Big mystery baffles South Georgia town

Months go by, and Ocilla wonders: Where is Tara Grinstead?

NOTE: This article originally published on Feb. 5, 2006. A graduate of the high school where Tara Grinstead taught was charged Monday with murder in the case.

Click here to read what's happened in this case since 2006.

Tara Grinstead is still missing, and yet it seems she's everywhere.

In the Irwin County Senior Citizens Center on Fourth Street, a large banner over the entrance reads: "Missing: Tara Grinstead." Inside, as two elderly women play ring toss while others eat lunch, Linda Fletcher answers the phone in a tiny room that serves as the volunteer Tara Command Center, taking tips or dispelling the latest, wildest rumor.

On the corner of West Park and Alder, the porch and front yard of Grinstead's small white rental house are still festooned with Halloween decorations ("Beware! Creepy Hollow!"), and a "Happy Birthday" streamer that was strung below the living room window Nov. 14, Tara's 31st birthday.

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A teddy bear donning a "Teachers for Tara" T-shirt sits in a white folding chair. All this, cordoned off by yellow police crime scene tape stretched from pine tree to pine tree.

And, at Irwin County High School, where some students and faculty wear "" buttons, an enormous yellow banner hangs in the cafeteria. It's covered with handwritten wishes from students, including this from one of the many kids whose lives were touched by the popular, charismatic and vivacious American history teacher and former beauty queen:

"Come Home Soon, Chris P. — a/k/a 'Changed Man.' "

It's been more than three months since Grinstead disappeared, yet her presence is almost palpable in this small South Georgia town.

Last seen leaving a friend's cookout the night of Oct. 22, Grinstead was reported missing Oct. 24 when she didn't show up at school Monday morning.

"That day, nobody talked in the halls; nobody did anything," said Whitney Royal, a senior who took Grinstead's U.S. history class. "It was like the school was dead, because she wasn't here."

Despite several extensive searches by law enforcement and volunteers and smaller expeditions by family and friends, despite reward money that has now reached $200,000, the whereabouts of Grinstead remains a mystery.

Her disappearance has brought national attention to Ocilla, a town of 3,270.

CNN's Nancy Grace and Fox's Greta Van Susteren each have broadcast live from here, interviewing family members who have criticized the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement. That attention helped fuel rumors.

It's also left Wendy McFarland, Grinstead's teaching colleague, emotionally conflicted during each search for her friend.

"On one hand, you pray to God to find her, " McFarland said. "On the other hand, you pray to God you don't find her. It's very conflicting. We have to find her, for the family, the school, the community, her friends. Good, bad or ugly, we need a resolution."

For Anita Gattis, Grinstead's older sister who's become the family spokeswoman, it's all "indescribable."

"Sometimes, it's like this is a little snow globe at Christmas, with people and a little village, and it's like it's someone else's life. It's not. It's my family," she said.

The family — including Gattis' husband, Larry, a doctor whose practice is a little more than an hour away in Hawkinsville, their son Gabe, 13, and her mother, Connie — insist that Tara didn't simply leave town or disappear on her own.

"She was six weeks away from getting her third post-graduate degree, which would've upped her pay by about $10,000, " said Anita Gattis. "And, she'd never do that to our mother."

Asked if she thinks her sister is still alive, Gattis nodded. "I've always been very adamant about that, " she said. "Tara's a survivor and a fighter. She's one of God's good angels, and he wants her to still be on this earth."

Gattis feels her sister left with someone she knew on the night she disappeared. Her house was locked but her car, a pearl white Mitsubishi 3000 GT, was unlocked and in the carport, with $100 in the console and clay on the tires.

"Tara never left her car unlocked, and never drove on dirt roads," Gattis said.

"There was no struggle in the house. Tara was a singer; that was her talent in pageants," Gattis said of her sister, thrice crowned Miss Tifton and a contestant in several Miss Georgia pageants. "If someone was removing her, she'd project her voice. And she took self-defense. She'd go out kicking and screaming and fighting."

