Police in St. Johns County, Florida, have been searching for a missing priest, Father Rene Robert, since Tuesday afternoon. On Thursday morning, Aiken, South Carolina, police arrested a potential suspect likely connected with the disappearance.
Steven James Murray, 28, was detained and taken to Aiken County Jail just after 1 a.m. on charges of aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude. Murray had just been released from jail in Duval County, Florida, on April 6 after being arrested last month for an outstanding warrant related to a traffic violation.
On Tuesday night, Father Robert’s blue 2012 Toyota Corolla was spotted driving along State Road 207. When police attempted to stop the vehicle, the driver refused to pull over and led officers on a high-speed chase towards Jacksonville. The driver, later identified as Murray, managed to lose them in heavy traffic near I-95.
As reported by News 4 Jax, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office issued an arrest warrant for Murray on charges related to the high-speed chase.
Deputies from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office went to looking for the suspect at his last known address, the Stars Rest Inn in Jacksonville. Witnesses at the hotel told police they saw someone recently that fit Murray’s description.
“I seen him a couple a day ago walking down the road,” said one woman who wished to remain anonymous. “He didn’t seem like the type of person who would do that.”
The Toyota was again spotted in Aiken, South Carolina, on Wednesday night, but as authorities approached the vehicle, Murray sped off. Shortly thereafter, the suspect crashed into a tree and fled on foot.
Several members of the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, SWAT teams, search dogs, and the U.S. Marshals Service launched an intensive search of the surrounding area. Murray was later captured and arrested.
Murray has had several past encounters with law enforcement. He has been arrested several times over the past 10 years on charges involving larceny, violation of probation, and illegal possession of a firearm. In 2012, he was accused of selling stolen property and giving false information to a pawn shop.
The last anyone heard from Father Rene Robert was through a Facebook post just after 1 p.m. Sunday. He wrote that he was visiting a friend at the Orange Park Medical Center. The priest failed to show up to a prayer service on Monday and was scheduled to perform a funeral Tuesday night.
Roberts was reported missing Tuesday afternoon. Police officers went out to his home but did not find anything out of the ordinary, according to Commander Chuck Mulligan with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. However, after another report about the missing priest from church officials, authorities escalated the case.
“Well, he’s 71-years-old. When they become elderly, the first thought was, was it health related?” said Kathleen Bagg, the director of communications for the Diocese of St. Augustine. “We’re just very concerned.”
According to people who know Father Robert, it is highly unusual for the priest to leave town and not mention it to anyone. On Wednesday, his home was blocked off with police tape while detectives sealed the doors and windows. A note was left on the door for Roberts to contact the police if he returns.
“I know his medications were still there,” neighbor Scott Chipman said. “His ice pack for his back was still laying in the bed. There was a half-eaten sandwich on the counter, and a drink sitting there, just left there.”
Other neighbors hope Robert is found quickly, and the diocese is praying for his safe return. A candlelight vigil is being held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday night at Sacred Heart Church.
Police believe Father Rene Robert is in danger and suspect foul play in his disappearance. Investigators said the missing priest knew Steven James Murray through his church ministry and was providing help and counseling services to the ex-convict.
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Robert is urged to call the Sheriff’s Office at 904-824-8304.
[Photo by Aiken County Sheriff’s Office via AP Images]