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Ex-priest accused of 1960s murder had compassionate reputation

PHOENIX - For nearly 20 years, John Feit was known around the St. Vincent de Paul nonprofit agency as one its most compassionate employees.

The former priest worked in downtown Phoenix with food-pantry volunteers and even 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. He also mediated disagreements when local agencies were first planning a campus to house multiple services for the homeless.

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 for 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 to 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. "I can't imagine you can't talk to anyone who doesn't say wonderful things about his humility and compassion."

Feit, who left the priesthood to marry, 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. He could also be determined with a project.

During his first year as executive director, 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. Despite disbelief from volunteers about such a daunting goal, Feit wouldn't give up.

"John said 'We help people. That's what we're here to do,'" Zabilski said. "It wasn't easy for John, but he wanted to ensure it was done. I was just touched by that. Wow, this person really does care about people."

But in the early 2000s, local media became interested in Feit's connection to the murder investigation. Authorities zeroed in on Feit when the killing first occurred. Feit told police that he heard Garza's confession in the church rectory, not in the confessional. But he denied killing her.

Feit opted not to hide his past from co-workers and fellow churchgoers at St. Theresa Parish in Phoenix.

"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.

"My understanding was that this had been presented to a grand jury and no one moved forward with it," Zabilski said. "He said he hadn't done it and the fact that it was so long ago."

Lynda de la Vina, Garza's cousin, was 8 years old at the time of her 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, she said.

"It's an indication of who the man was," de la Vina said.

She said Feit's time spent giving to others doesn't erase what happened.

"You just don't escape something in your past if you've done something heinous," she said.

Feit's brother, 92-year-old Matthias Feit, 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 of man who helped others," Matthias Feit said.

He did not know if his brother had retained an attorney.