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Monday, May 20 2013 9:03 AM EDT2013-05-20 13:03:02 GMT
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Sunday, May 19 2013 6:16 PM EDT2013-05-19 22:16:35 GMT
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November 2, 2006
Ocilla -- 377 days ago, a popular South Georgia school teacher vanished without a trace. Thirty-one-year-old Tara Grinstead's disappearance made national news, and shook the small town of Ocilla.
She's never been found and her disappearance remains one of the biggest mysteries in Irwin County history.
Pictures of the smiling beauty queen were splashed across newspapers and television sets almost nightly this time last year.
Resident Walter Hudson says, "That was the biggest thing that's really happened in Ocilla, unfortunately."
Stephanie Royal says, "Everywhere you went, somebody was mentioning it or you'd see a sign or poster or something."
Something related to the woman who would quickly come to be known by her first name, Tara. The popular high school history teacher vanished the night of October 22, 2005. Her car and cell phone were found at her small rental house in Ocilla. Her keys and purse were gone.
Her disappearance spawned one of the biggest searches in Georgia history. Hundreds of law enforcement agents and volunteers fanned out on horseback, foot, all terrain vehicles. Search dogs and helicopters combed the area. No sign of Tara.
"We checked every lead out that's come to us," says Ike Thomas, Irwin Co. Chief Deputy.
Police still search when new tips come in, and spent five hours in the woods just last week. They found nothing. "What about this case surprises me the most is that there's not been anything that we could grasp," Thomas said. "Everything's just been so far off that we couldn't find anything. There's no lead that is concrete, yet.'"
The huge search and command operation, once at the Senior Citizen's center, is now tucked away inside a small office downtown. The door covered with posters of missing people. A billboard with Tara's picture is now gone, and so are the volunteers who helped searched for her.
"It's nothing compared to what it was last year. You don't hear about it , you don't see anything. There's no signs up anymore. Every now and then, you'll walk in and see a Missing Tara sign," says Said Stephanie Royal.
Tara's house on Park Street has been emptied of her things. Another school teacher lives there now. Her German Shepard, Dolly, who constantly barked in the days following Tara's disappearance, now lives in the backyard next door. Her cat, Herman Talmadge, lives with the neighbors, too.
This time last year, yellow crime scene tape was wrapped around the big pine trees. A large bow adorned the mailbox. But now, there's no reminder that she ever lived here. Her friends, though, aren't giving up hope. "We're all just baffled," said Sandy McClurd, one of those close friends.
She worked with Tara at Irwin County High School and helped organize last weekend's somber anniversary vigil. "We received the luminary bags from as far away as New Zealand. So people are still interested."
Interested in the fate of a young woman who seemingly had everything going for her. "I get a question from people everyday, 'Have you found Tara yet?' And really, the only way we can answer is 'No, but we're trying.' We're trying our hardest and we're using every effort that we can to find her," Deputy Thomas says.
But they have nothing to go on. Even the "who did it?" rumors and speculation that threatened to divide this town have subsided somewhat. "We're still on it. We're still looking, we're still trying. And I don't think you can ever close a case like this unless something's found," Ike Thomas says. "Every time we get a lead, we're hoping that we can find something, someway, somehow, for some closure of some kind."
"She would not give up on us, and we're not going to give up on her," Sandy McClurd says. And her close friends say they won't give up until they know what happened to Tara Grinstead.
The reward for information in the Tara Grinstead case now stands at $200,000.