OCILLA, Ga. - When Tara Grinstead suddenly disappeared in October 2005, people in her small hometown of Ocilla had lots of questions.
Now, just weeks after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation made two arrests in the cold case murder, it seems there are even more questions about what happened to the beloved Irwin County High School history teacher and beauty pageant contestant.
“We all want to know what happened to her. Every October, we all think ‘Whatever happened to Tara?’ It was a big deal for us and now we just want answers,” said Ocilla resident Angela Strickland.
Strickland said she hopes Superior Court Judge Melanie Cross will lift the gag order she imposed February 28. The order was issued shortly after the GBI charged Irwin County High School graduate Ryan Duke with murder. The order restricts anyone affiliated with the ongoing investigation, including present and former law enforcement officers, from talking to the media. A week after Duke’s was charged with murder, the GBI charged Duke’s high school friend, Bo Dukes, with helping Duke destroy and discard Grinstead’s remains.
As a result of the gag order, media outlets and news agencies are not allowed to get updates on the criminal investigation or the search for Grinstead’s remains. GBI agents, south Georgia deputies and anthropologists spent at least two days sifting soil at a Pecan Orchard in Fitzgerald.
Thursday, at the Irwin County Courthouse, Judge Cross heard arguments from media attorneys, prosecutors and the public defender. John Mobley argued his client, murder suspect Ryan Duke has the most to lose if the judge reverses her decision.
“Judge, Irwin County is a small county, just 9,000 people live here. I’m afraid the horse is already out of the gate in terms of my client being able to get a trial here or any county near here,” Mobley said in court. “His ability to get a fair trial is already hampered.”
But media attorneys argued the gag order is a violation of free speech protections in the First Amendment.
“The media’s ability to gather news is protected under the U.S. Constitution. Just because there’s publicity, doesn’t mean that automatically prejudices the community,” said attorney S. Derek Bauer, who was hired by television stations and newspapers in Atlanta and Macon.
“None of the pretrial publicity in this case can be fairly said to have risen to the level of irresponsibility or danger that would warrant a restriction of speech,” Bauer told the judge.
Judge Cross said she will need a week to review the arguments she heard in court, including volumes of media reports, publications and links to news broadcasts produced since Ryan Duke was arrested in February.
“All we want is answers. We just want to know what happened to Tara,” said Strickland, who hopes the gag order will be lifted or at least revised.