When it comes to true crime stories, there’s the heinous, the ludicrous, and the unbelievable. And then there’s this. This true story is so inconceivable that your brain will try to convince you that what you’re reading is a dark, cruel piece of fiction. But sorry folks, this story is real and it’s as mindboggling as it gets.
There once lived a girl who was adopted as a child and raised in a seemingly ordinary family, only to be abandoned as a teenager and sent to live with her birth mother – who shortly thereafter took the girl’s life. This is the (still developing) story of Savanna Leckie, may she rest in peace.
The Wicked Birth Mother
In August 2017, the remains of 16-year-old Savannah Leckie were found on a farm in a rural area of Missouri. The remains consisted of ashes that were found in a burn pit. As investigators searched for answers, they couldn’t help but dread the path they were being led down.
As it turned out, the girl had allegedly been murdered by her own biological mother after being severely abused for months. Could it be? Could this mother really have done such a thing to her own daughter? Although the trial has not occurred yet (it’s set for some time in 2022), all signs are pointing to yes.
Adopted at Birth
Rebecca Ruud, 39, was arrested by Ozark County sheriff and charged with multiple crimes, including the first-degree murder of Savannah Leckie, the girl she gave up for adoption at birth, 16 years earlier. When Savannah was an infant, she was adopted by a married couple in Minnesota.
Tamile Montague and David Leckie took her in and raised her there nearly all her life. Her adoptive parents were reportedly neighbors with Ruud’s mother in Minnesota at the time Savannah was born. Since they were experiencing fertility issues, they ended up adopting Savannah and, later on, Ruud’s second daughter, too.
Sending Her Back to the Farm
Tamile and David eventually divorced, and Tamile started dating a new man. Apparently, the teenage Savannah didn’t get along with mom’s new boyfriend so she decided to send her daughter – who was diagnosed with autism, by the way – to live with Ruud in November of 2016.
Without much of a choice, Savannah joined her mother on her remote farm in Longrun. Ruud had been in casual contact with Tamile for years and agreed to take Savannah back. She “was delivered to Ruud in Ozark County,” a sheriff’s deputy wrote in his report.
Off the Grid
Ruud was working as a truck driver and volunteer firefighter, living on an 81-acre farm near the Arkansas border. Miles from the nearest paved road, Ruud was practically off the grid. For Savannah, it was refreshing – trees, animals, nature. It seemed ideal.
Ruud even posted photos on her Facebook page, showing everyone just how nice it was to reunite with her daughter so much time. “She looks just like you,” a friend of Ruud’s commented on a photo of the mother and daughter in December 2016. By June 2017, Ruud announced their new family business.
Online vs. Offline
Ruud declared that she and her daughter were going to start a family business making soap. “She wanted this so badly,” she wrote on Facebook: “To combine two landmark events, her Sweet 16 and the official opening of Our Hidden Holler Farm soap business.”
Online, Savannah’s life seemed eventful, sweet. Offline, the truth was much more depressing. “Savannah has been home-schooled and has almost no social contact,” one sheriff wrote in his notes. She was living, sleeping, and studying on a property that had only one generator providing the electricity.
Less Than Ideal Living Conditions
As for the water, its source was merely an old well pump. Ruud and her boyfriend, Robert Peat Jr., were sleeping in a converted metal construct, “like a barn,” the deputy noted in the affidavit. As for Savannah, she slept next door in a camper with a broken air conditioner.
The sheriff’s notes also included the following: “Savannah’s inability to adapt to life on the farm” became a “growing irritant to Ruud.” It came to the point that Ruud was worried about the cost of taking in her daughter.
The Farm or Her Daughter
“It’s to the point that I either need more help to care for her, or I can do nothing with her,” Ruud reportedly wrote to Tamile in a text message, weeks before Savannah’s remains were found. Ruud told Tamile that getting things done on the farm was “difficult” with Savannah around.
“I am severely limited in the work I can do by having Savannah,” she wrote. She even told Tamile that Savannah was “treating me like crap.” The main point: she didn’t want to lose her farm. Losing her daughter, however, wasn’t an issue.
Severe Forms of Discipline
In the months leading up to Savannah’s death, Ruud allegedly took her frustration out on her daughter in the most unjust of ways. According to authorities, it was her form of “discipline.” The criminal report revealed that Ruud forced the teen to roll around in a hog pen on more than one occasion.
