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Christopher Padgett

A 22-year-old Chattanooga man was sentenced to life in prison Friday for first-degree felony murder after shooting a Millennium Taxi Services driver in the back of the head in April 2012.

Now, authorities just have to find him.

Attorneys said they have never been involved in a trial in which a defendant skipped town before the verdict. But that's exactly what happened with Christopher Padgett, who remained at large Friday afternoon after apparently cutting his GPS ankle monitor earlier this week and sneaking out of his mother's apartment before the third morning of his murder trial.

Authorities hope to have him in custody by Dec. 15, when Padgett will be sentenced on his second conviction of the trial — especially aggravated robbery. Jurors returned their verdicts after roughly two hours of deliberation.

"I've never been involved in a trial before where a suspect has left in the middle of a trial," prosecutor Cameron Williams said after it was over. "But I think the court handled it appropriately."

On Tuesday, prosecutors began convincing the jury they had enough evidence to prove that in April 2012, the then-18-year-old Padgett called Nathan Deere, hopped into his cab, and shot him in the back of the head before fleeing with his fares at 1643 Ocoee St.

They called to the witness stand numerous police officers, state scientists, and a neighbor who said she saw a skinny black man in a dark hoodie and jeans running from the scene. That description matched a photo that investigators took of Padgett in April 2012, in which he wore a dark sweatshirt reading "Michigan" and a pair of blue jeans and sneakers, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors piled up further evidence: Investigators found Deere's cellphone a block from the scene of the shooting in a grassy lot and dialed one of the last-called numbers. Padgett picked up the phone, immediately telling a detective he lent his phone to a friend that day. A technician for the Chattanooga Police Department also said cell tower records placed Deere and Padgett in the same region when the homicide happened around 5:45 p.m.

Come Thursday morning, Padgett's defense attorneys were scheduled to put on any rebuttal proof — but Padgett never showed up in court.

Before jurors could catch wind of the defendant's absence, Judge Tom Greenholtz dismissed them until 1 p.m. He asked attorneys to get to the bottom of the issue, and testimony from probation officers, police officers and bondsmen began to form a clear picture of what had happened.

Padgett's GPS bracelet monitor broke at 1:43 a.m., triggering a police manhunt that included the participation of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Padgett's escape, however, did not stop Greenholtz from ordering that the trial would continue Friday. But it did lengthen the agony for at least two of the victim's family members, two of whom drove from Dallas for the long-awaited trial.

"This case has been going on for some time, over four years," Williams said. "[Nathan Deere's mother] is here from out of town, and she's been waiting a long time for a disposition in this case."

In June 2015, witnesses said, Padgett was out on bond until he violated the conditions of his release, for which authorities put Padgett back in jail, where he sat until Sept. 30.

Then, on the eve of his trial, Padgett's mother worked with four bondsmen to secure his release for $30,000, Dexter Higgins, of Key Bonding, testified Thursday.

One of Padgett's defense attorneys, Meredith Ziebold, urged jurors on Friday not to hold her client's absence against him, launching into a closing argument that revolved around a weak police investigation and lack of proof.

Just because both men's phones accessed the same cell tower at the same time didn't mean Padgett shot Deere, robbed him and took his life, Ziebold said. "That just meant they were in the same area."

Ziebold also pointed to the state's forensic evidence: Padgett's fingerprints weren't in the cab or on the cellphone. And the cellphone cover that authorities found never tested positive for Padgett's DNA, either.

Referring to a previous argument, Ziebold said officers never connected $76 in cash found in Padgett's room to the killing on Ocoee Street, or asked about it during Padgett's police interview.

That was important because, before her closing argument, prosecutor Jason Demastus instructed jurors on the felony murder statute. The state, he said, had to prove the murder happened in connection with an attempted robbery — and they had.

"There's just not proof that Mr. Padgett committed a robbery," Ziebold countered. "And if he didn't rob Mr. Deere, then he didn't commit a felony murder."

Ultimately, jurors sided with prosecutors, returning their verdict around 1:45 p.m.: Padgett was guilty of first-degree felony murder and especially aggravated robbery.

"We are blessed, we are ecstatic, we absolutely love [prosecutor] Cameron Williams and the whole [district attorney's] office," said Truveda Deere, the victim's mother.

Truveda Deere said Padgett's escape probably didn't have an enormous impact on the jury's decision. And Williams said he probably wouldn't face further charges for it.

"With the first-degree murder conviction there's not a whole lot you can add to a life sentence," he said.

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

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