Emotions were high at Saturday night’s memorial service and candlelight vigil as Theodosia Area Volunteer Fire Department members joined area residents and out-of-state family members in saying good-bye to 16-year-old TAVFD junior firefighter Savannah Leckie.
Tears glistened on several faces as the program proceeded through speakers paying tribute to Savannah and then a ringing-of-the-bell and last call ceremony conducted by the Ozark County firefighters honor guard. As candles were lit and a floating lantern drifted into the darkening sky, TAVFD chief Tim Jeffery noted that the lantern was floating northwestward, in the direction of Savannah’s biological mother’s Theodosia-area property where, on Aug. 4, the girl’s charred remains had been found.
Savannah’s uncle, Shannon Prunty, from Williston, North Dakota, attended the service, as did her cousins Shelly and Todd Farber from Brainard, Minnesota, and an aunt, Lisa Orn, also from Minnesota. (See related story, page 12.)
‘God has led this case forward’
The service touched the hearts of not only the firefighters and neighbors who knew Savannah but also of the law enforcement officers and emergency personnel who came to know the teenager after her death through heart-wrenching circumstances, starting with countless hours spent searching for her after her biological mother, Rebecca Ruud, now charged with Savannah’s murder, first reported her missing on July 20.
Ozark County Sheriff Darrin Reed told the crowd of about 100 people that, although he hadn’t known Savannah personally before she was reported missing, during the investigation “I feel we’ve gotten to know her well.”
That investigation, though gruesome at times, also strengthened his faith, Reed said.
“Honestly, God has led this case forward,” he told the Times just before stepping on stage to speak. “Every step of the way, it’s just been a God thing.”
Reed said he believes that sentiment with all of his heart, and as details continue to present themselves, he feels that God is leading the way to truth and justice for Savannah. “God has his hand on this. My faith in him is so important. I’m just a tool,” he said.
Reed told Times publisher Norene Prososki Saturday evening that he had “such a bad feeling about this case from the beginning.”
While others in his department and in the community believed Savannah had run away or was taken by someone, he couldn’t help but fight a nagging feeling that the truth was much worse.
“The night before we were scheduled to take the cadaver dogs over to the mother’s property to search it, I couldn’t sleep and started praying, asking for God’s guidance and help,” he said. “And honestly, I had this strong feeling. I could feel the Lord’s presence in my living room that night.”
Reed said he awoke the next morning fueled by that experience, and it stayed with him as he and his deputies and others headed to the Ruud property near Theodosia to execute the search warrant.
Brush fires had recently burned areas on the remote farm, and a cadaver dog searching one of the burned areas “hit” on a pile of cedar, Reed said. But when officers removed the cedar they found only ashes. “Nothing was there,” Reed said. He and Deputy Curtis Dobbs remained by the ash pile as the dog and its handler moved on to search elsewhere. Frustrated, Reed said he “moved the ashes around” with a long stick he was carrying.
In doing so, he unintentionally changed the course of the investigation. It was just one of many discoveries Reed credits to God.
As his stick shoved around the ashes, something solid appeared.
“I said, ‘Curtis, come here and tell me what you think this is,’” Reed told the Times. “Curt said, ‘It sure looks a bone to me, Sheriff.’”
And just like that, the case shifted from being a search for a potential runaway to become a murder investigation. The burned bones were later identified by experts as being human remains. Continued examination linked them to Savannah.
During his remarks at the memorial service, Reed told the crowd that the sheriff’s department “has taken this case to heart. We’ve been through a difficult time, and now is the time for healing. We pray for peace, for calm, for patience, and at the end, it will be resolved.”
‘She was a special person’
TAVFD chief Tim Jeffery organized the memorial service with help from his department’s members, including media contact Teresa Orloff and her husband, Jim, who served as emcee and told the crowd Savannah “captured the hearts of many in the short time she was with us.”
The event began with a long procession of fire trucks and emergency equipment representing all but two of Ozark County’s volunteer fire departments, plus the Ozark County Search and Rescue team and vehicles from other area departments, including Eastern Douglas County and Rural Howell County.
When it was his turn to speak, Jeffery said he “didn’t know what to say” except that Savannah “was a special person and she will be missed.” He added that he likes to think Savannah is “up in heaven eating suckers,” a reference to Savannah’s work with other TAVFD members during Theodosia’s Fourth of July celebration, when she handed out suckers to children in the crowd – and ate quite a few herself, Jeffery said in an earlier interview. (See the Aug. 30 Times.)
During his part of the program, Pastor Lynn Jennings from North Star Community Church in Reuter said, “Our hearts are heavy, but our God is a God of comfort.” His remarks were followed by Sarah Jennings singing “Amazing Grace.” Additional musical selections were performed at the end of the service by members of the Theodosia United Methodist Church choir.
Former Ozark County pastor, firefighter and EMT Mike Dillin said, “It’s “important for us to come together for healing at a time like this. I sense the hurt you’re feeling. When I first heard about this happening, I started praying for Ozark County … for the fire departments and the sheriff’s department and the EMS people – everyone who was involved in the search. And I say now to all of you, thank you for your faithful service to this community.”
Former Timber Knob VFD chief Ruby Winslow, who knew Savannah as an enthusiastic volunteer at the VFW post, where Winslow is manager, said Savannah was “a bubbly child that always seemed happy.” (Winslow’s remarks are shared in full on page 4.)
Before candles were lit at the end of the service, Winslow asked all firefighters to stand for the moving firefighters bell ceremony, conducted with the honor guard and current Timber Knob VFD chief Nancy Winslow. Then came the “last call,” when the Ozark County Sheriff’s Department dispatcher’s radio call was broadcast over the loudspeaker.
The TAVFD tones were heard, followed by the dispatcher paging Savannah’s call sign. The dispatcher ended with, “This is the last call for Theodosia 17, Savannah Leckie. May you be at peace. Ozark County, out.”