Ruud murder trial unfolds in Springfield; Recording played during trial where Ruud admits burning the girl’s body
Editor’s note: The Rebecca Ruud trial is being held June 27-29 at the Greene County Courthouse in Springfield; however, the Times was only able to recount the first day of trial in this week’s edition due to our press deadline of early Tuesday. We will have an article in next week’s Times about the final portion of the trial. The trial can be viewed on Law&Crime Network’s YouTube channel.
Theodosia resident Rebecca Ruud, dressed in a white jacket and black and white patterned shirt, sat at a defense table in the Greene County Courthouse, face void of emotion, as she listened to nearly eight hours of testimony and evidence describing events that led officers to allegedly pick her 16-year-old daughter’s teeth and bones out of a burn pile on her property in July 2017.
Ruud is charged with murdering the girl, Savannah Leckie, and throwing her into an actively burning pile on her property to get rid of the body.
According to her attorney, Ruud admits to burning the girl’s body, but she maintains that Savannah killed herself prior to that burning. The state says that’s only partially true.
State’s opening statement
The prosecutor’s opening statement, which generally gives an overview of the state’s proposed upcoming trial argument, was impactful.
“Savannah Lee Leckie was a typical teenager with an atypical life, unfortunately, which ultimately led to a horrifying and tragic end that no person, especially no child should have to experience …” Tony Brown, a special prosecutor for the state Attorney General’s office, told the court.
He gave a quick recap to explain that Savannah was born June 3, 2001, to Ruud, but through a long and convoluted process, Ruud’s friend Tamile and her husband David adopted the girl and Ruud’s second daughter Makayla.
Savannah lived in Minnesota with the family until 2016, when she moved to Ozark County at age 15 to live with Ruud after experiencing difficulties at home when Tamile and David separated. Those difficulties included inflicting self-harm by cutting herself.
Tamile and David worked out a plan for Savannah to move to Ozark County to live with Ruud, who had stayed an active part of Savannah’s life through calls and visits.
The trio decided some of the child support that Tamile was receiving from David would be instead directed to Ruud to care for Savannah.
Ruud went to Minnesota in late 2016 and picked up the girl to bring her back to live at her 81-acre off-grid Ozark County farm in Theodosia.
On July 20, 2017, Ruud reported Savannah missing. After searching for the girl for nearly two weeks with few clues, officers uncovered human remains in a burn pile at the farm on Aug. 4, 2017.
Brown referenced an out-of-control brush fire at Ruud’s house just two days before Savannah was reported missing. Several volunteer firefighters responded, but when some asked for a drink of water from the camper after fighting the blaze in the 100-plus degree weather, Ruud wouldn’t allow them to get water or to see Savannah, saying the girl was lying naked in the camper and ordering them to not go near it.
Brown said Robert Peat Jr., Ruud’s boyfriend at the time, and his father Robert “Bob” Peat Sr. were two of the firefighters who responded to the brush fire, and Peat Sr. treated a burn on Ruud’s arm she said she sustained in the fire.
Peat Jr. reportedly stayed behind with Ruud and Savannah, and Brown says he expects Peat Jr. will say he last saw Savannah the next day, July 19, catching fireflies around 11 p.m. after arguing with Ruud about homework.
‘All that was left…was a bag of bones’
“She went to bed in the camper trailer, and was never seen again until Aug. 4, when what was left of her was found in a burn pile,” Brown said.
Ruud reported the girl missing the next day, and an extensive search was completed with no results.
“Because [Ruud] knew she was in that burn pile. How do we know this? You’ll hear this from the defendant herself… You’ll hear the defendant admit to burning Savannah’s body.”
Brown explained that Ruud recorded herself in a meeting with the Missouri Public Defender’s office sometime before her arrest explaining that she came across Savannah’s dead body after she committed suicide and Ruud decided to burn it.
“But that’s only partially true. That’s the defendant’s story. On the last day of trial I expect to present three separate women who were all housed in jail with the defendant,” Brown said.
Brown says he expects the three women will give testimony that Ruud talked to them about the case while in jail. One is expected to say Ruud crushed up pills and put them in kool-aid, another reportedly said Ruud talked about not getting the child support from Tamile and said she “wasn’t going to lose the farm for some bratty kid” along with comments about holding someone down in a fire.
The third woman is expected to say that Ruud told her she drugged Savannah with hydrocodone that she received due to her injuries to her arm, and that she brought the girl’s body to the burn pile to dispose of it.
“The witness will say Rebecca admitted to her to throwing Savannah’s body in the burn pile. She wasn’t dead. She woke up screaming. During this screaming, the defendant hit her with a rake…until she could scream no more,” Brown said. “And after all that, all that was left of Savannah was a bag of bones.”
Defense’s opening argument
Public defender Yvette Duvall, who is representing Ruud, along with public defender Kate Welborn, gave the defense’s opening statement after Brown finished.
“This case is a tragedy. I think that’s about the only thing that is clear and agreed upon by the state and defense in this case,” Duvall said.
