'Career criminal' charged with murdering missing priest

AP News
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Posted: Apr 21, 2016 3:25 PM
'Career criminal' charged with murdering missing priest

ATLANTA (AP) — A man described as a "career criminal" who led authorities to the body of a missing Florida priest has been charged with murder in Georgia, a law enforcement official said Thursday.

The suspect was identified as Steve James Murray, 28, of Jacksonville, Florida, said Scott Dutton, a spokesman with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

An autopsy found that the Rev. Rene Wayne Robert of St. Augustine, Florida, was shot multiple times, Dutton said. On Thursday, dental records were used to confirm that the body found in Georgia is that of the missing priest, the GBI said in a statement.

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. "I have mental problems, and I lost control of myself and I apologize."

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, South Carolina, while driving the priest's Toyota Corolla. Investigators believe Robert was killed the evening of April 10.

Murray had several guns, including a double-barreled shotgun, a pump-action rifle and several BB guns; as well as jewelry, cash, medication and merchandise, according to the arrest warrant from South Carolina.

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

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.

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

Shoar said he 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 undated article posted after Robert's death on the Diocese of St. Augustine website. "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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Associated Press Writer Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Florida, contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show the body was found in east Georgia, not south Georgia.