Where There Is Darkness Crowdfunding

 Help us bring Fr. Rene's story to the world

Fr. Rene Robert devoted his life to those in need, but he was killed by someone he tried to help—someone he called a friend. Prosecutors pushed for the death penalty after 28-year-old Stephen Murray confessed to the crime, but nothing could stop Fr. Rene from fighting for what he believed in—not even death. 

Free Gifts for Supporters

St. FrancisStella Mar Films has been documenting this powerful true story for two years, and now we need your help to release our movie Where There is Darkness. That's why we're giving away thousands of free gifts to those who donate here to our crowdfunding campaign! Choose your gift here.

Where We Stand

We created this new crowdfunding campaign here in hopes of raising enough to complete and release Where There is Darkness.

Thanks to our generous supporters, our IndieGoGo campaign for the film raised over $60,000. Although this was only half of our budget goal, we're incredibly grateful for the support and we're doing our best to finish the film.

Our biggest challenge, however, lies ahead. When the film is complete later this summer, people will need to know about it. Funds from this crowdfunding campaign will help with promotion, advertising, and marketing.

Please consider claiming your free gifts by supporting the film.

DONATE HERE

 

THE STORY

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.

Fr. Rene's friends reported him missing after he failed to answer calls to his cellphone, setting into motion a frantic search.

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.

Fearing the worst, the local sheriff put some of his best detectives on the case.

And, days later, authorities spotted 28-year-old Steven Murray driving the priest’s blue Toyota Corolla...

 

Steven Murray eluded police after a dramatic chase.

Several days later, they found him again—this time hiding in the South Carolina woods near the place where he grew up. Murray fled on foot but police arrested him 7 hours later.

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 said, he drove the car 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 Films was 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 mysteryWhere 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 bicycle because 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:

 

PRAYER OF ST. FRANCIS

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.

DONATE HERE

After a year of hard work, the film is nearly complete.

We're determined to finish and release it as soon as possible.

The compelling documentary footage and interviews we've captured comprise the backbone of the film, but Where There Is Darkness also features a beautifully-shot dramatic retelling of the case...

With the help of a talented, multi-national cast and crew, we filmed Hollywood-quality re-enactments for the most important parts of the story.

The re-enactments are 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 also help illustrate Fr. Rene’s many acts of love and his outreach to those who had no one else to help them.

The film also features 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.

We want Fr. Rene's impactful story to be seen by as many people as possible, and that's why we're asking for your help. Please support the film.

 

We can't do it without your help...

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. We filmed most of the movie by pooling together whatever we could from our own pockets, but that could only take us so far.

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. By supporting films like Where There Is Darkness, you're joining our mission of spreading God's word to those who need it most.

Best of all, 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.

Here's a breakdown of where donations are being used....

Film Budget Breakdown

Re-Enactments - To illustrate the most important parts of the story, we've been filming re-enactment scenes with cinematic-quality cameras, professional actors, and talented crew.

Documentary Shoots - We've been working hard 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. See the video by musician Denison Witmer below

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 calculated that we still need to raise a minimum of $67,500 in order to finish the film and release it with the level of quality it needs to reach a large audience.

Please pledge your support for Where There Is Darkness and claim one of our valuable gifts by donating.

DONATE HERE

A Little Prayer

Even a small donation helps us towards our goal. The Stella Mar Films team will light a prayer candle at the Our Lady of Le Leche Shrine in St. Augustine, Florida in gratitude for all who donate.

Prayer Card Set

Your donation is like a vote of confidence for our work. In gratitude, we'll send you our custom-made Prayer Card Set. The set includes a beautiful St. Francis of Assisi Prayer Card with an image of the beloved saint on the front and the St. Francis Prayer on the back, and you'll also receive a one-of-a-kind Fr. Rene Prayer Card that we carry with us on every film shoot.

