Rev. Rene Robert was a priest as likely to be seen in a Yankees cap as he was in robes. By nature, the 71-year-old was laid back and cheerful, and his job was performed all the better because he was so.
Robert ministered to the disenfranchised and dismissed: he was pastor at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, he served the homeless in St. Augustine, Fla., and prayed with convicts in prison.
It was this last outreach, police say, that made Robert a murder victim.
Following a weeklong search across state borders, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office announced at a press conference Monday that the priest’s body was found in rural Burke County, Ga. It was clear that he was murdered, and authorities suspect that the culprit was someone he knew — someone who was, in fact, a member of the community he had been devoted to helping.
“He did prison ministry, and unfortunately in this case it seems to have come back against him,” Rev. John Gillepsie, a fellow priest in the Diocese of St. Augustine, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.
While Robert willingly entered settings that others considered dangerous, Gillepsie said, he never thought that he was “putting himself in harm’s way.”
According to Gillepsie, “That phrase didn’t exist in Rene’s vocabulary.”
Otherwise, Robert’s lexicon was rich. He was fluent in Spanish and American Sign Language, and filled his Facebook page with artwork depicting the sign for “I love you.” He was active on the social networking site, posting frequent updates about masses that he attended, and sharing almost daily messages of prayer.
When the updates abruptly stopped, authorities knew there was reason to be suspicious.
Robert was last seen on April 10, the same date of his last Facebook post. The following day, he missed a funeral. When police arrived at his house to perform a welfare check two days later, Robert’s car, a blue Toyota emblazoned with a Florida Special Olympics tag, was gone.
All this amounted to “uncharacteristic [behavior] and not in keeping with his normal activities,” police said, and a search began in full force.
Last Wednesday, police spotted Robert’s car along Interstate 95. A chase ensued, but the driver, identified as 28-year-old Steven Murray, allegedly evaded capture through a construction zone. The car was found the next day in a wooded area in Aiken, S.C., and Murray was arrested nearby. He has so far only been charged with aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude, but police believe he is guilty of far worse.
It was Murray, they say, who led them to the body.
Robert’s remains were found on Monday evening in rural Georgia. St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar told reporters that Murray will likely be charged with first-degree murder in the coming days.
Shoar’s voice cracked with emotion during the press conference. Robert had been a dear friend, one who performed weddings in the sheriff’s family and baptized children of his extended relatives.
Nancy O’Byrne, a St. Johns County resident, told the St. Augustine Record that Robert was often the only clergy to attend “execution vigils” on days when an execution was scheduled in the state. He was a strong opponent of the death penalty.
“Father was a gentle soul,” Shoar said. “A Franciscan, he always wore sandals no matter how cold it was out…Father Rene was certainly one of our better angels.”
But the same compassion that drove Robert’s life’s work may have also led to his demise.
“We believe Murray took advantage of his kindness,” St. Johns Sheriff’s Commander Chuck Mulligan told CNN.
Shoar told the AP that Robert met Murray through a young woman he was counseling who “warned the father about this guy.”
“We talked about that,” Shoar said, “that over the years that he’d go out in the middle of the night and help people and give them money. People who had just gotten out of jail.”
Murray, who was described by Shoar as a “career criminal,” had been out of jail just four days when Robert disappeared. He was previously arrested for operating a vehicle with a suspended license for breaking into homes in South Carolina. When police found him, he had multiple guns in his possession, Shoar said.
It is unclear whether Murray has a lawyer, according to the AP.
Bishop Felipe Estevez of the Diocese of St. Augustine released a statement Tuesday paying tribute to Robert’s memory.
“[Father Rene] shared his many gifts with the poor, the deaf community and with individuals whose lives have found themselves in jail or imprisoned,” Estevez wrote. “He put his faith into action through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.”
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