Now Steven Murray, 28, is in jail cracking wise after surrendering. “Smile for the camera,” he snickered later in Aiken County court and jabbing at police, “Y’all got some slow dogs.”
St. Johns County Sheriff’s are more interested in hearing Murray explain what happened to Father Rene Robert, missing since Sunday.
“Father Robert was assisting Mr. Murray in some capacity,” St. Johns County Sheriff’s Commander Chuck Mulligan told The Daily Beast, citing the priest’s counsel to the Jacksonville-based man who whose rap sheet includes weapons possession and larceny. (Robert’s name is pronounced ROW-bear.)
“They met through a female individual who was released from our local jail and Father Robert was also ministering her,” Mulligan said. “She made the introduction to Mr. Murray and he was helping this individual.”
It’s unclear how long Fr. Robert was ministering the Murray, a recidivist thief.
“As a Franciscan like Pope Francis, he reaches out to the poor and most in need and offers care for animals in our community,” Kathy Bagg, St. Augustine Diocese spokeswoman said. “He has a huge heart. He gains strength and spirit from the people he serves.”
Authorities think Robert’s life is in danger.
“We believe foul play his involved,” Mulligan said. “Something is not right with this storyline… We don’t believe he disappeared on his own.”
Since 1980, Father Robert has served the St. Augustine Diocese and been a force for good throughout northern Florida by making tireless visits at hospital bedsides, funerals, and jail cells.
The 71-year-old retired Roman Catholic posted often on social media everything from inspiring scriptures to touchy-feely snapshots of his rescued kitten Boots.
So at 1:05 p.m. on Sunday when Robert posted that he was “visiting a patient” at the Orange Park Medical Center, it was just another holy moment for the holy man.
Authorities told The Daily Beast the priest was last seen by a neighbor of his apartment leaving in his dark blue Toyota Corolla car sometime around 5 p.m.
Father Robert hasn’t posted since.
“He was supposed to be at a funeral on Tuesday,” Bagg said. “We’re very worried about his welfare at this point as it has been since Sunday that anybody has seen him.”
Taking off without giving notice is completely out of Robert’s character.
“He has never left here without letting someone know,” Bagg said of the New York native who adopted St. Augustine as his home decades ago. “His car was taken by this individual and we don’t know his whereabouts even as of today is very concerning to us.”
On Tuesday evening, an eagle-eyed St. Johns, Florida detective spotted Robert’s missing Corolla.
The detective approached the car, whose Special Olympics tags were suspiciously scrapped, and flicked on his cruiser’s blue light pack.
Murray peeled off, navigating through a construction zone on I-95 and taking St. Johns responders into neighboring Duval County.
“We chased the car at high-speeds across the county line,” Mulligan said. “It was his vehicle but it was not the type of behavior that we would expect from Fr. Robert. Something was amiss.”
Murray managed to drive 300 miles north to Aiken, South Carolina where bloodhounds and SWAT members tracked him down after a tipster informed them he was in the neighborhood.
According to an Aiken County Sheriff’s release, Murray was spotted at around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday fleeing from the priest’s crash scene the woods “and then ran on foot before they could catch him.”
As Murray surrendered, a neighbor popping out of his home to see about the hullabaloo told a WRDW reporter Murray was “singing…like a madman” and “smiling.”
The fugitive has been charged with aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude and [in the case of a missing person] signed a waiver to not fight extradition back to Florida.
“He has connections in Aiken,” Cmrd. Mulligan said. “He also has family connections in Jacksonville.”
The hope is that Murray will come clean and help them pinpoint the priest’s location.
“He has the opportunity to help,” Mulligan.
The diocese that serves over 160,000 faithful are coming together to reinforce the hope that the holy man hasn’t been harmed.
“Prayer is part of our community and we have to stay positive,” Bagg said. “We’re praying for his safe return.”