Ocilla, GA – A suspect who previously confessed murdering a Georgia schoolteacher and burning her body was found not guilty by a jury last week.
Tara Grinstead, a 30-year-old beauty queen and high school history teacher, disappeared on Oct. 22, 2005, after leaving a cookout in her rural South Georgia community, CBS News reported.
Prosecutors said Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes both allegedly bragged about murdering Grinstead and burning her body in Dukes’ family’s pecan orchard just weeks after she disappeared, but that a tip about their involvement got overlooked due to the overwhelming number of leads police received while searching for the missing schoolteacher, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Grinstead was declared dead in absentia by an Irwin County probate judge in December of 2010, WAGA reported.
The search for Grinstead went cold until Dukes’ former girlfriend came forward in February of 2017, alleging he had been involved in her disappearance, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But Dukes allegedly told investigators Duke was the person responsible.
Shortly after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) went to Duke’s home to discuss the case, Duke showed up at the Ocilla Police Department (CPD) and confessed to Grinstead’s murder about 90 seconds after his arrival, according to the GBI.
“I don’t feel like I deserve to be free to breathe,” he said in his written confession, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Duke provided investigators with information about the case that hadn’t been made public, the GBI said.
He allegedly said he had broken into Grinstead’s home to steal money to support his drug habit when she interrupted him, FOX News reported.
“I was stealing from her purse and she snuck up on me,” Duke told GBI agents in a videotaped confession that was later played for the jury. “She snuck up on me and I hit her. It was reactionary. I ran. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Duke said he fled the scene and called the schoolteacher’s home from a payphone, according to the GBI.
When she didn’t answer, he said he went back to the house and found her dead, investigators said.
“I can’t lie. I can’t live with myself I’m so sick of this,” Duke said, according to police.
He ultimately took investigators to the pecan orchard where he claimed he and Dukes burned Grinstead’s body, CBS News reported.
Her body was never found, but investigators said they found bone fragments at the site that matched Grinstead’s DNA.
“He actually made the motion in the interview and put his hands up like this mimicking how he held her body,” GBI Agent Jason Shoudel testified during Duke’s trial, according to WAGA. “As he’s doing that, he started getting emotional and said, ‘She was so small,’ referring to the size of her in his arms.”
Dukes was arrested about a week after Duke was charged with Grinstead’s murder, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Dukes initially said he knew nothing about the young teacher’s disappearance, but confessed months later that he helped Duke dispose of the woman’s body, according to police.
Dukes was sentenced to 25 years in prison in March of 2019 for his role in concealing Grinstead’s death, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
During his nine-day trial on charges of felony murder, malice murder, burglary, aggravated assault and concealing a death, Duke got on the stand and testified that he lied about his involvement in the schoolteacher’s murder and blamed everything on Dukes.
Duke said he made a false confession because he was afraid of Dukes, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
He claimed his only involvement was helping Dukes burn the missing woman’s body.
Duke said he and Dukes lived together in a mobile home at the time of Grinstead’s disappearance, FOX News reported.
He testified that Dukes woke him up that night and told him that “he killed Tara,” then showed him Grinstead’s wallet and purse.
The jury deliberated for approximately two hours on May 19 before finding Duke not guilty of all counts with the exception of concealing a death, CBS News reported.
“We think the jury got it right, and we are very, very happy with the result,” defense attorney Ashley Merchant told WAGA after the verdict was read. “We believe in Ryan and we believed in him the entire time.”
Irwin County District Attorney Bryce Johnson said his office has no intention of charging Dukes for Grinstead’s murder because he believes Duke is the person responsible.
Johnson said Grinstead’s family was devastated by the outcome of the case, WAGA reported.
“It’s been a 17-year nightmare for them,” the prosecutor said. “I know they are disappointed in the verdict today like we are.”
Duke received a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on Monday for concealing Grinstead’s death, WAGA reported.
He has already served over five years, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Superior Court Judge Bill Reinhardt said he can only sentence Duke for the offense for which he was convicted, WAGA reported.
“Not for murder, not for burglary, not for aggravated assault, because that’s the way the system works,” Reinhardt said. “And everybody has to live with that.”