OCILLA, Ga. - An arrest was finally made in the murder of Tara Grinstead, a south Georgia teacher and former beauty queen who vanished without a trace more than 11 years ago.
The suspect, Ryan Alexander Duke, made his first court appearance late Thursday afternoon in Irwin County.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation filed arrest warrants for Duke charging him, among other things, with the murder of Grinstead. During Duke’s first appearance, the judge revealed he is also being charged with burglary, aggravated assault and concealing a death.
The warrant alleges that Duke went to Grinstead's house to commit a burglary and then "used his hands in an offensive manner" to cause serious bodily harm to Ms. Grinstead. According to the warrant, Grinstead was killed inside the home and her body removed.
Police said Duke attended the high school where Grinstead taught, and graduated three years before her disappearance.
Ocilla resident Lakin Bailey went to school with Duke and knew Tara.
"I am just shocked by who they arrested. I went to school with Ryan and although he was peculiar, I never thought he would do anything like this," Bailey said.
Duke, 33, was arrested on February 22. The GBI said investigators received a tip that led agents to conduct several interviews with people who had not been previously questioned. Information from those interviews led agents to Duke’s arrest, according to authorities.
Investigators said they still have not found Grinstead's remains, but believe Duke took her body from her home to conceal her death.
Tara Grinstead was last seen the night of October 22, 2005 when she attended a beauty pageant and barbecue in Fitzgerald, Georgia. Investigators said she went home to Ocilla and was never seen again.
Two days later, her co-workers at Irwin County high School, where she taught, called 911 when she didn't show up for work. Police said when they got to Grinstead's home to investigate, they found no signs of a struggle and her purse, keys and cell phone were still there.
She was 30-years-old at the time of her disappearance.
Duke waived his right to a preliminary hearing on the case in court on Thursday. His case was held over to Superior Court and he was not granted bond. A grand jury will meet April 12 to decide whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial.
Neighbors in the Ocilla community where Tara Grinstead lived at the time of her disappearance are relieved to hear of an arrest. Amanda Payne was one of her students at Irwin County High School.
“When it became pretty clear that she was gone, it was just heartbreaking because she was such a nice lady,” said Payne. “I couldn't believe it and this is Ocilla. It's small. You think of stuff like this only happening up in Atlanta.”
Payne said she was stunned to hear of Duke's arrest. She graduated with him in 2002.
“When I heard he was the one arrested, I was shocked because he was the cool guy. He was awesome. He played football and tennis and he was friendly with everyone. I don't even remember him being mean,” Payne said.
“I just keep wondering how long the person who tipped off the GBI knew something. Like, did Ryan tell somebody a long time ago and they just came forward? How did this much time pass? I just can't help but wonder how long they waited to finally call it in. But I'm glad they did,” Payne said.