Results of search for Tara Grinstead’s remains may be a mystery for now

Search continues for remains of Tara Grinstead

GBI agents and other law enforcement officers return Thursday to a pecan farm on the outskirts of Fitzgerald in Ben Hill County to search for remains of Tara Grinstead.
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GBI agents and other law enforcement officers return Thursday to a pecan farm on the outskirts of Fitzgerald in Ben Hill County to search for remains of Tara Grinstead.

Dozens of GBI agents and others continued to sift through dirt at a pecan farm Thursday looking for remains of Tara Grinstead.

But just what they’ve found isn’t something that may be readily known.

That’s largely because of a gag order issued earlier in the week that prohibits law enforcement and others from talking about the case outside of the courtroom. Moreover, Irwin County Superior Court Clerk Nancy Ross said Thursday the order includes anything filed in the public court record on the case.

Grinstead, an Irwin County High School teacher and former beauty queen, vanished from her Ocilla home in 2005. Last week, 33-year-old Ryan Duke, a former student who graduated in 2002, was charged with murder, burglary, aggravated assault and concealing a death in connection with her disappearance.

Authorities believe Grinstead was killed in her home, and her body may have been disposed of at the pecan farm. If any remains are recovered, what is found will likely undergo scientific testing at a GBI crime lab.

The gag order from Superior Court Judge Melanie B. Cross prohibits prosecutors, law enforcement officers, Duke, his attorneys and family, Grinstead’s family, potential witnesses and court personnel from giving statements about the case outside of courtroom proceedings.

Cross noted in the order that Duke’s right to a fair trial may be prejudiced by such statements in the high-profile case that has generated extensive media coverage.

While the gag order does not specifically state the court records are sealed for the case, Ross said she was “instructed verbally” by the judge that it does. And if an additional court order is needed stating that, Ross said she’ll get that Friday.

The gag order, though, is subject to challenge, said David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association.

“The judge’s order, however well intentioned, is overbroad,” said Hudson, who practices in the area of court access and court records.

For the order to restrict statements from anyone other than the attorneys in the case, a public hearing must be held, he said.

Restricting all access to information about the case is harmful to the public, Hudson said. As it stands, there is no way to find out if there will be proceedings in the case, and members of the public can’t exercise their right to attend those proceedings.

There is also no way to monitor the impact of the case on the community, he said.

The public is “essentially kept in the dark about a matter that is of grave importance because of the severity of the crimes alleged.”

Drone video shows authorities arriving Thursday, March 2, 2017, at a pecan field in Fitzgerald, Georgia, where they will continue searching for the remains of Tara Grinstead.

Meanwhile, GBI agents, including body search teams and anthropologists, have been scouring sections of the pecan farm that includes orchards and woods.

More than 30 law enforcement vehicles trickled in to the pecan field Thursday, parking in a far corner of the 200-acre property owned by Hudson Pecan Company. Aerial video from a drone indicated authorities appeared to be concentrating their morning efforts in woods not far from where the vehicles were parked.

Media representatives continued to gather outside a guarded gate to the pecan farm.

Curious residents also stopped by, including a man who was involved in the original searches for Grinstead more than 11 years ago and a young woman who has been following a podcast about the case.

There have been a few near fender-benders as motorists slowing along Bowen’s Mill Highway on the edge of the farm were nearly rear-ended by vehicles behind them.

A look at the entrance into pecan farm where the GBI is searching for remains of Tara Grinstead from Bowen's Mill Highway.

Telegraph writer Jennifer Burk contributed to this report.

Becky Purser: 478-256-9559, @BecPurser