JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – A Jacksonville Beach woman said she was not surprised to learn one of her former students went before a judge Wednesday afternoon and admitted murdering a beloved St. Augustine priest.
Steven Murray, 30, pleaded guilty in Burke County, Georgia, to kidnapping and killing Father Rene Robert and then dumping the priest's body in Georgia in April 2016. The plea agreement allowed Murray to escape the death penalty in exchange for life in prison without parole.
On Wednesday, News4Jax sat down with Carmen Rachels, who was one of Murray's grade school teachers. She said she's not surprised he did it.
"I didn't go, 'Oh my God. What has he done?'" Rachels said. "I just went, kind of, 'Aw, Steven.'"
Rachels said she saw Murray's picture in the paper and knew immediately that he was the tough fourth grader she taught in the 1980s at Jefferson Elementary School near Aiken, South Carolina.
"A lot of my kids have ended up with a life of crime because they don't make good decisions," she said. "Decision-making skill is a definite weakness with that low IQ."
Rachels told News4Jax that Murray was in her class for the intellectually disabled, saying he had a mild intellectual disability with a low IQ and was different than the other children.
"He would have been belligerent, not wanting to work, didn't get along with the other kids," Rachels said.
Rachels said he would talk back to adults and swear, which was shocking for a child that age, especially back then.
"I wouldn't say he ever fought with any of the adults," she said. "But it was hard having kids that were so respectful, and having him, already at that age, following that track."
Rachels worked in Aiken, teaching special education classes for 33 years. She said many of her students were from proverty, and some were from troubled families.
"So many of my kids ended up, you know, with bank robberies, fights and in the newspaper for things like that," Rachels said. "I'd never really seen a murder before, but it didn't really take me aback."
She clearly remembers Murray as being streetwise at a young age -- trying to be tough, yet a follower.
Rachels pointed to the first video of Murray at an extradition hearing in April 2016, showing him smiling and waving at news cameras before leaving the courtroom. She said that's an indication of low self-esteem, which is common in his disability.
He will no doubt be happier behind bars, Murray's former teacher said.
"He may have a better life in prison. When he was 11, and in the DJJ (Department of Juvenile Justice) for the first time he said he loved it. Why? Electricity, structure, probably a good meal three times a day," Rachels said. "It's a sad story for me. But .. it doesn't take my breath away because of what I've seen over the years and what I know."
News4Jax asked Rachels if she thinks Murray is remorseful for kidnapping and killing Robert. She said she truly thinks he feels bad about it now, and that he felt bad right after, but thinks he simply didn't know what to do when he kidnapped the priest.
The prosecutor in Wednesday's hearing backed up what Rachels told News4Jax about Murray's troubled childhood. The prosecutor said Murray's father taught his son to do drugs and it was a home filled with abuse for years.