Tennessee Deputy Dies While Texting and Driving, Killing Suspect in the Back Seat

A boat ramp leading down into a river, with a fishing boat near the end.
Marek Uliasz | Dreamstime.com

Last week, a rookie Tennessee police officer died in the line of duty. But while the loss of the officer is tragic, evidence suggests that his death—as well as the death of a woman in his custody—was a result of his negligence.

Meigs County Deputy Robert "R. J." Leonard, who had just joined the sheriff's office fresh out of the academy in December, responded to a call of a disturbance Wednesday night. According to reports, a man and woman were fighting on a bridge, and Leonard arrested the woman around 10 p.m. According to Meigs County District Attorney Russell Johnson, the arrest was Leonard's first since joining the force.

After handcuffing the suspect—later identified as Tabitha Smith—and placing her in the back seat, Leonard radioed in that he was transporting her to jail. But on the way, according to Johnson, the deputy apparently sent his wife a text that read simply, "Arrest."

"His wife texted back and said, 'That's good' or 'That's great,'" said Sheriff Austin Garrett of nearby Hamilton County. But at that time, Leonard apparently drove the wrong way down a Blythe Ferry boat ramp and into the Tennessee River. At the same time Leonard texted his wife, dispatchers say they received a garbled radio message from him, with the only discernible word being "water."

The following day, a patrol vehicle was removed from the Tennessee River, from which the bodies of Leonard and Smith were later recovered.

While Leonard's death is tragic, leaving behind not only his wife but three children, all too little attention was paid to the woman who died, handcuffed, in his custody. Chief Deputy Brian Malone fought back tears as he announced Leonard's death, referring to Leonard as "part of our family," while only referring to Smith—herself a mother of two—as "the other victim."

The report filed on the events by Los Angeles' ABC7 features the headline, "Bodies of missing Tennessee deputy and woman who had been detained recovered, officials say." But that was changed from the original headline, "Tennessee deputy found dead after making first arrest, patrol vehicle recovered from river." While this reflects an earlier time when less information was available, that article still featured the detail that dispatchers had lost communication with Leonard right as he was texting his wife and 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."

Indeed, a report on Chattanooga's ABC9 noted that the crash "raises questions over safety on Blythe Ferry boat ramps," but the segment still shows that the road leading to the boat ramp in question featured three "rumble strips"—bumps in the road meant to alert drivers to upcoming danger—and three yellow signs warning that "road ends."

Unfortunately, Smith is just one of countless people to die in police custody. In 2014, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which requires the federal government to collect and analyze data on the number of inmates who die each year in state, local, or federal custody. But a report published last year by the Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Project on Government Oversight found that the government "has yet to collect reliable data, let alone produce the required study." Citing data from the Government Accountability Office, the report notes that "in 2021 alone, the government potentially undercounted deaths in custody by nearly 1,000 compared to other public data sources."

Leonard's crash was almost certainly an accident, driving down a dark road in an unfamiliar area at night. But preliminary evidence suggests a degree of negligence, both by texting while driving and failing to heed multiple posted signs. While Leonard's death was a tragedy, it is necessary to note that his negligence also caused the death of a woman in his custody.

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