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Woman dies handcuffed in back of police car after officer drives into river
Featured Image Credit: The CW Knoxville

Woman dies handcuffed in back of police car after officer drives into river

Deputy Robert “RJ” Leonard crashed his car into a river after arresting Tabitha Smith, with both dying in the crash

A woman died after the officer who arrested her crashed his car into a river.

Tributes have poured in for Tabitha Smith after she died in the car crash in the Hiwassee River late on Wednesday February 14.

Smith was arrested after Deputy Robert Leonard was called to a disturbance, and was wearing handcuffs on the backseat when he crashed the car into the river in Tennessee.

Tragically, she was unable to free herself and died in the crash.

A search was mounted after Leonard was reported missing, and it took days before Tabitha could be identified by the Knox County Medical Examiner’s Office.

District Attorney Russell Johnson said in a statement: "The person found in the backseat compartment area of deputy’s vehicle was covered in a deep layer of mud and silt.

"When the body was transported, it was apparent that it was a female, and that she was handcuffed. So she was in custody as was speculated from the Deputy Leonard’s calls to dispatch."

Tabitha Smith was in the back seat of the car.

It's not clear exactly what caused the crash, with sheriff’s office officials saying that Leonard had arrested Smith, texted his wife about the arrest, then radioed to say he was bring her to the station.

Around 12 minutes later, Leonard had radioed again in distress and was heard to say something about water.

Tabitha had been handcuffed in the back seat of the cruiser and was unable to free herself, while Leonard was found outside the vehicle.

Both were just 35-years-old.

Tabitha leaves behind her husband and two children, and Leonard is survived by his wife and five children.

Officials have suggested that Leonard had taken a wrong turning due to being unfamiliar with the area, having only recently joined the sheriff's office.

Deputy Robert John "R.J." Leonard had been driving the car.

Tabitha's friend Sheena Mchome paid tribute to her, saying: “She was a happy person, outgoing, she loved life."

She added: “I could not imagine being trapped and knowing my life was going to end."

Friend Emilie Neusel also paid tribute to Tabitha, saying: “She had a heart of gold, and despite any struggles and troubles she had, she was a great person."

She added: “I hope they remember her by her name. Tabby Smith. And I hope she’s remembered by more than the girl in the back seat."

A spokesperson for the sheriff's office said in a press conference: “It’s a hard time for us here. Something we don’t ever deal with in Meigs county.

"We’re a small, rural county here. Deputy Leonard had only been here a few months, but he had become part of this family.”

Topics: News, Crime, US News, Police