny, the former monk, finally coming forward, the police were ready to make an arrest, but one man in mcallen, texas, had other ideas. >> the problem with the irene garza case is that you have no credible person that you could put on the stand beyond a reasonable doubt say, this man killed irene garza. >> how could the d.a. say that? and why?
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after decades with no progress, two new witnesses had come forward with striking details about the murder of irene garza. investigators thought they could at last close the case. >> we thought at that point in time that we had reached that threshold of probable cause. >> i had prepared an affidavit for an arrest warrant. >> so, you were ready to arrest john feit for the murder of irene garza? >> yes, sir. >> but one man was not convinced and never has been. >> you have no credible person back in '04 and even before that you could put on the stand that would convict feit. >> rene guerra is the district attorney for hidalgo county, texas.
he says he's not protecting the church. he just doesn't believe the two witnesses, father o'brien and dale tacheny, partially because they both changed their stories after years of silence, and he questions father o'brien's age and state of mind. father o'brien was 77 when he came forward. he has since died. >> o'brien might have been credible in some aspects of the case, but because of his senility and advanced age, the question here is whether he could be reliable. >> i felt that he was credible. i think he had a remarkable memory. >> rudy jaramillo, retired lieutenant from the texas rangers, met with father o'brien when he was investigating the murder. so, you judged father o'brien to be credible? >> yes, sir. >> did you think he was possibly senile? >> no. >> mcallen chief of police victor rodriguez agrees. do you believe father o'brien
was a good, credible witness? >> absolutely. >> the d.a. also said he did not believe the former monk, dale tacheny. >> tacheny was not a witness that i could rely on. i believe that tacheny received all of the information that he wanted to say from rudy jaramillo of the texas rangers. >> the d.a. says the texas ranger rudy jaramillo fed the former monk information which he didn't have himself. lieutenant jaramillo says that never happened and that the d.a.'s claim is a great insult to his integrity. what's more, the d.a.'s concern about tacheny seems to ignore this man. >> back in 2002, i was a detective with the san antonio police homicide unit, and i was assigned to the cold case unit, and i had received a phone call. >> george saidler is deputy
chief of criminal investigations for the bear county, texas, sheriff's office. in april 2002, months before lieutenant jaramillo ever heard of dale tacheny, the former monk called detective saidler. tacheny gave him details about how father feit admitted murdering a 25-year-old woman. >> i remember mr. tacheny telling me that the girl had been placed in a bathroom, wrapped in what i call a saran wrap or cellophane, that she was naked from the waist up, that he had fondled her breasts. >> tacheny gave detective saidler numerous details about the murder that had never been made public and even put them in writing. >> i was convinced that mr. tacheny knew about the murder and that this person had told him about it. >> rudy jaramillo could not have possibly fed information about the murder to the former monk, says the chief. >> i knew dale tacheny months
before ranger jaramillo ever knew about dale tacheny and the details of the case. i certainly found him credible enough that i was convinced that he knew about a murder. >> but guerra says he doesn't believe saidler either, and despite the new witnesses, the d.a. told the family and law enforcement that he would not take the case forward. so, guerra fought your request to bring the case before a grand jury, correct? >> yes. >> what did he say to you? >> "when pigs fly." it can't be prosecuted. it can't be prosecuted. old case, old people. and he basically told me to my face with a finger in my face, saying he will never be indicted. >> you know, it's an unfortunate statement that i made. >> about the pigs flying. >> yes, because it comes across that i'm insensitive and callous, which is not true.
>> it was not until irene's family organized vigils and demonstrations outside the courthouse that the district attorney in 2004 finally agreed to bring the case before a grand jury. when the grand jury was convened, father o'brien and the monk, dale tacheny, were prepared to testify to reveal what they say john feit told them about the murder. they certainly would have been the star witnesses, but the district attorney never called for them. instead, the grand jury only had a transcript of what tacheny and o'brien told police. and the main suspect, john feit, he was never subpoenaed to testify. eventually, the jury voted not to indict john feit. irene's family was crushed. >> they're supposed to be representing the people of the state of texas. they're supposed to be representing the victims.
>> all we wanted was a grand jury to hear the facts. if they don't build it on their own, then so be it, but it just seemed like he was hampering the evidence to be presented because the texas rangers were there, the mcallen pd, police chief and the investigators were there waiting outside to go in, and they were never called, week after week after week after week. >> district attorney guerra stands behind his decision not to ask dale tacheny and father o'brien to testify in person, and now father o'brien is dead. if you could do it over again, could it have made a difference if you allowed o'brien to personally take the stand and let the grand jurors see his eyes? could that have made a difference? >> i don't believe so. i honestly don't believe so. and again, it's not the indictment that i need. i need a conviction, because i
don't want to try just anybody just for the sake of it, for the glory, because if i start going for the glory and indictments of very sensational cases, i'm going to compromise my integrity and the oath that i took. some people want to glorify themselves through solving cold cases. >> but i think some people want to bring a murderer to justice. >> sure. but isn't there some glory and some fame behind it? i'm not against glory, and i'm not against fame, but the thing here is that i'm not going to allow you to use me as a stepping stone. >> coming up -- >> mr. feit, i'm gary tuchman with cnn. i want to talk to you about irene garza. >> good for you. smoke?
