Could Georgia teacher's murder have been solved years ago?

·28 min read

[This story previously aired on September 4, 2021. It was updated on August 20, 2022.]

"48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant first reported on this story in 2008 – almost three years after Tara Grinstead went missing. Back then, hardly anyone thought this case would ever be solved. Then, in 2017, a woman came forward with a remarkable story about her boyfriend … but could it be trusted?   

The 2005 disappearance of Tara Grinstead — beloved teacher and local beauty queen — mystified the people of Ocilla, Georgia, like Jannis Paulk, who lived just around the corner from Tara.

Jannis Paulk: Ocilla is a big family. … we all wanted to do something that we could do to help … There were flyers. There were billboards. … We had search efforts like nothing you've ever seen.

Jannis, who ran a local web design company, became an expert on the case — keeping a close watch since Tara was reported missing.

Peter Van Sant: What were some of the theories as to what had happened to Tara?

Jannis Paulk: There were people who believed she ran away. … Somebody has abducted her and holding her somewhere hostage. And … the one we didn't want to think about was somebody killed her.

Tara Grinstead was a 30-year-old history teacher at the Irwin County High School in Ocilla, Georgia, when she was reported missing on October 24, 2005.  / Credit: Connie Grinstead
Tara Grinstead was a 30-year-old history teacher at the Irwin County High School in Ocilla, Georgia, when she was reported missing on October 24, 2005. / Credit: Connie Grinstead

But who would want to harm this vibrant 30-year-old woman? Maria Woods Harber grew up with Tara.

Maria Woods Harber: My best friend, Tara Grinstead, was a beautiful person on the inside and the outside. … She was radiant. I mean, she had the biggest smile. She could tell you anything to make you feel better.

Peter Van Sant and Mary Woods Harber in front of Tara Grinstead's Ocilla home. / Credit: CBS News
Peter Van Sant and Mary Woods Harber in front of Tara Grinstead's Ocilla home. / Credit: CBS News

Maria Woods Harber:  This is where Tara Grinstead lived in 2005.

Peter Van Sant:  What emotional impact does this have for you when you see this house?

Maria Woods Harber: Well, it's very emotional. I don't like to come very often … she loved this place. … I can still see her standing at the door.

 In 1999, Tara Grinstead won the Miss Tifton pageant, which landed her a spot at the 1999 Miss Georgia competition. / Credit: Connie Grinstead
In 1999, Tara Grinstead won the Miss Tifton pageant, which landed her a spot at the 1999 Miss Georgia competition. / Credit: Connie Grinstead

Maria says Tara was determined to live her dreams from a young age, competing in beauty pageants to help earn scholarship money for college.

Maria Woods Harber: She was absolutely elegant onstage. … her main goal was to win Miss Georgia or at least to get to Miss Georgia, and she did.

Tara didn't bring home the Miss Georgia crown, but just competing was a huge achievement says Dana Wilder, who grew up in Ocilla.

Dana Wilder: As little girls, we looked up to her … she was famous.

After college, Tara got a job at Ocilla's Irwin County high school, teaching 11th grade history.

Maria Woods Harber: She was an excellent teacher.  …  was dedicated to making her students feel wonderful.

And even when she no longer competed, Tara helped other women, like Dana, break into that world.

Dana Wilder: She just took me underneath her wing … She taught me the ins and outs of interviews, hair and makeup, wardrobe.

At night, Tara studied for a specialist degree in school administration, but other parts of her life hadn't come together as she'd hoped.

Maria Woods Harber: Tara had a boyfriend for a long time … And during the summer of 2005, they broke up.

That boyfriend was Marcus Harper, a former cop from Ocilla.

Marcus Harper: She obviously wanted to get married. … It just wasn't what I wanted. … I definitely didn't wanna settle down in small town America.  

Marcus enlisted with the Army Rangers and spent time overseas.

Marcus Harper: It was like a calling. It was somethin' I felt like, you know, I had to do.

The couple broke things off but stayed in touch.

