Trial to begin for man accused of killing Georgia teacher Tara Grinstead

Ryan Duke (left) has been charged with murder in the death 2005 death of Tara Grinstead. (File photos)

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Ryan Duke (left) has been charged with murder in the death 2005 death of Tara Grinstead. (File photos)

Tara Faye Grinstead was smart, talented and kind.

A high school history teacher who was taking night classes toward a doctoral degree. A former beauty queen whose talent was singing. A mentor to younger pageant contestants. In her South Georgia town of fewer than 4,000, Grinstead was well-known and adored by her students, colleagues and neighbors, who treated her like a daughter.

Then, suddenly, Grinstead, 30, was gone.

Her 2005 disappearance is among the most highly publicized missing persons cases in Georgia. The investigative file in the disappearance is believed to be the largest in the GBI’s history.

ExploreMay 2022: Ryan Duke not guilty of murder in death of Georgia teacher Tara Grinstead

Nearly 17 years after Grinstead vanished, a former student will stand trial. Opening statements are set to begin Monday for Ryan Alexander Duke, accused of murdering Grinstead in her Ocilla apartment and then burning her body on a nearby pecan farm. Another former student of Grinstead’s, Bo Dukes, has already been sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in hiding her death.

Since the 2017 arrests, court documents and hearings have helped piece together more of the Grinstead tragedy and its bizarre twists, including confessions from two former friends who now blame each other.

“We will never be able to provide justice for Tara Grinstead,” Marietta attorney Philip Holloway told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The closest we can get is for the truth to be known.”

Jury selection concluded Thursday, with eight women and four men seated. Holloway isn’t representing either side in the trial but has followed the case closely.

“What this case is really about is, ‘do they have the right guy on trial?’” he said.

Where was she?

On Saturday, Oct. 22, 2005, Grinstead helped several contestants primp for the Miss Georgia Sweet Potato pageant, planned that evening in nearby Fitzgerald. Later that day, she attended a cookout and returned home late that night. Her pearl white Mitsubishi 3000 GT was parked outside.

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In this Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006, file photo, missing teacher Tara Grinstead is displayed on a billboard in Ocilla, Ga. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor, File)

Credit: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006, file photo, missing teacher Tara Grinstead is displayed on a billboard in Ocilla, Ga. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor, File)

Credit: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Combined ShapeCaption
In this Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006, file photo, missing teacher Tara Grinstead is displayed on a billboard in Ocilla, Ga. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor, File)

Credit: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Credit: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

On Monday morning, Grinstead never showed up to teach history. She was likely already dead.

Neighbors hadn’t heard anything suspicious and Grinstead’s car hadn’t moved. But there was mud on the tires, a sign to Grinstead’s sister that something was wrong.

There didn’t appear to have been a struggle inside the home. Her cell phone was there, but Grinstead’s purse and keys were missing. Her car was locked and $100 cash was sitting inside, according to investigators. There were no clear indications of foul play, but there were no signs of Grinstead, either.

ExploreWho was Tara Grinstead?

There were countless searches — by foot, air and horseback — for clues. Grinstead’s photo appeared on large banners and on buttons pinned on shirts around town. The Ocilla police department, which had enlisted the help of the GBI, was admittedly stumped.

National news and crime shows did stories on Grinstead, and a reward of up to $200,000 was offered for information to solve the case. Months and years passed.

Then in February 2017, the GBI had a major announcement. There had been an arrest.

Two arrests after 11 years

It was the break that Grinstead’s family, the Ocilla community, and investigators had awaited after hundreds of leads failed to find answers. Ryan Alexander Duke, then 33, was arrested and charged with murder, GBI Special Agent in Charge J.T. Ricketson said on Feb. 23, 2017.

Arrest warrants accused Duke of burglary and aggravated assault, stating that he “used his hands in an offensive manner” and harmed Grinstead. Duke then allegedly removed Grinstead’s body from her home, according to a warrant charging him with concealing a death.

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In 2019, Bo Dukes was sentenced to 25 years for covering up Tara Grinstead's murder. (WSB photo)

In 2019, Bo Dukes was sentenced to 25 years for covering up Tara Grinstead's murder. (WSB photo)

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In 2019, Bo Dukes was sentenced to 25 years for covering up Tara Grinstead's murder. (WSB photo)

“This gentleman never came up on our radar until the last few days,” Ricketson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time.

Days later, there was a second arrest. Bo Dukes, then 32, had allegedly helped Duke “conceal and destroy” Grinstead’s body. The two are not related despite the similar last name.

The arrests left more questions, but answers wouldn’t come immediately. A judge signed a sweeping gag order in the case, limiting discussion on the case. In March 2018, Georgia’s Supreme Court tossed out the gag order. Within months, shocking details would emerge.

Were there early clues?

In August 2018, Cobb County attorneys John and Ashleigh Merchant agreed to represent Duke for free. One of their first moves was filing a series of motions, including one blaming the police for not acting on tips within weeks of Grinstead’s disappearance and requesting charges be dropped because of the amount of time that had passed.

According to court documents, Duke and Dukes told friends at a party they had burned Grinstead’s body in November 2005.

Following a November hearing, documents were leaked on social media that appeared to be from the GBI’s investigative file, and for the first time, a possible motive for the killing was released: Duke claimed he picked Grinstead’s home randomly for a theft to support his drug habit.

“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.”

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 payphone to dial 411 to get Grinstead’s home phone number. Duke said he’d hoped Grinstead would answer, but she did not.

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.

Duke was arrested the same day as his alleged confession: Feb. 22, 2017.

Who really killed Grinstead?

While Duke has remained in jail since his arrest, Dukes posted bond the same day as his arrest. But months later, he was a wanted man in an unrelated case involving two women.

On New Year’s Day 2019, Dukes allegedly sexually assaulted two women at gunpoint in his Warner Robins home. Five days later, he was found at a relative’s home.

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November 26, 2018 Ocilla - 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 the Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

November 26, 2018 Ocilla -  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 the Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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November 26, 2018 Ocilla - 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 the Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Meanwhile, Duke asked a judge to grant him a $10,000 bond, but the request was denied. At a court hearing, GBI Special Agent Jason Shoudel said a latex glove found outside of Grinstead’s home contained the DNA of both Grinstead and Duke. Duke’s defense team told the court his confession was made while under the influence of drugs, and the wrong person was charged with murder.

In March 2019, Dukes went on trial in Wilcox County. He didn’t take the stand in his defense, but the jurors still heard from him. Two recorded interviews with the GBI were played in court. In the first, Dukes denied any involvement in Grinstead’s death, but he later confessed to helping burn her body.

The jury took less than an hour to convict him of making a false statement, hindering the apprehension of a criminal and concealing the death of another. After his conviction, Dukes was sentenced to 25 years in prison. It’s unknown whether Dukes will testify at Duke’s trial or whether Duke will take the stand.

“It appears law enforcement has the right two guys,” Holloway said. “But this trial is going to be out what happened to her before she died, how she died, who did it, and why.”


THE STORY SO FAR

October 2005: Tara Grinstead, a popular Irwin County teacher, disappears from her Ocilla home.

February 2017: The GBI announces that Ryan Alexander Duke has been arrested and charged with her killing.

March 2017: A second suspect, Bo Dukes, is arrested and charged with concealing Grinstead’s death. The same week, a judge signs a sweeping gag order. The gag order is softened weeks later after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media outlets challenge it.

March 2018: The Georgia Supreme Court tosses out the gag order.

March 2019: Dukes is sentenced to 25 years for his role in hiding Grinstead’s body

May 2: Jury selection begins in Duke’s trial.