Ryan Duke Trial: Defendant in Tara Grinstead murder case points at Bo Dukes, who invokes 5th Amendment

Ryan Duke, the man accused of murdering Tara Grinstead, took the stand as a defense witness Tuesday at the Irwin County Courthouse.

Grinstead was a history teacher and beauty pageant queen. She went missing in Ocilla, Georgia, in 2005. More than 10 years passed before Ryan Duke was charged with her murder. The trial comes after Bo Dukes, a high school friend of Ryan Duke, was convicted of concealing Grinstead's death, which led investigators to Ryan Duke. 

Duke took the stand and immediately denied murdering Grinstead and claimed he didn't know how she died. He said Bo Dukes admitted to killing her. Ryan Duke testified he saw Tara Grinstead's body at the pecan orchard, where the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found her remains years later. 

The defense questioned Duke about his life and relationship with Bo Dukes. Ryan Duke said he first started "hanging out" with Bo Dukes during his senior year of high school. 

Ryan Dukes said he started to see Bo Dukes more often after he was discharged from the Army for being AWOL. Bo Dukes stayed in a bedroom in a trailer they rented in Fitzgerald, Ryan Duke testified. The defense questioned him about increasing drug use and alcohol consumption leading up to the time Grinstead went missing. Ryan Duke testified he "passed out" after a night of drinking before Tara Grinstead allegedly died. 

A "panicked" Bo Dukes woke him up the following morning, Ryan Duke testified.

"He said he killed Tara," Ryan Duke said. 

Ryan Duke said he didn't know what he was talking about or believe him at first. Ryan Duke said Bo Dukes had a wallet with Grinstead's driver's license. He recognized her from Irwin County High School, where he was a student, and she was teaching at the time. Ryan Duke testified he drove from Fitzgerald to Ocilla in an unsuccessful attempt to return Grinstead's wallet, and he left Bo Dukes in the trailer.

He returned to the trailer, according to testimony, where Bo Dukes said he'd show him where Tara Grinstead's body was. Ryan Duke said he drove toward a pecan orchard, owned by a relative of Bo Dukes. 

More than an hour into his testimony, Ryan Duke described the moment Bo Dukes led him to Grinstead's body. Ryan Duke said he thought Bo Dukes was playing a joke on him, until he saw her corpse.

"(Bo Dukes) reaches down, he grabs her arm and flips her over," Ryan Duke said. 

Ryan Duke said he wouldn't have recognized who it was if Bo Dukes hadn't told him. He testified he could tell the body was a woman's, wearing a t-shirt and some type of jogging pants. She wasn't wearing shoes.

Ryan Duke testified he went to help Bo Dukes load wood into his truck and move Grinstead's body. He said Bo Dukes was "almost excited, cheerful," when they went to move Grinstead's body. Ryan Duke said he helped Bo Dukes load Grinstead's body onto a pile of wood, covered her with more wood and lit the pile on fire. That was the last time Ryan Duke said he saw Tara Grinstead's body. 

"It's like he wasn't there," Ryan Duke said when asked about Bo Dukes' demeanor while the body burned. 

Ryan Duke said he was afraid of Bo Dukes, who repeatedly told him not to talk about Tara Grinstead. The returned to the orchard once, where the ashes looked like a small campfire. They went to the orchard one other time for a part in November 2005.  

Ryan Duke said he decided to take the blame for Tara Grinstead's death in 2017 because he didn't think Bo Dukes would tell the truth. He said he lied to the GBI agent that interviewed him about breaking into Grinstead's house and fatal striking and choking her. 

The state's line of questioning tried to show the jury that Ryan Duke is capable of lying. Duke said he never took Grinstead's belongings to police when he tried to return them.

In an exchange, the state asked Duke if he would lie when the stakes were high. He denied that, but when asked why he lied to the GBI about killing Grinstead, Duke said, "I'm trying to make that right."

Tara Grinstead's father was in the courtroom on Tuesday while Ryan Duke was questioned. 

The defense said Bo Dukes' attorney indicated his client would invoke the 5th Amendment if called to testify. The defense called him to the stand and, with his attorney standing next to him, he responded to each question with, "Under the advice of my council, I will be invoking my 5th Amendment right not to provide testimony today." 

"Mr. Dukes, do you plan to invoke your 5th amendment right to every question?" Superior Court Judge Bill Reinhardt said.

"I do, Your Honor," he said.

"Any reason to continue this?" the judge said. 

