Mom of 2 Drowns & Dies While Handcuffed in a Patrol Car After Officer Crashes Into River

Tennessee Police Benevolent Association/Facebook; Tabitha Smith/Facebook

The community is mourning the loss of Tabitha Smith, who tragically passed away following a car crash into the Hiwassee River in Tennessee on the evening of Wednesday, February 14. The unfortunate incident occurred after Smith was detained by Deputy Robert Leonard during a response to a disturbance.

At the time of the accident, Smith was handcuffed in the backseat of the patrol car and was unable to escape, leading to her untimely death. The search for Deputy Leonard was initiated when he was reported missing shortly after the incident. It was only after an exhaustive search that Tabitha’s body was discovered and later identified by the Knox County Medical Examiner’s Office.

District Attorney Russell Johnson provided details about the discovery, noting the challenges faced during the identification process due to the body being covered in mud and silt. The confirmation that Smith was handcuffed and in custody at the time of her death came from the observations made when her body was transported for examination, WVLT reported.

The circumstances leading to the crash remain under investigation, with details scarce regarding the exact cause. According to officials from the sheriff’s office, Deputy Leonard had made an arrest, informed his wife via text about the situation, and then communicated with dispatch about transporting Smith to the station. A distress call from Leonard came about 12 minutes later, with mentions of water, indicating the critical situation that unfolded shortly thereafter.

Tabitha Smith, aged 35, is survived by her husband and two children, leaving behind a bereaved family and community. Deputy Leonard, who was found outside the vehicle, also passed away at the age of 35 and is survived by his wife and five children. Speculation by officials suggests that Leonard may have taken a wrong turn, possibly due to his unfamiliarity with the area, as he had only recently joined the sheriff’s office.

Friends of Tabitha have come forward to honor her memory, sharing reflections on her life and the person she was. Sheena Mchome described Smith as a vibrant and life-loving individual, expressing disbelief and sorrow over the circumstances of her death. Emilie Neusel highlighted Smith’s kind-hearted nature and her ability to be a great person despite facing life’s challenges, advocating for her to be remembered by her name and the essence of who she was, rather than the tragic circumstances of her passing.

The sheriff’s office spokesperson acknowledged the profound impact of the tragedy on the community and the department, emphasizing the difficulty of coping with such a loss in a small, tight-knit county like Meigs. Deputy Leonard’s recent addition to the sheriff’s office family and his untimely departure have left a void in the hearts of many who knew him and Smith.

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