Dozens of people packed into the Irwin County courthouse Thursday afternoon, eager to learn what happened to beloved teacher Tara Grinstead.
Nearly a dozen years have passed since the former beauty queen vanished without a trace.
Melba Paulk Veazey sat in the front row of the balcony as GBI agents prepared to share details of an arrest.
“I spoke with her the night she disappeared,” said Veazey, who emceed the Miss Georgia Sweet Potato pageant in Fitzgerald where Grinstead was helping out backstage.
Reminiscent of the courtroom scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” towns folk crowded in the pews or stood in the back.
Hours earlier, Andy Paulk had heard former Irwin County High School student Ryan Duke was in custody, but wanted to confirm the rumor.
Over the years, Paulk’s ex-wife ran a website searching for clues in the case.
When tips would come in, Paulk would get his hopes up, only to be let down time and again.
In recent years, talk of Tara Grinstead had dwindled at Peck’s Place restaurant, a short drive from her home. Owner Davis Shumar said he didn’t know her well but remembers her coming through the drive-thru of his restaurant that serves “about anything you want.”
At the “table of knowledge” where local sages eat breakfast and lunch, conversation erupted Thursday as word rapidly spread that there was a development in the case.
“Hopefully we’ll get some peace today, and we’re really excited to hopefully put this chapter behind us,” Paulk said hours before the GBI’s news conference. “It’s something that affected a lot of people in Irwin County in a negative way.”
Grinstead’s former students have graduated high school and college and are raising their own families since the brunette with a warm smile was last seen Oct. 22, 2005.
She attended a cookout at the former school superintendent’s house not far from her home on West Park Street. What happened next has been the speculation of sleuths on TV crime dramas and interview programs hosted by attorneys.
Former CNN Headline News anchor Nancy Grace and former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren featured the cold case over the years.
Thursday morning, as the locals discussed the break in the case over the hum of traffic at the juncture of U.S. 319 and U.S. 129, one of them asked another, “did they swab you?”
“Yeah, they swabbed me,” his friend replied, as speculation turned to the rumored arrest of a suspect.
The GBI declined to say whether they had DNA evidence in the case.
“I hope it’s nobody I know,” lifelong Ocilla resident Walter Hudson said.
Turns out they did know Duke. The men regularly gather at that table in the fall to discuss football. Duke played for Irwin County years ago.
After the news conference, Ocilla Mayor Matt Seale said the tragedy hurt the whole community.
“Certainly we had quite a crowd today and again that should tell you the sense of how connected the whole community has come to the case, this tragedy,” Seale said.
He noted that the investigation is ongoing and there will be many months ahead before a trial.
“We’ll just continue to heal and come together as a community,” Seale said.
Retired GBI agent Gary Rothwell, who spearheaded the initial investigation in 2005, traveled from Daytona Beach to attend Thursday’s news conference and first court appearance. The case dogged Rothwell, who continued to follow leads over the years, but they never panned out.
“It’s a very sad day,” he said. “The worst we feared happened.”
Although he said there was no real cause for celebration, he did find a redeeming factor in that the arrest cleared the names of people who knew Grinstead and have been smeared on the internet by “cruel opportunists.”
“They’d speculate and use innuendo to basically assassinate the character of people who had nothing to do with Tara’s disappearance and I hope that that will cease and these people are vindicated,” he said.
Grinstead was well known throughout the small town. She started working at Irwin County High School right after she graduated college.
Paulk was at the school for the first of multiple searches that began right after she vanished. He spearheaded some of the local efforts to find Grinstead, some of the largest searches in state history, he said.
The folks at the “table of knowledge” will likely have much more to discuss in coming weeks as the investigation continues and more details come to light.
“It’s been very tragic for the community, but today, hopefully, it’ll give some closure,” Hudson said. “Either way it’s going to be bad. If it’s somebody we know, it’s a bad situation because it will be another tragedy.”
Hudson, who has lived in this Irwin County seat for 62 years, said the community is forever scarred.
“It never goes away. Never will go away,” Hudson said. “It will still be with all of us.”