1960 MURDER OF BEAUTY QUEEN
PHOENIX (AP) — For nearly 20 years, John Feit was known around the St. Vincent de Paul nonprofit agency as one of its most compassionate employees.
The former priest worked in downtown Phoenix with food pantry volunteers and raised money to buy a house for a needy family. His desire to help others was apparent at his church and whenever he showed up on the doorsteps of the poor with donated food or furniture.
Feit was able to do all this charity work despite public knowledge that he had long been a suspect in the 1960 rape and killing of a Texas schoolteacher and beauty queen.
Now 83, he was arrested Tuesday in the murder of 25-year-old Irene Garza in McAllen, Texas. She was last seen at the church where Feit was a priest. Her bludgeoned body was discovered in a canal days later.
A grand jury brought the charge based on yet-to-be-disclosed evidence. Feit, who uses a walker, is now in jail and plans to fight extradition to Texas.
For many acquaintances in Phoenix, the heinous allegations are a stark and incomprehensible contrast with the man they worked with and saw at church.
"He'd be the last person you would suspect of anything like this," said Stephen Zabilski, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul.
Feit, who left the priesthood to marry, became active at St. Theresa parish and joined St. Vincent de Paul's administrative office in 1983. Zabilski, who joined the organization in 1997, remembers him as a "regular, humble" guy who was either in the office or working with volunteers.
Zabilski saw Feit go out of his way to raise money for a couple who had taken in their 12 grandchildren. Feit and another person spearheaded an effort to raise at least $50,000 so the family could get a house.
In the early 2000s local journalists became interested in Feit's connection to the murder investigation.
Authorities zeroed in on Feit immediately after Garza's body was found. At the time, Feit told police he had heard Garza's confession in the priests' residence, not in the church confessional, though he denied killing her.
Suspicions were raised because Feit had been accused of (but did not serve jail time for) an attack on another young woman weeks earlier.
Feit did not hide his past from co-workers and fellow churchgoers at St. Theresa.
"When media were researching those particular stories, John felt it was good to give me a heads-up because they would probably be contacting me," said the Rev. Charles Kieffer, a pastor at St. Theresa.
Zabilski said law enforcement never contacted anyone at St. Vincent de Paul, so there was no reason not to allow Feit, who retired in 2004, from continuing his work. A previous grand jury had found insufficient evidence to issue an indictment.
Lynda de la Vina was 8 years old at the time of her cousin's death. Now an economics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, she believes the right person is in custody.
Three weeks before Garza was slain, Feit attacked another woman in another church and pleaded no contest to that charge, de la Vina said.
"It's an indication of who the man was," she said.
Matthias Feit, John Feit's 92-year-old brother, said it's not surprising that people who know him are in shock.
"You can find several hundred people in Phoenix who would say the same thing: a very kind man who helped others," Matthias Feit said.