OCILLA, Ga. - Jury selection begins this week in the trial of a man accused of killing south Georgia beauty queen and teacher Tara Grinstead, nearly 17 years after she vanished.
Hundreds of potential jurors reported to the Irwin County Courthouse Monday morning for a selection process the court believes could take a week and a half.
"I want to welcome those here that are summoned for jury duty this morning," Chief Judge Bill Reinhardt said addressing the jury pool. "I understand very clearly that none of you got the summons in the mail and said ‘yahoo’. This is important ladies and gentlemen. This isn’t my court system or the sheriff’s or the clerk. This belongs to the citizens of Irwin county."
Grinstead, a former Miss Georgia contestant and high school teacher in Ocilla, Georgia, was reported missing in 2005. Authorities said she disappeared without a trace and enlisted the help of Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Family suspected foul play. Eventually the case turned into a homicide investigation, despite Grinstead’s body never being found, and two men were arrested.
The Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla, Georgia. (FOX 5) (FOX 5 Atlanta)
Ryan Alexander Duke, 36, is charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary, and concealing a death in connection with Grinstead’s disappearance.
A second man, Bo Dukes, was sentenced in 2019 to 25 years in prison for his part in helping conceal her murder.
The case has received national attention partly due to the being featured in the podcast, "Up and Vanished," and to the unlikely setting of the crime. Ocilla is located in rural south Georgia, about 180 miles south of Atlanta with a population of less than 4,000 people.
Prosecutors are expected to call dozens of witnesses to the stand. FOX 5 has learned many of the witnesses are GBI investigators who worked the case at various points. Jury selection will continue Tuesday morning.
Questioning from the judge, state and defense for those called in are expected to begin Wednesday.
Tara Grinstead (Family photo)
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 had a pretty typical childhood in the small south Georgia town of Hawkinsville. Described as a natural beauty, at 25 she won the title of Miss Tifton and competed in the Miss Georgia beauty pageant. Grinstead’s talent was singing. Her winnings paid for her real passion in the education field.
Grinstead graduated from Middle Georgia College and began teaching at Irwin County High School in Ocilla in 1998. Having fallen in love with the small town of Ocilla, she jumped at the chance for a full-time position teaching history at the area high school.
She was beloved by her students and was known to give her cell phone number to her class. She also made sure every girl got to go to prom by loaning them money to buy dresses if they could not afford it.
The former beauty queen was the force behind the high school Miss Red and Black Pageant, which was held for many years.
A banner of love and support hung outside Irwin County High School expresses love for teacher Tara Grinstead shortly after her disappearance in 2005. (FOX 5)
Grinstead would go on to earn her masters in education from Valdosta State University in 2003.
By the fall of 2005, Grinstead was teaching by day and taking classes at night. She had been applying for a doctoral program and was filling in as an assistant principal from time-to-time. She had ambitions of possibly being a principal herself one day.
Grinstead continued to coach young ladies who participated in beauty pageants across south Georgia. Her stepmother told several news outlets the 30-year-old was even helping several girls prepare for the "Miss Georgia Sweet Potato" the weekend she went missing.
Grinstead’s mother died three years after her daughter’s disappearance, never knowing what happened to her and never seeing justice be served.
Tara Grinstead would be declared dead in absentia in December 2010 by an Irwin County Probate judge.
Tara Grinstead’s home in Ocilla shortly after her disappearance in 2005. (FOX 5) (FOX 5 Atlanta)
Tara Grinstead disappearance: "The largest case in the history of the GBI"
October 24, 2005, was a typical Monday during the fall semester. But as the bell rang to start the day at Irwin County High School, something was missing. Tara Grinstead had not reported for work and had not called out sick. Her fellow educators, knowing she lives alone, called the Ocilla Police Department to perform a welfare check on the 11th grade teacher’s home.