Maria Woods Harber: Tara really did want to get back with Marcus. She did not want to end it. And she was very distraught.

Peter Van Sant: This was the man she thought she'd build a life with.

Maria Woods Harber: Yeah, she did. … she was seeing other people. And I think she was just trying to move on … in a small town of Ocilla, everyone knew their situation.

It was part of town gossip that they had gotten into an argument after Marcus had come back to town earlier than expected that October. But no one in Ocilla knew what had happened when Tara seemingly vanished after leaving that barbecue on Saturday night, October 22.

Peter Van Sant: What time did she go home?

Maria Woods Harber: About 11 o'clock.

On Sunday, Tara's mom called her several times, but Tara didn't answer.

Maria Woods Harber: And the next morning … I got a call saying that I need to get to Ocilla.

Tara had failed to show up at school.

Maria Woods Harber: She would never do that. She would never leave her kids.

Tara's car was parked in the driveway. Neighbors knocked on her door but got no response. The Ocilla police were called and entered Tara's home, and right behind them was Maria.

Peter Van Sant:  What did you see when you walked into her house?

Maria Woods Harber [outside Tara's house]: I wasn't quite sure what I was going to walk in and see … her den was exactly the way it always was ...

But some things stuck out to Maria. Tara's alarm clock was under her bed, and a bedside lamp was broken.

Maria Woods Harber: ... and then her bed was unmade, like she had been in the bed.

Outside, in front of Tara's house, authorities found something that didn't seem to belong – a latex glove. On the glove they not only identified Tara's DNA, but that of an unknown male. / Credit: Georgia Bureau of Investigation
Outside, in front of Tara's house, authorities found something that didn't seem to belong – a latex glove. On the glove they not only identified Tara's DNA, but that of an unknown male. / Credit: Georgia Bureau of Investigation

Tara's cell phone was charging inside the house. But police noted that her purse and keys were missing. By her front door, they found a business card from a police officer in a nearby town. And then, an important discovery.

Maria Woods Harber: So, when I came back out of the house, I saw … right out from the front door, there was a latex glove.

Peter Van Sant: On the ground?

Maria Woods Harber: On the ground.

Authorities couldn't explain either, and collected them as evidence… the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, known as the GBI, was called in. Back in 2008 Van Sant spoke with Special Agent Gary Rothwell.

Gary Rothwell [2008]:  It is one of the most extensive investigations undertaken by the GBI.

Gary Rothwell [2008]: It appeared that Tara may have left on her own. However, we had a glove, a latex glove that we couldn't explain. So that gave us a stronger indication that something bad had happened.

The GBI tested that glove and found not only Tara's DNA on it, but the DNA profile of an unknown male. The case generated hundreds of tips over the years. Jannis Paulk even created a website to help authorities collect information.

Jannis Paulk: FindTara.com. … I built a message board because I thought that there was a good chance that whoever … knew what had happened to her would potentially come and say something.

As Jannis recalls, early on, suspicion focused on the men in Tara's life.

Jannis Paulk: She was dating, I think, more than people realized that she was dating. … and that's nobody's business, but in this case, it made it tough.

Rumors swirled about that cop whose card was found at Tara's house. He was a family friend — married, with kids —who would later testify that he and Tara were having an affair. He said they had talked about getting together that Sunday, but Tara never answered her phone. Worried, he went to her house Sunday night and left the card after Tara didn't answer the doorbell. He had an alibi, but the whispers continued.

Jannis Paulk: … there were several people, several men, who got a lot of scrutiny for a long time …

Another was a former student who claimed he and Tara been secretly seeing each other. But when questioned about her disappearance, he had an alibi and was never charged. Then, there was Tara's ex-boyfriend, Marcus Harper.

Marcus Harper: Somebody pulled me to the side, and they were like, "Listen, you know, there's been some things said … bringin' up your military past, bringin' up how you're … Trained to kill" …

Marcus always maintained his innocence but remained under suspicion.

Investigators chased down dozens of leads across the country, but tips emerged that led right back to the high school where Tara was a teacher and perhaps someone who had sat in her classroom.

