Murder charge filed in case of missing Florida priest

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Father Rene Robert of St. Augustine, Florida, was last seen on April 10, 2016. Photo courtesy St. Johns Co. Sheriff's Office via CNN.

By Emanuella Grinberg


(CNN) — A charge of malice murder was filed Wednesday against a Florida man who led police to remains believed to be those of a missing priest, a Georgia sheriff said.

Rev. Rene Robert, 71, was last seen alive on April 10 in his St. Augustine, Florida, apartment. Police focused on Steven James Murray after he led police on a car chase in Robert’s car.

Murray was arrested last week in Aiken, South Carolina. On Monday, he led detectives to remains in neighboring Burke County, Georgia.

Because of the condition of the body, investigators were unable to positively confirm in an autopsy that it is Robert, Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey said. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is awaiting dental records to make a positive confirmation, Coursey said.

The cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds, he said without elaborating on the body’s condition.

The disappearance of the beloved cleric touched off a search spanning multiple jurisdictions. Here’s how the search unfolded:

Tuesday, April 12: The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office checked on Robert after church officials reported he missed a funeral — “uncharacteristic and not in keeping with his normal activities,” the department said in a Facebook post. A neighbor told police Robert was last seen on April 10 in his apartment. His car, a 2012 blue Toyota four-door with a Florida Special Olympics tag, also was missing.

Wednesday, April 13: Authorities identified Murray, 28, after he allegedly was spotted in Robert’s car Tuesday night in Florida. Police lost Murray during a car chase near a construction zone on Interstate 95 in Duval County, Florida, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said. Detectives obtained an arrest warrant for Murray on a charge of aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude.

Later Wednesday, Robert’s car was found in Aiken.

Thursday, April 14: Murray was arrested early Thursday in a wooded area close to where Robert’s car was found. Murray lives in South Carolina, but he knew the priest through family in Florida, St. Johns sheriff’s Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan said.

“We believe Murray took advantage of his kindness,” Mulligan said.

St. Johns Sheriff David Shoar, who knew Robert through weddings and baptisms the priest performed for relatives, assured the community that multiple jurisdictions were working to find Robert.

Saturday, April 16: The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office joined St. Johns County in searching for Robert. The department appealed to people in the I-10/Beaver Street corridor between Baldwin and I-295 to check their property thoroughly.

Monday, April 18: Murray led authorities to the remains in Georgia, according to police.

“I join many others within our community who were touched by Father Rene over the years and extend my condolences to his family and friends,” Shoar said.

“He will be sorely missed. I am confident that all of the investigators will continue their hard work in seeking a successful prosecution of this heinous act.”

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