A beloved Florida priest, whose body is thought to have been found hundreds of miles from his home, is believed to have been murdered by a so-called 'career criminal' out of custody only four days before the clergyman went missing, authorities said.
Fr. Rene Robert, of St. Augustine, was last heard from last Sunday, eight days before his body was found in Waynesboro, Georgia, on Monday.
Multiple law enforcement agencies conducted a wide-spread search for the 71-year-old Roman Catholic priest and his missing Toyota.
Steven James Murray, the “person of interest” allegedly driving Robert’s car, was arrested in a wooded area after a high-speed chase near Aiken, South Carolina, officials said.
Murray, 28, was charged with fleeing and attempting to elude law enforcement, and was found to have numerous weapons in the priest’s car, including a rifle with a scope, St. John’s County Sheriff David Shoar said.
Characterizing him as a “career criminal” and a “sociopath,” Shoar said Murray threatened “to kill as many cops as he could,” but that no one was injured during the arrest.
Murray eventually led detectives to the clergyman’s body, police said.
Shoar said he expects Murray will be charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and a “plethora of other charges” for crimes he allegedly committed before his arrest. He is being held without bond.
A motive for the killing was not clear, but Murray is thought to have been receiving help from the priest, who often worked with people who had been incarcerated.
Murray had recently been arrested in Duval County, Florida, for an allegedly disqualified or suspended license. He was released four days before Robert went missing, records show.
Calling Robert a “dear friend,” an emotional Shoar told reporters that “he did something that a lot more people should do and that is to spend his life dedicated to helping people that are far less fortunate than most of us, and (he) never asked for credit, never asked for recognition, he just did it."
“And unfortunately the ministry that he was in—helping people as they got out of jails and prisons—there’s a certain risk factor that goes with that," he continued. "But today’s not the day necessarily to talk about that.”
Robert was reported missing after he failed to appear at a scheduled church function.
Law enforcement officials who conducted a welfare check on Robert immediately began a missing person’s search, calling his disappearance “uncharacteristic.”
“He stopped communicating at a certain time on Facebook, and he was a prolific social media guy,” Shoar explained.
The priest, originally from Waterford in upstate New York, had posted on Facebook on the day of his disappearance that he was visiting a patient at Orange Park Medical Center in Jacksonville.
“You are a man about town,” a friend commented.
Police believe Robert was killed in Georgia between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. that night.
“I honestly wish we had better news tonight,” Shoar said at a news conference to announce the finding of the cherished priest’s body as his brother and sister wiped tears from their eyes.
“But I will tell you, I told (his loved ones) when they came in my office tonight, and we spoke and kept talking about losing Father, we haven’t lost Father Rene,” Shoar said of the priest, who also worked at a school for the blind and assisted the homeless.
“We know right where Fr. Rene’s at tonight and for me, our community lost a really big piece of who we are, and who we want to be.”