Birth Mom Charged with Murder After Missing Teen's Remains Discovered in Burn Pit Near Her Home
A 39-year-old Missouri woman was charged with murder this week after authorities found the charred remains of her missing biological daughter in a burn pit near her home, PEOPLE confirms.
On Tuesday, Rebecca Ruud of Ozark County, Missouri, was charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder, abuse or neglect of a child resulting in death, tampering with physical evidence in a case and abandoning a corpse without notifying authorities in connection with the death of 16-year-old Savannah Leckie of Minnesota, according to the probable cause statement obtained by PEOPLE.
The charges came after the Ozark County sheriff, Darrin Reed, announced earlier on Tuesday that human remains found on Aug. 4 on Ruud’s 81-acre farm were identified as belonging to Leckie, who has been missing for almost a month and who went to live with her biological mom last year.
Authorities found the girl’s remains in a burn pile on a hillside just 400 feet from the trailer and metal structure where she was living while in Ruud’s care, court records show. Investigators believe Ruud allegedly abused Leckie in some unknown way, causing her death, according to Ruud’s felony complaint.
On Monday, sheriff’s deputies conducting surveillance arrested Ruud at a Greyhound bus station in Springfield, Missouri, just as she was about to board a bus out of town, according to the probable cause statement.
The contents of her three pieces of luggage included blankets and quilts, according to the statement, and authorities suspected she was attempting to flee.
The girl’s adoptive parents, Tamile Montague of Minneapolis and David Leckie of Park Rapids, Minnesota, who are divorced, are grappling with their daughter’s death.
“We are grieving for the loss of our loved one,” they said through a family spokesperson, the Ozark County Times reports.
Montague and Leckie adopted the girl just after Ruud, whose mother lived near the couple in Minnesota, gave birth to her in 2001, according to court documents.
Leckie lived in Minnesota until late 2016, when, by “mutual agreement,” she was sent to live with Ruud, the documents state.
The teen, who had a mild form of autism as well as depression and ADHD, according to court records, moved in with her biological mother because of “problems at home,” Montague previously told local TV station KSTP.
Relocating to Ruud’s home in Missouri seemed to offer a promising new start for the girl, whose mom said she wasn’t receiving the proper attention in Minnesota.
“We have been co-parenting with her,” Montague’s fiancé told KSTP. “The farm just seemed like a really good place for her [Leckie] to explore and find herself.”
‘Police Are Investigating Me’
On July 18, something strange happened:
Ruud contacted the Theodosia Fire Department in Missouri, where she worked as a volunteer firefighter, and then the Ozark County Sheriff’s Office to report a fire at her home that she claimed had left both her and Leckie with burns, the probable cause statement shows.
Upon arrival, firefighters learned that the blaze was actually a brush fire on top of a hill near Ruud’s residence and not a house fire, as initially reported, according to court records.
Emergency personnel treated a burn on Ruud’s arm. But when they asked to check Leckie’s injuries, Ruud told them the teen “was fine” and was taking a shower in the travel trailer on the property where she lived, according to court records.
Refusing further requests to examine the teen, Ruud told emergency personnel to stay away from her daughter’s trailer because she didn’t want them to disturb the girl, who she said was lying naked on her bed because it was so hot outside, the records state.
Two days later, on July 20, Ruud called the sheriff’s office yet again — this time to report that Leckie was missing. She said she thought the girl ran away because she was “blaming herself” for injuries Ruud sustained in the fire.
“We can’t find her anywhere,” she said, adding that her daughter took her pillow and blanket with her.
Ruud and her boyfriend of several months, local firefighter Robert Peat Jr., told sheriff deputies they last saw the girl at 11 p.m. on July 19, when the pair returned to the hill where the brush fire had started, staying there for “an unknown amount of time,” court records state.
After conducting extensive searches for Leckie, authorities brought in cadaver dogs to look for the girl’s remains after Peat revealed that a prescription for 30 pain killers that Ruud had filled on July 17 had gone missing after Leckie disappeared. Ruud had not previously mentioned that to police, court records state.
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Records further show that on Aug. 4, while authorities and cadaver dogs searched the brush pile for Leckie’s remains, which they found later that day, Ruud and Peat left the property and got married in Summersville, Missouri, about two hours away.
After finding the girl’s remains, investigators began probing whether an accelerant such as lye was used to burn her body, court records show.
Ruud had started a business in April called Our Hidden Holler Farm, selling homemade soap, which requires the use of lye, according to the Ozark County Times.
On June 3, Ruud posted on her Facebook page, “We are finally, officially in the soap business, just in time for Savannah’s Sweet 16… she has wanted this so badly. To combine two landmark events, her Sweet 16, and the official opening of Our Hidden Holler Farm soap business…”
Shortly after Leckie vanished, Ruud started an online campaign on GoFundMe to raise money to pay for an attorney as she acknowledged she was under scrutiny.
“Police are investigating me, which is good that they are eliminating me as a suspect,” she explained. The page has since been taken down.
Fresh Start Spirals Into Abuse Allegations
While Leckie may have moved to Ozark County hoping for a better life with her birth mother, court records show how their relationship deteriorated, particularly in the last two months.
Asked by authorities to describe the teen’s life on the farm and how she was disciplined, her biological mom allegedly said she had “smashed” the girl’s cell phone and limited her contact through Facebook “as a form of control and punishment,” court records show.
She told authorities she forced her daughter to “roll around in a hog pen on at least one occasion and wade into a muddy pond and dunk under as a form of punishment,” the records allege, also claiming that Ruud said she once punished Leckie for “deliberately” cutting her own arm by pouring alcohol and salt on the wound twice a day.
In texts sent to Montague’s mother in early June, Ruud described Leckie as a drain, complaining that the teen was “costing her so much money that she was afraid of losing her farm,” the records state.
On June 30, about the time Ruud’s boyfriend is believed to have moved in with her, records show she complained to Montague via text that it was difficult to get things done because Leckie was “treating me like crap.”
She continued, writing, “It’s to the point that I either need more help to care for her or I can do nothing with her.”
Ruud remains in the Ozark County Jail where she has been held since her arrest and has not yet entered a plea. It is unclear if she has retained an attorney.
So far, she is the only person who has been arrested in connection with Leckie’s killing. As the investigation proceeds, more arrests may be possible, the sheriff’s office has said.
Neither Leckie’s biological parents nor Peat could be reached for comment.