Help Queen of Peace Productions and Stella Mar Films complete Where There Is Darkness, a documentary about murdered Catholic priest Fr. Rene Robert and his plea from beyond the grave to save his killer’s life.
It wasn’t like Fr. Rene to miss a Church service…
So when he didn’t show up to officiate a funeral on April 12, 2016, people got worried.
After Fr. Rene failed to answer subsequent calls to his cellphone, his friends reported him missing, setting into motion a frantic search that led investigators to suspect the worst.
Described as a “living saint,” Fr. Rene Robert was a beloved figure in the tight-knit community of St. Augustine, Florida—a humble Catholic priest with a special place in his heart for people cast aside by the rest of society.
Police suspected foul play early on in Fr. Rene’s disappearance, and the local sheriff put some of his best detectives on the case to help find his missing friend.
Days later, 28-year-old Steven Murray was spotted driving the priest’s blue Toyota Corolla.
Police launched a massive manhunt.
When they finally found Steven Murray hiding in the South Carolina woods, he was arrested after a 7-hour on-foot pursuit.
Days of intense interrogations led Murray to admit that he kidnapped Fr. Rene in Jacksonville, FL, and drove him against his will to South Carolina, at one point forcing him into the trunk.
Then, before returning to Florida, Steven drove down a remote logging trail in rural Georgia and shot Fr. Rene to death at the edge of a forest.
After his shocking confession, Steven led detectives to Fr. Rene’s body.
The tragic news sent shockwaves through the St. Augustine community and beyond. Those who knew and loved Fr. Rene were horrified that such a peaceful man could have met such a violent death.
The only consolation for those who had been praying for Fr. Rene, it seemed, was that Steven Murray’s confession answered some of the questions surrounding the beloved priest’s disappearance, namely the who, what, where, and how.
But no one—not even Steven himself—could answer the biggest question: Why?
Prosecutors announced that they would seek the death penalty.
Many people—including many of Fr. Rene’s heartbroken family and friends—felt that Steven Murray deserved nothing less than execution for committing such a heinous crime.
But then came a voice from beyond the grave… the voice of Fr. Rene himself.
The secretary at the bishop’s office was going through Fr. Rene’s old files when she stumbled upon a so-called Declaration of Life which Fr. Rene had signed in 1995—more than 20 years earlier. The document read in part:
Should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstance, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I have suffered.
– Fr. Rene Robert
It was as if Fr. Rene had foreseen the circumstances of his own death. The bishop immediately sent the letter to the prosecutor’s office and urged them not to seek the death penalty in the case…
But would anyone listen?
As filmmakers, we were captivated by the events.
After the success of our 2016 documentary Apparition Hill, our small team at Stella Mar Filmswas determined to continue making life-changing movies.
When Cimela Kidonakis heard the story on NPR, she shared her fascination about it with co-filmmakers Sean Bloomfield and Jessi Hannapel.
The three of us agreed that the world needed to know about Fr. Rene and his final act of mercy, so we immediately embarked on making this film.
We’ve been following the story since that day, and what we’ve captured so far is a saga full of twists, turns, heartbreak, and joy—a film that will challenge the way people look at crime, justice, and the world itself.
Playing out like a true-crime mystery, Where There Is Darkness tells the story of Fr. Rene’s life, death, and the fight for his wishes to be carried out in determining the fate of Steven Murray.
Our first trip to St. Augustine opened many doors… but it also left us with more questions.
We met with and interviewed the local bishop, sheriff, and several of Fr. Rene’s fellow priests—all of whom were fighting to get Fr. Rene’s declaration of life recognized by the courts.
Our first shoot left us energized and intrigued, but no one we interviewed could answer the burning question: Why did Steven Murray kidnap and kill Fr. Rene?
After all, Fr. Rene – who had devoted his life to helping those cast aside by society – had been trying to help Steven, an ex-convict, get his feet back on the ground. But although Steven had admitted to killing Fr. Rene, he didn’t seem to know why he did it.
We began to sense something darker lurking beneath Steven’s story, but we knew it would take a lot of digging to find it. Undeterred, we stepped into the darkness without looking back.
Our investigation uncovered a mystery deeper and seemingly more sinister than the crime itself… an unimaginable secret that would challenge our idealistic notions of mercy and transform what we thought we knew about the concept of evil.
In April, 2017, we filmed the one year Memorial Mass of Fr. Rene’s passing.
The event brought together the diverse St. Augustine community and showed us just a glimpse of the enormous impact that Fr. Rene had on people in the area.
