Authorities here on Thursday charged 33-year-old Ryan Alexander Duke with murder in the long-puzzling disappearance of Tara Grinstead, a high school history teacher and former beauty queen who went missing more than 11 years ago.
Officials announced the arrest at an afternoon news conference at the Irwin County Courthouse, where locals from this south Georgia town of 3,500 packed both levels of the main courtroom.
Few details about the arrest or killing were discussed at the gathering, but a GBI official later said that as the investigation proceeds, breaking the case open will be “like putting a puzzle together.”
Duke later appeared in court, where he was formally told of the charges against him, which also include burglary and aggravated assault.
Authorities said Duke had been a student at Irwin County High School where Grinstead taught, and that he had graduated about three years before Grinstead’s October 2005 vanishing.
Officials declined to answer questions about the whereabouts of her remains, but said their probe was ongoing. They also wouldn’t say whether more arrests could come.
What may be revealing, however, was that the district attorney and sheriff for Ben Hill County, just to the north of Ocilla, the Irwin County seat, were on hand for Thursday’s announcement. Law enforcement sources have hinted that their case spans at least two counties, not just Irwin, where Grinstead was last seen.
J.T. Ricketson, special agent in charge of the GBI office in Perry, said a tip in recent days led investigators to Duke, who was taken into custody on Wednesday.
Ricketson went on to say that after years of fruitless leads and “dead ends,” one finally rang true.
“A few days ago, an individual came forward and reported that they had information into Tara’s disappearance,” he said.
After a series of investigative interviews, authorities gathered “enough probable cause” to arrest Duke, Ricketson said, adding that in all the GBI’s sleuthing to track down a killer, Duke’s name had not come up until now.
“This gentleman never came up on our radar,” he said.
Grinstead’s disappearance has perhaps been Georgia’s — if not the entire Southeast’s — highest-profile missing persons case in the past quarter-century. It has been featured prominently on cable news and network television crime shows.
Oct. 22, 2005, was the last night anyone is known to have seen her. Grinstead, a few weeks shy of her 31st birthday, had gone to a Saturday-night cookout at the home of a former Irwin County school superintendent’s family. When she was reported missing after not showing up to teach at the county high school the following Monday, the clothes she had worn to the cookout were at her house.
Her cellphone was charging in her bedroom. Her purse and keys were missing. Her cat, Herman Talmadge, and her dog, Dolley Madison, were in the house. There were no certain signs of a struggle. A bedroom lamp was broken. Her car, a white Mitsubishi, was parked outside, unlocked.
Over the years, investigators spoke to dozens of people who knew Grinstead, including men she’d had relationships with. They also interviewed a former student who was arrested in March 2005 for apparently trying to break into her house while she was home.
But those conversations proved futile in finding her or anyone who might have kidnapped or killed Grinstead.
Grinstead’s father, Billy Grinstead, and stepmother, Connie Grinstead, were on hand for Thursday’s announcement.
Reading from a prepared statement, Connie Grinstead said: “We always believed in the GBI and their dedication in her case. We always believed that it would be solved.”
She mentioned how she and her husband had lived in Ocilla for eight years, four of which Tara lived with them.
“So many people have been hurt by this. We hope and pray that with time this community can finally have closure and start to heal from this. For us, this just starts another chapter in a very long, painful journey. ... Our wounds are deep and our hearts are broken,” Connie Grinstead said.
“We realize that everybody is going to want answers,” she went on, asking that reporters respect her family’s privacy. “You’ll have a lot of questions, and that will come in time.”
At lunchtime in Ocilla, which lies between Dublin and Valdosta about half an hour east of Interstate 75, word of an arrest in the Grinstead case was the talk of the town.
Police Chief Billy Hancock said later, “In a small town, when somebody’s missing, it’s about like family.”
Mark Young, of Ocilla, who showed up for Thursday’s news conference, said, “You know the family’s glad to see some closure. They’re still investigating, and who knows what’s gonna be under the next rock.”