Murder charge filed in case of missing priest from Florida

Published: Updated:
St. John’s County Sheriff / MGN

ATLANTA (AP) – Georgia authorities have filed a murder charge against a man described as a “career criminal” who led authorities to a body believed to be that of a missing Florida priest, a law enforcement official said Thursday.

Steve James Murray, 28, of Jacksonville, Florida, has been charged with murder in Georgia, said Scott Dutton, a spokesman with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

An autopsy found that the victim – believed to be the Rev. Rene Wayne Robert of St. Augustine, Florida – was shot multiple times, Dutton said.

Robert had dedicated his life to working with prisoners and society’s downtrodden, a calling police said put him in contact with his killer. Robert may have been trying to help Murray, who was recently released from jail, authorities have said.

“There are more details through interviews that will hopefully clarify some of those issues,” Dutton said.

As he was led from a Georgia courthouse on Wednesday, Murray told news reporters that he’s “very sorry” and asked for forgiveness.

“If anybody really loves Father Rene, they’ll forgive me because he was a man of God and forgiveness is forgiveness,” he said in video aired by local TV stations.

In response to a reporter’s question about what happened, Murray said “I have mental problems, and I lost control of myself and I apologize.”

Another reporter asked Murray specifically what he did, and Murray did not elaborate as authorities placed him inside a waiting car outside the courthouse.

The body was found in a heavily wooded area of Burke County, in east Georgia, where Murray is being held without bond, Dutton said. Police say Murray led authorities to the body.

Murray was arrested April 13 in Aiken, S.C., while driving the priest’s Toyota Corolla. Investigators believe Robert was killed the evening of April 10.

Murray had several guns, including a double-barrel shotgun, a pump-action rifle and several BB guns, according to the arrest warrant from South Carolina. Murray also had jewelry, cash, medication and merchandise that had been reported stolen, it states.

Robert, 71, a Roman Catholic priest, was reported missing April 12 after not showing up for an appointment. He was a priest for the Diocese of St. Augustine.

Authorities believe the suspect kidnapped the priest, took him to Georgia in his own car and killed him there, but the motive for the killing remains unclear. It’s believed Robert was introduced to Murray by a young woman the priest had been counseling.

In Florida, St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar called Murray a “career criminal.” He was released from the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville on April 6 following a March 22 arrest for operating a vehicle with a suspended license. Shoar said Murray also broke into homes in South Carolina before his arrest.

All indications are that the body found is that of the missing priest, but Dutton said the medical examiner will await dental records from Florida before making the identification absolutely certain.

“A lot of that has to do with the condition of the body when it was recovered,” he said, adding that warm weather in Georgia and the location where the priest was found could have contributed to decomposition.

Shoar, the Florida sheriff, knew Robert from the priest’s ministry to prison inmates.

“He was out there ministering to people everyone else gave up on: prostitutes, convicts, drug addicts,” Shoar said in an article for the Diocese of St. Augustine. “When I warned him, he told me, ‘I am doing what God is telling me to do,’ and I believed him. He died doing what he loved.”

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