Missing priest's car found in South Carolina

Steven Murray is person of interest in disappearance of Father Rene Robert

Father Rene Robert (left) and Steven James Murray (right)
Father Rene Robert (left) and Steven James Murray (right)

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – A car belonging to a missing 71-year-old St. Johns County priest was recovered in Aiken, South Carolina late Wednesday afternoon, authorities said.

Deputies suspect foul play in the disappearance of Father Rene Robert, who was last seen about 1 p.m. Sunday, according to the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.

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 told News4Jax. 

Mulligan said Robert had been helping a man named Steven James Murray, 28, who was recently released from jail.

Robert's Toyota was spotted Tuesday night after the priest was reported missing, Mulligan said. 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. He lost them in heavy traffic in construction zones near I-95 and JTB, Mulligan said.

Deputies believe the driver was Murray, who lives in Jacksonville. He is now considered a person of interest in Robert's disappearance.

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, who was later caught and taken into custody.

SJCSO has obtained an arrest warrant for Murray on a charge of aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude. 

Robert is considered endangered, Mulligan said.

Detectives from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office seen at the Stars Rest Inn on Lane Avenue near I-295 Wednesday evening said they were there as part of the investigation into Robert's disappearance. The Westside hotel is one of the addresses police had listed for Murray.

JSO said the detectives were responding to reports Murray might have been recently seen at the hotel.

A woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, told News4Jax she recently saw Murray.

"I seen him a couple a day ago walking down the road," she said.

The woman said she couldn't believe Murray would be involved in something like this.

"He didn't seem like the type of person who would do that. He and his girls are real sweet," she said. 

Murray was released from Duval County Jail on April 6 after being arrested in March for failure to appear in court for a traffic citation. He was previously charged with failure to appear in 2015 and with burglary, dealing in stolen property and giving false information to a pawn shop in 2012. All of Murray's previous arrests were in Duval County.

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. 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.

"Well, he's 71-years-old. When they become elderly, the first thought was, was it health related?" said Kathleen Bagg, director of communications for the Diocese of St. Augustine. "We're just very concerned."

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

"Saturday afternoon I saw Father Rene out here speaking with the neighbors. Then I believe it was Sunday evening that the Sheriff's Department started looking," neighbor Scott Chipman said. "I noticed sheriff's cars out here then. Then Monday they came up asking me if I'd seen him. Normally he tells me when he goes out of town for a day or three days or a week. That's pretty much all I know."

Robert is described as a 5-foot-8 white man. He wears eyeglasses.

Robert's house was blocked off with crime scene tape on Wednesday and the windows and doors were secured. A note tucked under a cross on his front door read, "Call me ASAP. Everyone is looking for you."

"I know his medications were still there," 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. I mean it doesn't look good to me."

Neighbors told News4Jax on Wednesday that they are very concerned and hope Robert is found safe quickly.

"(He's a) great guy, very helpful," Chipman said. "He’d bring me food from the little church events. He always tried to get me to go to church, but I’m so busy with work and everything. We share Internet (service). We just look out for each other. I did a lot of things, like help him fix stuff or move stuff and stuff like that around his house."

Bagg said the diocese has a prayer chain going for Robert.

Joseph Brzezewski, who's deaf, has known Robert since the 1980s. 

Brzezewski said the two met when Brzezewski was a student at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. He told News4Jax by phone, through a translator, that he's very worried.

"Having known him for a long time, I think the community should be giving back to someone who’s been important to a mass of deaf people, a large group of deaf people," Brzezewski said. 

Brzezewski set up the Pray for Father Rene Robert Facebook page. He's also helping plan a candlelight vigil for Friday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Augustine.

"I wanted the community, the deaf community, to show our love and the vigil, the candlelight vigil, means that we will have whatever people want to live and keep him safe and pray for him," Brzezewski said. 

Anyone with information on Robert's whereabouts is asked to contact the Sheriff's Office at 904-824-8304.

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