Updated: May 22
Ocilla, Georgia is a town of a few thousand people, just under 200 miles south of Atlanta. But in 2005, this tiny town was shook by a tragedy and a mystery. Let’s talk about Tara Grinstead, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in over 15 years.
Tara Faye Grinstead was born November 14, 1974. Any source you find on this case will show Tara as happy, popular and beautiful both inside and out. Her friend Maria Woods Harber said Tara had a big smile and could say anything to help you feel better if you were down.
And Tara used this to her advantage, competing in beauty pageants from a young age. After graduating from Irwin County High School, Tara used the prize money she’d saved up to pay for college. By 2005, 30-year-old Tara was teaching eleventh grade history at her old high school, where she also served as the junior varsity cheerleading coach. She was in the process of applying to a doctoral program, hoping to study business administration and eventually become a school principal. She even filled in as assistant principal at Irwin County High from time to time.
disappearance & investigation
The night of October 22, 2005 was a busy one for Tara. After helping out with makeup for a local beauty pageant, she travelled to a barbecue, where a friend later said nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Tara left the barbecue around 11 pm; that was the last sighting of her.
Tara failed to show up for church the following day, which was unusual for her. When she also failed to show up for work the following morning without calling to notify anyone, her co-workers knew something was wrong. They contacted the police.
When police arrived at Tara’s Ocilla home, they found somewhat of an unusual scene. Her house was locked, but her car was unlocked and the seats had been adjusted. Her cat and dog were inside, along with the clothes she’d worn Saturday night — but her purse, keys and the earrings she’d last been seen in were gone. Her alarm clock had fallen and a lamp was broken, but there wasn’t much else out of place or indicating a struggle. Well, except for one thing: A single latex glove on the front lawn.
It didn’t take long for Ocilla police to realize they needed extra help, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (or GBI) was contacted around 11 that morning. GBI agent Gary Rothwell soon arrived on the scene, and initially believed Tara may have left on her own. However, when he saw the latex glove, he started to think otherwise.
The latex glove was tested for DNA; Tara’s DNA was found on it, along with the DNA of an unknown male. Investigators compared the DNA of 150 men to the DNA on glove, but there were no matches. Teams with cadaver dogs and divers searched the area, but also found nothing. A tip line and website were soon set up by volunteers, and hundreds of tips about the case came in. A $200,000 reward was set up: $100,000 for information leading to Tara’s safe return and another $100,000 for information leading to arrest of person responsible. But none of this generated any solid leads.
And with Tara’s mysterious disappearance came plenty of theories and speculation. People wondered if she’d been killed, had taken her own life, was abducted, being held hostage somewhere or left voluntarily. At one point, GBI agents met with detectives in Florida to investigate the theory that Tara’s case was connected to Jennifer Kesse’s. Jennifer Kesse disappeared from Orlando in 2006, and her case is pretty well known in true crime circles. However, despite being two women from neighboring states who both seemingly vanished from their homes, investigators ultimately concluded their cases probably weren’t connected.
Another subject of speculation was a married police officer whose business card was found in Tara’s home. Heath Dykes was a Grinstead family friend who lived in a nearby town. He reportedly came to visit Tara on the night of the 23rd but, when he didn’t get an answer he left the card under her door. A friend of Tara’s said in a Dateline interviewthat she and Dykes were “close,” but it’s not clear if they were romantically involved. The GBI has since cleared him of any involvement in the case.
But one man who does claim to have been romantic with Tara is Anthony Vickers. He was a former student of Tara’s who says they had a sexual relationship. He was arrested at one point for harassing her, though those charges were later dropped. He was questioned, but nothing came of it. There were also rumors of Tara having affairs with other former students.
But maybe one of the most questioned people in this case — at least by the public — is Marcus Harper. Tara and Marcus met through a mutual friend in 1998 and soon started dating. Throughout their relationship, Marcus told Tara that he wasn’t interested in marriage, ever. By October 2004, Tara, wanting more of a commitment, called the relationship off after almost six years of dating. The two remained friendly; according to Marcus, he never tried to get back together with Tara but she wanted to.
The last time he saw Tara was on the morning of October 14, when she should have been at work. She was clearly upset, and even said, according to him, that she would take her own life if she found out he was dating someone else. She came back later that afternoon and said she wanted to hug him for the last time. After this, they e-mailed back and forth a bit but didn’t see each other in person again.
Tara’s sister, Anita Gattis, was suspicious of Marcus from the start. He was questioned by police, who used luminol in his truck and swabbed him for DNA. However, he said he was out all night and through the early morning hours of October 22 and 23. This alibi was corroborated by the people he was with. There were also rumors that he was physically abusive to Tara; he has denied this and there’s no evidence of it.
In 2009, an anonymous YouTube user began posting videos. He called himself the Catch Me Killer and claimed to have killed 16 people. He said he had information on Jennifer Kesse’s case and had killed a “beauty queen” who he never mentioned by name but who was obviously Tara from the rest of his description. However, this all turned out to be a hoax. The man, Andrew Scott Haley, was later convicted of making false statements and tampering with evidence.
In 2010, Tara was declared legally dead at her father’s request. In 2015, someone called in a tip to the GBI that said there might be evidence in a pond in Fitzgerald, less than 10 miles north of Ocilla. Investigators searched the pond and announced they had found items, but didn’t specify what they were.
Up and Vanished podcast
In 2016, Atlanta filmmaker Payne Lindsey wanted to make a documentary on an unsolved missing persons case. When he found out about Tara Grinstead, he was intrigued. After posting about the case on Websleuths, he got in touch with Dr. Maurice Godwin, a private investigator who had worked on the case. The planned documentary ended up being a podcast called Up and Vanished, which released its first episode on August 7, 2016.