Dana Wilder: I never thought it was somebody … from our community. But in the same sense, I always thought, "Well, it has to be."

A DISTURBING STORY EMERGES

For years, Marcus Harper lived under a cloud — some might say a thunderstorm — of suspicion. He was the talk of Ocilla, Georgia, and none of it was good.

Marcus Harper: What they're sayin' at the local … grocery store, and at the local restaurants— They don't think that it's gettin' to someone who's my family or my friend? …  I'm not gonna shy away to the fact that I was— I was bitter.

For around 6 years, Tara Grinstead dated Marcus Harper, a former Ocilla cop who joined the Army Rangers. Marcus was often overseas, and though they had broken up by the fall of 2005, friends say Tara was distraught about the relationship ending. / Credit: Connie Grinstead
For around 6 years, Tara Grinstead dated Marcus Harper, a former Ocilla cop who joined the Army Rangers. Marcus was often overseas, and though they had broken up by the fall of 2005, friends say Tara was distraught about the relationship ending. / Credit: Connie Grinstead

Police never called him a suspect, but Marcus was more closely investigated than anyone in the disappearance of his former girlfriend, Tara Grinstead.

Marcus Harper: I was swabbed for DNA. My truck was Luminoled … photographs were taken. … Had to tell my alibi, you know, or where was I at, who I was around. And that was corroborated.

Year after year passed with no arrests. But back in 2005, authorities either missed or ignored a tip that may have solved the case. Just weeks after Tara vanished at a party in a pecan orchard, one of Jannis Paulk's employees told her that he had overheard two young men tell a disturbing story.

Jannis Paulk: That they had been at a party bragging about their involvement in Tara's disappearance and that ultimately, they had taken her body out to a pecan orchard and burn it in a firepit.

It was a shocking statement. 

Peter Van Sant: Did he have names of who these two men were who claimed they had killed Tara?

Jannis Paulk: It was Bo Dukes and Ryan Duke.

The two — who were friends— had similar sounding names but weren't related. At the time, Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes were 21 years old. Ryan worked at a plastics manufacturing plant, while Bo would occasionally work at his family's pecan farm. Both had been students at Tara's high school.

Jannis Paulk: We shared that tip with the local sheriff's department.

That tip went nowhere. And it wasn't the only one overlooked.

Jannis Paulk [emotional]: It just brings up a lot. So, it's kind of crappy right now.

Peter Van Sant: I'm sorry.

John McCullough says he is still haunted by painful memories of being ignored by investigators.

Peter Van Sant: This really affects you, though, talking about this.

John McCullough: Yes.

McCullough, now a manager at a water company in Texas, had met Bo Dukes at Army boot camp in 2006.

Peter Van Sant: So, two Southern boys meet in Oklahoma in the Army.

John McCullough: Yes.

Peter Van Sant: And you guys hit it off?

John McCullough: Yeah … and we were pretty close.

Dukes invited McCullough to Ocilla to spend Christmas with his family. It was a year after Tara's disappearance.  And as they were driving around town, a billboard caught his eye.

John McCullough: And it had this very, you know, attractive woman on it.

Peter Van Sant: Tara Grinstead.

John McCullough: Yeah, Tara Grinstead, and said, you know, "missing."

The two then went to a party.  After a few drinks, McCullough says Bo began talking about Tara.

John McCullough: He was like, "yeah, do you remember that bulletin that you had asked me about with that girl on it?" And I was like, "yeah." And he was like, 'I know what happened."

McCullough wasn't ready for what Bo would say next.

John McCullough: He had told me that his friend … accidentally strangled her and he needed help getting rid of the body so that way there was —nothing to find.

Stunned as he was, McCullough was in a dilemma.  Could he betray his friend?  His fellow soldier?

Peter Van Sant: The kind of guy you want to share a foxhole with, right? Who you can trust with your life?

John McCullough: Yes. Right.

