Tag Archives: Phoenix

Keeping the Faith

February 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I received the news around 6 a.m. the morning of February 10. “John Feit Arrested,” the email from a fellow journalist in Phoenix read. He included a link to a story on the NBC News website: “Ex-Priest, 83, Arrested Over Beauty Queen’s 1960 Murder,” the headline read.

“I’m sure your work had something to do with it,” he wrote.

Thank you, my friend, for offering words you knew I’d relish. But let’s be real. My sprawling story on Feit a decade ago most likely did what I feel the vast majority my stories have done—absolutely no good for anyone.

Oh, but even the most cynical of us still dream. We all dream of slaying the dragon. Maybe I helped out just a little bit? Just a little?

I was eating breakfast in a hotel restaurant when I got the news of Feit’s arrest. I immediately rose from my table, walked briskly out into the back parking lot and performed a peculiar little boogie/jig in the icy darkness. “We finally got you, you filthy motherf…,” I muttered to nobody. “You’re finally going to pay.”

As I stood in the cold, another friend sent a link to a CNN story:

“John Feit, a former Catholic priest, has been arrested in a 56-year-old murder case.

“Irene Garza was last seen alive the night before Easter 1960 when Feit heard her confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas. Five days later, searchers found the lifeless body of the 25-year-old former Miss South Texas face down in a canal.”

More emails and texts followed with story links…”Feit has long been the main suspect in the case,” ABC News explained in a link sent from a Texas friend.

In 2005, I spent three months investigating the Garza murder, digging through more than two thousand pages of documents, interviewing two dozen people, even going undercover in Phoenix to befriend Feit to learn more about him from his own mouth. The evidence—including interviews with two men to whom he confessed his crimes—was overwhelming. Things even got personal: Feit screamed at me and shoved me out the door of his apartment when I revealed that I was a journalist investigating the murder.

Anyway, long, long story. Too much for this space. 

The short of it: I thought my digging and my findings and my story would somehow lead to justice for Irene Garza. 

Silly little crusader. Nothing changed. A decade passed. Surely the case was long dead.

You get used to that feeling of helplessness. Some of us get jaded. I did. I slowly steered away from the full-contact stories. Why bother? 

Well, easy answer: Because I’m flat-out wrong. Journalism still can make a difference when it’s done well for the right reasons. The proof is all around us for those not yet cynical enough to look.

In the end: I’m quite sure my story in 2005 had very little if anything to do with the February arrest of John Feit. It was persistence by the family of Irene Garza, a few hard-charging cops and Texas Rangers and a new district attorney in Hidalgo County, Texas, who did the work.

And, too, in the end, our cover story by Doug Meigs on human trafficking in Omaha probably will have little impact on the growing scourge. 

But you never know, I know again. You’ve got to keep the faith. Maybe you just plant a seed. Newspapers and magazines in this difficult publishing landscape have to keep digging and planting and nurturing stories that matter.

Because even 11 years later, even 56 years later, right can still win over wrong with a little help. I have proof: a monster named John Feit finally spent time behind bars. 

(Nelson’s original piece for Village Voice Media on the Irene Garza case can be read at http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/altar-ego-6430571).

Nelson,-Robert

Denise Cerny

November 12, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I don’t ever remember being bored,” says Denise Cerny.

She sits at her kitchen table for just a couple of moments before jumping up to pour a glass of iced tea. She sits again, then jumps up to grab her iPad so she can investigate something on the Internet.

The constant movement fits her well. Her parents are Ardith Smeal, 92, and the late Donald Smeal. Donald owned Smeal Fire Apparatus Co. for more than 50 years. The company is one of two in Nebraska manufacturing those bright red vehicles people see rushing to eliminate fires.

Along with their west Omaha home, she and her husband, Rod, keep a home in Phoenix. Denise gardens, often finding unusual plants to keep in pots on the back deck. She and her husband also golf avidly.

“Activity is important in our life and in our relationship with each other,” says a sister, Mary Lou Tomka of Lincoln. “My dad and mom had seven daughters, and five of us played softball at the same time. We’ve always been involved in activities.”

Cerny long kept in shape as a marathon runner. She ran marathons in New York, Los Angeles, Alaska, and Hawaii.

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“When the kids were little I used it as my down time,” Cerny says. “There’s something about being in the open air, focused on running—it keeps me going.”

Make that it “kept” her going. Five years ago, at age 58, her knees began to hurt after running. She did not admit it at first—she liked having strong knees.

“That was one thing I would always say. I would run, and I would look up and say ‘Thank you, God, for good knees!’”

She finally saw an orthopedist, also a friend of hers, who said, “You have osteoarthritis in both knees.”

Cerny’s heart fell. She had to quit running.

“It took a long time before I could drive past a runner and not be envious.”

She underwent surgery and spent several weeks on the couch recuperating.

“Before I had the surgery I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” Cerny says. “I had to be in the house.”

The surgery could not keep her down totally.

“I started playing Rock Band,” Cerny says with a girlish giggle. “I had never played a video game before…but you know what, it’s a lot of fun!”

After several weeks, she started moving again, even if the athletic activity switched gears.

These days Cerny’s great athletic passion is bicycling. She rides her bicycle frequently around Omaha and has ridden RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) every year for the past 12 years.

“I was still marathoning and my sisters (Renee Smeal of Omaha and Tomka) said ‘you ought to do this.’” Cerny says. “At that time I didn’t have a very good bike. After a couple of years I got a better bike. You would not believe how much easier that made things.”

Cerny’s definition of better includes lighter. The lower weight of the bike allowed her to ride faster and longer. This was especially helpful five years ago.

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“I had done RAGBRAI right before my surgery because I wanted to be in shape,” Cerny says. “And that worked!”

Cerny discovered that bicycling does not hurt her knees.

“I had to find other ways to take up that slack,” Cerny says of not being able to run. “I did RAGBRAI the next year after surgery and was still fine. I started working with a trainer because I thought I needed someone who knows what they are doing so I don’t hurt myself again.”

Bicycling gives her the outlet once taken up by running.

“Once you do it, you have to keep doing it,” Cerny quips. “The people of Iowa are so great with their pies and the parties they throw. The last day when you get to the Mississippi, you’re (geographically) as high as you’re going to be all week, and you want people to know how great this is.”

Tomka no longer rides on RAGBRAI, but Smeal and Cerny ride with a group from Omaha known as Team Angry during the weeklong party/bicycling event.

“My sisters talked me into joining a team for safety reasons,” says Cerny, who still rides solo during the week, catching up with the group at her own pace.

“It isn’t a race, and it isn’t a ride where you have to stick together,” says Smeal. “The only time we ride together is the last day. On the last day we like to enter the final town together. You ride in as a team and people cheer and you get your picture taken with your team dipping their front tires into
the Mississippi.”

No matter whether Cerny bikes, golfs, or plays Rock Band, she keeps a “can do” attitude in mind.

“I really like my life,” Cerny says. “I’m really lucky I can do that.”

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