JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A man indicted in the killing of a popular St. Augustine priest last year has agreed to plead guilty in a Georgia court in exchange for a sentence of life without parole, according to a the Diocese of St. Augustine and the victim's sister.
A sentencing hearing for Steven Murray is scheduled for Oct. 18 in Waynesboro, Georgia. The plea agreement will allow Murray to escape the death penalty -- which prosecutors had vowed to seek against him, despite his victim's adamant opposition to the death penalty.
Murray is accused of kidnapping Father Rene Robert, killing him and dumping his body in Georgia in April 2016.
At the time of his murder, Robert helped troubled men -- often people with criminal records -- get back on their feet. Murray was one of the men Robert was helping.
Robert's sister, Deborah Bedard, confirmed to News4Jax that she was contacted by the district attorney, who told her Murray will be changing his plea to guilty in the case. The district attorney did not confirm the development when reached for comment.
"My message for him is I hope he sees my brother's face every day. I hope a day does not go by knowing what he has done and how he has affected all our lives," Bedard said of Murray. "I feel this weight has been lifted off my shoulders and we're very happy."
She said Robert was a gentle soul and a gentleman, and she wants to know why Murray killed him.
"My brother and I have been praying for this -- my other brother, Brian, we've been praying for this, because my brother, Father Rene, was so against the death penalty," Bedard said. "I'm glad he's getting life in prison without parole."
Parishioners at San Sebastian Catholic Church, where Robert last worked, were also relieved, saying this is what Robert would have wanted for his killer.
Diocese officials said they released the information Thursday about Murray's plea change to draw attention to Thursday night's scheduled execution of Florida inmate Michael Lambrix. The church has appeald to the governor to commute the sentence for Lambrix.
Murder of a priest
Investigators said Robert was last seen about 1 p.m. on April 10, 2016. Sometime after that, prosecutors said, Murray asked for permission, then borrowed Robert’s car and got the priest to ride with him.
Murray finally told Robert they were leaving the state and heading to Murray’s hometown to see his children, prosecutors said.
On April 11, investigators said Murray was denied access to his 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, who live in Aiken County, South Carolina.
That’s when Murray made Robert get in the trunk of his own car, according to prosecutors.
“While (Robert was) in the trunk, Murray committed multiple burglaries, stealing primarily firearms. Some of the homes he burglarized were people he knew, however, not all of them,” Assistant District Attorney Joanna Mastney said.
Eventually, they came to Highway 56, near River Road in Burke County, Georgia, where prosecutors said Murray got Robert out of the trunk, shot him and left him dead on April 11, 2016, and then returned to Florida.
Murray is also charged with aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude deputies in St. Johns County after a high-speed chase into Jacksonville on April 12, where police lost Murray. A few days after he was arrested in Aiken County, South Carolina, and returned to St. Augustine, investigators said Murray began to cooperate with them, leading them to the priest’s body on April 18.
In Aiken, South Carolina, where police say he crashed Robert’s car, Murray faces charges of grand larceny and unlawful possession of a firearm.
Since his arrest in late April, Murray has been held without bond.
“I am pleased an agreement has been reached between the State of Georgia and Steven Murray,” said Bishop Felipe Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine.
He said Murray deserves to be punished for the brutal murder of Robert.
“This decision is just and will help Father Robert’s loved ones find closure without the anguish of enduring years of court proceedings,” Estévez said.
Estevez described Robert as a merciful servant of God who ministered to anyone in need, including men and women who were incarcerated and considered to be dangerous. He strongly opposed capital punishment and in 1995 left a signed Declaration of Life with his personal records declaring that should he become a victim of a homicide, he does not want those convicted of his crime executed no matter how heinous the crime or how much he may have suffered.