She was also forced to wade in a muddy pond and dunk her head under. She would hose her daughter down and make her remove her pants so she could spank her bare bottom.
There’s Been a Fire
As a form of punishment, Ruud allegedly smashed Savannah’s cell phone and didn’t let her use Facebook. According to Ruud herself, there was a time Savannah deliberately cut her own arm “in a suicidal gesture.”
To punish her for this incident, Ruud admitted to pouring alcohol and salt on the wound twice a day, rubbing it in until the scabs came off. It was all very, very sick. Then, on July 18, 2017, a report of a fire came in. And it was Ruud who made the call to the police.
Well, That’s Strange…
Ruud called to report a fire on her property which had been burning at the top of a hill. Nearly an acre of the brush was burned, and firefighters arrived to put it out. When the firefighters finished and walked up to Ruud’s makeshift house, they asked for water.
Strangely, Ruud refused, according to the report. She told them that Savannah got a small burn from the fire – she was resting and shouldn’t be disturbed. The firefighters reported that Ruud wouldn’t let anyone close to the teen’s camper.
“I Think She’s a Runaway”
Ruud was treated for burns on her left arm, but adamantly told the crew that her daughter was fine – that she didn’t need any help. Two days later, on July 20, Ruud made another call, this time to the sheriff’s office.
“I need to report a missing child. I think she’s a runaway,” Ruud reportedly claimed on the phone. “I had a fire two days ago. Savannah is blaming herself for the fire. I got burnt; I think that’s why she ran away.”
Gone, Just Like That
Her daughter, who went missing “overnight,” took her “pillow and blanket and her favorite coloring bag. We can’t find her anywhere.” Ruud also told the police that Savannah was home when she went to bed the night before, but when she woke up in the morning, the teen was gone.
And so, the hunt began. Authorities searched the property and volunteers scoured the woods surrounding the farm as a helicopter and plane explored from above. Missing posters were displayed, but the day passed with no sign of the teenager.
Something a Lot More Sinister
In the meantime, Savannah was listed as a missing person. Four days after Ruud reported her daughter missing, she brought Savannah’s computer into the local fire department and asked a technician there to examine it.
“I considered this to be unusual considering law enforcement were actively searching for information leading to Savannah’s disappearance,” the sheriff’s deputy wrote in his notes. On that same day, Ruud’s ex-boyfriend told investigators something that made them think maybe the girl hadn’t gone missing at all – that maybe something more sinister was really going on.
The Ex-Boyfriend Speaks Up
He told them that before she went missing, he’d seen Savanah crawling through hog pens and bathing in ponds. The man also told them about the suicide attempt – the wound in her arm that Ruud scrubbed with salt to punish her.
Both Ruud and her current boyfriend, Robert, were questioned. Ruud admitted to the salt in the wound punishment as well as to the hog pen. She admitted to using severe forms of punishment, but not to killing her daughter. Still, the couple was becoming less and less cooperative as the search went on.
She Never Left the Farm
The case was becoming more complicated. Police now suspected Savannah never left the property. By the time August rolled around, the police had obtained a search warrant and showed up with dogs to search the property.
On August 4, the police showed up to the farm, but it looked different, an investigator noted. The gates and doors which were open on previous visits were now chained-locked shut. Shortly after they arrived, Ruud and Peat abruptly left. Where did they go? Well, they went to get married.
The couple drove about 100 miles to Summersville, to officially tie the knot. The timing couldn’t have been more bizarre as it fell on the same day that Savannah’s remains were discovered in a burn pit on the property.
Investigators combed the entire property. A few hundred yards from the metal shacks was a pile of fresh leaves and branches. On the pile were cigarette butts, and it was surrounded by “charred earth.” When they lifted the brush, a layer of ash lay beneath it.
Bones, Buttons, and Lye
In the ash, they unearthed a button with little ducks on it. They also uncovered bone fragments, two intact finger bones, a large vertebra bone and what appeared to be teeth. In the living quarters, police seized a meat grinder, a knife and 26 bottles of lye.
The thing about lye is it’s known to be used to speed up the breakdown of human tissue. The bones found in the pit were undeniably human. A forensic investigator said they had been burned at a very high temperature.
