In 2005, former pageant winner and current history teacher Tara Grinstead failed to show up for work at the local high school in Ocilla, Georgia. It took over 10 years for there to be a major break in her disappearance. Ahead of the Dateline NBC episode about Grinstead’s murder, here’s what you need to know about whether she was ever found and what is currently going on with the investigation.
Grinstead’s Remains Were Burned and Only Fragments Recovered
On October 22, 2005, Grinstead, a 30-year-old former Miss Georgia contestant, was last seen helping some local contestants in the Miss Sweet Potato pageant. She attended a barbecue later that day. Two days later, after failing to show up for work, Grinstead was reported missing.
Grinstead’s house was locked, her car was there, and her pets were inside. At the time, Grinstead’s sister, Anita Gattis, told WMAZ 13 that it didn’t look like anything was even amiss except for the fact that nobody could find Grinstead.
“There was no sign of a scuffle in the house, in the yard. It looks like she left with somebody that she knew,” said Gattis.
The investigation stretched on for over 10 years before there was a break in the case. In February 2017, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents arrested Ryan Alexander Duke and charged him with Grinstead’s murder in addition to aggravated assault and burglary. According to WXIA 11, Duke entered Grinstead’s home to burglarize it, then climbed into bed with her and strangled her to death. He then removed the body from the home.
It would later come to light that Duke took his friend Bo Dukes’ (no relation) pickup truck to transport Grinstead’s body to the Dukes’ family pecan orchard. Duke then showed Dukes the body and they spent two days burning Grinstead’s remains, which is why she was never found — though she was declared legally dead in 2010 at her father’s request.
According to Atlanta’s 11 Alive, forensic anthropologist Dr. Alice Gooding testified at Dukes’ trial that burned fragments of human bones were found at the orchard in February 2017. The bones included fragments from the hand, skull, and spine, plus a tooth was also found. Gooding testified that she could tell the bones had been burned because of their weight and bluish-grey color.
The Trial Against Duke is Ongoing
Duke was arrested in 2017 and his trial was eventually slated to begin April 1, 2019. But in March 2019, the Georgia Supreme Court granted a delay in the trial over the defense’s appeal to have the state pay for expert witnesses and investigators.
According to WMAZ 13, Duke’s attorney Ashleigh Merchant argued that the state should provide funds for an investigator even if she and her husband are representing Duke pro bono.
“Just because he has pro bono lawyers does not mean that he isn’t entitled to funds for expert witnesses. The state has experts and we’re entitled to those as well. And so the issue has been, who pays for that,” said Merchant.
But in June 2019, the Georgia Supreme Court refused to hear the arguments about whether the state should pay for expert witnesses and investigators until trial Judge Bill Reinhardt agreed to it. Reinhardt had twice denied Merchant’s requests because Duke had private defense attorneys instead of court-appointed public defenders representing him.
But eventually, Reinhardt agreed to let the appeal go to the Georgia Supreme Court, according to WMAZ 13. As of February 2020, no hearing date had been set. In recent months, many courts nationwide have been delayed and backed up due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
While Duke’s trial is ongoing, the trial against Bo Dukes reached its conclusion in March 2019. At that time, Dukes was convicted of two counts of making false statements, hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal, and concealing a death. He received the maximum sentence of 25 years.
During the sentencing, Dukes read a prepared statement apologizing to Grinstead’s family, according to WTOC.
“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.”
Dateline typically airs Fridays and Saturdays on NBC, with special episodes airing during the week occasionally.