Body of missing Tennessee deputy who disappeared after making arrest recovered: Officials

A woman who had been detained was also recovered from the vehicle.

The body of a Tennessee deputy who disappeared after making an arrest has been recovered, hours after his patrol vehicle was pulled from a river, officials said Thursday night.

The body of a woman handcuffed in the backseat was also recovered in the vehicle, which was found submerged in the Tennessee River, officials said.

Authorities had been searching for the deputy, Robert "R.J." Leonard, after he failed to respond to a status check after taking a woman into custody around 10 p.m. local time on Wednesday, officials previously said.

Leonard's patrol vehicle was found and pulled from the Tennessee River in an area on the border of Meigs and Hamilton counties earlier Thursday, officials said. His body was found hours later following a search, according to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

"His remains are currently being escorted to the Knoxville Regional Medical Examiner's Office by motor units with the HCSO, Tennessee Highway Patrol, and the Chattanooga Police Department," the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office said in a Facebook post late Thursday.

Authorities are working to officially identify the woman recovered from the backseat, though they believe it to be the arrestee, according to Meigs County District Attorney Russell Johnson.

"The Meigs County sheriffs department is in contact with the suspected deceased individual's family," Johnson said in a statement on Friday. "We will release her identity after the forensic center has made an identification and the family has been notified."

On Wednesday night, shortly before 10 p.m. local time, Leonard had responded to a report of a man and woman fighting on a bridge 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,'" he said at a press briefing earlier Thursday. "We know that his phone did not evidently receive that text."

At nearly the same time, Leonard made a radio communication to dispatch, 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.

Leonard's vehicle was found upside down with the wheels up, filled with mud, and with the driver-side window down, Johnson said. The license plate confirmed it was 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 earlier, 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.