John McCullough maintains he tried to get investigators a key tip in 2007 that could have cracked the case. McCullough said he called authorities but they never followed up. / Credit: CBS News
John McCullough maintains he tried to get investigators a key tip in 2007 that could have cracked the case. McCullough said he called authorities but they never followed up. / Credit: CBS News

The weight of what McCullough says Bo told him became unbearable. Two months later, in February 2007, McCullough says he called three police departments in Georgia— including Ocilla, where he left a voice message saying:

John McCullough: "This is John McCullough. I know who killed Tara Grinstead or had a part of it. It was told to me when I was in Georgia. … Here's my number … I'll do whatever has to happen for y'all to take me serious. I just got off the phone with another department that had — didn't do sh—."

Incredibly, McCullough says, no one returned his calls.

Peter Van Sant: This is the murder of Tara Grinstead … and there seemed to be little interest, is that right?

John McCullough: Very little interest.

But McCullough was determined to get the truth out.  He called the state's top law enforcement agency heading the investigation, the GBI.

John McCullough: I mean, nobody ever called me back, ever, even whenever I reached out to the GBI, which is the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Peter Van Sant: How many times did you call the GBI over what period of time and you still didn't get any …

John McCullough: I would say from the year of 2007 until 2016 … I would probably say I reached out nine or 10 times to the GBI.

Peter Van Sant: Why do you think investigators ignored you?

John McCullough: I have no idea. Maybe because I'm a nobody. I don't know.

Jannis Paulk also spoke to the GBI in 2008 as the agency was reviewing the case.  And she told them about her employee's tip three years earlier regarding Bo Dukes and Ryan Duke.

Jannis Paulk: So, I sat down with an agent and we just went through everything.

But again, as far as she knew, it went nowhere. Tara's family could do little but pray for a breakthrough.

Maria Woods Harper: They've had a really hard time. I can't imagine the loss of a child. But I think it's taken a lot of toll on them mentally and physically.

Then, more than 11 years after Tara disappeared, Brooke Sheridan came out of nowhere with her account about not only Bo Dukes – but his friend Ryan Duke.

Brooke Sheridan: Ryan … Woke him up and said, "I killed Tara Grinstead."

FINALLY, A CONFESSION

Maria Woods Harber: She was charismatic, determined, a beautiful personality.

Peter Van Sant: What would anyone's motive be to kill Tara Grinstead?

Maria Woods Harber: I don't know.

In 2017, more than 11 years after Tara vanished, Brooke Sheridan came forward with a potential answer.

Brooke Sheridan: I had to tell some— I had to tell. There was no other option.

And what she had to say implicated a man whose name had repeatedly been given to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Peter Van Sant: How did you and Bo Dukes meet?

Brooke Sheridan: We actually met on Tinder.

Brooke says she was studying in Savannah to become a pharmacist when, in 2015, she came face-to-face with her online date.

Brooke Sheridan: It was love at first sight.

In 2017, Brooke Sheridan came forward to the GBI saying that her boyfriend, Bo Dukes, told her that he had helped his friend, Ryan Duke, cover up Tara Grinstead's murder.  / Credit: Georgia Bureau of Investigation
In 2017, Brooke Sheridan came forward to the GBI saying that her boyfriend, Bo Dukes, told her that he had helped his friend, Ryan Duke, cover up Tara Grinstead's murder. / Credit: Georgia Bureau of Investigation

Bo Dukes comes from a prominent family that owned a huge pecan orchard in the Ocilla area.

Peter Van Sant: And what is it about him that you love?

Brooke Sheridan: He has a beautiful mind. He is extremely intelligent.

Jannis Paulk, who knows the family, paints a different picture of Bo.

Jannis Paulk: So, Bo was known in the community for being a little over the top, unfiltered. … One of those always showing off and talking big and running his mouth.

Bo got in big trouble while in the Army. In 2012 he was charged and convicted of stealing more than $150,000 worth of military supplies. And Bo spent more than two years in federal prison. Bo confessed all of this to Brooke, who stuck with him.

Brooke Sheridan: I had never connected with somebody and had fun with somebody like I have with him.