Stella Mar Shwag Set

    To show how much we appreciate your support, we'll send you what we like to call the Stella Mar Shwag Set which includes a pair of Stella Mar Films sunglasses, the same ones worn by cast and crew during many of our shoots.

    You also get a Stella Mar Films LED Flashlight Keychain so you always have a light in the darkness!

    And rounding out the set is a Stella Mar Films lanyard which we find incredibly useful as a keychain, travel accessory, and even a dog leash (we're not kidding!).

    Brother Wolf Tote

    One of our favorite free gifts we're giving to supporters is the original Brother Wolf St. Francis Tote Bag designed by filmmaker Cimela Kidonakis.

    Apparel

    We've designed some nice t-shirts and other apparel for Where There is Darkness, from the Brother Wolf shirt to various St. Francis shirts. Choose your favorite.

    DVD

    Own a copy of the film before anyone else. We're giving away a limited number of Where There Is Darkness on DVD or Blu-Ray, due out after our theatrical release.

    St. Francis Perks 

      In honor of Father Rene's Franciscan roots, we're giving away a variety of Saint Francis statues from importer Goldscheider of Vienna. These includes statues, plaques, and San Damiano crosses. 

      Your Name in the Credits

      See your name in lights! For higher donation levels, we're giving supporters Special Thanks in the film credits, or you can choose to remain anonymous, or even make the donation in someone else's honor.

      Screening Licenses

      Another popular gift that we're offering is a 1-time Screening License which will allow you to show the film in a theater, sell tickets, and keep all the profits. As you can see from the success of our previous films, a screening like this can be a great fundraiser.

      VIP Premiere Tickets

      For donations at higher levels, we'll invite you to join us on the big day! That's why we'll be sending you two VIP passes to attend the US premiere event.

      Executive Producer Credit

        We're offering one  Executive Producer Credit in the film for donations at the highest level. Your name will be among the first featured in the film credits. Or, you can choose to remain anonymous or make the donation in someone's honor.

        And there's more!

        CLAIM YOUR GIFTS

         

        *Need a tax write-off? Our affiliated non-profit organization Queen of Peace Productions can accept tax-deductible donations over $1,000, and you can still claim the perks. Visit the website for Queen of Peace Productions or contact us for more information.

         

        We've been blessed with a wonderful team for this project.

        Where There Is Darkness is being made by Stella Mar Films, the same team that produced the award-winning film Apparition Hill and soon-to-be-released Cross Mountain.

        WHERE THERE IS DARKNESS

        Directed by Cimela Kidonakis & Sean Bloomfield

        Produced by Sean Bloomfield, Cimela Kidonakis, & Jessi Hannapel

        Assistant Director - Jessi Hannapel

        Co-Producer and Legal - Royce Hood

        Our talented cast and crew also includes Jozo Ivankovic (Camera/Drone operator), Lawrence Daufenbach (Reenactment Cinematography), Dick McMahon (actor), Eric Newcombe (actor), William Harris (production assistant), Emily Black (production assistant) and more.

        Working together on this film with like-minded people has been an amazing experience. As we strive to complete the project, more names will be added to our list of cast and crew.

         

        Sometimes we wonder if Fr. Rene is helping us from above.

        We’ve experienced so many coincidences while working on this project that we can’t help but see them as “little signs”—subtle messages that tell us we’re supposed to be making this film.

        Although the story is centered on a murder, the true message of the film involves a light that shone in darkness—a light that will only get brighter as we work to spread Fr. Rene's story to the world.

        Please support our mission and claim your perks by donating today! CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

        RECENT UPDATES:

        See the filmmakers interviewed on the TV News

        Read our report about one of our final film shoots

        Follow us on Facebook for the latest updates

        Follow us on Instagram for the latest behind the scenes photos

        STAY IN THE LOOP

        We'll continue to share news and updates about Where There Is Darkness through our websites and social media. To stay up to date on the film, please follow, like, and bookmark the following:

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        A Behind-The-Scenes Look

        Denison Witmer in Assisi, Italy

         

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