The search for a teacher and former beauty queen who vanished from her south Georgia home nearly 12 years ago finally yielded some answers Thursday as authorities charged a former student with her murder.
Tara Grinstead was last seen on Oct. 22, 2005, a day she spent helping contestants in a Miss Sweet Potato pageant and attending a cookout with friends in her farming community of Ocilla, about 165 miles southeast of Atlanta. The 30-year-old was reported missing two days later after failing to show at the high school where she taught history.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent J.T. Ricketson announced at a news conference Thursday that a tip days ago led authorities to arrest 33-year-old Ryan Alexander Duke and charge him with murder.
Duke had been a student at Irwin County High School, where Grinstead taught, about three years before the teacher vanished, Ricketson said.
“When I heard, I just broke down in tears of relief, of anger, of sadness and frustration,” said Wendy McFarland, a fellow teacher and friend of Grinstead’s. “Everything that had been carried for the last 11 years and four months just bubbled to the surface.”
Many questions remain as to what exactly happened to Grinstead, who in 1999 won the title Miss Tifton, named for a nearby city, and later competed in the Miss Georgia pageant.
Ricketson, the lead investigator, declined to discuss Grinstead’s relationship to the suspect and left open the possibility Thursday that others were involved. He wouldn’t even say whether Grinstead’s body had been found.
But Ricketson noted that after following hundreds of leads in the case that included interviewing numerous potential suspects, Duke had never been among them.
“This gentleman never came up on our radar through the investigation,” Ricketson said.
McFarland said she was shocked authorities were accusing Duke, saying she remembered him as a polite high school athlete who played on the tennis team.
“My recollection of him is that he was a very bright young man,” McFarland said. “He was very nice. Everything that I remember from him is that he was a good student and not anyone that would have pinged any suspicion.”
Duke was being held at the Irwin County jail. It was not immediately known if he had an attorney.
Following Grinstead’s disappearance, the house where she lived alone in Ocilla was found locked, her car in the driveway and her cellphone inside. Her dog and cat were home. But Grinstead’s purse and keys were gone. A latex glove — the type worn by police officers and medical workers — was found in her front yard.
Ricketson said police suspected foul play from the beginning, but found little physical evidence. Technically she remained classified as a missing person.
Connie Grinstead, the missing woman’s stepmother, said at Thursday’s news conference outside a local courthouse that she thanked God “for answered prayers.”
“We always believed that it would be solved,” she said, reading a statement. “We just did not know when.”
Grinstead’s 2005 disappearance had prompted an outpouring of support in Ocilla, a community of about 3,300 people, and surrounding Irwin County.
Volunteers helped to search on foot, while a Tara Command Center was set up with a telephone tip line and a website, http://www.findtara.com. Rewards of $100,000 were offered for Grinstead’s safe return or for information leading to an arrest and conviction if she was harmed.
“Right after it happened, there were people on everything from ATVs to horses looking for her over the whole entire county,” said the Rev. Joey Whitley, a Baptist minister and Irwin County’s elected chairman.
For 11 years and four months, the search for answers never stopped. As the GBI announced Duke’s arrest, a sign asking “Where’s Tara?” still hung outside the sheriff’s office.
Ricketson gave no details of how investigators linked Duke to Grinstead. He said a person, whom he declined to name, approached authorities with a tip days earlier. And he gave an open-ended answer when asked if more arrests were possible.
“That’s a very good question,” Ricketson said. “Again, we have several more interviews to do.”
AP Researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this story.
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