today, irene garza's family lives in limbo, certain that john feit killed irene, powerless to bring him to trial. what would you say to john feit if you could talk to him? >> i wouldn't talk to him. i won't say what i would do. >> because? >> i believe he's a very evil man. >> i really would like to go and talk to him face to face, no tapes, no cameras, no nothing. i really would like to sit down and speak to him, because i'm going to tell him, you killed
her body, but you did not kill her soul. >> today, john feit lives here in a pleasant neighborhood in phoenix, arizona. he left the priesthood in the late 1960s. he's married, has children and grandchildren. mr. feit, i'm gary tuchman with cnn. i want to talk to you about irene garza. >> good for you. >> we wanted to hear john feit's version of what happened. we wanted his response to those who say he's guilty of rape and murder. back in 1960, this texas ranger memorandum says you expressed guilt to the texas rangers about killing irene garza. is this true? do you ever have trouble sleeping at night? can you just answer that question? the mcallen police and texas rangers believe you killed irene garza.
are you worried about that, sir? are you concerned? feit would not answer our questions, but when we interviewed him five years ago, feit had more to say. >> did you commit the murder of irene garza? >> interesting question. the answer is no. >> he also told us what he thought of dale tacheny, the former monk who says feit admitted murdering irene. >> he says you committed the murder. >> i think he's demented. >> what about the priest, father o'brien. he says you committed the murder too and he knew you very well. [ speaking latin ] >> what does that mean, sir? >> look it up. >> he was speaking latin with a reference to the late father o'brien. it means "do not speak ill of the dead." now 80 years old, feit has done volunteer work at this local catholic food bank. >> i don't care what type of person he's become nowadays. he's helping the poor, he's
doing this, but deep down inside, there's john b. feit there, and he cannot deny that. he knows it and i know it. >> and i don't care how old he is. my view is he should spend his last years where he should have been all this time, in jail. >> during our recent interview attempt, john feit did have one message for irene's family. we caught up with him just a few days before the anniversary of irene's murder. she was killed on easter sunday. i'm going to ask you one more question, sir. it's obvious that you don't want want to talk, but i want to know if you feel bad for this family who's suffered for 53 years. their daughter was found dead. she was last seen with you. your slide viewer was found by her body. you've never apologized. you've never said a word of support to this family. what would you like to say about that, sir? >> have a happy and blessed easter. have been 78 years old. would
her short, inspiring life and brutal death forever left a mark on this south texas town. >> i'm hopeful that one day we will successfully bring this case to a close. a community can't compare to the family. the impact to them is direct, it's familial, it's blood, it's all those kinds of things, but this case also is an incident that has impacted our community. we have come to be defined somewhat by that case that has kind of become an open wound for this community. >> i made it my goal to try to solve this case, so it's kind of been with me, you know, all this time, you know? i wanted justice for her. >> former texas ranger rudy jaramillo never knew irene in life, but he spent years investigating her death. now, she is never far from him. how long will you keep that picture behind your desk? >> probably until i'm not here
on this earth anymore. i don't see a reason why i should take it down. >> do you think irene is watching over you and grateful that you're doing this for her? >> i think she watches over all the family. >> family members admit there were times when they considered giving up. >> i went to her grave to tell her, i've done all i could, i've given it my all, because i want closure on this. i'm tired. 17, 18 years of doing research on the case. i went to her grave, sat there on this nice, beautiful, sunny day, and i was literally telling her, good-bye, irene, and that hurts because i promised her i would never leave her. i would never leave her behind, and i heard this little like flapping, and it was the most beautifulest white dove, and it
just flew over, landed, turned around and just sat there and looked at me. and i looked at it, and it was so beautiful. so i told irene, i got the message, i'll keep on. >> even after 53 years, feit could still be charged. there's an election for district attorney next year, and a new d.a. could push the case forward, and there's no statute of limitations on murder. >> what i want to see happen is justice for irene. i would like a new d.a. to bring this to the grand jury to get it indicted and for law enforcement to do what they have wanted to do since 2003, is to go and arrest him and bring him back to justice, prosecute him and find him guilty
new this morning, the nationwide manhunt for a suspected bank robber and cop killer may be over as police in phoenix shoot and kill a man after a heist there. we'll talk to police officials. and rockets rip across lebanon border into israel, artillery fire is back. the unrest comes as israel prepares to release some palestinian prisoners and u.s. secretary john kerry headed to the region as well. we'll have a live report for you. and trapped in the antarctic ice. an update on a difficult rescue operation at the bottom of the world as icebreaker ships one te