That Would Do It
The bones deteriorated so badly that the forensic investigator suspected some chemical was used – most likely lye. Forensic testing confirmed that the remains indeed belonged to Savannah. The sheriff’s report also mentioned the mother-daughter soap-making business – Hidden Holler Farm – and that drums of chemicals were found on the property.
The soap was made with caustic lye. “That would do it,” the forensic investigator remarked. With that, the police obtained a second search warrant. By the time they showed up on August 9, five days later, some things were noticeably missing.
Where Are the Goats and the Guns?
The goats and the couple’s guns were no longer on the property. The cops searched the premises again, and this time they left with a box of Savannah’s clothing, hair, a knife, and more than two dozen bottles of lye.
“We’re dealing with someone who’s tried to dispose of evidence,” Sheriff Darrin Reed told the press. Eleven months after moving in with her mother, Savannah was killed by the one person who was meant to take care of her. Authorities weren’t sure how she was killed, but they knew her murder took place on the farm.
On the Hunt
Ruud, meanwhile, was on the run. Investigators learned that she went with Peat to get married and that they had purchased bus tickets to leave the state. That’s when they issued an arrest warrant and started the manhunt.
“I believe Ms. Ruud deliberately and methodically caused the death of Savannah Leckie and then attempted to conceal it by destroying evidence and her remains by fire,” the sheriff wrote in the warrant. The bus tickets were from Springfield, Missouri; Ruud was headed for Kansas whereas Peat was going to Tennessee.
Just in Time
Luckily, the sheriffs made it to the Greyhound bus station in time, and Ruud was put under arrest and taken to the Ozark County jail. She had three large suitcases with her, which contained blankets. The wedding was not planned on a whim; rather it was a clever move on their part. Married couples aren’t legally obliged to testify against each other.
What they didn’t realize, however, was that isn’t always the case if the victim is under 18, the sheriff explained. Peat, 31 at the time, was later charged in September 2017, along with his wife.
Her Attempt at Charity
After being held for a while, Peat was released on his own recognizance while Ruud remained in jail. Ruud was charged with both first-degree and second-degree murder, fatal abuse of a child, abandoning a corpse, and tampering with evidence.
The main sheriff in the case stated that he wanted Ruud put to death. She was denied bail after being ruled as a flight risk. While in custody, she started a GoFundMe page to raise the money she needed for a lawyer.
The Stories She Told Her Family
Who would want to fund a suspected daughter-killer? She stated that she was only a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance. It didn’t take long for the page to be taken down. Ruud also reportedly told relatives different stories about the fire.
She told some that she was burned trying to save Savannah, while she told others that she was injured while removing a chainsaw from the fire. What about Savannah’s adoptive mother, Tamile? How did she respond to the news of Savannah’s death? She issued a statement…
Tamile in Grief
“Our family is in deep grief and is mourning Savannah as her remains were identified yesterday. This is not the outcome that we were hoping or praying for.” If only she had kept Savannah at home with her…
“We are grateful for the countless hours that the Ozark County Sheriff’s office has dedicated to searching for Savannah,” Tamile added. “We know that their work continues as they investigate her death. We ask that Savannah is remembered as a beacon of light and her light will always shine.”
It Ain’t Over Yet
The case is still ongoing, and the trial has yet to occur (as of February 2022). In fact, more information has been popping up, further incriminating Ruud. In early 2020, Ruud’s husband handed something crucial to the authorities: a tape.
In a surprising twist, the authorities are now in possession of an audio recording of a conversation between Ruud and Missouri Public Defender investigator Nina Lane. Allegedly, Ruud had secretly taped the interview with the investigator, which took place sometime between the missing report and Ruud’s arrest.
The Secret Tape
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, in which, he said, Ruud reportedly admits to some of the allegations against her.
The problem is that the tape might not be allowed to be used as evidence in the trial. The tape, made before Ruud was charged, records the 43-year-old discussing her case and it’s only been heard by the police so far. However, word always gets out.
The tape is said to contain some incriminating statements. In fact, Ruud may have fully admitted to some of the crimes she was charged with, according to The Springfield News-Leader. According to the records, Ruud gave her newlywed husband a box of her personal belongings…
She gave it to him before embarking on her “trip” to Kansas in August 2017, before getting apprehended by the police. Apparently, she didn’t realize that the digital recorder was in the unsealed box.