But she says Bo was often moody.

Brooke Sheridan: I said, "You have to talk to me. …he's very shut— shut off emotions, feelings he doesn't talk about.

As their relationship evolved, Brooke sensed that something seemed to be eating away at Bo.

Brooke Sheridan: It was something very dark and I— I chalked it up to, you know, serving his time in the military.

Brooke says she kept encouraging Bo to open up —to talk about this dark subject that was destroying him.  Finally, he cracked.

Brooke Sheridan: He said, "You've heard of the Tara Grinstead case?" And I was like, "Yeah." He said, "My roommate killed her."

His former roommate and close friend was Ryan Duke.

Peter Van Sant: Why would Ryan Duke have murdered Tara Grinstead?

Brooke Sheridan: He said, "That's something that only God and Ryan know." He said, "I don't know why he did it."

But there was more— Brooke says Bo then admitted his own involvement in the crime, saying:

Brooke Sheridan: "And I helped him burn her body."

Brooke Sheridan: I was— felt like I was gonna be sick. I didn't know who I was staring at. I didn't know who he was.

Brooke Sheridan says she encouraged Bo Dukes to tell his story to investigators.
Brooke Sheridan says she encouraged Bo Dukes to tell his story to investigators.

Bo told Brooke that Ryan stole his pickup truck that night and used it to transport Tara's body to a remote part of a pecan orchard farmed by Bo's family.

Brooke Sheridan: Ryan looked at Bo and said, "It's your truck. Your family's land." And he said he threw his arms up just like this [shrugs her shoulders], "What are you gonna do?"

Peter Van Sant: And by Ryan saying to him, "Hey, buddy. This is your truck, and this is your family's land," basically that was interpreted by Bo as a threat that – we're partners now in this?

Brooke Sheridan: Yes.

Bo told her they moved Tara's body to a pit, where it took two days to burn, destroying all evidence.

Brooke Sheridan [emotional]: I kept thinking about her family and — I couldn't sleep at night.

Now, it was Brooke's turn to be tormented by a terrible secret.

Brooke Sheridan: I had to tell some— I had to tell. There was no other option.

Weeks later she called the GBI to turn in the boyfriend she loved.

Brooke Sheridan: That family's peace to me was more important than his freedom. 

But if you're ready for this — Bo had already been interviewed by the GBI a year earlier in 2016.   That was after investigators finally reached out to John McCullough.

John McCullough: I'm glad somebody's finally listening. … so, I talk to him, tell him everything I know.

But back then, Bo denied everything. With no hard evidence, authorities couldn't make an arrest. But after he broke down to Brooke, she told Bo it was time to tell the truth. 

Brooke Sheridan: I said, "You need to confess. You need to own to what you've done and confess."

Peter Van Sant: And what does Bo say?

Brooke Sheridan: He says, "I just want her family to know."

GBI AGENT to BO DUKES: I'm gonna just kinda leave it – open the floor to you, and just tell me about you knowing about Tara …

Bo Dukes shares details of what happened to Tara Grinstead with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. / Credit: Superior Courts, Cordele Judicial Circuit
Bo Dukes shares details of what happened to Tara Grinstead with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. / Credit: Superior Courts, Cordele Judicial Circuit

In an interview with the GBI, Bo Dukes said he was ready to end the secret he had kept for years, and went into detail.

GBI AGENT: You could still see the body?

BO DUKES: Yeah. Yeah.

GBI AGENT: Just kinda like charred?

BO DUKES: Yeah.

The day after Bo's confession, his one-time friend Ryan Duke was arrested. Nearly 12 years after Tara's disappearance, on February 23, 2017, Ryan Duke appeared in court, charged with Tara's murder.  He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Marcus Harper: I received a phone call … And the voice on the other end of the phone said, you know, "Brother, your 12 years of hell is over. … we have made an arrest."

Investigators say Ryan confessed to killing Grinstead.

