A former Catholic priest convicted of the 1960 murder of a young teacher and beauty queen died Friday while serving a life sentence at a Texas prison.
The preliminary cause of death for John Feit, 86, was cardiac arrest, according to a statement from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“Offender Feit was pronounced dead at 5:38 a.m. Tuesday at Huntsville Hospital,” the statement said. “He had been found unresponsive just before 5:00 a.m. in his cell at the Estelle Unit. His next of kin have been notified. Preliminary cause of death is cardiac arrest.”
Feit was found guilty of the murder of Irene Garza in 2016, over 50 years after he bludgeoned the 25-year-old McAllen, Texas elementary school teacher, suffocated her with a plastic bag then sexually assaulted her before dumping the body in a canal.
Garza was crowned Miss All-Texas Sweetheart in 1958 before becoming a second-grade teacher to indigent students.
A devout Catholic, Garza went to confessional at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, located within Hidalgo County, on the day she was murdered. Feit, who was 27 at the time of the murder, was a priest at the church.
Authorities suspected Feit from the beginning, but he denied killing Garza, despite admitting to police that he heard Garza’s confession in the rectory instead of in the confessional.
The case eventually went cold, but McAllen residents never forgot about the slain beauty queen. Hidalgo District Attorney, Ricardo Rodriguez, ran for office in 2014 on the prospect of re-examining the case.
Although the case was reopened in 2004, Feit was not indicted until 12 years later, when Rodriguez presented new evidence to a grand jury.
Prosecutors argued that elected and church officials covered for Feit to save the reputations of the church and Hidalgo County’s elected office holders, many of whom were Catholic.
Feit also pleaded no contest to attacking another young woman in a church in a nearby town weeks before he killed Garza.
After the murder, Feit spent time in a treatment center in New Mexico for troubled priests, then became a supervisor who cleared other priests for assignments.
One of the priests that Feit helped keep in the ministry was James Porter, a child molester who abused over 100 children before being sent to prison.
Contributing: The Associated Press