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crimesider

Ex-priest being extradited in beauty queen's 1960 murder

An 83-year-old former priest accused of killing a Texas teacher and ex-beauty queen in 1960 is being extradited from Arizona to Texas, officials said Wednesday.

Police say John Feit is no longer in the custody of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and has been transferred to Texas authorities. He is expected to be booked into the Hidalgo County Jail in South Texas, where he will undergo a medical evaluation and be housed in the infirmary, Sheriff J.E. "Eddie" Guerra said at a press conference Wednesday.

The frail-looking Feit, who uses a walker, has been jailed in Arizona, where he's lived for years, following his Feb. 9 arrest in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. He was indicted in Hidalgo County for the killing 56 years ago of Irene Garza, a 25-year-old school teacher. Authorities allege the then-27-year-old Feit killed Garza on April 16, 1960, after hearing her confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, where he was a priest.

Wednesday, Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez said there are new facts and evidence in the case against Feit, but declined to discuss them.

"Today we are one step closer in seeking justice," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said he's confident that after a jury hears the case, "we will get past the threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt."

An autopsy determined Garza, who was named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart 1958, had been raped while unconscious and was beaten and suffocated. Feit came under suspicion early on, telling police that he heard Garza's confession -- in the church rectory, not in the confessional -- but denying he killed her.

Also, Feit had been accused of attacking another young woman in a church in a nearby town just weeks before Garza's death. He eventually pleaded no contest and was fined $500.

Feit's arrest last month followed other investigations over the years, including a grand jury probe in 2004 that concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge him. Wednesday, McAllen police chief Victor Rodriguez said, "We've always believed there was probable cause there for John Feit to face charges in the death of Irene Garza."

Among the evidence that pointed to Feit as a suspect over the years was his portable photographic slide viewer, which was found near Garza's body. In April 2002, former monk Dale Tacheny said in a letter to San Antonio Police Department that he and Feit were in a monastery together in the 1960s when Feit admitted to him that he had killed a young woman.

Feit denies the allegations.

Authorities have declined to comment on what evidence was presented to grand jurors to indict Feit. But Rene Guerra, the former longtime Hidalgo County district attorney who had previously investigated the murder but never brought charges, has said there was no DNA evidence in the case.

Feit spent time at a treatment center in New Mexico for troubled priests and after that became a supervisor and had a part in clearing priests for assignments to parishes.

Feit left the priesthood to marry. He joined the administrative office of the St. Vincent de Paul nonprofit agency in Phoenix in 1983 and retired in 2004.

Garza's family members and friends had long pushed authorities to reopen the case, and it became an issue in the 2014 district attorney's race in Hidalgo County. Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, who beat the longtime incumbent, had promised he would re-examine the case if elected.

"I want to make on thing clear -- this case is not about politics," Ricardo Rodriguez said Wednesday. "This case is not about proving a point -- the only motive in this case is to bring justice and closure to this cold case."