One October morning in Georgia, a popular ex-beauty queen fails to show up for work. For more than a decade, police search for clues to her disappearance but come up empty-handed each time. Then, finally, a tip led them to someone who might know the truth about what happened to Tara Grinstead all those years ago.
On November 14, 1974, Tara Grinstead was born in Hawkinsville, a small city in central Georgia. As she got older, she grew into a pretty and popular girl, becoming a cheerleader at the local high school. Afterwards, she studied at Middle Georgia College in nearby Cochran, hoping to become a teacher.
In 1998, Grinstead shifted to the small town of Ocilla, some 55 miles from her hometown. There, she worked as a history teacher at Irwin County High School. In her spare time, she continued to pursue a personal passion – and she entered the Miss Tifton beauty pageant in 1999.
Grinstead loved to sing, and her looks and talent helped her to walk away with the crown. After that, she traveled to the Miss Georgia pageant to compete at state level. But Grinstead wasn’t just a pretty face – she also went on to study for her master’s degree at Valdosta State University, graduating in 2003.
In October 2005, Grinstead was still teaching as well as working part time as an administrator at Irwin County Middle School. Impressively, she remained involved in the pageant world, coaching contestants and helping them with their make-up and hair.
On October 22, 2005, Grinstead appeared to enjoy a normal, pleasant evening. She attended a local beauty pageant then joined friends at a cookout. However, two days later, she failed to turn up for work. Worried that something was wrong, her co-workers notified the authorities.
When police arrived at Grinstead’s house, they found the door locked and little sign that anything was amiss. Her car was still in the driveway, unlocked, and her cell phone was still inside the house. In fact, only her keys and her purse appeared to be missing – along with Grinstead herself.
However, there were a few odd clues that led investigators to believe that something was amiss. A clock lamp was found to be broken in Grinstead’s bedroom, for example, and a single latex glove was discovered abandoned in the yard. Wanting to bring in more experienced personnel, the police called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Unfortunately, the GBI had little else to go on. They could find no indication of a struggle, and the property didn’t appear to have been broken into. The authorities were stumped. Meanwhile, the tight-knit community of Ocilla was shaken by the case.
“We are a small community and this has really touched home because it is something you read about happening elsewhere,” Bobby Conner, the principal of Irwin County High School, told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution a fortnight after Grinstead’s disappearance. “This is someone with a tremendous, magnetic personality, and the kids just love her.”
The community soon swung into action. Volunteers began combing the area on foot, on horseback and using all terrain vehicles. A Tara Command Center was established, maintaining a website and telephone line in case members of the public wanted to come forward with tips. There was even a $100,000 reward offered for information about Grinstead’s whereabouts.
But despite the efforts of police, the GBI and the Ocilla community, no trace of Grinstead was ever found. For years, her friends and family were left to wonder what had really happened to the woman they loved. And to add to the heartbreak, the investigation would go on to take a series of strange twists and turns.
In 2008, police announced that they had recovered DNA evidence from the latex glove found at the scene. However, they were unable to find a match. Then, the following year, there was an even more shocking development. A video surfaced online of a man claiming to have killed 16 women.
It was thought that Grinstead was in fact one of the man’s alleged victims. However, it was eventually discovered that the video was nothing more than a macabre hoax. And in 2010, despite the GBI’s claims that new leads were still being received, Grinstead was legally declared dead.
Then in 2016 filmmaker Payne Lindsey decided to launch a true crime podcast. Hitting on Grinstead’s disappearance as his subject, he traveled to Ocilla and began his own investigation.
His podcast, Up and Vanished, launched that same year. And although Lindsey did not succeed in tracking down the culprit, his efforts to bring the case back into the public eye ended up paying off. In fact, half a year after the first episode aired, the GBI received a tip about a man named Ryan Duke.
Duke, who had attended Irwin County High School while Grinstead was teaching there, had never been a person of interest at any point during the investigation. Nevertheless, on February 23, 2017 – more than 11 years after Grinstead’s disappearance – GBI investigators announced that they had arrested the 33-year-old man on suspicion of murder.
At a hearing later that same day, Duke was accused of breaking into Grinstead’s home. According to warrants, he attacked her when she caught him and proceeded to strangle her to death. He apparently proceeded to move the body, hoping to cover up the murder.
Eight days later, another arrest was made. An old classmate of Duke’s, Bo Dukes, was charged with destroying physical evidence. According to investigators, it is believed that Dukes burned Grinstead’s body. Both men are currently awaiting trial.
Sadly, Grinstead’s mother Faye died before these revelations came to light. But for those who remain, it seems there is finally an opportunity to understand what happened and to move on. “So many people have been hurt by this,” Connie Grinstead, Tara’s stepmother, told CBS News in February 2017. “We hope with time this community can have closure and start to heal from this.”