Myrtle and Joe Portier, the elderly couple who live next door to Grinstead, never heard any noise that October night.

Grinstead had spent the day at home, helping several of her students primp and prepare for the Miss Georgia Sweet Potato pageant that evening in nearby Fitzgerald.

"We thought she was home the whole time, with her car in the carport, " said Myrtle Portier, who is very close to Grinstead. "We didn't realize until Monday morning, when she had no lights on."

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Grinstead was taking graduate courses three nights a week at Valdosta State University and would turn on a lamp in the front corner room of her house, a signal to the Portiers that she was safely home.

"It does seem to be kind of an overwhelming and baffling case," said Ocilla police Chief Billy Hancock. "We've had missing persons before but usually those turn up in a few days — usually juveniles who come back to their homes."

More than three months later, Grinstead is still missing.

"I'm very pleased with the search, but not so pleased with the investigation, " said Gattis.

She said her family, which has hired a private investigator and consulted psychics, wants more information from the GBI.

"It is still a very active investigation," GBI spokesman John Bankhead said. "We work on it daily. We've got leads we're pursuing. In a case like this, the family members get upset because it's not resolved. We want it resolved.

"There have been allegations by the family that we've mistreated them or dropped the ball," Bankhead said. "We understand their issues. We're doing everything we can to find out where she is."

Among the people investigators first interviewed were an ex-boyfriend of Grinstead and a former student.

Some friends and colleagues of Grinstead said they believed she'd unsuccessfully tried to reconcile with the boyfriend.

Lately, more rumors have taken hold. According to Gattis, "Last weekend, it was that the GBI surrounded my husband's office and took him out in handcuffs. Last Monday's was that I was arrested because I had murdered Tara and Larry had covered it up."

In a story on the CourtTV Crime Library Web site, Larry Gattis said he was questioned by investigators about rumors of a possible affair with Grinstead. If that were true, Gattis was quoted, "I wouldn't be alive right now. If you know my wife, I'd be pushing up daisies somewhere."

Instead, Gattis and his wife say they continue to push the investigation whenever possible.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

On Park Street, Myrtle Portier cares for her neighbor's historically named pets: Dolly Madison, a year-old German shepherd, and a cat named Herman Talmadge. At Irwin County High, they're all trying to carry on as best as possible.

"She was — she is, I don't want to use the past tense — a very dear friend," Sandy McClurd said, her eyes quickly welling up.

McClurd, 57, a public relations specialist for the school system, said she and Grinstead quickly bonded despite their age difference.

"It was almost like we'd known each other a long time," said McClurd, who has purposely avoided walking by room 622 — Grinstead's old classroom — since her disappearance.

McClurd said Grinstead — who gave her phone number out to many students — felt every senior girl should attend the senior prom and bought some their prom dresses. Some paid her back $5 a week; others, $5 a month. It didn't matter.

"And I can't tell you how many yearbooks she's purchased for seniors," McClurd said.

Kaysie Harper, a junior in Grinstead's U.S. history class last fall, described her as "a spontaneous teacher."

"She's been just about everywhere, knew just about everything about history. She made it exciting. She's done my makeup for pageants and did my hair for homecoming. She's the only one I trust to do my hair."

"It's really quiet now, " junior Abby Boazman said of history class with a new teacher in Grinstead's old classroom. "She's the reason I want to be a history teacher."

Grinstead was the force behind the Miss Red and Black Pageant, which the high school will hold for the sixth year on March 11 at the Grand Theater in Fitzgerald.

This year's theme: "Motown From The O'Town!" On March 4, contestants from 12 months old to age 23 will pay $75 each to compete in the Miss Spirit of Tara pageant at the Tift Historical Theatre, all proceeds benefiting the reward fund for Grinstead.

"So much has been made of Tara being the beauty queen, " McFarland said.

"But for her, it was never about being beautiful or the beauty queen. Tara totally funded her undergraduate education from beauty pageants. That's why she did it. And she said it helped improve her self-esteem, too. That's why she's done it here, taken girls under her wing, given them confidence."