Tennessee deputy crashed into river after making 1st arrest, killing himself and the detainee

File image of the banks of the Tennessee River. Getty Images

A deputy in Tennessee crashed into a river after making his first arrest, killing himself and the detainee, according to officials in the area. 

Meigs County District Attorney Russell Johnson said during a press conference Thursday afternoon that the deputy’s vehicle was found underwater in the Blythe Ferry area of the Tennessee River.

The driver’s side front window was rolled down and a person’s body was found in the backseat, Johnson said. 

Officials said later that day that a second body had been located and was identified as the 35-year-old deputy, Robert John "R.J." Leonard.

Local reports have since identified the detainee who died in the backseat as Tabitha Smith. 

First arrest

Deputy Leonard had recently graduated from the academy and had been with the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office since December, Johnson said, and that the arrest Leonard made Wednesday night just before 10 p.m. was his first. 

Leonard was responding to a call about a disturbance on a highway bridge between a man and a woman.

But on his way back to the jail, he stopped responding to a status check. 

"There was kind of a last-minute call after about a 12-minute gap between him radioing that he was coming back to the jail with a suspect or someone that he’d arrested, and there was one word that we analyzed and it was, ‘Water,’" Johnson said. 

Leonard had also just sent a one-word text to his wife, saying "Arrest," and that she responded with "that sounds great, or that sounds good," Johnson said, but added that her text never went through to his phone. 

"He was doing other things"

Leonard drove into the water near a ferry landing, an area that has a hazardous reputation locally due to a hill and a sharp curve, especially at night. 

Officials said just last month another person drove into the water in the same area but survived.

Officials noted that Leonard was originally from New York and was likely unfamiliar with the area. 

"So if he wasn’t paying attention because he was distracted by the person in the back, or about trying to hit the radio, or sending a text at the same time, you could imagine he would go down that road," Johnson said

"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."

This story was reported from Detroit.