Ryan Duke at his first court hearing after his arrest in February 2017, charged with Tara Grinstead's murder. He pleaded not guilty. / Credit: CBS News
Ryan Duke at his first court hearing after his arrest in February 2017, charged with Tara Grinstead's murder. He pleaded not guilty. / Credit: CBS News

Investigators say Ryan confessed to killing Grinstead in a voluntary interview shortly before his arrest: "I used to break into people's houses, just to steal money. I was a drug addict … I'd been drinking. I was high. I don't remember everything clearly … I was stealing from her purse. And she snuck up on me and – I hit her. I didn't mean to."

And remember that latex glove found at the crime scene? A DNA sample from Ryan Duke was a perfect match.

Peter Van Sant: Was it an emotional moment for you to realize someone had been arrested after all that time?

Maria Woods Harber: Yes. I cried for days, couldn't sleep for days. It was very hard to grasp.

And the next month, Bo Dukes, who years earlier had sat in Tara's class — was arrested and charged — not with murder, but with concealing a death, hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and lying to investigators in is original GBI interview.  Two years later, in March 2019, Bo was the first to go on trial.

PROSECUTOR OPENING: This case is about Bo's lies … it's about Bo's concealment that his best friend, Ryan, had killed Tara Grinstead and then they both burn the body.

And for the first time, everyone heard Bo's own account when his GBI interview was played in court:

BO DUKES [GBI video interview]: He told me he had killed Tara Grinstead. … And he asked me to help him get rid of her body.

But could Bo's story be trusted?

JUSTICE SERVED?

In March 2019, in a county courthouse about 30 miles from where beloved teacher and beauty pageant mentor Tara Grinstead was murdered, Bo Dukes went on trial on charges relating to covering up her death.

BRAD RIGBY | PROSECUTOR: This case is about Bo's lies, lies that lasted from 2005 to 2016.

Bo Dukes – who years earlier had sat in Tara Grinstead's class — was arrested and charged — not with murder, but with concealing a death, hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and lying to investigators. Two years later, in March 2019, he was the first to go on trial.  / Credit: WGCL
Bo Dukes – who years earlier had sat in Tara Grinstead's class — was arrested and charged — not with murder, but with concealing a death, hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and lying to investigators. Two years later, in March 2019, he was the first to go on trial. / Credit: WGCL

Bo was facing a maximum 25-year sentence. So, he went to trial hoping jurors might show mercy for a man who had already confessed to his role in the crime.

Prosecutors played that videotape of Bo's interview with the GBI. Bo began with what he says Ryan told him the day after Tara disappeared.

BO DUKES [GBI interview]: He told me that he had killed Tara Grinstead. I didn't believe him. I thought he was out of his mind. I told him, you know, leave me alone …

Bo says Ryan then repeated that a couple of days later.

BO DUKES [GBI interview]: Again, I didn't believe him … he asked me to come with him out to —to the pecan orchard.

According to Bo Dukes, the two men took Bo's pickup truck and drove out of town onto a highway and pulled off onto a dirt road leading to the pecan orchard that's owned by Bo Dukes' family. The two men drove about 200 yards up the road to where Tara Grinstead's body had been placed.

BO DUKES [GBI interview]: We drove back into the back, and he showed me where her body was.

GBI AGENT: Of all the people, why Tara, what's the connection?

BO DUKES: No connection.

BO DUKES: As far as I know, he didn't know her. 

The agent asks Bo his first reaction when he went to the orchard with Ryan.

GBI AGENT: So, you immediately see this and you're like "what in the hell did you do?"

BO DUKES: Yeah. And why the f-— would you do it here on my family's pecan orchard? I mean…

GBI AGENT: What did he say?

BO DUKES: "Help me."

Bo then gave his account of moving and then burning her body, which began on a Wednesday and took two days.

GBI AGENT: So, by Friday, there's nothing left?

BO DUKES: No.

It was now time at the trial for Bo's one-time Army buddy, John McCullough, to finally tell his story of Bo's confession.  And this time, the whole world seemed to be listening. 

