OCILLA, Ga. (WALB) - Thursday marks 15 years since teacher and beauty queen Tara Grinstead disappeared in Irwin County.
“15 years is a long time, and the hole in your heart doesn’t heal,” said Wendy McFarland, Grinstead’s friend and fellow teacher at Irwin County High School. “Tara and I taught together...thankfully we hired her because she was a bright star.”
Grinstead’s friends describe her as a bubbly and kind presence at ICHS where she taught history, in the pageants which she competed in and helped host, and with her best friends and family.
“She was in my wedding,” said Maria Harber, Grinstead’s best friend. “She was always there for the birth of my children.”
Grinstead’s friends and co-workers said she was meant to teach.
“She actually talked me into being a teacher,” said Harber, who now teaches in Cordele.
“She just was one of those people that was a light,” McFarland explained. “She drew the kids in.”
She had her sights set high, on becoming a principal.
“She never got the chance to do that,” Harber said.
Grinstead was last seen Saturday, October 22nd, 2005 after attending a pageant in Fitzgerald.
“Her mom was extremely worried,” Harber explained. “We knew something was wrong.”
The next day, no one, not even her mom or her best friend, could get in touch with her.
That Monday, she didn’t show up for work.
“We went ahead and made flyers,” McFarland said. “We stood at the red light and stopped Walmart trucks and handed them out to every person that came through.”
“A 15-year nightmare just started there,” Harber said.
The days turned into months, then years.
For more than a decade, there were no answers to this question: where was Tara Grinstead?
Tips led investigators to several searches over the years, but Grinstead was nowhere to be found.
Without knowing whether she was alive, her family and friends couldn’t say their final goodbyes. They said they simply had to grieve that she was just gone.
“We had to lay her mom to rest, which was very, very difficult,” Harber said.
In 2017, more than 11 years after she was last seen, there was a shocking break in the case.
“For us, this just starts another chapter in a very long and painful journey,” Grinstead’s step-mother, Connie Grinstead, explained during a press conference in February of that year.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation would go on to announce two arrests in connection to Grinstead’s death.
“There are no words for that. Literally, now, for several years, I have searched for that word and I don’t know that word,” McFarland explained of finding out who was charged in the case.
Harber and McFarland said they don’t think any outcome or verdict could bring them true closure, because either way, Tara is gone.
“Every day, things would happen, good, bad, whatever. I wanted to tell her, and I couldn’t,” Harber said.
“It’s this time of year that gets me,” McFarland said. “Every year, when the season changes, the changing of the wind blowing and the leaves rustling, it always reminds me of Tara. I miss her. You know, I just miss her.”
Grinstead’s loved ones have endured 15 years of heartbreak, with no end in sight.
Thursday at 11 p.m. on WALB News 10, tune in for a recap of what has happened so far and what is next in the court cases for the two men charged in connection to her death and disappearance.