Because the case was still considered an open investigation, Payne Lindsey wasn’t able to access any documents or files. He began by trying to talk to people in the area, but they were reluctant to share anything. After he began talking to people who knew her but weren’t close to her — and after the podcast started airing — people were more willing to open up.
Just six months after launch, the podcast had garnered over 30 million downloads. It was later turned into a TV show of the same name which focuses on unsolved missing persons cases. And the year after the podcast began airing, there would be a major break in the case.
Ryan Duke arrested
It’s not clear just how much of a role Up and Vanished played in what happens next. The GBI claimed the media in general played a big role. Other sources suggest that the person in question came forward out of guilt eating at her. Either way, on February 23, 2017, the GBI announced that someone had come forward with a tip a few days earlier. Brooke Sheridan told them that her boyfriend, Bo Dukes, had helped his friend Ryan Duke hide Tara’s body — after Ryan had killed her.
Ryan Duke was arrested that day. Both men were former students at Irwin County High School, where Tara taught; most sources said Ryan was in his 30’s, but a few said he only graduated three years before her disappearance and one even said she taught him.
On April 12, Ryan Duke was indicted on one count of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, burglary, aggravated assault and concealing a death. According to arrest warrants, Ryan broke into Tara’s house and killed her with his hands. Then he removed her body from the house. DNA testing on the latex glove found in Tara’s front yard also matched him.
In a four hour confession that would later be leaked online, Ryan told the GBI that he broke into Tara’s house looking for drug money, but she caught him and he attacked and accidentally killed her. A few hours later, he called her house from a pay phone. When she didn’t answer, he went back and took her body out of the house, wrapped it in a blanket and asked his friend Bo Dukes for help. The two took her body to a pecan farm owned by Bo’s uncle, where they spent at least two days burning it.
The pecan farm Bo and Ryan claimed to have burned Tara’s body on was also searched in February 2017. According to The Charley Project, a few bone and tooth fragments were found there, but none were big enough to test for DNA.
Bo Dukes arrest & trial
On March 3, 2017, Bo Dukes turned himself in. Anita Gattis actually knew Bo’s family but never thought he was involved in her sister’s disappearance. He was released on bond later that day. On June 18, he was indicted on charges of concealing a death, tampering with evidence, and hindering apprehension of a criminal.
And his friend Ryan wasn’t the only one who had already talked. Just a couple of months before their arrest, a man named Garland Lott was interviewed by the GBI. Lott claimed he overheard Ryan and Bo drunkenly confess to Tara’s murder back in 2005.
A man named John McCullough also claimed to overheard Ryan and Bo confess. McCullough, who met Bo Dukes in the Army in 2006, said Bo “told me that his friend … accidentally strangled her and he needed help getting rid of the body so that way there was —nothing to find.” McCullough said he called the Ocilla Police Department and two other police departments before reaching out to the GBI. He kept reaching out to them periodically over the years, but says he never heard back.
Bo Dukes already had a criminal history. Around 2013, he spent time in prison for stealing $150,000 from the U.S. Army. In January 2019, he was arrested for a New Year’s Day incident where he allegedly held two women hostage and raped at least one of them. I couldn’t find information on a trial, acquittal or conviction; I assume he’s awaiting trial for these charges but I’m not sure.
Bo went on trial March 18, 2019 on charges of concealing a body, hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and lying to police (the latter two of which he’d been charged with later in 2017). John McCullough testified about Bo’s 2006 confession where he said Ryan asked him (Bo) if he could use his truck to dispose of Tara’s body. Gary Rothwell addressed all the reported confessions and tips that went seemingly unnoticed for over a decade. He said the GBI thought these tips had been addressed by local law enforcement, but that they still should have followed up.
Ryan Duke legal matters
As of April 2021, Ryan Duke is still awaiting trial. His trial initially scheduled to begin in April 2019 but has been delayed multiple times, partially because of the pandemic but largely because of various legal battles. He has since rescinded his confession and now claims he was at home asleep during the time frame in which Tara disappeared. Ryan’s lawyers say he was on drugs when he confessed and that they don’t believe he can get a fair trial in Ocilla.
But Ryan didn’t claim to have no knowledge of Tara’s disappearance. According to his new statement, Bo Dukes and a man named Ben McMahan were also at his house that night, but left at some point. Ryan said he falsely confessed because he was afraid of Bo Dukes; I assume here that he’s trying to throw both these men under the bus and say they were actually responsible for Tara’s disappearance.
In May 2019, Ryan’s lawyers filed an appeal saying the state should pay for expert witnesses in the trial. This request went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court where, after at least one denial, the request was finally granted on March 15, 2021.
And that’s the latest update in this case as of April 27, 2021. I’ll be sure to include any updates I find at the top of this page. I thought about delaying my coverage of this this case until the trial was over, but it hasn’t even started yet and it’s not clear when it will. So I will keep you guys updated if and when there are any more major breakthroughs in the case.
Tara Faye Grinstead was 30 years old when she disappeared on October 22, 2005. The Charley Project says she is classified as endangered missing.
Tara is a white female who was 5 foot 3 inches tall and 100 to 110 pounds at the time of her disappearance. She has brown hair and eyes and a tan birthmark on the front of one of her shoulders. Her ears and belly button are pierced, and she might have last been wearing sweatpants and gray sneakers. If she were alive today, she would be 46 years old.
This is one of those cases where we know what probably happened, but there’s just not solid proof of it. Hopefully one day there will be — and, of course, I will let you know when there is some sort of verdict in Ryan Duke’s upcoming trial.