By: Emanuela Grinberg
IRWIN COUNTY, Ga. (Court TV) – The murder trial of Ryan Duke, the man accused of killing high school teacher and former pageant contestant Tara Grinstead, has begun in south Georgia.
Day 1: Monday, May 9, 2022
4:41 p.m. ET – JURY HEARS FROM THE FIRST PEOPLE TO ENTER GRINSTEAD’S HOUSE AFTER SHE WAS MISSING
The court adjourned for the day after jurors heard from three people who went to Grinstead’s home to look for her when she failed to show up for work on Monday, October 23, 2005:
Joe Poitier – Tara Grinstead’s neighbor Joe Poitier said she was like a daughter to him and his wife. They had a key to their house and Grinstead helped her granddaughter get ready for the Sweet Potato Festival on the last day she was seen alive. When Poitier learned that Grinstead was not showing up for work, he let Grinstead’s staff and his husband at Grinstead’s house. Poitier was the person who pointed out the latex glove to Ocilla Police Captain Billy Hancock when he arrived at the scene. On the cross, Poiter testified that there appeared to be no signs of forced entry into Grinstead’s home and that the front door was locked when he arrived.
Dana Harper Causey – The former Irwin High School teacher was one of the first to raise concerns when Tara Grinstead didn’t show up for work and went to her house to investigate. Causey was also the stepmother of Marcus Harper, Grinstead’s ex-boyfriend, who broke up with her weeks before she disappeared. Causey described one instance when Grinsted called her “extremely upset and incoherent” from the side of the road about the breakup. Causey drove her home because Grinstead was unable to drive. “She felt like she gave everything she had … but it just didn’t work out.”
Ocilla Police Chief Billy Hancock – Veteran law enforcement expert collected the white latex glove. He said his small department was completely overwhelmed by the attention to the case, prompting them to seek help from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He acknowledged that departments had received early reports of a body being cremated in a pecan orchard.
1:55 p.m. ET – TARA GRINSTEADS EX DESCRIBES WHAT HE SAW — AND DID NOT SEE — WHILE PERFORMING AT HER HOME
Grinstead appeared “kind of dejected” and “sad” during her last phone call the night she was last seen alive, said Heath Dykes, a married police captain who was having an affair with Grinstead when she disappeared. When her family didn’t hear from her the next day, Dykes called her several times, and the jury heard voicemails from him asking them to call him back. At Grinstead’s mother’s request, Dykes said he went to Grinstead’s house around midnight to look for her. He saw her car in the driveway, but didn’t see a latex glove, which prosecutors say contains Ryan Duke’s DNA. On the cross, Dykes said Grinstead told him she was afraid of Anthony Vickers, but Dykes said he was unaware that Grinstead was having a sexual relationship with him.
12:10 p.m. ET COURT BREAK FOR LUNCH AFTER THE JURY HEARS FROM THE FIRST WITNESSES
Billy Grinstead: Tara Grinstead’s father described how his job brought his family to Ocilla and recalled the timing of his last conversation with his daughter before she disappeared.
Dana Wilder Giddens: Tara Grinstead invited Giddens and other teenagers to her home the day she was last seen alive to help them prepare for the Miss Sweet Potato pageant. Giddens guided the jury through photos of Grinstead’s home and pointed out items that weren’t there, including clothing and furniture.
Rhett Roberts: Rhett Roberts, a former Irwin County teacher who dated Grinstead, described a surprise visit from Grinstead on the night of October 22, 2005 at around 8:30 p.m. On the cross, he said he was aware of an “incident” involving Grinstead and her ex-boyfriend Anthony Vickers.
Jared Luke: Luke visited Grinstead’s home on Sunday, October 23, 2005 at around 7:30 p.m. to pick up his dog’s water bowl. He said he parked behind her car in the driveway, but didn’t see the latex glove in the yard that prosecutors said linked Ryan Duke to the crime.
10:31 am ET – BOTH SIDES DELIVER OPENING STATEMENTS
Assistant District Attorney JD Hart addresses the jury for 40 minutes: “Ryan Duke has confessed to the murder of Tara Grinsted … the evidence will show that time and time again he has confessed to her murder with his words, he has confessed to her murder with his actions, he confessed to her murder with his DNA and his fingerprints.”
Defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant spoke to the jury for 20 minutes: “This case is about power and influence, about the people who have it and the people who don’t have it. Ryan Duke doesn’t have either. Bo Dukes has both. What we do know is that Ryan Duke did not harm Tara Grinstead.”
The investigation into the 30-year-old’s disappearance spanned more than a decade and consumed the small town of Ocilla in rumor and speculation before police arrested friends and former Irwin High School students Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes in early 2017.
>>>CASE BACKGROUND: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF TARA GRINSTEAD<
Authorities said new DNA evidence, new witness statements and confessions from both men led to indictments in one of the largest investigations in GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) history.
Ryan Duke pleaded not guilty. His defense claims his confession was coerced and that DNA testing in the case was unreliable. If convicted of murder, he faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Malice murder, felony murder (two counts), aggravated assault, burglary, concealment of a death
Beth Hemphill, Court TV, contributed to this story.