Accused of murder, Robert Peat's release from custody surprises many residents here, including the sheriff
Reed: 'What the heck just happened?'
Ozark County Sheriff Darrin Reed said Monday he was "as appalled as everyone else was" when a Greene County court ruled last week that Robert Peat Jr., accused of murder in the 2017 Savannah Leckie case, could be released on his own recognizance with electronic monitoring by Court Probationary Services.
"We never seen this coming," Reed said. "It was kind of a shock to us. I'd like the citizens to understand that I found out the same way they did – through the news media. I was called on it by an individual who said it's all over the news. So I did some checking and saw he was released."
Reed said in his many years in law enforcement, he had never seen a suspect accused of murder released on personal recognizance. "All weekend long, me and my two investigators kept asking, 'What the heck just happened?'" he said.
Peat, 31, formerly of the Zanoni area, is charged with first degree murder, abuse or neglect of a child resulting in death, second degree murder, tampering with physical evidence in a felony prosecution and abandonment of a corpse. The charges stem from a case involving the disappearance and apparent murder of 16-year-old Savannah Leckie, the biological daughter of Theodosia-area resident Rebecca Ruud.
Soon after Ruud gave birth to Savannah in Minnesota in 2001, she was adopted by Ruud's family friends, Tamile and David Leckie. The Leckies divorced in 2011, and Savannah and her sister (who was also Ruud's biological child, adopted by the Leckies) and a son the Leckies had together all lived with Tamile. In 2015, Tamile became engaged to and moved in with Cary Steeves, and a few months later, in late August 2016, Savannah moved to Ozark County to live with Ruud, her biological mother, on Ruud's off-the-grid farm near Longrun. According to court documents, Savannah stayed in a camper-trailer on the property while Ruud and her boyfriend, Robert Peat Jr., lived in a metal structure nearby. The property's electricity came from a generator.
After Ruud called the Ozark County Sheriff's Department on July 20, 2017, and said Savannah was missing, a massive search began, continuing for several days. On Aug. 4, as cadaver dogs searched the area, bone fragments and teeth were found in a burn pile. That same day, Ruud and Peat were married in Howell County. The bones and teeth were later identified as Savannah's.
Ruud was arrested on murder charges on Aug. 21, 2017, at a Springfield bus station as she was apparently trying to leave the area. She has been held without bond since then, first in the Ozark County Jail and more recently in the Taney County Jail.
Peat was arrested in September after an Ozark County grand jury handed down indictments charging him – and also Ruud – with murder and the related charges. For most of the intervening months, Peat has been held in the Douglas County Jail. "He has such animosity toward the Ozark County Sheriff's Department, we just thought it might be better if he went up there," Reed explained.
Both Ruud and Peat filed change-of-venue motions that were granted, and both cases now are set to be heard in Greene County.
Peat's jury trial was originally to begin there on July 30. His Thursday appearance in Greene County Court was scheduled as a "motion hearing" where Judge Calvin Holden was to decide on Peat's motion, filed by special public defender James R. Hayes, to suppress certain statements submitted as evidence. That request was "passed," or withdrawn, and at that hearing Peat also waived his right to a speedy trail.
Then, in a surprising turn of events at the hearing, "by agreement" with Hayes and attorney Steven Kretzer, representing the Missouri Attorney General's office, Judge Holden ruled that Peat could be released on his own recognizance "to reside with his family in Ozark County," according to online court records. His pre-trial hearing is now set for Oct. 16.
Kretzer, who has been brought in to assist with the prosecution, was handling the case at last week's hearing while Ozark County Prosecuting Attorney John Garrabrant was out of the area on vacation.
Reed says he's hearing people say Peat was released because he has become a state witness, prepared to testify against his wife and co-defendant, Rebecca Ruud. But as far as he knows, Reed said, that is not the case. Garrabrant agreed that no such arrangement has occurred.
Also, Reed said, all of the original charges against Peat remain, including first degree murder. And that makes the situation hard for him to understand.
"My personal opinion is, if you're going to release someone on personal recognizance, drop the serious charges and leave abandonment of a corpse and destruction of physical evidence. But personal recognizance on first degree murder?" Reed said.
"I can't answer for the AG's office. What the attorneys do and what the AG's office does, it's their call. We don't have a say-so, but we can voice input, and I've voiced my dissatisfaction. We were ready for the [July 30] trial," Reed said. "I was getting geared up. We'd been going over our books and our notes. But we have to abide by what the court says, whether we like it or not. I just want people to know the Ozark County Sheriff's Department was as surprised by this as everyone else was. We're working on this case every day. We try to do our job. And sometimes we get frustrated."
Garrabrant told the Times Monday he could not comment on specific evidence. However, he shared this statement: "Prosecutors are obligated to seeing that justice is done and that the system of criminal justice is fair. Prosecutors should not and cannot proceed with charges against individuals if there are doubts concerning the evidence of an individual's guilt.
"The investigation into the death of Savannah Leckie has been ongoing since her disappearance was reported last July 20th. A few weeks ago, there were developments that brought some of our conclusions into doubt. Steps were taken immediately to test the credibility of these new developments. Additional investigation is still continuing. Faced with the prospect of proceeding on evidence and theories that may be flawed, a decision had to be made quickly.
"In order to provide more time to explore these developments, the State agreed to Mr. Peat's release subject to Court Probation Services supervision and GPS monitoring. In exchange, Mr. Peat withdrew both his motion to suppress certain statements and his demand for speedy trial.
"For now, no charges have been dropped or amended against Mr. Peat and Ms. Ruud remains in custody," Garrabrant said.
He also told the Times, "I can't say enough good things about Darrin Reed and his officers and how they've investigated and handled this case."