Defense attorneys began to call witnesses of their own Monday when the state prosecutors rested their case after over a week of arguments.

The defense had previously asked the judge to dismiss the case, an action that was quickly declined.

If convicted of murder, Duke faces an automatic sentence of life in prison. A court fight over funding for his legal defense and the coronavirus pandemic contributed to long delays in the case going to trial.

Closing arguments could begin by Thursday morning and the case could be in the hands of the jury by the afternoon. 

Ryan Duke Trial Day 6 recap

On Monday, the state rested its case, but not before calling GBI agents and a forensic specialist to the stand. The jury saw pictures from Fitzgerald Farms, where agents searched for Grinstead's remains in 2017. Jurors also heard from a latent fingerprint examiner who came in 2017 to try to identify and confirm the prints found on a glove in Grinstead's yard.

The defense called a psychologist, Dr. Christopher Tillitski, who evaluated Ryan Duke in 2019. Tillitski testified that Duke was sleep-deprived and there were drugs in his system when he confessed in 2017. 

The defense also called neighbors who provided testimony that supported a theory that Grinstead may have voluntarily left the home. 

Ryan Duke Trial Day 5 recap

On Friday, two key witnesses took the stand: the forensic biologist who tested the glove found at Tara Grinstead's home and the forensic anthropologist brought in who helped find Grinstead's buried remains.

Ashley Hinkle, a forensic biologist with the State Crime Lab testified she swabbed the glove in June 2015.

"There was a profile that matched a toothbrush of Tara Grinstead and there was an unknown male profile," Hinkle said.

She described the various DNA tests performed on the glove hoping to find clues

"It was about 90% unknown male and 10% Ms. Grinstead,"

This DNA test was taken two years before defendant Ryan Duke’s recorded confession.

The state argues in 2017 Duke was swabbed, and his DNA positively matched that found on the glove.

The defense argued the validity of the report and test.

Anthropologist Dr. Ashley Gooding was brought in by the GBI in 2017 to help dig and identify possible human remains in the pecan orchard Duke claimed to have burned and buried Grinstead's body.

"It’s a portion of the human cranium. It’s a piece from the side here," Good said.

Gooding testified her team found finger, teeth and cranium bones in the area.

"Approximately 20 bone fragments that could be considered human bones."

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The jury heard the confession Duke made in 2017. Another video shown shows Duke leading investigators to where he says he dumped and burned her body.

"I can’t lie. I can’t live with myself I’m so sick of this," Duke said in a recorded video.

In his own recorded words, Duke walked GBI investigators through how he killed, burned and buried Tara Grinstead.

GBI Agent Jason Shoudel was on the stand to testify. Shoudel was the one who taped the confession.

"I was stealing from her purse and she snuck up on me. She snuck up on me and I hit her. It was reactionary. I ran. I didn’t know what else to do," Ryan said.

Duke said he was on drugs at the time he broke into Grinstead's Ocilla home and doesn’t remember how exactly he killed her.

Duke said he left the home in a panic but came back to remove the body.

"He actually made the motion in the interview and put his hands up like this mimicking how he held her body," GBI Agent Jason Shoudel said. "As he’s doing that he started getting emotional and said, ‘She was so small,’ referring to the size of her in his arms,"

Another video shown portrayed Duke leading investigators to the pecan orchard he claims he took the lifeless body.

"It should be an opening when we cremated her. It was an opening like that. Wide open space so the woods wouldn’t catch on fire," Duke said while trying to find the location.

The defense argued Duke was on pain pills and not in his right mind when he made the confession.

GBI Agent Shoudel testified Duke knew what he was doing, and that Duke told investigators he was mentally and physically cognitive.

Duke says he didn’t know Grinstead other than the fact that she was a teacher at the high school. He claims he realized this after she was dead.  Duke also admitted to taking her purse and keys and leaving a glove at the residence.

The state says DNA later showed the glove did have his DNA on it.

Ryan Duke Trial Day 3 Recap

Wednesday, prosecutors called two witnesses before dismissing the jury a lunchtime to debate how much of the Duke's confession could be shown.  

Witness Randy Hudson owned the pecan orchard where Grinstead's body was allegedly disposed. He's the uncle of Bo Dukes. Hudson said at the time he thought the burn site was an innocent bonfire. 

"It was built out in the area where there just should not have been a fire," Hudson said.

GBI agent Gary Rothwell said GBI agents' reports included the names Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes in 2005. Rothwell said the GBI never followed up after their names appeared in an investigative summary.