Duvall went over some of the same details about Savannah’s birth and relationship with Ruud, but added that Ruud herself was abused by her mother. Duvall said Ruud’s mother kidnapped Savannah after she was born, but Ruud was able to get her back so she could allow Tamile and David Leckie to adopt the girl.
Duvall said two new boyfriends were introduced to Savannah’s home after Tamile and David split up in 2010, and Savannah struggled with her home life there. She said Savannah was diagnosed with ADHD, was on the autism spectrum and was depressed. She was reportedly hospitalized at least two times from self harm with a plan to commit suicide. She was prescribed medication, and Tamile pushed to keep Savannah in the hospital, Duvall said. But when she was released, Tamile was unsure of what to do.
“She pushed this depressed and vulnerable teen to live with her biological mother in Missouri … There were options. She wouldn’t let her live with family in Minnesota. She pushed her as far away as she could,” Duvall said.
She said Ruud didn’t have legal authority until June 2017, a month before her death, which means Ruud had no way to care for Savannah with legal authority including medical treatment, schooling or other aspects of the girl’s life for the first year or so she was there.
Duvall also mentioned the child support Tamile was supposed to send Ruud, which Duvall said was supposed to be $250 a month. She said the money was rarely sent to Ruud.
Duvall said the arrangement with the girl living in Ozark County was supposed to be temporary until that year’s Thanksgiving, but Tamile and David did not visit Savannah as they’d promised and many times they didn’t take Savannah’s calls.
She talked about Savannah working with the Theodosia Area Volunteer Fire Department (TAVFD) as a junior firefighter.
Duvall said Ruud’s been in custody with hundreds of other inmates, but only three non-credible witnesses have tales to tell - which she says doesn’t align with witnesses on scene but does align with stories from new articles out at the time.
“Here’s what you’re not going to hear from the state’s witnesses. You’re not going to hear that Savannah was murdered. You will hear no scientific evidence cause of death, manner of death or actual time of death. You are going to hear admissions from Rebecca herself that she burnt Savannah’s body, but that’s all you’re going to hear because that’s all she did.”
The state called six witnesses on the first day of trial: former Ozark County Sheriff Darrin Reed, former Chief Deputy Winston Collins and former Sheriff’s Cpl. Curtis Dobbs, along with former Theodosia Area Volunteer Fire Chief Tim Jeffery, former TAVFD Capt. Michael Williams and Robert “Bob” Peat Sr.
Other witnesses who have been subpoenaed include K-9 search team coordinator Joe Marsillo, Forensic Odontologist Eric Wilson, adoptive mother Tamile and her mother Sandra Montague, co-defendant and Ruud’s husband Robert Peat Jr., Ruud’s fellow inmates Sarah Johnson, Jessica Wollen and Kathy Hilton, Buddy Smart, Cathy Meier and Boyd Garrison.
Garrison and Smart are also listed as subpoenaed by the defense.
Former Sheriff Reed provided the longest testimony, recounting the events of July and August 2017.
Reed said he was at a conference in Columbia in July 2017 when Collins informed him of a missing person case involving a teen girl.
Reed left the conference and immediately drove to Ruud’s farm where a search had begun. Reed said that search continued for several days and included dozens of law enforcement officers, first responders and volunteers searched everywhere for the girl with no luck.
On Aug. 4, Reed said he felt the case was taking a turn from a missing persons case and he asked Dobbs to apply for a search warrant, which was granted. Ruud met the officers at the gate with a pad lock, but when Reed said he would open it with bolt cutters she complied and opened the gate.
The officers brought in a team of dogs, who could detect the scent of a live human or human remains, and split up into different locations to search.
Reed said there was a large pile of cedar limbs and boughs piled 6 to 8 feet in the air. One of the cadaver dogs “alerted” to the pile. The dog handler brought in another dog to the area, who also alerted to the area, Reed said.
The pile was disassembled, and officers found a 6-foot by 4-foot light-colored ash pile amid black ashes. Reed used his walking stick to push around the ash, “and up popped a bone,” he said.
Reed said there were multiple bones recovered from the pile, along with a button from a pair of jeans.
“It was very, very important to me every bone of Savannah was taken off that hill,” Reed said, detailing an intensive process to remove the remains from the burn pile.
Reed then told the court about Ruud and Peat Jr.’s arrest in Springfield at the Greyhound bus station where the pair were reportedly attempting to flee the area. He said Ruud had a lot of luggage with her.
Reed transported Ruud back to Ozark County from Springfield, and he said she asked him what she was charged with, and he said murder.
“It was a quiet ride home after that,” he said.
Michael Williams and Tim Jeffery
The next witness was Michael Williams, who has been a firefighter on the TAVFD for 20 years including Captain at the time of Savannah’s disappearance. He worked with Ruud at the fire department and also at Isabella Redi-Mix, where they both were employed.
Williams said Ruud called him directly about a fire that had broken out on her property in what she said was the hay barn. He told her to call the sheriff’s office to tone out the trucks, but he’d head toward her farm with a tanker truck. Once he arrived on scene with other firefighters from TAVFD and Caney Mountain VFDs, they realized the fire was just a brush fire and hadn’t spread to the metal building where the hay was stored.
