Ryan Alexander Duke, who is charged with murder in the Tara Grinstead case, is escorted out after his motion hearings before Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla on November 26, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Tara Grinstead’s alleged killer confessed to GBI, case documents show

The man accused of killing Tara Grinstead confessed, offered his motive and an apology in the hours before he was arrested, according to investigation documents leaked online this week. The documents appear to be part of the massive case file into the death of the popular south Georgia high school teacher.

Ryan Alexander Duke said he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol when he broke into Tara Grinstead’s home hours after she told friends goodbye on Oct. 22, 2005. Duke told investigators he’d planned to steal money from her purse, but when she caught him there, Duke struck her with his fist. Or maybe he had choked her. His memory was fuzzy.

Grinstead, 30, a history teacher and a former beauty queen, was last seen alive at a party that day. When she failed to to show up in her classroom two days later, a massive search was launched to find her, and it became a national news story. The reward for information grew, but no trace of Grinstead was found.

Irwin County prosecutors have agreed to move the murder trial in the Tara Grinstead case, but still need the judge's approval.
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More than 11 years later, GBI agents knocked on Duke’s front door. He knew the reason before Grinstead’s name was mentioned.

“I was involved with it, man,” Duke said while being questioned by GBI investigators inside the Ocilla Police Department. “…I was a coward or I would have told this a long time ago and I cannot take it back, and I am ashamed of my behavior and hiding a lie.”

Duke was arrested the same day as his alleged confession: Feb. 22, 2017. Within a week, a second man, Bo Dukes, was also charged in what had become a murder investigation. But the GBI has declined to answer many key questions, including how Grinstead died and why.

Earlier this week, 11 pages from the investigative case file appeared on the social media website Reddit — including what Duke said just before his arrest. It’s not known who published the information, which is not available to the public under the Georgia Open Records law because the case is ongoing.

Prosecutors and Duke’s attorneys declined to comment on the documents Thursday when contacted by The AJC and Channel 2 Action News.

But the documents detailing Duke’s confession are authentic, according to three people familiar with the investigation.

“I am comfortable that they are legit,” Philip Holloway, a Cobb County attorney, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Holloway is not directly involved in the Grinstead case, but has been featured on a popular podcast about the Grinstead case, “Up and Vanished.” Holloway said he has seen the documents containing notes from Duke’s interview on Reddit and says they match the format of other GBI files, as well as other elements of the case file attorneys have cited in motions.

Ryan Alexander Duke (center), who charged with murder in the Tara Grinstead case, confer with his attorneys John Merchant (left) and Ashleigh Merchant during motion hearings before Chief Judge of the Tifton Circuit Bill Reinhardt at Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla on November 26, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Two members of law enforcement familiar with the case also told Channel 2 the documents are from the Grinstead case file. The two asked to not be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the case.

So who leaked the documents? Not the GBI, the agency said Thursday. After the two men were arrested, the case file was turned over to two district attorneys, Special Agent J.T. Ricketson said. Prosecutors likely provided defense attorneys with copies of the file, the GBI said.

Regardless of who released the documents, for the first time they suggest a motive for the killing among other new details: Duke claimed he picked Grinstead’s home randomly for a theft to support his drug habit and had never previously had contact with her, despite the GBI’s statement that he was one of her former students.

After hitting Grinstead, Duke told police she fell to the ground and he left. He later returned to her home with latex gloves and a quilt. Just before arriving at her home, he used a pay phone to dial “411” to get Grinstead’s home phone number. Duke said he’d hoped Grinstead would answer, but she did not.

That detail stood out to investigators.

“It should be noted the call of 411 from the pay phone was discovered by GBI agents in 2005 and had never been disclosed to anyone else in law enforcement or the media,” the documents state. “The fact Duke knew about the telephone call was guilty knowledge only known by GBI and guilty persons.”

Back at her house, Duke told investigators he wrapped Grinstead’s body in the quilt and put it in the back of a pickup truck belonging to his friend, Bo Dukes. Duke said he threw Grinstead’s purse and keys into a public trash bin in Fitzgerald before dumping her body in a field.

Several days later, Duke told investigators he and Dukes returned to the body and moved it deeper into the woods.

“Bo (Dukes) and Duke obtained several truckloads of wood from a shed on the property and cremated Grinstead’s body over several days,” the case documents state.

Duke led investigators to the area where Grinstead’s body was burned, the GBI documents state. After he and Dukes were arrested, the GBI searched woods behind a pecan farm in the area but have not publicly said what was found.

In April 2017, a grand jury indicted Duke on six counts, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary and concealing the death of another. In June 2017, Dukes was indicted on charges including concealing a death, tampering with evidence, and hindering apprehension of a criminal.

“I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused,” Duke told GBI investigators the day of his arrest. “I took her life, robbed her of a chance to get married and have children, growing old, and she didn’t deserve that and there is nothing I can do to change it.”

Duke told investigators he’d been carrying the guilt from his actions for several years, but said he’d never before been questioned about Grinstead’s disappearance. At the time of Duke’s arrest, the GBI said the suspect had never been on the radar, the AJC reported.

But Duke’s defense attorneys claimed he and Dukes told others what they had done just weeks after Grinstead’s disappearance. In a court motion filed in August and later dropped, attorneys Ashleigh and John Merchant said investigators knew of the suspects in 2005.

“It is undisputed that Irwin County law enforcement knew of these crimes within months of the disappearance of Tara Grinstead,” a court motion stated. “In fact, a search of the area where Ms. Grinstead’s body was allegedly burned was conducted…”

At a motions hearing last week in Irwin County, a judge set a trial date of April 1 for Duke’s murder trial. But the location of the trial has not yet been finalized. Duke’s attorneys have requested the trial be moved, but Judge Bill Reinhardt said he couldn’t immediately agree to the move. On Friday, Reinhardt issued his rulings on other motions, denying them all. The defense had argued that the word “murder” could not be used during the trial and that Duke’s indictment was too vague.