Rookie Tennessee Cop was Texting Wife, Bragging About First Arrest When He Crashed into River with Mother-of-Two

Tabitha Smith and Robert John "R.J." Leonard, Jr.
Tabitha Smith (left) and Robert John "R.J." Leonard, Jr. Twitter

A deputy and a woman he had recently arrested were found dead in the Tennessee River late last week, according to the local district attorney.

The bodies of deputy Robert John "R.J." Leonard, Jr., of the Meigs County Sheriff's Office, and Tabitha Smith, a mother-of-two, were found Thursday, one day after the officer's car entered the Tennessee River.

Leonard Arrested Smith During a Disturbance Call Minutes Before Crash, Then Texted Wife About it

Leonard, who had only been with the force for two months, had arrested the woman just minutes prior to the crash, according to a news release from the Tennessee Police Benevolent Association. Smith was reportedly arrested after Leonard responded to a disturbance call, per CBS affiliate WVLT-TV.

The deputy's car "was located upside down in the Tennessee River" the following day, the TPBA said. The woman's body was found in the backseat of the vehicle, and the deputy's body was later recovered as well.

Leonard also appeared to be texting his wife around the time of the crash. At Thursday's press conference, shared by WBIR-TV, District Attorney Russell Johnson said the deputy sent a text that said "arrest" upon making his first arrest since joining the sheriff's office in December.

The deputy's wife responded either "That's good" or "That's great," but Johnson said Leonard's phone "did not evidently receive that text."

Pair Tracked Using Cellphone Data, Life 360 App

Leonard said he was taking a woman to the Meigs County jail 12 minutes before "an incomplete radio transmission was received" from his radio, during which he may have said the word "water."

"A search ensued" after further attempts to contact Leonard failed. Crews were led to the area near the Blythe Ferry boat ramp using "cellphone and tracking data from the app Life 360," and eventually found the car in the water.

The deputy's remains were escorted to the Knoxville Regional Medical Examiner's Office after his body was recovered, according to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. Smith's body was also taken to the medical examiner's office, WRCB reported. Johnson said her body was handcuffed and covered in a thick layer of mud and silt upon discovery.