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US: Rookie cop celebrates after first arrest, dies in car crash with suspect

Robert John 'RJ' Leonard sent his wife a celebratory text after making his first arrest on Valentine's Day. Both of them were found dead in the submerged car in the Tennessee River on Thursday.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Nashville Published on: February 21, 2024 12:32 IST
US, car crash, police, first arrest
Image Source : INDIA TV Representational Image

Nashville: A rookie cop in the US state of Tennessee, a father of five, was found dead in a submerged car alongside a suspect after reportedly celebrating his first arrest last week, as reported by the New York Post. Robert John 'RJ' Leonard, 35, sent his wife a celebratory text saying "arrest" after nabbing his first suspect after joining the police force in December, said District Attorney Russell Johnson.

The incident happened on the occasion of Valentine's Day. Leonard’s wife sent a response, but the deputy’s phone did not appear to receive the message, Johnson explained. A search was launched that night after further attempts to contact Leonard also failed, and crews found the deputy officer’s car upside down in the Tennessee River on Thursday.

Authorities found Leonard’s remains as well as those of Tabitha Smith, whom he was said to have arrested before the car plunged into the river. Smith – whose body was found in the backseat of the vehicle – was taken into custody after Leonard responded to a disturbance call, according to local media. 

“It’s a hard time here for us today,” said Meigs County Sheriff’s Office Chief Brian Malone the day the bodies were recovered. "Something we don’t ever deal with here in Meigs County. We’re a small, rural county, we’re not used to it".

According to Leonard's obituary, he worked in construction for most of his life before “recently moving to Tennessee to pursue his dream of becoming a police officer". Leonard’s wife Christa paid tribute to her husband, whom she called “the bomb to my diggity” as she updated her profile as a widow a day after the crash.

"My heart is breaking for my kids & I am just an absolute wreck,” she wrote. “I will start reaching out when I can pull it together. For now all I can do is cry.”

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