When tragedy strikes, it’s difficult to avoid the storm clouds. While misery may love company, tragedy practically demands it.
Sometimes, even in the midst of trials and tribulations, there are small details you can’t always appreciate in the moment. These are the little moments of inspiration, peace, or passion that emerge from beneath the heavy pall that is tragedy.
As tragic as the story of Tara Grinstead may be, it’s chock-full of inspiring moments that can show the impact one wonderful person can have on her tiny Southern town…
Born in central Georgia, Tara Grinstead had a fairly ordinary childhood. She was conventionally pretty and very popular; she was a cheerleader in high school; and, with dreams of becoming a teacher, she went off to study at Middle Georgia College.
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From there, Tara checked goal after goal off of her list. In 1998, at age 28, she’d found work as a history teacher at Irwin County High School, which was 55 miles from her hometown. Five years after that, she earned her master’s degree. Even through all of this, she pursued another dream on the side…
Since 1999, Tara had been working toward another passion: beauty pageants. A talented singer, she eventually moved on to the state-level Miss Georgia Pageant. But she had no idea of the horrors that were waiting for her…
Tara taught classes and even began working part-time as a middle school administrator, all while her heart remained in the world of pageants. She coached pageant contestants as a side job, helping with makeup and wardrobe. All was well, but it wouldn’t be for long.
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On October 22, 2005, Tara attended a beauty pageant and enjoyed a cookout with some friends. Then, two days later, she mysteriously never showed up to work. She’d been in such good spirits, her friends had noted. Was there something wrong? Worried, her co-workers turned to the authorities.
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Authorities searched Tara’s property for clues about her whereabouts. The front door was locked and her cell phone was inside. Her car was in the driveway, unlocked. Strangely, the only things missing were her keys and her purse. There were a few odd details, however…
CBS This Morning / Youtube
In the front yard, resting beside the grass, was a single discarded latex glove. Even more strange? Inside her bedroom, someone—or something—had broken the bedside clock-lamp fixture. There was enough amiss for the police to call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation…
NY Daily News
The GBI had little evidence to work with, however. Save for the glove and the broken lamp, nothing stood out. Additionally, there were no signs of a struggle or a break-in. As the search for Tara Grinstead went on, anguish in her small community of Ocilla, Georgia, grew.
CBS This Morning / Youtube
The principal of Irwin County High School, Bobby Conner, spoke with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution about the town’s grief, noting that events like Tara’s disappearance were the types of stories you read about happening in other towns. He elaborated, stating, “This is someone with a tremendous, magnetic personality, and the kids just love her.”
Michael Rivera / Wikimedia
The community decided to get involved in the search. They formed the Tara Grinstead Command Center, from which locals and out-of-towners alike worked telephones and websites, seeking any information that might lead to the young woman’s whereabouts. Volunteers searched on foot, horseback, and with all-terrain vehicles. The town was determined to find her.
CBS This Morning
Despite the town’s best efforts, no additional information or search proved fruitful. Investigators interviewed over 100 people, turning Tara’s disappearance into the largest missing persons case in the state’s history. But even offering a $100,000 reward yielded no results, and as the days turned to months and the months to years, Tara’s family and friends were left to wonder what happened to her.
Then, a glimmer of hope: two new pieces of evidence revealed themselves. Remember the latex glove? In 2008, investigators found DNA inside of it, though they didn’t yet have a match. A year later, they discovered an eerie video posted by a man online, in which he claimed to have murdered 16 women. Was Tara one of them?
Ultimately, the video proved to be another dead end and nothing more than a sick hoax. The man was not responsible for Tara’s death—a fact further confirmed by the DNA found in the latex glove. Eventually, despite the investigators’ continued search, Tara was finally pronounced legally dead. The community was devastated.
CBS This Morning / Youtube
Despite her being pronounced dead, intrigue into the beauty queen’s disappearance was very much alive. In 2016, filmmaker Payne Lindsey launched a hard-hitting true crime podcast that saw him traveling to Ocilla, Georgia, and doing a little research of his own.
Payne’s podcast, Up and Vanished, dove deeper into the disappearance of Tara Winstead, but like all the investigations before his, it failed to crack the case. His podcast aired without providing any answers, but it did bring the case back into the public eye. Half a year after episode one aired, Georgia investigators received an interesting tip…
Eleven years after Tara’s disappearance in what one veteran investigator called the most “complex and difficult case” he’d ever encountered, a tip blew the case wide open. A local woman, Brooke Sheridan, told investigators that a man named Ryan Duke had told her boyfriend, Bo Dukes, that he had killed Tara. Worse, Ryan had convinced Bo to help him destroy the body.
Ryan Duke had attended Irwin County High School during the time that Tara had been teaching there, and finally, 11 years after the woman’s disappearance, authorities arrested Ryan on murder charges. DNA that matched that from 2008’s latex glove bolstered the charges. Until Brooke’s tip, Ryan had never even been on investigators’ radar.
Why did Ryan do it? Bo didn’t have an answer for his girlfriend when she asked. All he could say was, “That’s something that only God and Ryan know.” After Brooke tipped off investigators to Ryan’s crime, she confronted Bo and told him to turn himself in.
Bo accepted her advice, wanting Tara’s family to finally have peace. Currently, he is awaiting trial for concealing the murder of Tara Grinstead. He’ll serve as the lead witness in Ryan Duke’s murder trial.
Unfortunately, Tara’s mother passed away before she could know the truth of her daughter’s disappearance. Still, the city has found a certain peace in the revelation. Tara’s stepmother, Connie Grinstead, spoke to CBS News in February 2017: “So many people have been hurt by this,” she said. “We hope with time this community can have closure and start to heal from this.”
The story of Tara Grinstead is an undoubtedly tragic one, but within it are golden nuggets of inspiration. When facing dire circumstances, the tiny town of Ocilla put together an inspiring effort to find a lost soul who was dear to the city.
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