From the outside, officer’s didn’t find anything unusual. Her car was in the driveway and the door was locked. However, a search of Grinstead’s home revealed that 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. A lamp was also broken into two pieces and was propped against the wall of her nightstand. Her pearl white Mitsubishi 3000 GT was in the carport, but its doors were unlocked and the driver’s seat was pushed back way too far from the steering wheel for someone who was about 5-feet-3-inches tall. Police said they found an envelope full of $100 in cash on the dashboard. Clay also coated the tires.
Tara Grinstead with her dog, Dolly Madison (Family photo) (Provided by family / FOX 5 Atlanta)
Grinstead’s dog and cat were also abandoned, something her friends and family said she would never do.
Her next-door neighbors told police they heard nothing out of the ordinary.
Feeling something was off, Ocilla Police Chief Billy Hancock called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to help. The case would become the largest in GBI’s history.
Investigators combed over the home and found no signs of a struggle or forced entry. They found a latex glove near her front stoop and a business card wedged in her front stoop. Investigators began to retrace Grinstead’s movements from over the weekend. They found around 8 p.m. that Saturday she attended a barbeque with friends not far from her home. She left shortly after 10:30 p.m. Earlier in the day, she had stopped at a beauty pageant in Fitzgerald and helped to coach some of the young ladies competing. There was a 34-hour gap between when she was last seen and when officers performed that welfare check on Monday morning.
A massive search was launched. Volunteers were organized to search areas of the county on foot, on horseback and using ATVs without much return. A command center was established in Ocilla. A $100,000 reward was also established for tips for her safe return with another $100,000 being offered for tips leading to the arrest of anyone responsible in her disappearance. A website devoted to generating tips in the case was set up. Still, nothing definitive surfaced.
While there were theories she just walked away from the drama of her life or even took her own life, foul play was never fully ruled out. In fact, family and friends maintain she was abducted.
Banners and signs asking for help in finding Tara Grinstead went up in Ocilla shortly after her disappearance in 2005. (FOX 5) (FOX 5 Atlanta)
Investigators initially focused in on Grinstead’s busy schedule and love life. But those avenues did not turn up any good leads. While her boyfriend of six years had recently broken up with her, he had an alibi and cooperated with the investigation.
Despite years passing, the GBI said Tara Grinstead’s case never "turned cold." However, the family eventually hired a private investigator.
In 2011, deputies searched the area around a small bridge crossing a creek, but nothing was found.
In 2015, Grinstead’s family received renewed hope in the case as investigators drained a pond in Ben Hill County after being led there by a tipster. The GBI confirmed they found some items of interest.
It wasn’t until February 2017 that the case would be blown wide open.
Bo Dukes waits to learn his fate after being convicted of concealing the murder of Tara Grinstead in March 2019. (FOX 5)
The role of Bo Dukes
Bo Dukes liked to brag, his family said, and not all of it true. And it usually came when drugs or alcohol was involved, according to witnesses at his trial. But it still shocked many when they learned that Dukes had been talking about his role in the death of Tara Grinstead as early as 2006, just months after her disappearance.
In court, a buddy from Army basic training and a cousin both testified that Dukes confessed to his role in the crime.
Another decade went by before investigators were tipped off to this. Dukes would admit it again, this time to investigators in February 2017. The jury, during his trial, saw the tape of his confession. He told investigators his friend, Ryan Duke, told him 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."
An image from the confession of Bo Dukes in his role in concealing the death of Tara Grinstead played to jurors during his trial in 2019. (Court record)
In March 2019, Dukes was convicted of helping conceal Grinstead’s death and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
During the sentencing hearing, Bo Dukes spoke directly to the victim’s family:
"To the Tara Grinstead family, I’m truly sorry. Your long suffering has been unimaginable. I failed Tara Grinstead, I failed her family, I failed the local community. And I hope these proceedings have given some closure to the many people hurt by my actions."
Dukes is not related to Duke, but the two were high school classmates.
