Crime

She seemed to vanish without a trace, and her disappearance baffled a nation

TELEGRAPH FILE PHOTO
A missing person flier for Tara Grinstead is taped to the window of the Hawkinsville High School front office window in October 2005. Grinstead was a beauty queen who graduated from Hawkinsville High and taught at Irwin County High in Ocilla.
TELEGRAPH FILE PHOTO A missing person flier for Tara Grinstead is taped to the window of the Hawkinsville High School front office window in October 2005. Grinstead was a beauty queen who graduated from Hawkinsville High and taught at Irwin County High in Ocilla.

Editor's note: This story was originally published Oct. 17, 2015. The GBI is expected to give an update in the case Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017.

Tara Grinstead was a country girl, a beauty queen, a high school history teacher with dreams of becoming a principal.

Instead, to many who otherwise would never have heard of her, she became "that missing woman," "that teacher who disappeared."

She was a 30-year-old brunette with an easy smile and a Georgia-farm-town drawl. A Hawkinsville native, she'd been Miss Tifton in 1999 and, soon after, a contestant in the Miss Georgia pageant. She wore a yellowish suit as one of her outfits at the Miss Georgia contest, telling an interviewer at the time, "It shows I'm a happy person."

She lived by herself in south Georgia -- in a place that a national TV-news personality referred to after her disappearance as "the sleepy town of Ocilla."

She knew her neighbors well enough that when she went home at night, she switched on a light to signal that all was well.

Though she hadn't married, she had dated a local cop for the better part of five years. She collected Barbie dolls and was a fan of the TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Grinstead's vanishing in late October 2005 has remained a mystery for a decade now. Hers is perhaps the region's most widely publicized missing-persons case in history. Her story has been told and retold on network television crime programs and been the subject of cable news talk shows.

Hers was the rare local case that rose to some degree of national prominence despite the remoteness of its geography.

Ocilla sits about 100 miles south of Macon. If you take U.S. 129, which more or less parallels the Ocmulgee River down through Hawkinsville and Abbeville, you swing down to Fitzgerald and into Irwin County. It's faster, though, to take Interstate 75 to just below Ashburn and Sycamore, then make the 25-mile easterly jog to town.

Some say Ocilla, a 120-year-old railroad town that today is home to about 3,400 people, was named for Seminole Chief Osceola. But theories vary.

Grinstead, who taught at Irwin County High for about eight years, had gone to work there out of college. Her folks moved to town later.

Oct. 22, 2005, the last night anyone is known to have seen her, was a Saturday. That afternoon she had helped out at the Miss Georgia Sweet Potato pageant in Fitzgerald.

She'd later gone to a cookout at the home of a former county school superintendent's family. When she was reported missing after not showing up at school on Monday, the clothes she'd worn to the Saturday cookout were found at her house. Her cellphone was charging in her bedroom. But she was gone.

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.

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.

Her longtime boyfriend, a man named Marcus Harper, told Fox News commentator Greta Van Susteren that Grinstead had ended their relationship well before she went missing. He said he felt "a little rejected at first" but that "we continued to be friends."

Harper, in the televised interview with Fox, described his relationship with Grinstead as "a commitment."

"We did not date other people," he said. "But I was honest with her when I said I had no intentions of marriage."

After they broke up, Harper said in the interview that Grinstead "approached me crying. She was very irrational and she told me that if she found out I was dating someone she would commit suicide."

Harper was not the only man she had been close to.

In a 2009 feature about the case on the CBS show "48 Hours," the lead GBI investigator said, "One of the things that made this case so complicated is that she did have several romantic relationships that occurred in relative proximity to one another."

The investigator, Gary Rothwell, who has since retired, told The Telegraph recently that he regrets that some people who have not been cleared as possible suspects "are twisting in the wind."

Small-town gossip and speculation have prompted finger-pointing over the years.

"What really bothers me about this is how unfair this case is," Rothwell said. "To everyone involved. Obviously to Tara and her family, but also unfair to many other people whose lives have been scrutinized. ... Irresponsible public accusations have been made about them, and they have no way to respond or defend themselves. And it's frustrating that we don't have evidence to rule anyone in or out."

There is one piece of evidence that is now considered a significant clue: a latex glove.

Investigators found it in Grinstead's yard. The glove contained what authorities have said contained "male-profiled" DNA and a fingerprint. But so far no match has turned up.

Meanwhile, Rothwell said there is "information we have never released that we can't explain."

"It's astounding to me," he said, "as many resources as we have devoted to this case, we really don't know any more about what happened to her than we did in the first week. ... It's just baffling."

J.T. Ricketson, the GBI agent in charge of the Perry field office, which is overseeing the Grinstead probe, said last week that Grinstead's disappearance and other unsolved cases are reviewed every few months.

"With this particular case, as leads come in we follow them," he said.

Earlier this year, in February, authorities acting on a tip drained a pond in Fitzgerald. Ricketson said the information was credible enough, but "it ended up not materializing into anything."

Potential evidence that was collected in 2005, apparently from Grinstead's house, may in the end prove vital to finding out what became of her.

Though Ricketson declined to go into specifics, he mentioned the scientific "leaps and bounds" that have been made regarding DNA in the past decade.

Labs, he said, are "able to separate DNA that had maybe been meshed."

Ricketson said, "We've had them revisit our evidence with this new technology, and they have come up with a couple of things that are hopeful or promising to us that may be able to head us in the right direction."

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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