Tennessee deputy missing after patrol car pulled from river with body in back seat

Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Search and rescue crews pulled the patrol vehicle of a Tennessee police deputy from the Tennessee River following an arrest made by the officer yesterday, authorities announced Thursday.

The body of an apparent arrestee was in the back seat. A search for the deputy remains ongoing.


"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," Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett said at a press briefing Thursday afternoon. "We won't lose hope that we could still recover him."

Meigs County Deputy Robert "R.J." Leonard, a rookie on the force, responded to a report of a man and woman fighting on a bridge shortly before 10 p.m. local time Wednesday and took the woman into custody, according to Meigs County District Attorney Russell Johnson.

Leonard 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 Leonard's last communications was a text to his wife that said, "Arrest," according to Johnson.


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

Shortly after that, Johnson said Leonard made radio contact with a police dispatcher and sounded as though he was in distress.

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

Officials are trying to confirm the identity of the woman who was recovered from the car, though they do believe it was the person Leonard arrested, Johnson said.

Search and rescue crews located Leonard's car, wheels up, filled with mud and with the driver-side window open, in the Tennessee River Thursday morning.

"Deputy Leonard had been on the force about two months," Meigs County Sheriff Jackie Melton said. "He was doing a pretty good job. A really good job. It's just hard when the department is like a family."

Johnson noted that the deputy, a native of New York, appeared to be texting and radioing while driving in a poorly lit, rural area with which he was unfamiliar.

"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.


Crews rescued a driver from the same area a few weeks ago, Johnson said, noting that it can be particularly dangerous for people who don't know the roads and terrain.

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