A window at the home of Tara Grinstead in Ocilla shortly after he disappearance in 2005. (FOX 5) (FOX 5 Atlanta)
What charges does Ryan Duke face?
According to arrest warrants, Duke climbed in through a window of Grinstead’s home with the intention of burglarizing it. He then crawled into bed with her and "used his hands in an offensive manner," the warrants continue. Investigators said Grinstead was strangled to death and then her body was pulled from the home.
Court documents reveal Duke contacted his friend Bo Dukes to use his Ford F-150 to take Grinstead’s body to a farm in neighboring Ben Hill County. Once there, the pair spent two days burning her body, according to court documents.
The GBI search a pecan grove in Ben Hill Country in February 2017 for evidence in the disappearance of Tara Grinstead. (FOX 5) (FOX 5 Atlanta)
Burned fragments of human bones were found at a pecan grove in February 2017. During Bo Dukes trial, it was revealed that investigators found fragments from the hand, skull, and spine, as well as a tooth. Forensic experts testified they could tell the bones were burned due to the bluish-gray discoloration and the weight.
Duke was charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary, and concealing a death
Ryan Duke talks to his lawyer during a pre-trial hearing on March 9, 2022. (FOX 5) (FOX 5 Atlanta)
DNA delays Ryan Duke trial
Ryan Duke’s trial was scheduled to begin on April 1, 2019, but was delayed after the Georgia Supreme Court granted the defense’s appeal to have the state pay for expert witnesses and investigators. Attorney Ashleigh Merchant argued the state should provide funds even if she and her husband were representing him pro bono and not a state-appointed attorney.
Duke had fired his original public defender.
Duke’s attorneys said he had no money to pay for expert witnesses in DNA, false confessions and psychology. They argued he wouldn’t get a fair trial without them.
This low-quality image shows the large area the GBI was combing over for evidence in a pecan grove in Ben Hill County in February 2017. (FOX 5)
In February 2020, the court took up the case after Tift Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Bill Reinhard agreed to the appeal, after twice denying it prior. The court was posed the question:
"Did the trial court err in holding that an indigent defendant in a criminal case who is represented by private, pro bono counsel does not have a constitutional right or a statutory right under the Indigent Defense Act to state-funded experts and investigators?"
In an 8-1 ruling, the court said the private attorneys for Duke could seek to contract with a state agency to receive funding for expert witnesses. However, the court did not rule on whether Duke had a constitutional right to receive taxpayer assistance.
Ryan Duke makes his first appearance in court in the murder of Tara Grinstead in February 2017. (FOX 5) (FOX 5 Atlanta)
The case against Ryan Duke
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.
Duke’s former best friend and co-defendant, Bo Dukes, was convicted in 2019 of helping conceal Grinstead’s death and was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison. He told authorities he helped Duke burn her body in a rural pecan grove.
Who is Ryan Duke?
Ryan Duke graduated in 2002 from Irwin County High School, where Tara Grinstead taught 11th grade history.
His relationship with Grinstead was not immediately known.
Tara Grinstead poses with one of her pageant crowns. (Family photo)
Is Tara Grinstead still missing?
Shortly after Ryan Duke was arrested in 2017, investigators combed over a pecan grove in Ben Hill County. The property was owned by the family of Bo Dukes, who was charged with attempting to conceal a death, hindering apprehension, and tampering with evidence.
Investigators said they found fragments of human bones at the pecan grove. During Bo Dukes trial, it was revealed that investigators found fragments from the hand, skull, and spine, as well as a tooth. Forensic experts testified they could tell the bones were burned due to the bluish-gray discoloration and the weight.
Investigators said those remains belonged to Tara Grinstead.
"Up and Vanished" podcast
The case went on to receive national attention after it was featured on several major networks, but many would credit the podcast
Up and Vanished with breathing new life into the investigation. In an interview, the creators of the podcast stated that by the time they had started producing the podcast, more people felt comfortable openly discussing the case.