JOHN MCCULLOUGH: The exact location, he didn't tell me, but had made the comment of, you know, we took her to the middle of the pecan orchard and burned her body.

He testified calmly, but inside was still seething at Bo.

John McCullough: If there wasn't multiple police officers that were inside the courtroom on the day that I testified on the stand, I probably would have ripped him apart with my hands.

But McCullough wasn't the only witness who gave details about Tara's death. Jannis Paulk's former employee, Garlan Lott, told the court he had overheard that 2005 conversation between Ryan and Bo at a party in the same pecan orchard where Tara's body had been burned. He wasn't sure who said what.

GARLAN LOTT: The statement that I recall was, 'We killed and burned her body."

LAWYER: Any doubt in your mind, however, that you heard these two people laughing about killing and burning Tara Grinstead's body?

GARLAN LOTT: No.

Garlan says after he reported this to Jannis Paulk, he was never formally interviewed by anyone from law enforcement.

LAWYER: It sounds like you're saying you assumed it was handled properly?

GARLAN LOTT: I assumed it was handled by law enforcement, yes.

And in this trial, Agent Gary Rothwell finally explained what happened with those tips.

AGENT GARY ROTHWELL: We thought that that lead had been addressed by local law enforcement as unfounded and did not follow up.

In cross-examination, Rothwell added that he takes responsibility for the GBI lapse.

AGENT GARY ROTHWELL: It is something we should've followed up, but we —we didn't.

It took a jury less than an hour to convict Bo Dukes on all charges.  His hope for mercy was dashed.  At his sentencing, Tara Grinstead's stepmother Connie addressed the court:

CONNIE GRINSTEAD: He knew she wasn't ever coming back. He could have at least told us that, but he didn't. And the reason he knew she wasn't coming back, is because he had put load after load of wood on her body and burned her.

Bo Dukes apologies to Tara Grinstead's family at his sentencing. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. / Credit: Courtroom pool/via WGCL
Bo Dukes apologies to Tara Grinstead's family at his sentencing. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. / Credit: Courtroom pool/via WGCL

And Bo Dukes himself spoke directly to Tara's family:

BO DUKES: To the Tara Grinstead family, I'm truly sorry. Your long suffering has been unimaginable.

Bo was sentenced to 25 years in prison.  But questions remained about discrepancies between Ryan's version of events and Bo's. In Ryan's interview with the GBI, he said he had hit Tara, but Bo said Ryan told him otherwise:

BO DUKES [GBI interview]: He jumped on her, while he was —she was in bed and strangled her right there in her bed.

And there were other inconsistencies.

Peter Van Sant: One said she had clothes on, the other said she did not. It's kind of odd, isn't it?

Maria Woods Harber: Yeah, very.

And it was about to get even more unsettled when at Ryan's murder trial he took the stand and recanted his confession, saying it was really Bo Dukes who killed Tara.

WHO REALLY KILLED TARA GRINSTEAD?

Maria Woods Harber: She was such a good person … She just didn't deserve it. … I don't understand that, just a disregard of human life.

For those who loved Tara Grinstead, Bo Dukes' 25-year sentence for covering up her death was only partial justice

Maria Woods Harber: They've gotten away with it for this many years anyway. They've lived so many years without being punished.

Now the man accused of murdering Tara – Ryan Duke – would go on trial for murder almost 17 years after she went missing.

In May 2022, at the Ocilla courthouse just up the road from Tara's home, Ryan Duke's attorneys argued that the state had the wrong man.

DEFENSE [closing arguments]: Bo Dukes should be on trial for the murder of Tara Grinstead, not Ryan.

But the prosecution said they hard evidence: audio and video of Ryan confessing to killing Tara, when he spoke to the GBI back in 2017.

RYAN DUKE [GBI interview played at trial]: I can't lie. I can't live with myself. I'm so sick of this… stealing from her purse. … she snuck up on me and — I hit her. …  I don't remember everything clearly. 