Williams said he and fellow firefighter John Lubbers asked for a drink of water, as they’d become overheated from fighting the blaze in 100-103 degree weather. Peat Jr. began walking them down to a camper where the water was, but he said Ruud yelled “No. No. No. Don’t go down there!” He said Ruud said Savannah was trying to cool off in the camper and was not wearing any clothes inside.
He said they left after that, and he saw Peat Sr. providing medical aid to Ruud’s arm, where she sustained burns and blisters on her arm. Williams said Ruud said she’d burned it trying to move a log splitter from the fire, but the log splitter was sitting 50 to 75 yards away.
Jeffery, who was TAVFD chief at the time, took the stand after that. He was also questioned about responding to the July 18 fire at Ruud’s property. He also said Ruud denied them water, but he said Ruud told him Savannah was in the camper taking a shower.
Both Williams and Jeffery helped search for Savannah a couple days later when she was reported missing.
Robert Peat Sr.
Robert Peat Sr. took the stand next, also discussing the July 18 fire at Ruud’s property. He said he was at their Dora home with his wife, son Peat Jr., his kids and a couple other grandchildren when Ruud called to tell them about the fire.
Peat Jr. and Sr. responded. Peat Sr. said he offered to cover her burned arm in bandages while out there, as he also serves as a first responder.
In a surprising part of the testimony, Peat Sr. said sometime before the bones were discovered, Ruud was on the porch of his house with only him and she reportedly said to him, “Well, what am I supposed to do when my daughter throws herself into a fire?”
Winston Collins and recording
Collins took the stand second to last. He discussed various information about the disappearance and search afterward for Savannah.
A nearly hour-long recording Ruud made was played for the court. The recording was provided to the prosecution by Peat Jr. and his attorney as a “proffer of testimony,” in January 2020, which generally allows for a defendant to get a lesser sentence in exchange for cooperation with the state. Peat reportedly said he had discovered a digital audio recorder that Ruud had given him before the couple “left to go truck driving,” referring to Ruud and Peat’s plans to leave Ozark County to pursue truck-driving careers just before their arrest in 2017.
Peat said the recorder was in a box of miscellaneous items Ruud had given Peat to “put up,” and the box was given to him while the couple were married. Peat and Ruud were married on Aug. 4, 2017, the same day officers reportedly found human remains in a burn pile on Ruud’s farm.
The recording was made by Ruud as she talked to an investigator for the Missouri Public Defender’s office. In it, she gives an account of what she says happened: Savannah tried to throw herself into a fire on July 18, causing the girl and Ruud to be badly burned. Ruud said Savannah felt bad about causing the burns and sometime late the next night she found Savannah dead in a trailer from what she initially thought was an overdose her pain medication; however, Ruud said she asked her doctor if that medication could kill a person and the doctor told her no. She said the girl was cold to the touch and there was no blood or other indication of the cause of death.
Ruud said when she found the girl dead in the camper, Peat Jr. was asleep in another structure on the property.
She said she sat in the camper and cried, wondering why she’d killed herself. Ruud said she wrapped Savannah’s body in a blanket, placed it into her truck and drove it to a large bed of coals left from Peat Jr. burning brush earlier in the day.
Worried she and Peat Jr. would be charged with child neglect or something else, Ruud said she pushed the girl’s body into the fire and spent the night piling things up on top of it in order to get it to burn. Then sometime before morning, she said she returned to the camper and grabbed the girl’s pillow, blanket and computer bag and burned it also, because she thought no one would believe she ran away without those things.
The recording has several long and winding discussions that veer away from the incident and incorporate all different topics including “running the circus,” and enduring abuse by her mother, which she says includes being stomped in the face with cowboy boots causing her to only have one jaw and getting thrown out of a two-story plate-glass window.
She also tells of how she had to give her sons up to her “pedophile” ex-husband because she believed getting molested was better for the boys than living with her abusive mother.
Ruud said Savannah was scared Tamile would send her to a hospital or “home” if she found out she was trying to hurt herself.
Ruud says Peat Jr. did not know anything about Savannah being burned, and he actively was searching for the girl the next day along with other responders.
Former Cpl. Curtis Dobbs
Former OCSD Cpl. Curtis Dobbs took the stand next. He gave a lot of the same information Reed and Collins gave in their testimonies.
Dobbs said he did retrieve the bones and other evidence from the scene and packaged them as evidence. The bones were provided to him, and he confirmed that is what they’d found. He said there were 12-13 teeth and a jaw bone in the burn pile. The remains were sent to a forensic odontologist (dentist). Dobbs also was given the evidence bag that contained a metal button and zipper pull that were found in the pile.
Ruud has opted for a bench trial, meaning Greene County Circuit Judge Calvin Holden will determine her guilt or innocence instead of a jury of her peers.
Ruud is being represented by Yvette Duvall and Kate Welborn of the Missouri Public Defender’s Office. The state is represented by Tony Brown from the Attorney General’s office and former Ozark County Prosecutor John Garrabrant, who was added as a special prosecutor in the case.