As the months, weeks and years passed, it seemed less and less likely that a popular south Georgia teacher would ever be seen again. On Thursday — more than eleven years after Tara Grinstead disappeared — the case finally came to a tragic end as police arrested a onetime student at the high school where the former beauty queen taught history.
It was the break that Grinstead’s family, the Ocilla community and investigators had long awaited after hundreds of leads failed to find answers. And it brought with it a mixture of relief and heartbreak.
Ryan Alexander Duke, 33, was arrested and charged with murder, GBI Special Agent in Charge J.T. Ricketson said. The GBI declined to say how Grinstead died or whether her remains had been found. But arrest warrants accuse Duke of burglary and aggravated assault, stating that he “used his hands in an offensive manner” and harmed Grinstead. Duke then allegedly removed Grinstead’s body from her home, according to a warrant charging him with concealing a death.
“This gentleman never came up on our radar until the last few days,” GBI Special Agent in Charge J.T. Ricketson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Duke was a 2002 graduate of Irwin County High School. The relationship between the teacher and her alleged killer wasn’t detailed Thursday.
Grinstead, 30, was last seen on Oct. 22, 2005, when she left a cookout and said she was going straight home. Two days later, she was reported missing when she didn’t show up at work.
Ocilla Police began the investigation with a search of Grinstead’s home. The Irwin County Sheriff’s Office and GBI were contacted to assist with the investigation. Admittedly, investigators had few clues to Grinstead’s disappearance. And that led them to suspect foul play.
Despite extensive searches of her home and the area — as well as national attention from several television show hosts and a hefty reward for information on her whereabouts — Grinstead was never found.
Gattis believed her sister left with someone she knew on the night she disappeared. Her house was locked but her car, a pearl white Mitsubishi 3000 GT, was unlocked and in the carport, with $100 in the console and clay on the tires.
“Tara never left her car unlocked, and never drove on dirt roads,” Gattis said.
“There was no struggle in the house. Tara was a singer; that was her talent in pageants, ” Gattis said of her sister, thrice crowned Miss Tifton and a contestant in several Miss Georgia pageants. “If someone was removing her, she’d project her voice. And she took self-defense. She’d go out kicking and screaming and fighting.”
In recent days, the GBI received a tip in the case, Ricketson said. Subsequent interviews led investigators to find probable cause to arrest Duke, who was booked into the Irwin County jail Wednesday.
At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Grinstead’s stepmother, Connie Grinstead, asked for privacy while thanking investigators for never giving up.
“We always believed in the GBI and their dedication,” Connie Grinstead said. “We always believed it would be solved. We just didn’t know when.”
Wearing a green and white jail jumpsuit, Duke held his head down during his first court appearance later Thursday afternoon as the charges against him were read. Duke said he would need a court-appointed attorney before being led back to jail, where he was being held without bond late Thursday.
Ricketson said the investigation into the teacher’s death is not over, and that additional people will be interviewed. Though he’s relieved that yet another tip finally led to an arrest, Ricketson called it a bittersweet ending, and not the one anyone wanted. The arrest is the first step towards closure for the Grinstead family and a small community where Tara was loved.
“Our wounds are deep, and our hearts are broken,” Connie Grinstead said.