Bo Dukes, left, and Ryan Duke. / Credit: AP/Georgia Bureau of Information
Bo Dukes, left, and Ryan Duke. / Credit: AP/Georgia Bureau of Information

The defense said Ryan was under the influence of painkillers at the time, and only took the blame because he was afraid of Bo.  Ryan Duke, now clean-shaven and looking very different from his 2017 arrest, took the stand.

DEFENSE: Mr. Duke, did you murder Tara Grinstead?

RYAN DUKE: I did not.

He testified that Bo Dukes told him he had killed Tara Grinstead – but Ryan did not know how she died.

Q: Did you see Miss Grinstead's body after she died?

RYAN DUKE: I did

Q: Where did you see it?

RYAN DUKE: In the pecan orchard.

Q: Did somebody take you to the body?

RYAN DUKE: They did.

Q: Who took you to the body?

RYAN DUKE: Bo Dukes.

Ryan admitted he was asked by Bo to help dispose of Tara's body in the orchard and moved her to the burn pile. He recalled that moment.

RYAN DUKE: … dry heaving, I'm crying ...

DEFENSE: Does Bo say anything?

RYAN DUKE: He starts laughing at me. … He lit her on fire.

DEFENSE: What was his expression, his demeanor when that happened?

RYAN DUKE: Was like he wasn't there.

Ryan said he was afraid Bo would hurt him or his family.

But what about that latex glove with Ryan's DNA on it found in Tara's front yard? Ryan testified he had never even gone to Tara's house, and the glove was only discovered there on Monday by Tara's neighbors — over a day after she went missing.

Ryan's lawyers argued that gave Bo plenty of time to plant it.

DEFENSE: We know the State hasn't brought a single witness to tell you it was on the ground before Monday morning. Not a one.

In closing, as Tara's family looked on, the prosecution held to their argument that Ryan had told the truth back in 2017.

PROSECUTION: The man in THAT chair, confessed to the murder of Tara Grinstead. … They burned her body. A full skeleton. Down to about 20 fragments of bone.

Bones that were so degraded, no official cause of death could be determined. The jury was left to decide if they believed what Ryan said in 2017, or his new version of events.  Ryan steeled himself before the verdict was read.

Not guilty of malice murder and he was acquitted of all charges relating to Tara's murder —convicted only of concealing her death. At his sentencing hearing, Tara's stepmother, Connie, expressed how Tara's family felt about Ryan Duke.

CONNIE GRINSTEAD [Reading family impact statement]: His confession in 2017 seemed genuine and sincere, and he looked remorseful. … He looked like a person who was ready to do the right thing, but his testimony on the witness stand only seemed coached, well-rehearsed and sought self-serving benefits. … We pray that people will remember that the defendant was not the victim. Tara was.

For all that has transpired, there's one question that troubles Maria Woods Harber: what really happened to Tara on the night she disappeared?

Maria Woods Harber: I've had to come to a conclusion that I'm just gonna have to live the rest of my life not knowing.

But there is no question that in her short and impactful life, Tara Grinstead touched people in rare ways — even those who never met her, like John McCullough.

John McCullough: I can't explain it [emotional].  … And wish I could have been there whenever it happened so that way, I could do something [emotional].

Maria Woods Harber: She's been an inspiration. She had a lot of life ahead of her. …  She brought great things to Irwin County High School …  And I would hope that eventually the word Tara Grinstead will be a bright spot because she did bring a lot of good things to Ocilla.

Dana Wilder: Ocilla was Tara's life. … that's where she set her roots. And that's where she wanted to stay and where she wanted to be.

Ryan Duke was sentenced to 10 years in prison for concealing the death of Tara Grinstead.

Bo Dukes is serving 25 years for concealing her death, hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and lying to investigators.

Both men are awaiting trial in a neighboring county on charges related to burning Tara's body.

Produced by Alec Sirken and Lauren Clark. Michelle Feuer is the development producer. Shaheen Tokhi and David Dow are the associate producers. Greg Kaplan, Phillip J. Tangel and Marcus Balsam are the editors. Anthony Batson is the senior broadcast producer.

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