Bodies of missing Tennessee deputy and woman who had been detained recovered, officials say

ByMeredith Deliso ABCNews logo
Sunday, February 18, 2024
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MEIGS COUNTY, Tenn. -- The body of a Tennessee deputy was found Thursday after he went missing following his first-ever arrest. His patrol vehicle and the body of the woman he arrested were also recovered from a river, authorities said.

Meigs County Deputy Robert "R.J." Leonard's remains were being taken to a medical examiner's office.

Leonard's vehicle was pulled from the Tennessee River earlier on Thursday, in an area on the border of Meigs and Hamilton counties, officials said.

A body believed to be that of the female arrestee has been recovered from the backseat of the vehicle, according to Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett.

"We always hope that it's a rescue, so we always hold out that hope. But we also have to face the facts that are in front of us," Garrett said at a press briefing Thursday afternoon. "We won't lose hope that we could still recover him."

Authorities are working to confirm the identity of the person recovered from the backseat, though believe it to be the arrestee, according to Meigs County District Attorney Russell Johnson.

Leonard had responded to a report of a man and woman fighting on a bridge shortly before 10 p.m. local time Wednesday and had taken the woman into custody, according to Johnson. He was driving to the county jail when the sheriff's office lost communication with him and he failed to respond to a status check, Johnson said.

One of the deputy's last communications was a text to his wife that said, "Arrest," Johnson said.

"His wife texted back and said, 'That's good' or 'That's great,'" Garrett said at a press briefing earlier on Thursday. "We know that his phone did not evidently receive that text."

At nearly the same time, Leonard also made a radio communication to dispatch, shortly after 10 p.m., Johnson said.

"Dispatch couldn't tell what he was saying," he said. "We think he was saying, 'Water.'"

The search led authorities to a landing near the bridge at the Tennessee River, Johnson said.

"They triangulated the last position of his phone and the Life360 that his wife has attached to his phone and it appears that they're almost in the same location," Johnson said.

A vehicle was located Thursday morning in the river. It was upside down with the wheels up, filled with mud, and the driver-side window was down, Johnson said. The license plate confirmed it to be Leonard's patrol car, according to Johnson.

Officials said the landing can be treacherous, especially for those not from the rural area. A woman went into the water at the same location several weeks ago and was rescued and survived, Johnson said.

Multiple agencies will investigate how the vehicle ended up in the water. However, Johnson noted that the deputy, a native of New York, appeared to be texting and radioing while driving in a poorly lit area he was unfamiliar with.

"We're operating under the theory that it was an accident -- he missed his turn, he wasn't familiar and he was doing other things that may have caused him to go into the water," Johnson said at the Thursday afternoon press briefing.

Leonard joined the force after graduating from the training academy in December, according to Meigs County Sheriff Jackie Melton. He was on the night shift and was doing a "real good job," Melton said.

Leonard lived in nearby Roane County with his wife and three children, officials said.

"It's a hard time for us here," Meigs County Chief Deputy Brian Malone said at the press briefing, choking up. "It's something that we don't ever deal with here in Meigs County."

"Deputy Leonard had only been here for a couple months, but he'd become part of our family," he said.