Savannah Leckie murder: Peat, named ‘cooperating individual for state,’ hands over recording wife Rebecca Ruud reportedly made before arrest

This 2015 photo of Rebecca Ruud and Robert Peat Jr. was posted on Rudd’s Facebook page. She indicated in the comments that the photo was taken during their first date. The pair are now charged with murdering Ruud’s 16-year-old daughter Savannah Leckie in July 2017.

Recent court documents in the case against Theodosia resident Rebecca Ruud, who is charged with murdering her 16-year-old biological daughter Savannah Leckie and disposing of her body in July 2017, reveal a surprise in the high-profile case.

The Ozark County Sheriff’s Department is now in possession of an audio recording that reportedly includes what is believed to be a conversation between Ruud and Missouri Public Defender investigator Nina Lane that Ruud is said to have secretly taped during an interview with the investigator sometime between when Savannah was reported missing July 20, 2017, and Ruud’s arrest on Aug. 21, 2017.

It is unclear what exactly the conversation reveals, but Ruud’s co-defendant and husband, Robert Peat Jr., allegedly told officials he had listened to part of the recording, and in it, he said, Ruud reportedly admits to some of the allegations against her. 

The bench trial, which was most recently set for Aug. 17, was rescheduled to Dec. 14 in order to allow 31st Circuit Judge Calvin Holden to reconsider whether the recording will be allowed as evidence at trial. Holden was assigned to the case on a change of judge motion earlier in the trial proceedings. He originally ruled that the recording could not be used, but he has now set a hearing for Aug. 24 to reconsider that decision. 

Because that hearing must be held before the trial, the trial date was pushed back to allow time for the Aug. 24 hearing. 

At the hearing to reconsider the motion, Holden can either rule to uphold his decision to not allow the recording as evidence, or he can rule to allow it at trial. If he rules to uphold his decision, the state has the right to have a higher court further review Holden’s decision.


Can the recording be used at trial?

On June 22, the state filed a “motion in limine,” asking the court to allow the recording as evidence during Ruud’s trial. Holden submitted an initial judgment denying the state’s motion because he believed the recorded conversation was part of a discussion covered by attorney-client privilege. 

However, Holden has agreed to reconsider his decision after the state filed another motion citing case law and further arguing that the recording was made prior to Ruud obtaining the public defender’s office as her representation, meaning the recorded interview was not privileged. 

An evidentiary hearing to reconsider the decision whether to allow the recording as evidence at trial is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, Aug. 24, in Greene County before Holden. 


Peat’s initial inquiry of ‘proffer of testimony’

The state’s first motion states that Peat’s attorney, James Hayes, a private Springfield-based lawyer who has been contracted to work on behalf of the Missouri Public Defender’s Office, contacted the prosecution in December 2019.

During that conversation, the document says, Hayes inquired about the possibility of Peat offering a “proffer of testimony,” which is generally made as a prelude to cooperation, when a defendant under investigation or charged with a crime wants to offer information to law enforcement authorities in exchange for some benefit, such as a dropped or reduced charge or agreement for lower sentence. 

In early January of this year, Hayes and Peat met with Ozark County Prosecuting Attorney John Garrabrant and an Ozark County deputy at the prosecutor’s office in Gainesville. Upon arrival, Hayes told Garrabrant that, based on the nature of what Peat intended to disclose, Hayes had an ethical issue to address. He reportedly asked to reschedule the proffer for a later date. 


Peat provides the audio recording, makes a proffer

Hayes and Peat returned to the prosecutor’s office on Jan. 24, the documents say. Garrabrant was not present in the room when the proffer was made. Instead, the proffer was video and audio recorded. A copy of those recordings was provided to Ruud’s attorney on Jan. 31.

Ozark County Chief Deputy Winston Collins interviewed Peat at the office during the meeting. Peat reportedly told the officer that he’d recently 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, the same day officers reportedly found human remains in a burn pile on Ruud’s farm. The remains were later determined to be those of a human with a small stature consistent with a teen about Savannah’s age.

Peat reportedly told the officer that the box remained undisturbed until he found it sometime in November or December last year, two and a half years after Ruud gave it to him.

Peat said he activated the recorder and listened to at least part of a saved recording on the device, and the recording appeared to be part of a conversation between Ruud and an attorney or attorney staff member. He said as soon as he discovered the conversation, he immediately contacted his attorney.


Surrendering the recorder

Collins asked Peat to surrender the recorder to him, and in the presence of his attorney, Peat handed over the device to Collins. It remains in the possession of the Ozark County Sheriff’s Department, the statement says. 

The document says that it has been determined that the recording is likely a conversation between Ruud and Nina Lane, an investigator for the Missouri Public Defender’s Office in Ava. 

The recorded conversation occurred before the public defender represented Ruud, and the conversation was recorded without Lane’s knowledge or permission, the document says.

The digital audio recorder has reportedly remained in OCSD possession since it was surrendered and has not been copied to any other medium. No investigative reports, written or oral,  have been prepared regarding its contents, other than what was related by Peat in his proffer. 

No attorney for the prosecution has listened to the record, the document says.


The state’s argument

The state argues that a defendant seeking to invoke attorney-client privilege bears the burden of persuading the court that the information was transmitted by a voluntary act of disclosure between a client and his lawyer in confidence and by a means which, so far as the client is aware, discloses the information to no third parties other than those reasonably necessary for the transmission of the information or to accomplish the purpose for which it is to be transmitted. 

In addition, the state argues, “There currently exits no evidence to establish when the conversation between defendant and Ms. Lane took place and whether, at that time, any attorney-client relationship existed…. Defendant’s actions in surreptitiously recording the conversation and then abandoning the recording to her co-defendant constitute the transmission of the information in the conversation to a third person for purposes other than communication to her attorney.”


