5 Things to Know About the Cold-Case Murder of a Georgia Teacher and Former Beauty Queen
An 11-year mystery in Georgia may finally have an answer.
A popular high school history teacher, Tara Grinstead left a dinner party on Oct. 22, 2005, and was never seen again. Grinstead, 30, was a former Miss Tifton who had competed in the Miss Georgia pageant three times.
For more than 11 years, her mysterious disappearance baffled people in the small town of Ocilla, Georgia, where she lived.
But everything changed Thursday when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced that authorities had a suspect in custody.
Ryan Alexander Duke, 33, has been charged with murder, burglary, aggravated assault, murder and concealment of a body. He is in jail until a grand jury convenes on April 12. He has not yet entered a plea, and it is unclear if he has retained an attorney.
Below are five things to know about the case and its newest developments.
1. Police Found Strange Clues in Case, Which Later Became a Podcast
Two days after she was last seen alive, police went to Grinstead’s home in Ocilla. They found her car in the driveway, and her cell phone was charging in the wall outlet. The clothes she had worn to the dinner party before disappearing were still in a pile on the bedroom floor. But there was no sign of her.
There were other oddities as well.
Grinstead’s car was unlocked, with $100 in the center console. The driver’s seat was pushed almost all the way back, indicating that someone other than the 5-foot-3 teacher had last driven it. There was clay and mud around the tires and fenders. And a latex glove was found in the front yard, but DNA testing came back inconclusive.
Grinstead’s bedside clock was found under her bed; the time was six hours off. A broken lamp was found propped against a wall.
“She really was gone without a trace,” says attorney and legal analyst Phillip Holloway, who was once a police officer in the area. “It was a mystery.”
Grinstead’s disappearance was thrust back into conversation with the 2016 launch of the true-crime podcast Up and Vanished. Like Serial and others before it, the series focused deeply on one unsolved case.
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2. Suspect Was an Alum at Grinstead’s School
Duke was 21 when Grinstead went missing. A graduate of Irwin County High School where Grinstead taught, he is remembered as a quiet, respectful student who was never a disciplinary problem.
“He was a nice guy,” says friend Brittany Parks, who knew Duke from childhood. “He was someone who didn’t really seem to have a dark side. He would never have made my list of the top suspects for something like this.”
Teachers agree. “I remember him as a sweet, clean cut, smart kid,” Wendy McFarland told WMAZ. “‘Who, what, where, when, why?’ That’s what we all want to know.”
3. Duke Allegedly Killed Grinstead at Her Home
When the warrants were read against Duke on Thursday, prosecutors alleged a shocking sequence of events: that in the course of a burglary, Duke used his hands to kill Grinstead. Afterward, they claimed, he removed her body to cover up his crime.
Legal analyst Phillip Holloway tells PEOPLE that the specificity of the allegations lead him to believe that more evidence is forthcoming.
“They have a narrative they’re working with,” Holloway says. “Based on what I know, I would imagine that there is evidence that they’re not releasing yet, and we’ll probably learn more as this moves forward.”
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4. Authorities Investigated Many People Before Duke’s Arrest
Grinstead’s longtime boyfriend had broken up with her in 2004 and was dating someone new when she went missing a year later. Police interviewed him several times but found no link to her disappearance.
Investigators say that they conducted “dozens” of interviews as they investigated the case – but they made no arrest.
At the time, friends and family insisted that Grinstead would never have left on her own — and that if she were kidnapped, she wouldn’t have gone easily.
“She took self-defense,” her sister, Anita Gattis, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. “She’d go out kicking and screaming and fighting.”
5. The Investigation Continues
The GBI confirms that authorities are still working to uncover more information — although they declined to give specifics, and it remains unclear if Grinstead’s body has been found. (Another question is whether authorities believe Duke crossed paths with Grinstead while he was a student.
“We have several more interviews to conduct that might lead to additional evidence collection,” GBI special agent J.T. Ricketson told 13WMAZ.
“I can say that the information we have gained in the last week has been very beneficial and has provided us more insight into Tara’s disappearance.”