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Missing deputy's body found hours after car recovered with body inside

A Tennessee sheriff's deputy was found dead hours after his patrol car was found in the Tennessee River with a woman's dead body in the back seat.
Missing deputy's body found hours after car recovered with body inside
Posted at 7:38 PM, Feb 16, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-16 21:38:47-05

The body of a missing Tennessee sheriff's deputy was recovered hours after his patrol vehicle was pulled from a river with a body inside.

Meigs County Sheriff's Deputy Robert "R.J." Leonard was last heard from Wednesday evening when he radioed in to confirm he had made an arrest and was on his way to the jail. Around 12 minutes later, he again spoke on his radio, but this time, he only shared a short, distressed remark: the word "water."

This remark and triangulation of his cellphone led authorities near the Tennessee River, District Attorney General Russell Johnson said at a news conference. Then upon searching the water, crews found Leonard's vehicle upside down and filled with mud.

After the patrol car was pulled from the river Thursday morning, Johnson said they discovered a female's body "covered in mud" in the back seat, but the driver's seat, which had its window rolled down, had only mud in it.

Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett stated during the morning's press conference that they'd thought there was a chance Leonard was "injured on the side of the shore" after escaping through the window, but later that night, the deputy's body was found, HCSO said.

The sheriff's office said Leonard's body was escorted to the Knoxville Regional Medical Examiner's Office by a multitude of law enforcement and emergency vehicles. No other details about his recovery have been released at this time.

Johnson said Thursday morning authorities believed the body in the backseat was the person Leonard had arrested, but he said the true confirmation would come after a medical examination and autopsy. Still, he said authorities reached out to the arrested person's family. Garrett also said he extended his condolences to the woman's family.

Meigs County Chief Deputy Brian Malone also shared personal thoughts during the press conference, answering a reporter who asked how he and the department were doing with, "About as bad as can be expected, to be honest with you."

The authorities said this was a shock to the small Tennessee area and its short-staffed law divisions, which Leonard had joined only a few months ago. 

Johnson noted the deputy's newness to the area, among other possibilities involving the suspect, when asked what he thought caused the crash into the water. 

Starting with the arrest, authorities said Leonard was responding to a report of a man and woman fighting on a bridge when he radioed about the arrest shortly before 10 p.m. The next time they heard from him was when he radioed "water" sounding distressed. That word, however, was only analyzed after Leonard failed to respond to a status update, leading officials to check his prior communications. 

Those prior communications also included an undelivered text Leonard sent to his wife — the word "arrest" — around the same time as his second radio. 

Though Johnson said they're operating under the theory the crash was an accident, he said it'll take time to discover what happened beforehand due to all of the details. 

That includes whether Leonard was distracted by doing two things at once — texting his wife and radioing — or if he got into an altercation with the arrested woman in the back seat. Johnson also said he was unsure of the woman's state of mind, so her actions could have contributed to Leonard's lack of attention.

He also pointed to the dark, narrow backroads that a non-local like Leonard might not know well. If he was distracted by either the woman or the technology, he could have missed a turn and gone into the water — a path he said was marked by skid and scratch marks, indicating he had tried to stop.


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