Father Rene Robert had been missing for more than a week before his body was discovered in rural Georgia on Monday night. The main suspect in the case, Steven Murray, has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the priest’s death.
An autopsy performed on Tuesday confirmed the priest died from multiple gunshot wounds and dental records from Florida have verified the body’s identity as Father Rene Robert. It was Murray that led police to the area where the body was found.
As previously reported by the Inquisitr, the last time anyone heard from Father Robert was through a Facebook post on April 10. The next day, the 71-year-old cleric failed to show up for a scheduled funeral, which prompted a call to police from church officials.
When police arrived at his Florida home, they found nothing amiss, except Robert’s 2012 blue Toyota Corolla was not there. Since it is atypical for the missing priest to leave town without giving notice, police launched a large-scale search for him.
“Robert’s disappearance is uncharacteristic and it is believed that foul play is suspected,” the St. Johns Sheriff’s Department said last week.
On April 13, police spotted the Toyota driving on Interstate 95 heading toward Jacksonville. After a short pursuit, the driver, believed to be Steven Murray, managed to escape officers in a construction zone.
A day later, police in Aiken, South Carolina, discovered the vehicle hidden in a wooded area with multiple guns, including a rifle, stashed inside. After being tracked by bloodhounds, officers caught up with Murray hiding nearby and arrested him. The fugitive was extradited to Florida and booked for aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude.
With the help of Murray, investigators unearthed Robert’s remains about a half-mile from the road in rural Waynesboro, Georgia. Officials said Murray knew the missing priest and may have taken “advantage of his kindness.”
Father Rene Robert was well known within the community as someone willing to help those labeled as society’s downtrodden, even counseling death row inmates in their final moments of life. Unfortunately, close friends and family believe this dedication put him in contact with his killer.
“He did prison ministry, and unfortunately in this case it seems to have come back against him,” said the Rev. John Gillespie, a fellow priest in the Diocese of St. Augustine in Florida. “Putting himself in harm’s way. That phrase didn’t exist in Rene’s vocabulary.”
While not necessarily violent, 28-year-old Steven Murray has a long criminal history spanning over 10 years. He has been arrested on several occasions for charges related to larceny, violation of probation, and illegal possession of a firearm.
The “career criminal” had only been released from a Duval County, Florida, jail four days prior to Robert’s disappearance. A young woman receiving counseling from Robert most likely introduced Murray to the priest.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Murray pleaded for forgiveness and told reports that mental illness caused him to lose control. He is currently in the custody of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Born Richard Wayne Robert, the priest grew up in New York City. In 1962, he took Franciscan vows and became Brother Rene Robert.
Debra Bedard, Robert’s sister, flew to Florida from New York to help with the investigation. While deeply saddened by the news that her brother was killed, she is happy to have some closure.
“My brother died doing what he loved, helping people,” she said.
Authorities think Steven Murray abducted Father Rene Robert and took him to Georgia, then killed him sometime between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday, April 10. However, as of yet, they do not have any definitive motive for the crimes.
[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]