OCILLA — After more than a decade of dead-end leads in the investigation of missing Irwin County history teacher Tara Grinstead, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) finally got a break in the case last week, one that her family said had answered years of prayers.

An informant came forward with information that led to the arrest of Ryan Alexander Duke, 33, of Ocilla, according to GBI Special Agent in Charge Joseph Ricketson. Duke was arrested Wednesday afternoon and charged with murder, though the GBI said Thursday the search was continuing for Grinstead’s remains.

Before the informant provided the information, Ricketson said, Duke had never been a suspect in the case.

Her father, Billy Grinstead, and stepmother, Connie Grinstead, who have been actively involved in the search since Tara Grinstead’s disappearance, were visibly emotional during the news conference, but said the family was grateful for the years of effort by law enforcement.

“On behalf of Billy and myself, the first thing that I want to do is to thank God for answered prayers,” Connie Grinstead said. “We would also like to thank the GBI for all of their years of hard work and dedication to Tara’s investigation. We always believed in the GBI and their dedication to our case.

“We always believed it would be solved, we just did not know when. We would also like to thank all of the local law enforcement for cooperating and working with the GBI through the years as well as many others in this community and beyond.

She said Tara Grinstead was able to fulfill many of her dreams in Ocilla, and that the family hoped the community can heal as well.

“We lived in Ocilla for eight years,” Connie Grinstead said. “Tara lived with us here for four of those years. When we moved here you welcomed us with open arms and treated us as if we were one of your own. You did the same thing for Tara when she moved in with us and we are so grateful for that. She was able to fulfill many of her dreams right here in Ocilla. She loved being a teacher and she was very good at it.

“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 and painful journey and we ask that you keep us in your prayers. Our wounds are deep and hearts are broken.”

Grinstead, a history teacher at Irwin County High School in Ocilla, was reported missing in 2005. She was 30 years old at the time she disappeared. Her 42nd birthday was last November.

“Let me give you a little background,” Ricketson said last week. “On Saturday October 22 in 2005, Tara Grinstead went missing from her residence. The Ocilla Police Department responded to her residence and immediately suspected foul play. Additional law enforcement resources were requested. The Irwin County Sheriff’s Office and the GBI came in and began a search at Tara’s house.”

According to Ricketson, most of the time missing person cases produce very little evidence.

“The troubling thing when you are working an investigation into an a missing persons case is that there is generally very little evidence,” Ricketson said. “Tara’s home was searched extensively for several days which produced little physical evidence. As with all missing person cases the investigation started focusing on Tara’s close friends and associates. Tara was very well known and well liked in this community. So, she had many contacts and friends in various parts of the community.

“As the hours turned into days, days into weeks, weeks into months and eventually months into years, the search efforts never ceased. Through these 11-plus years the GBI and other law enforcement officers have received hundreds and hundreds of tips. The GBI handles unsolved cases in the same manor we handle our active investigations; all open files are reviewed every couple of months. We do not have cold cases.”

According to Ricketson, each tip was vetted, countless interviews were performed, searches were executed and DNA samples were collected, but each lead was a dead end.

“Unfortunately, all of these leads ended with a dead end until the last couple of days,” Ricketson said. “A few days ago an individual came forward and reported that they had information into Tara’s disappearance. This interview generated several more interviews, which was followed up by our office here.

“Through these interviews enough probable cause was discovered, so we could swear out an arrest warrant charging Ryan Alexander Duke with the murder of Tara Grinstead. Duke was taken into custody Wednesday afternoon.”

A large crowd of family members, along with friends and town acquaintances, filled the second floor courtroom of the Irwin County Courthouse to overflow capacity Thursday afternoon for the announcement.

According to Ricketson, Duke, a Irwin County native, attended Irwin County High School during the time that Grinstead was employed there as a history teacher. He was about 21 years old when she disappeared.

“What I can say from our investigation is that Duke did attend that high school,” Ricketson said. “He graduated about three years prior to the incident and I can say that this gentleman never came up on our radar throughout the investigation.”

Ricketson refused to comment on many aspects of the case, such as who came forward with information leading to the arrest of Duke. “I cannot comment on that right now,” said Ricketson.

When asked if anyone other than Duke was involved or if any more arrests were anticipated, Ricketson responded, “We have several more interviews to do and investigative actions, so it would be hard for me to answer that right now. It has taken a long time and it is a very bittersweet ending, but we hope the family will find some closure.”

I am primarily the public safety reporter, but also cover a variety of other news events and special features. I am a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in Philosophy and have been with the Herald since April of 2016.

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