Mixed emotions sweep Irwin Co. after arrest in Grinstead case

Mixed emotions sweep Irwin Co. after arrest in Grinstead case
A community was shocked when an arrest was made in an 11-year-old case. (Source: WALB)
Tara Grinstead (Source: Viewer)
Tara Grinstead (Source: Viewer)
Irwin County Sheriff Donnie Youghn (Source: WALB)
Irwin County Sheriff Donnie Youghn (Source: WALB)
Irwin County Schools Superintendent Thad Clayton (Source: WALB)
Irwin County Schools Superintendent Thad Clayton (Source: WALB)
Lakin Bailey, student and mentee of Tara Grinstead (Source: WALB)
Lakin Bailey, student and mentee of Tara Grinstead (Source: WALB)

OCILLA, GA (WALB) - Many in the small town of Ocilla have been left in shock. For more than a decade, investigators searched for any sign of Tara Grinstead, a teacher and beauty queen, who went missing in 2005.

On Thursday, officials gave answers in the form of a murder charge.

Many people have been following the case since Grinstead went missing. What they found out Thursday prompted mixed emotions.

"When he did knowingly, intentionally and willfully during the commission of a felony, that being burglary, cause the death of Tara Grinstead," Chief Magistrate Heather Culpepper explained during Ryan Duke's first court appearance on Thursday.

Arrest warrants read in court provided detail that investigators believe Duke killed Grinstead during a burglary at her home with his hands and then hid her body.

"They never considered this a cold case. They followed every lead with the same vigor this year as they did in 2005. I think that was evidence by the fact that now they've finally brought this to a close," Ocilla Mayor Matt Seale said.

And that closure is something that could now put rumors to rest and ease a community living a nightmare for more than 11 years.

"They'd ask me, you know, 'Do you think this guy who did this, if she was killed, if he's still in the community?' Worried about their family, worried about their daughters," explained Irwin County Sheriff Donnie Youghn.

Youghn, who was sheriff when Tara went missing, said that Thursday was a day many in the small town won't forget.

"It's very important because she was a local girl, she lived here, she taught school, she had a lot of friends here, everyone loved her. It's just one of those things that hit the community so hard because you couldn't believe it actually happened," Youghn said.

Former student and close friend of Grinstead, Lakin Bailey, said that she's finally at peace now.

It was Irwin County High School where the two met.

Grinstead was Bailey's history teacher.

And when Bailey started her beauty pageant career, Grinstead, who was  Bailey's next door neighbor and a former pageant queen, coached her along the way.

"She would go shopping with me and just guided me through the entire process, she was very very good at what she did...people looked up to her. I mean she was a very strong willed woman. I mean it's someone I would've loved to grown up and been just like," Bailey explained.

Bailey attended the press conference Thursday afternoon and said she listened to the developments in utter shock.

She said the turn of events were unbelievable given the small, tight-knit community.

But on Thursday, Bailey said for the first time in 11 years she would no longer have to wonder what happened to her mentor.

And, that October day when Tara didn't show up to school marks another day Irwin County Schools Superintendent Thad Clayton said will always stick in his mind.

"This community has really put their emotions out there for the past 11 and a half years trying to help answer the what happened questions. So, it's an emotional day," Clayton explained.

A group of Douglas women even drove to Ocilla to show their support for the community.

Ashley Leis and her three friends drove down after watching the press conference on Facebook.

Leis has been following the case for more than a decade.

"Oh my God it was amazing, I was just so happy something had happened for her family and I watched on Facebook, the live feed on Facebook and although they didn't tell us very much but it was still a blessing that her family does get to know something," said Leis.

Leis said after her own investigative research, she was shocked to hear Duke named the primary suspect given that he wasn't on her radar.

A high school friend who wanted to remain anonymous was shocked to hear Duke was charged with Grinstead's murder.

He went to school with Duke at Irwin County High School, and the two graduated together in 2002.

They went to dozens of parties together and spent the night over each other's houses.

He described Duke as a loner, and he never would've thought something like this could have happened.

"He was very friendly, hung out. Well known in the community, worked at our local Harvey's. I mean, just all around person, it's truly it's kind of really a shock to everyone around," said anonymous friend.

Duke's anonymous friend said that he lost touch with him after he went off to college.

Clayton said that he remembers Duke, who attended Irwin County while Grinstead taught there, but not very well.

Bailey said that at one point, she and Duke shared the same circle of friends.

And Bailey said, in quote, "Never in a million years thought he could've been capable of something of that magnitude."

Despite the mixed emotions within the community, 11 years later, friends and family finally have some closure as to what may have happened to Tara Grinstead back in October 2005.

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