Tara Grinstead case: Fate of accused killer Ryan Duke now with jury

Ryan Duke is accused of killing Irwin County High School teacher Tara Grinstead in October 2005. (File photos)

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Ryan Duke is accused of killing Irwin County High School teacher Tara Grinstead in October 2005. (File photos)

Ryan Alexander Duke didn’t kill Irwin County High School teacher Tara Grinstead and isn’t the one who should be charged with murder, his attorneys argued Thursday.

“Ryan did not do this,” attorney Ashleigh Merchant said during her closing arguments. “He did not kill Tara Grinstead. He told you. The man who killed Tara Grinstead came in here and took the Fifth.”

That man is Bo Dukes, already in prison for his role in Grinstead’s death. Duke was charged with murder after his hours-long confession in February 2017. Prosecutors say Duke killed her in October 2005.

ExploreRyan Duke confessed within 90 seconds, GBI says

“He confesses through his words, his writings, his actions. He confesses through his DNA,” District Attorney Brad Rigby told the court. “He is the killer of Tara Grinstead. The monster that he wants to hide.”

Closing arguments concluded Thursday morning in Duke’s trial, which began May 9 in Ocilla. The jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon and will return Friday to continue. In addition to malice murder, Duke has been charged with felony murder, aggravated assault, concealing the death of another and burglary.

In October 2005, Grinstead was reported missing when she failed to show up to teach her history classes. Two days earlier, she had helped teenagers prepare for a beauty pageant. Her disappearance launched a massive search and made national headlines, but Grinstead was never found.

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In February 2017, Ryan Duke gave a written confession to the GBI.

Credit: Law & Crime Network

In February 2017, Ryan Duke gave a written confession to the GBI.

Credit: Law & Crime Network

Combined ShapeCaption
In February 2017, Ryan Duke gave a written confession to the GBI.

Credit: Law & Crime Network

Credit: Law & Crime Network

It became the largest investigative file in GBI history, with some 10,000 pages. But no arrests were made in the case until 2017. That’s when Duke was charged with her murder after an interview with the GBI during which he confessed, according to investigators.

Duke said he had broken into Grinstead’s home to steal money for drugs. When she caught him, he hit her. Hours later, Duke said he called her home from a nearby payphone to see if she would answer.

Duke also gave a written statement before leading investigators to a pecan orchard, where he said he and Dukes “cremated” Grinstead. According to the GBI, Duke knew about evidence that had been released to the public. During his confession, Duke mentioned a latex glove like the one found in Grinstead’s front yard that contained his DNA.

“He thought so much of Tara, he burned her like household trash,” Rigby said during his closing arguments.

But from the witness stand, Duke said he lied to the GBI because he feared Dukes. He told the jury it was Dukes that killed Grinstead.

Dukes, who isn’t related to Duke, initially claimed he didn’t know anything about the disappearance and death. Months later, Dukes confessed. He didn’t kill Grinstead but helped dispose of the body, according to evidence at his trial. In March 2019, Dukes was sentenced to 25 years in prison for concealing Grinstead’s death.