Ryan Duke Trial Day 1: Tara Grinstead's father, friends take the stand

State and defense teams made their pitches to jurors and began examining witnesses in the murder trial for the man accused of killing Tara Grinstead, nearly 17 years since the last time anyone saw the south Georgia teacher and beauty queen alive. 

Grinstead was a high school teacher, who went missing in 2005. A former student, Ryan Duke, is charged with her murder. It’s been five years since investigators arrested Ryan Duke. 

Prosecutors believe Ryan Duke broke into Tara Grinstead's home, murdered her and hid her body by burning it in a pecan orchard. The state plans to call GBI agents, Tara Grinstead's family and friends and experts as witnesses. Most importantly, the state said, is Duke already confessed to the killing in 2017. 

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. 

Jury selection

The trial began with jury selection on May 2. 

Hundreds of potential jurors reported to the Irwin County Courthouse.

Some expected the process to take at least one-and-a-half weeks, but the jury pool of 800 people decreased to 12 in about four days.

Tifton Superior Court Chief Judge Bill Reinhardt is overseeing the case from the bench. 

"I understand very clearly that none of you got your jury summons in the mail and said, ‘Yahoo, I get to go serve on the jury,’" Reinhardt said. "But it’s important, ladies and gentlemen. This is not my court system, or the sheriff’s or the clerk’s. This court system belongs to the citizens of Irwin County."

Tara Grinstead missing person, death investigation

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 report.