We also met and interviewed detectives Gene Tolbert and Jose Jiminez, the lead investigators of the crime, who called it a “career case.”
When asked about the motive, they told us that Steven Murray’s troubled childhood was, in their opinions, a major contributing factor.
But even if Steven Murray had been abused as a child, how did it lead to the murder of an innocent priest?
Our lingering questions led us to Steven’s sisters, Bobby Jean and Crystal, who agreed to speak on camera about Steven and their troubled childhood in rural South Carolina.
But nothing could have prepared us for the strange turn of events that took place when we accompanied the sisters on an emotional visit back to their hometown.
Visiting their childhood home for the first time in a decade resurrected memories both painful and poignant, while a trek into the nearby woods uncovered a shocking twist that may finally answer some of our biggest questions about the case.
We never had the chance to meet Fr. Rene Robert…
But getting to know him through the making of this film explained why so many people referred to him as a living saint—a title that the humble priest would have surely disagreed with.
Fr. Rene Robert was born on September 2, 1944 to a young mother who gave him up for adoption just months after he was born. He lived in an orphanage for several years until a loving family adopted him.
The first time his adoptive parents took him to church, he started running up the aisle and pointing at the priest, saying, “I want to go up there! I want to be with that man!”
He joined the Franciscan order as a young man and later became a priest in St. Augustine, Florida, where he reached out to people cast aside by the rest of society.
He believed “that every human being is a child of God,” said Fr. Timothy Lindenfelser, pastor of St. Anastasia Catholic Church in St. Augustine.
St. Augustine’s Sheriff Shoar, a friend of Fr. Rene’s, agrees. “He was out there ministering to people everyone else gave up on: prostitutes, convicts, drug addicts,” said the Sheriff. “When I warned him, he told me, ‘I am doing what God is telling me to do,’ and I believed him. He died doing what he loved.”
Few people knew the extent of his ministry while he was alive, but our film will show how Fr. Rene helped countless broken people put their lives back together.
A well-known figure in the St. Augustine area, Fr. Rene was often seen riding his bicyclebecause he constantly lent his car to those without one.
When Fr. Rene ate meals with his fellow priests in St. Augustine, he often took all the leftover food and discreetly give it to the hungry.
A regular blood donor, he gave an estimated 32 gallons throughout his life and encouraged his parishioners to contribute as well.
A friend of the Hispanic community, he helped establish the first weekly Spanish-speaking Masses in the St. Augustine area.
He attended numerous vigils in peaceful protest of the death penalty, civil rights abuses, and other social issues close to his heart.
He learned sign language so that he could minister to the hearing impaired, and he worked as a chaplain at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.
But Fr. Rene was also very human and had his share of eccentricities. His friend, Fr. John Gillespie, pastor of St. Sebastian Church in St. Augustine, said, “We are still laughing about the strange, funny things that Rene did.”
He fed stray animals and cared deeply about the environment.
“Fr. Rene dumped the Cathedral trash cans out on the floor looking for things to recycle, driving the housekeeper up a wall, long before recycling became acceptable,” Fr. Lindenfelser recounted.
Fr. Rene embodied the Franciscan spirit.
Modern-day Franciscans take vows of poverty and emulate the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up a life of comfort to help the poor and less fortunate.
Franciscans were among the first Europeans to arrive in America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, where Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his crew came ashore in 1565.
Intent on spreading God’s word among the Native Americans, the early Franciscans trekked deep into the Florida wilderness and lived among the Timucuans, learning their language and inspiring them to shun practices like human sacrifice.
Much like the Franciscan missionaries before him, Fr. Rene risked everything to minister in a savage, unfamiliar place. His “wilderness” was the streets.
We even think that our film might lead to Fr. Rene being officially recognized as a saint one day… Shortly after his passing, a baby born deaf and blind was fully healed after prayers to Fr. Rene! That story and many others will be featured in the movie.
A man of unconditional, judgement-free love, Fr. Rene was also known to stand up for those who had no one else, including ex-convicts and people accused of crimes.
“Fr. Rene and I were at odds with a particular case,” said Detective Eugene Tolbert, who, ironically, would be the lead detective in the search for Fr. Rene. “Even though the evidence seemed overwhelming to me, Fr. Rene was still willing to support that person spiritually and be there for them. He was the only person in the audience for this defendant.”
Only after Fr. Rene’s murder did Detective Tolbert see how much good he had done in the community, and how many people he had helped.
One of the most famous stories about St. Francis tells how he befriended a wolf. People living in the area wanted to kill the wolf because they feared that it would kill them.