Holden’s initial decision

In Holden’s initial judgment, he denied the use of the recorder, saying, “The… issue was when the defendant called the Public Defender’s office and spoke with an investigator for their office. The defendant recorded the conversation. After this recording, the defendant and her boyfriend were indicted. The boyfriend is now a cooperating individual for the state. The boyfriend turned the tape over to law enforcement. No attorneys have listened to the tape. The Court finds the call by defendant to the Public Defender’s office and the conversation had during that call is privileged communication and cannot be released to anyone but the Public Defender’s office nor can it be used in the trial for any purpose including impeachment.” 


The motion to reconsider

The state, represented by Garrabrant and Assistant Attorney General Anthony M. Brown, reportedly took up its argument to reconsider allowing the recording at a July 9 hearing before Holden. 

The state argues that a defendant seeking to invoke attorney-client privilege bears the burden of persuading the court that the communication was privileged, specifically meeting the four criteria listed above (see state’s argument). Its statement says, “Generally speaking, a defendant seeking to assert attorney-client privilege must submit the communication to the court for an in camera review, sufficient for the court to meaningfully evaluate the claim of privilege….”

The state then points out that attorney-client privilege “may extend to joint defenses, however, on information and belief, the State would submit that the defendant and co-defendant, Robert Peat, would not share the same possible defenses and could not assert a joint defense. Additionally, the fact that the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office determined that a conflict existed by taking both defendants as clients shows that a claim of joint defense is not possible….

“For an attorney-client privilege to exist, there must be an attorney-client relationship between the defendant and the attorney. On information and belief, the State asserts that there is currently no evidence that such a relationship existed when the recording was made and may have been statutorily barred pursuant to Section 600.042, RSMo, as the defendant had not yet been charged at the time the recording was allegedly made.”


Evidentiary hearing

At the Aug. 24 evidentiary hearing, the state plans to prove that the recording is not privileged, the document says. 

“The defendant lost any claim of privilege when she handed the recording over to the co-defendant, Robert Peat, if even such a claim ever existed. The case law regarding attorney-client privilege is clear – it only exists if the defendant asserts it and the defendant bears the burden of showing that the privilege existed. Additionally, the court’s order to hand over the recording to the Missouri Public Defender’s Office is tantamount to a sanction, when no such sanctionable activity occurred.”

At the hearing, Holden can either uphold his decision to not allow the recording at trial and order that it be returned to Ruud’s attorneys, or he can reverse his decision and allow the recording as evidence. 

If Holden rules to uphold his decision to not allow the recording, the prosecution has the right to appeal his decision to the Southern Court of Appeals.


Background on the case

The case began when Ruud reportedly called the Ozark County Sheriff’s Department on July 20, 2017, to report that her daughter had vanished in the middle of the night. Ruud said she’d seen Savannah when she went to sleep at 11 p.m. July 19, but the girl was gone when Ruud awoke at 8 a.m. the next morning.

Savannah had moved in with Ruud in August 2016, about a year before her disappearance. She had spent her first 15 years living in Minnesota with her adopted mother and legal guardian, Tamile Leckie-Montague, before moving to Ruud’s off-the-grid farm in Longrun, near Theodosia. Tamile and her then-husband, David Leckie, were reportedly neighbors with Ruud’s mother in Minnesota when Savannah was born. The Leckies were experiencing fertility issues, and they adopted Savannah, and later, they adopted Ruud’s second daughter. 

Tamile has indicated that she and Ruud “co-parented” Savannah through the years, and when Savannah began having issues at home, the family decided it was best for the girl to move to Ozark County to live with Ruud.

In response to the report of the missing girl, dozens of first responders, law enforcement officers and volunteers searched for the girl for several days. One local resident flew over the area in his private plane trying to find any sign of her.

As the search continued, Ruud and Peat became increasingly uncooperative and questioned officers’ motives, court documents say. 

Peat reportedly told officers Ruud’s prescription of hydrocodone was missing, and he said Savannah had a history of suicide attempts. In response to that information, officers brought a dog trained to locate cadavers to the property to search for Savannah’s remains.

Then-Ozark County Associate Circuit Judge Cynthia MacPherson issued a search warrant for Ruud’s property for a specific search for Savannah or for human remains. Officers with the Ozark County Sheriff’s Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol executed the search warrant Friday, Aug. 4, and the cadaver dogs were brought back in to aid in the search.

During that search, the dogs alerted to a burn pile in an area away from the primary residence. Officers sifted through the material, which included light-colored ash, and several items that appeared to be bone fragments and teeth were taken into evidence.

Ruud put a post on Facebook saying she was there while the officers executed the search warrant. After an officer told her she was not detained, she reportedly left the property.

It’s unclear when she left, but around 8 p.m. she commented on the post, saying she had left to seek legal assistance and was not home yet. A marriage license for Ruud and Peat Jr. filed in Howell County indicates they were married that same day. Although in some instances, “spousal privilege” can protect spouses from being compelled to testify against each other, Missouri Revised Statute 546,260 says that in cases involving “an alleged victim under the age of eighteen, a spouse shall be a competent witness against a defendant spouse….”

Officers showed the collected material to forensic scientists, and all agreed that the items found were consistent with human remains. One expert said the bones had been burned at a very high temperature, and the deterioration of the items was advanced.

The bone fragments were determined to be human, from a female of small stature, around the age Savannah was at the time of her death.

On Sept. 20, 2017, an Ozark County grand jury indicted Ruud and Peat on charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, abuse or neglect of a child resulting in death, abandonment of a corpse and tampering with physical evidence in a felony. 

Ozark County Times

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