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Body of missing priest found in Burke County, Georgia

Suspect told investigators where to find body

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The body of a priest missing for more than a week was found Monday in a wooded area in Burke County, Georgia, St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said.

Investigators believe Father Rene Robert was killed sometime between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday, April 10 in the state of Georgia and his body left in a wooded area south of Augusta.

Robert, 71, as last seen April 10 and was reported missing after a funeral the next day. His car was found last week crashed into a tree in Aiken, South Carolina, and the man named a suspect in his disappearance, Steven Murray, was arrested nearby. He was extradited to St. Johns County on charges of aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude law enforcement.

"The suspect reached out to a detective and began sharing information," Shoar said at a news conference Monday night. "He wanted to tell us where the body was."

Murray will likely face charges of first-degree murder in Georgia and kidnapping in Jacksonville, Shoar said. 

"I know Father Rene was one of the better angels," Shoar said. "I just wish we had better news tonight. I honestly wish we had better news tonight."

Robert's sister and brother also attended the news conference Monday evening.

"My brother died doing what he loved -- helping people," said Deborah Bedard, Robert's younger sister. "He had a lot of friends and I thank everyone."

Bryan Robert, the priest's brother, said, "I can't forgive him (Murray). My brother may. My brother may be mad at me when (it) gets to him, but I'm not going to forgive him. Hopefully we can do something to eliminate this in the future."

Shoar said even though a large portion of the investigation has been completed, there is still a lot of work left to do in the case. Investigators have not yet determined the motive in Robert's killing or how many trips Murray took to Aiken before he was captured. 

“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. 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," he said. “This complex investigation, that spanned three states and numerous counties, revealed an exemplary cooperation between many investigators and departments.”

Search in Jacksonville

More than a week after Robert disappeared, efforts to find the missing Catholic priest spread continued, but not at the scale that was seen over the weekend.

On Saturday and Sunday, the Jacksonville and St Johns County sheriff’s offices, along with a Jacksonville Fire-Rescue search team, divers and a helicopter, searched a large area near Baldwin and urged residents to report any disturbed earth or other suspicious items on their property.

Crews spent the weekend searching a large area on the Westside, bordered by I-10, Beaver Street, I-295 and Baldwin, then announced Sunday night they were scaling back the large-scale search.

Capturing a fugitive

Robert's blue 2012 Toyota four-door with a Florida Special Olympics tag of SBA594 was discovered in Aiken about 8 p.m. Wednesday, Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan said. 

A few hours later, a woman in South Carolina said she recognized Murray when he knocked on her door just after midnight Thursday, telling her and her husband to let him in.

“It was like 12:15, maybe a little later last night,” Sandra “Charlie” Ford said. “We got a knock on the door. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ But my husband -- nobody ever bothers us around here -- so my husband automatically went to the door to open the door, and I looked out -- something kept telling me to look out the window -- and I looked out the window right here and I saw him. And I was like, ‘Oh my God! That is the guy that is on the news.’ I said, 'Do not open that door.' And he was telling us to let him in. And I told my husband, 'Do not let him in.' So we called the cops and the cops came down here.”

Murray was arrested near Ford's home within 10 minutes of her call at the intersection of Nautilus Road and Crab Trail. He had crashed a car belonging to Robert, 71, in the woods nearby after being spotted by deputies in South Carolina. In a photo provided by WRDW, Murray can be seen smiling as he is taken away after his capture.

Shoar said there were multiple weapons in the abandoned Toyota, which was found not far from where Murray was hiding from police. Shoar, who personally knows Robert, said that was very troubling to him.

"He threatened to kill as many cops as he could, and when you're out there in the middle of the woods and you've got a guy that's in there with rifles and scopes, it's certainly not a great position to be in," Shoar said. "But Aiken County did a tremendous job."

Mulligan said Robert had been helping Murray, who was recently released from jail.

Murray's has been arrested numerous times since 2005 on charges including larceny, violation of probation and unlawful possession of a firearm.

Murray was extradited from Aiken then booked into the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office Friday night.

He's being held without bail, according to jail records.

Manhunt in missing priest case

Robert's Toyota was spotted Tuesday night after the priest was reported missing, Mulligan said Wednesday. Deputies attempted to pull the driver over on State Road 207, but he refused to stop and led them on a high-speed chase into Jacksonville. Officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office took over the chase, but lost the car in heavy traffic in construction zones near I-95 and JTB, Mulligan said.

Deputies believe the driver was Murray, who lives in Jacksonville.

Murray was not in Robert's car when it was found in Aiken Wednesday evening, but deputies with the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, SWAT teams, bloodhounds and the U.S. marshals were called to search the area for Murray.

Neighbors had concerns

A post on Robert's Facebook page on Sunday at 1:05 p.m. said he was visiting a friend at the Orange Park Medical Center. Shoar said their are indications Robert did visit someone at the hospital, but the timeline after that is what deputies are working to piece together.

One woman on Facebook commented that he was supposed to perform a funeral for her grandfather Tuesday night and also missed a prayer service Monday.

Robert was reported missing Tuesday afternoon, and deputies performed a welfare check at his home and found nothing suspicious, Mulligan said. Church officials later called to report Robert missing an appointment, which escalated the case further, Mulligan said.

One woman on Facebook commented that he was supposed to perform a funeral for her grandfather Tuesday night and also missed a prayer service Monday.

Robert was reported missing Tuesday afternoon, and deputies performed a welfare check at his home and found nothing suspicious, Mulligan said. Church officials later called to report Robert missing an appointment, which escalated the case further, Mulligan said.

Investigators said it's uncharacteristic of Robert to leave without telling anyone he would be gone.