But St. Francis, who referred to the wolf as “brother wolf,” saw every creature as part of God’s creation, and he was able to bring peace between the people and the wolf.
While pondering the St. Francis connection, we also realized that the well-known Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi described Fr. Rene’s ministry perfectly:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
In fact, our film gets its title from the sixth line of this prayer: where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Just as the prayer says, our documentary will transcend other films about crime and justice by presenting a tale of hope and love amid unspeakable tragedy.
By showing how Fr. Rene selflessly brought light to those in darkness, it will keep his legacy burning bright long after his passing. We also plan to offer a comparative glimpse into the life of St. Francis of Assisi through brief reenactments.
It was Fr. Rene’s outreach and ministry, in fact, that led to his meeting Steven Murray, the young man who would eventually murder him. By exploring the circumstances that led to the crime, Where There Is Darkness will allow Fr. Rene to continue sharing his message of mercy from beyond the grave.
After a year of hard work, filming is nearly complete.
We’re determined to finish and release it as soon as possible. In fact, we’ve already begun editing the film in between our final shoots.
The compelling documentary footage and interviews we’ve captured will comprise the backbone of the film, but Where There Is Darkness will also feature a beautifully-shotdramatic retelling of the case…
With the help of a talented, multi-national cast and crew, we’ve been filming Hollywood-quality re-enactments for the most important parts of the story.
The re-enactments will be interspersed throughout the documentary to help bring the story to life.
These scenes include glimpses into the lives of both Fr. Rene Robert and Steven Murray, as well as a stunning recreation of the moments leading up to the crime.
The re-enactment scenes will also help illustrate Fr. Rene’s many acts of loveand his outreach to those who had no one else to help them.
The film will also feature video and audio recordings gathered from the case files for the crime, including Steven Murray’s interrogation and confession.
Once complete, we plan to enter the movie into film festivals, release it theatrically, distribute it through streaming services like iTunes and Amazon, and offer it on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Only one thing can stop us… and it rhymes with honey.
We don’t mean a bunny, despite their ferocious reputation. No, we’re talking about the one thing that we don’t like to talk about, let alone ask for…
As independent filmmakers, we only chase stories we believe in—stories that inspire people at the deepest levels—and we’re confident that Where There Is Darkness will do exactly that.
The difficult part of being independent, however, is that we don’t have the financial backing of a major studio. Instead, and perhaps miraculously, we’ve filmed most of the movie by pooling together whatever we could from our own pockets.
As of now, however, our budget is depleted.
That’s why we’re turning to you—because we know there are enough people out there who want this message of hope and mercy to be shared. Only with your help can we complete Where There Is Darkness.
By supporting this independent film, you can be assured that Fr. Rene’s story will be told in a way that a large movie studio never could—and by a small team of filmmakers who care deeply about the message.
Your monetary donation will help us reach the following milestones for the film:
Re-Enactments – We need to complete our final re-enactment scenes with cinematic-quality cameras, professional actors, and talented crew.
Documentary Shoots – We have to complete our final interviews, capture more b-roll, and follow up on important aspects of this ongoing story.
Travel – Several scenes which we feel are necessary involve additional out-of-state travel and filming on-location.
Music Licensing – Good music is imperative. We’ve identified several songs that we feel are crucial for several scenes of the film, and the costs to license music for a feature-length documentary film are quite high.
Music Scoring – A film like this needs haunting, evocative background music, and we would like to hire several Indie artists who have the talent it takes to produce a musical score for the movie.
Footage Licensing – We intend to use some of the many news clips that covered the case, and to do that we will need to pay the news organizations for licensing.
Editing – We are editing the film ourselves but there are numerous additional costs involved in completing the film before it can be released, including professional video coloring, audio mastering, and file conversion.
MPAA Rating – We will need to have the film rated by the MPAA to ensure a wider release.
Promotion – With an effective marketing campaign, we can ensure that Where There Is Darkness reaches a large audience.
Submission – Having the movie featured in film festivals will bring the story to even more people who otherwise may never hear about it.
Distribution – Streaming the film on multiple platforms will bring it to people all over the world.
As you can see, we have big dreams and meager means. But we believe in the power of people, and we believe in ourselves. When we crunched the numbers, we took into account all the things that we can do in-house to lower the overall costs.
Aside from producing and editing the film, we do most of our own web design, social media, graphic design, copywriting, and more, which amounts to thousands of dollars of savings.
With those figures deducted, we’ve calculated that we still need to raise at least $130,000 in order to finish and release the film at the level of quality it will need to reach a large audience. Please consider donating today! All donations over $1000 are tax-deductable.