Prosecutors asked Rothwell why no one followed up on a tip naming Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes as suspects.

"That is a question that has bothered me for years," he said. "I have talked to other agents and reviewed the documents and come to a recollection of what happened, and that is not an excuse for what happened."

Rothwell took the blame for the GBI assuming local law enforcement determined information indicating Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes as persons of interest were "unfounded." The GBI was overwhelmed with tips at the time and this one slipped through the cracks. 

"That was a presumption that we should have never, ever made, but it happened, and it's my fault," Rothwell said.

Ryan Duke Trial Day 2 Recap

Tuesday, the witness list focused on the investigators who have worked the case over the years.

While it might have not been explosive "smoking gun" testimony, it did paint a picture of the scene police officers were met with during a welfare check at the high school teacher’s home 17 years ago when she failed to show up to work on a particular Monday in October 2005.

The morning started with testimony from Bill Barrs with the Ocilla Police Department, who was tasked with checking Grinstead’s home.

Several agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation also took the stand. They laid out the evidence collected at Grinstead’s property just following her disappearance.

Another main focus on Tuesday was the glove found just outside Grinstead’s home. Jurors heard the forensic analysis on that piece of evidence.

Jurors also heard voicemails left in the home.

Ryan Duke Trial Day 1 Recap

State and defense teams made their pitches to jurors and began examining witnesses.

The defense argued the prosecution has no evidence tying Duke to the house that night and Duke's confession was made under the influence of medication. The defense argued the case is about power and influence, which their client lacks. 

The state went through photos and evidence, including a glove found at the home with the DNA of Grinstead and a man. Prosecutors said Duke took law enforcement to the pecan orchard where he confessed to burning and dumping Grinstead's body.

The state's witness called Grinstead's 79-year-old father, Billy Grinstead, to the stand, who broke down. Prosecutors called friends and acquaintances of the Georgia teacher and beauty queen.

One witness, Heath Dykes, testified to having a relationship with Grinstead while his was married. He went looking for her the night she disappeared and sparked the search for the woman when he alerted authorities the next day. 

Tara Grinstead missing person, death investigation

Tara Grinstead poses with one of her pageant crowns. (Family photo)

Tara Grinstead poses with one of her pageant crowns. (Family photo) (Provided by family)

Tara Grinstead didn’t show up for work on October 24, 2005. 

Her colleagues at the school where she worked called the Ocilla Police Department to check on the 11th-grade teacher’s home. 

Investigators said Grinstead’s car was in the driveway when police arrived at the home. The door was locked. 

A search of Grinstead’s home revealed some oddities: her cellphone was still connected to a charger by the nightstand, her keys and purse were missing and her bedside clock was on the floor and was six hours off.

Police found her car seat in position for someone taller, and police said they found an envelope with $100 in cash on the dashboard.

 There was a 34-hour gap between when someone last saw her and when officers performed that welfare check on Monday morning.

Ocilla Police Chief Billy Hancock called the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to help.

Years passed, and the GBI said Tara Grinstead’s case never "turned cold." However, the family eventually hired a private investigator.

Who is Bo Dukes?

Bo Dukes told investigators his friend, Ryan Duke, confessed he had accidentally killed Grinstead and needed his truck to transfer her body. 

He admitted to helping his friend burn the body until, "it looked like it was all ash."

In March 2019, Dukes was convicted of helping conceal Grinstead’s death and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Who is Ryan Duke?

Ryan Duke is standing trial for Grinstead’s murder

Defense appeals delayed Ryan Duke’s trial since the original 2019 start date.

A Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent testified at a pretrial hearing that Duke "spontaneously and unsolicited" confessed to killing Grinstead after breaking into her home to steal money for drugs. GBI agents have also said DNA matching both Duke and Grinstead was found on a latex glove discovered in her yard.

Duke’s attorneys have said he made a false confession under the influence of drugs. They said in court filings that Duke was asleep at home when Grinstead was killed.

If convicted of murder, Duke faces an automatic sentence of life in prison.

Who was Tara Grinstead?

Tara Faye Grinstead was the youngest child of Bill and Faye Grinstead, born in 1974. She and her older sister Anita grew up in the Georgia town of Hawkinsville. 

The talented signer was named Miss Tifton and competed in the Miss Georgia beauty pageant.

Grinstead graduated from Middle Georgia College and began teaching at Irwin County High School in Ocilla in 1998.

An Irwin County Probate judge declared Grinstead dead in absentia in December 2010.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.