What’s in the Box?
She was said to have told Peat that she was heading out on one of her long-haul trucking jobs. Of course, she wasn’t going on any trip. The high court stated that “No evidence in the record suggests… that she was forced or coerced into handing over the box with the recording to Peat.”
What the record indicates is that Ruud voluntarily gave the box to Peat before she “left to go truck driving.” By late 2019, over two years later, he went through the box for the first time.
When he did, he quickly realized that the conversation on that recording might be of interest to law enforcement. So, he called his lawyer about it, who then contacted the prosecuting attorney. A meeting was set up.
The two legal sides and a sheriff’s deputy met, and Peat agreed to act as “a cooperating individual for the state,” according to The Mercury-News. At first, the recording was ruled inadmissible, but that was overturned. The legal debates over whether the tape can be used are what keep pushing the trial further and further.
A Major Piece of Evidence
“It is a major piece of evidence, and we are very pleased the Supreme Court found that the privilege had been waived,” Prosecuting Attorney John Garrabrant stated. “No one in the state besides police have listened to it,” he added.
“None of us listened to it… So, I don’t know what the content of the recording is, but I’m interested in listening to what’s on there.” The trial is set to occur in March 2022. While the case is still ongoing, other issues have been raised in the wake of Savannah’s death…
Savannah Isn’t the Only One
Savannah’s death raises questions about the lack of protection for home-schooled children in Missouri. “Savannah is at least the third sixteen-year-old girl to die of child abuse in a home-school setting in the past twelve months,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE).
Evidently, and unfortunately, there is a growing number of severe – even fatal – child abuse cases in home-school settings in several states, including Iowa and Kentucky. Coleman explained that “When children are not enrolled in school, it is easier for them to be passed from home to home.”
It Could Have Been Prevented
In Savannah’s case, she was simply handed back to her birth mother, meaning there were none of the “safeguards you would see in a formal adoption.” Other cases, (Natalie Finn in 2016 in Des Moines and Sabrina Ray of Iowa in 2017) involved home-schooled teens who died of starvation and abuse.
Like Savannah, they also had special needs. Deaf and disabled children are especially vulnerable. And since Savannah died in Missouri, a state that doesn’t require home-schooling parents to have contact with the state or home-school organizations, her death could have been prevented.
The Case of Natalie Finn
“Missouri has one of the laxest home-schooling laws in the country,” Coleman shared. “It’s not surprising that Savannah fell through the cracks. The bigger question is, how many kids like Savannah are still out there?”
In the case of Natalie Finn, both of her parents were arrested. Her mother, Nicole Finn, was someone who rescued pets but chose to starve the three human siblings she adopted. The good news: she got three consecutive life sentences without parole. The other two siblings survived, but 16-year-old Natalie was so emaciated that she died of cardiac arrest.
Locked In Her Own Home
She died on October 24, 2016, weighing only 81 pounds. Finn abused three of the four children she adopted from foster care, taking them out of public schools and locking them in her home. The shocking food-deprivation case is one of several cases raising questions in Iowa and surrounding states.
The 43-year-old mother was convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping in Natalie’s death, as well as with two counts of kidnapping for siblings Jaden, 15, and Mikayla, 14. Finn’s lawyers tried to make a case of the “divorced, overwhelmed parent,” but… please…
Forbidden From Leaving
The truth is Finn was proven to be defiant, suspicious and deeply resentful of the three siblings. In the summer of 2016, the teens sneaked out of the house to go beg for food. Finn had forbidden them from leaving the bedroom they all shared.
“If there was ever a case deserving consecutive life sentences, this would be that case,” Prosecutor Bret Lucas said. Finn submitted over 20 handwritten pages to the judge in her motion for an appeal, alleging misconduct by her attorneys. (Again… it would never work.)
They Failed Their Children
Then there was the 47-year-old adoptive father, Joseph Finn II, who was found to have helped his ex-wife confine their adopted teens in a room and starve them. He pleaded guilty to the crimes and was given 30 years in prison.
“I failed my children as a parent when they needed me the most. And I have to live with that for the rest of my life,” he said in court. He didn’t live in the house after the 2011 divorce, and according to the lawyer, he didn’t see his kids often.