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Christopher Padgett is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Nathan Deere, a Chattanooga cab driver.

The murder trial of Christopher Padgett will continue this morning in Hamilton County Criminal Court with — or without — the 22-year-old defendant in the room, a judge announced.

Though attorneys and family members were prepared to reach closing arguments Thursday, their plans were upended when court opened: Padgett had failed to appear on the third morning of his trial. He cut off his GPS monitor, escaped his mother's house undetected around 1:43 a.m., and launched a manhunt in Chattanooga and possibly beyond, witnesses said.

Padgett has been in and out of custody for more than four years on murder and robbery charges. In June 2015, while out on bond, he violated his agreed-upon conditions and went back to jail until last Friday, when he made a $350,000 bond and returned to his mother's apartment in the Bonny Oaks region, outfitted with a GPS monitor bracelet.

The news that Padgett would not appear Thursday was frustrating for prosecutors, who spent two days arguing that in April 2012, Padgett, then 18, called Nathan Deere to 1643 Ocoee St., hopped into his taxi, and shot the 31-year-old man in the back of the head before fleeing with his fares.

"This case has been going on for some time, over four years," prosecutor Cameron Williams told Judge Tom Greenholtz. "Ms. Deere [the victim's mother] is here from out of town, and she's been waiting a long time for a disposition in this case. I want the court to know that. But I feel it is appropriate to continue [Friday] morning."

The defense, meanwhile, argued for a mistrial, saying that if jurors learned Padgett had skipped town, they would hold it against him without really knowing why he failed to show up.

"It's possible the court could later find out his flight was not voluntary," attorney Meredith Ziebold said. "I believe, in this situation, it would be unfairly prejudicial to Christopher Padgett."

Ultimately, Greenholtz ruled against the motion, saying he would inform jurors if Padgett didn't show up today. But his message, Greenholtz said, would be brief and unspecific: "The court has concluded we are entitled to proceed in his absence. And [we] leave it at that."

When jurors first reported Thursday morning, Greenholtz told them to return at 1 p.m. because a situation had cropped up. At 10 a.m., he wanted attorneys to conduct an out-of-jury hearing on what exactly happened.

"Mr. Padgett, are you in the courtroom?" Greenholtz asked.

There was no answer.

Chris Jackson, a supervisor for county probation officers, said he had asked the company that provides the GPS and alcohol monitors to give him a heads up if someone tampered with Padgett's device.

When he woke up around 6 a.m., Jackson said he saw a text message alerting him to a problem with Padgett's device around 1:43 a.m. He called Padgett's mother three times, at 6:08, 6:12, and 6:14 a.m., he said.

She called him back at 6:31 a.m., he said, saying the device "was still plugged into the wall. There was a pair of scissors beside it. And he was gone."

Dexter Higgins, one of the bondsmen who helped Padgett make bail, went to the mother's apartment and saw the monitor vibrating in the corner of a loveseat. He first heard about the escape at 6:28 a.m. from a coworker, he said.

While there, he developed some leads: Padgett had texted his girlfriend around 2 a.m., telling her to call him when she woke up. When she did, Padgett never picked up.

"I think he's in the area somewhere, just hiding out," Higgins said. "At one time, I thought he might go to Clarksville with his brother. But his brother's here [in Chattanooga]."

Mark Pollard, a Chattanooga police officer who visited the mother's apartment, ventured a guess as to Padgett's whereabouts based on his conversation with her: Alton Park.

"She was really upset, a lot of tears, a lot of disbelief," Pollard said. "She was upset because she had already spent $35,000 bonding him out, that she had just finished closing on a house over on Robinwood. Now, her funds are depleted.

"And she lost two vehicles trying to bond him out."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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