More than 13 years after a south Georgia high school teacher and one-time beauty queen vanished without a trace, a trial has begun for a man charged with concealing her body and lying to police.
Tara Grinstead’s disappearance in October 2005 stumped her hometown of Ocilla for more than a decade until authorities charged two men in 2017. Prosecutors say Ryan Duke killed Grinstead after breaking into her home to steal money for drugs, then enlisted his friend Bo Dukes to help him move the body and burn it in a pecan orchard.
A trial for Dukes, the alleged accomplice, opened Monday in nearby Wilcox County south of Macon. Dukes is charged with concealing a death, hindering apprehension of a felon and lying to police.
John McCullough, who said he met Dukes during Army basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, testified Tuesday that Dukes confessed to him one night during a Christmas break visit to Georgia.
Dukes had been drinking and using cocaine, McCullough said, and they were sitting in his mother’s car late at night.
“He seemed like something was bothering him,” McCullough told the jury. “It started to come out. He said, ‘You’re my battle buddy, right?’ He was like, ‘Man, I need to tell you something.’”
He said Dukes told him a friend had killed Grinstead, whose face loomed large on a billboard in the area seeking tips in her disappearance. Dukes said he helped the friend put the body in his pickup truck, according to McCullough, and they drove to a pecan orchard owned by Dukes’ family.
“They burned her body and let it burn as long as they could,” McCullough testified. “And once they were satisfied, they buried the rest.”
McCullough told his story to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent years later, in 2016. Dukes’ defense attorney, John Fox, asked McCullough why he didn’t alert police sooner.
McCullough said he waited until he and Dukes went their separate ways after Army basic training, to avoid confrontation, and then tried calling police in February 2007. He said several phone calls to police agencies in the area either weren’t returned, or those who he talked to didn’t take him seriously.
“One had made the comment: ‘We get tips like this all the time,’” McCullough said.
News outlets reported that during opening statements Monday, Fox told the jury all charges against Dukes in Wilcox County stem from accusations that he lied to investigators during a June 2016 interview. He asked jurors to listen carefully to the recording of that interview.
“That evidence is not going to show you that he concealed information,” said Fox, who noted charges against Dukes for burning Grinstead’s body are tied to a separate case in a separate county.
District Attorney Brad Rigby also cautioned jurors that Dukes isn’t charged with killing Grinstead.
“This case is not about her murder,” Rigby said. “This case is about lies, this defendant’s lies. This case is about his secrets, his denial.”
Duke is scheduled to stand trial on charges of murder and other crimes April 1 in Irwin County, where Grinstead lived. GBI agent Jason Shoudel testified at a pretrial court hearing that Duke confessed to killing Grinstead and burning her body. He said DNA from both Duke and Grinstead was found on a latex glove recovered outside her home.
But Duke’s defense attorneys say Duke gave a false confession while he was under the influence of drugs. They have said in court documents that Duke was at home asleep the night Grinstead was killed.