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).