Rookie Deputy Texted Wife About 1st Arrest Before Crashing In Lake With Handcuffed Mom, DA Says. Both Drowned.

Rookie Deputy and Mother of 2 Drown in Lake
Tabitha Smith, left, and deputy Robert Leonard.Facebook

Mother Tabitha Smith and rookie deputy Robert Leonard drowned after he accidentally drove into a lake late at night, authorities said. It was the deputy's first arrest and he had been texting his wife before the crash, the district attorney said.

A Tennessee family is demanding answers after a mother drowned in the back of a patrol car, handcuffed and unable to free herself. The rookie deputy driving the vehicle had texted his wife about his first arrest before plunging into a river late at night, authorities said.

Robert "R.J." Leonard had joined the Meigs County Sheriff's Department just two months ago, District Attorney Russell Johnson said at a press conference. Leonard also drowned.

Their bodies were found Thursday, one day after the deputy's car entered the river, authorities said. Tabitha Smith's body was in the back seat, encased in mud and muck. Leonard's body was found in water, not far from the vehicle, authorities said. 

The driver's side window was down, the sheriff's department said.

Relatives of Smith, a 35-yeard old mom of two, say they want more information about what happened to their loved one.

"Nobody deserves to die in handcuffs in the back of a cop car," Tabitha's sister, Amber McKinney, told WTVC-TV. "And I wish she knew how important she was," the sister said. 

Leonard had completed the sheriff's academy and joined the rural force in December, the department said. He had recently moved to Tennessee from upstate New York and was still unfamiliar with the area, authorities said.

He responded about 10 p.m. Wednesday to a disturbance call, Johnson said. He arrested Smith, handcuffed her, and placed her in the back of his car, authorities said.

About 12 minutes later, he radioed the department's dispatcher, but his transmission was garbled, Johnson said.

“Dispatch couldn’t tell what he was saying,” the prosecutor said. “Or what he had said. And, it took a while and some analytics to go into play to see what was being — to try and understand what was being said. And we think he was saying ‘water.’

"At the very same time, he was also texting his wife. It’s my understanding he sent a one-word text that said ‘arrest.’ His wife texted back and said, ‘that’s good’ or ‘that’s great.’ We know that he did not receive — his phone did not evidently receive that text," Johnson said.

Leonard was buried on Tuesday. An investigation is ongoing, Johnson said.

Funeral plans for Smith have not been publicly released.

Her death has sparked an outcry of criticism on social media, with posters saying too much attention has been paid to the fallen deputy and not enough to the mother who died, alone and trapped in the car.

The Facebook page of the Meigs County Sheriff's Office bore some of that outcry.

"Justice for Tabitha Smith," wrote one poster. "He was transporting a woman for booking and was texting his wife when he should have been paying attention to the road, especially if he was unfamiliar with his surroundings," wrote another.

The prosecutor said the accident site is remote, and that Leonard had turned down a road leading directly to a boat ramp that is no longer in use. 

“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.

“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,” the prosecutor said.

Inside Edition Digital reached out for comment Tuesday to Smith's family, the prosecutor and the sheriff's department, but has not heard back.

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