Detectives are trying to determine what happened to a missing 71-year-old Catholic priest following the Aiken County arrest of a Jacksonville man who fled to South Carolina in the priest’s car.
Dozens of law enforcement officers worked Thursday to find any link 28-year-old Steven James Murray had to the disappearance of the Rev. Rene Wayne Robert, a senior priest who served in a limited capacity as a retiree at San Sebastian and St. Anastasia parishes in St. Augustine.
A somber St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said the case may have a chilling conclusion.
Shoar officially called Murray -- a former Midland Valley High student -- a suspect, saying there “is evidence of a crime but what that crime is … we have to be very careful releasing stuff.
“It has been painful on a personal and professional level that he has been missing, and all indications are the ending for this may not be what we hope and pray that it will be,” Shoar said.
South Carolina investigators were warned Murray was likely armed, and Shoar confirmed Thursday that a rifle and scope were found in the car among multiple firearms.
“He threatened to kill as many cops as he could,” Shoar said. “… Aiken County did a tremendous job.”
During his arrest, Murray was smiling and singing as he was put in a squad car, a witness told a South Carolina television station. The man said Murray was urging people to take his picture and that he was claiming to be “sexy.”
In his extradition hearing, Murray exclaimed, “Let’s ride” when the session was over. He is charged with fleeing from St. Johns deputies in the apparently stolen car.
Records and social media postings describe Murray as a small-time criminal with burglary and bad driving arrests, an itinerant tree service worker who had at least one child. Addresses connected to arrest reports put him all over Jacksonville, from almost the Clay County line to near Nassau.
Murray apparently met the priest as part of Robert’s outreach to individuals, including those who were out of work or just out of jail.
Murray had just been released from the Duval County jail April 6 following a March 22 arrest for operating a vehicle with a suspended license and failure to appear, according to records.
Shoar said they are still trying to clarify how Murray and Robert met.
“I would characterize it as a short-term relationship.” Shoar said. “... There could have been a third person that they knew.”
Neighbor Scott Chipman said he fist recalled seeing Murray with the priest about six months ago. He said he often came and disappeared for periods only to return again.
He did return again.
Chipman said he was startled when he went outside at 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning and saw Murray standing on the doorstep to Robert’s apartment smoking a cigarette. Upon being seen, he said Murray then walked around toward the end of the building and disappeared into the darkness.
In the years of being neighbors, Chipman and Robert forged a strong friendship built on trust and support.
Where Robert lacked skills — on the computer — Chipman stepped in to coach him. And when Chipman was hungry, the priest was there to help.
Each had a key to one another’s home.
“I sure hope they find him,” Chipman said.
Robert was reported missing Tuesday when church officials were concerned that he uncharacteristically missed an appointment.
Robert’s Facebook page says he was visiting a patient at 1 p.m. Sunday at Orange Park Medical Center, then had brunch with friends after going to Mass with them at St. Edward’s Catholic Chapel at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Shoar confirmed that Robert did make it to the medical center for his visit and had been seen later Sunday evening.
Nothing seemed amiss at the priest’s Old Moultrie Road apartment in St. Augustine, said Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan.
A note has been tacked behind a cross on Robert’s door for days begging Robert to call as soon as he gets home because police and many others have been looking for him.
Detectives learned Murray was among those who was being ministered to by the priest just days ago.
The priest’s blue Toyota was spotted with Murray behind the wheel about 10 p.m. Tuesday, Mulligan said. He led police on a high-speed chase from County Road 207 into Jacksonville, but the car disappeared in heavy traffic in an Interstate 95 and Butler Boulevard construction zone.
Wednesday the U.S. Marshals Service received a tip that Murray was in the Aiken, S.C. area, where he grew up, around 4 p.m., according to Augusta, Ga., television station WRDW-TV. There, after yet another high-speed chase, Murray ditched the car and raced off into the woods before being caught, deputies told the station. Murray was booked into jail about 12:45 a.m. Thursday.
Mulligan said their detectives arrived in South Carolina about the time Murray was arrested on a St. Johns County aggravated fleeing and attempting to elude warrant.
“The suspect is in custody so we are doing all we can to narrow time lines,” Shoar said. “There is a lot of real estate between here and Aiken and I am praying and hoping that we get some closure on that in the next 24 hours, but if we don’t it won’t be for lack of trying.”
Arrest records show Murray was born in Augusta and went to Midland Valley High School across the state line nearby.
He lived recently in a house on Jacksonville’s Victoria Lakes subdivision on the city’s Northside and at a Lane Avenue motel near Interstate-10 where the location is convenient for truckers. No one Thursday at those addresses or others linked to Murray in Jacksonville said they knew him.
His Jacksonville arrest record includes a failure to appear Dec. 29 and an August 2012 arrest for burglary, dealing in stolen property, false verification of ownership and a fugitive warrant of extradition from Augusta. That 2012 arrest netted him an eight-month sentence.
His multiple arrests in South Carolina include charges of burglary, larceny, grand larceny and parole violations. In 2007 he was charged with carrying a gun into a South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles office.
His work record shows he was employed by a variety of tree service companies in Jacksonville. A man who answered the phone at a service contacted by the Times-Union Thursday said he knew Murray but was not going to discuss anything about him.
Social media posts on a Steven Murray Facebook page portray him as a proud father and include pictures of a baby.
In September 2011, he wrote in awkward but seemingly sincere prose, “i love my baby … just hope life will guide me and my baby in the right path.”
Shoar said Robert, a member of the Franciscan order who the sheriff has known since the 1980s, has an active prison ministry and he reached out to help anyone in need.
“He really took that calling to heart,” he said.
Shoar said Robert was well-known for sending out money orders to those in need. And when he was low on cash, he at time hit the Sheriff’s Office up for money to help.
Robert came to the St. Augustine area in 1980 as a Franciscan friar. He became a friar in 1962.
In 1989, he was ordained as a priest. Several years later as the Franciscans were called away to another area, Robert had to make the difficult decision whether to leave his Franciscan brothers or to stay.
He chose to stay.
In 1995 he joined the Diocese of St. Augustine. Though diocese priests tend to have a more comfortable existence, Robert never forgot his true calling: to help and care for the marginalized and disenfranchised, said the Rev. John Gillespie, of the San Sebastian Church in St. Augustine.
“Many of the ideals that Pope Francis is calling for,” said Gillespie, “Rene embodied. ... Rene never forget where he came from.”
As a retiree, Robert earned about $24,000 a year from the diocese. And with what little he had, he always shared.
“He always had an eye for the poor,” said Gillespie. “He lived poor himself.”
Money orders were frequently given to many of the people he dealt with, said Shoar. And his car was frequently on loan, said Gillespie.
Personally, Shoar said Robert ministered to his family and consoled the sheriff and his wife when a child they were caring for became ill and died. The priest also married and baptized some members of Shoar’s family.
If the world had more people like Robert, there might not be so much human suffering, Shoar said.
But there is suffering.
And that was evident Thursday night at a vigil Mass in Green Cove Springs, where Robert had been assigned in a limited capacity. Hundreds attended the Mass and prayed for strength and for Robert’s return.
Sitting inside San Sebastian’ rectory, a look of sadness cloaked Gillespie’s face as he spoke of the very real possibility that instead of planning a homecoming for Robert, there may now be a funeral.
Steven James Murray: A look at his prior arrests dating back to 2005 in Aiken County, S.C.
Earlier story: Foul play suspected as St. Johns County priest disappears