Luke Roberts, Star Editor
An Irwin County jury returned “Not Guilty” verdicts on five of the six charges Ryan Duke faced related to the disappearance and death of former Irwin County teacher Tara Grinstead, acquitting him of her 2005 murder on Friday, May 20, 2022. Duke was convicted on the charge of Concealing a Death and was sentenced to the maximum punishment of 10 years in prison during a sentencing hearing on Monday morning, May 23, at the Irwin County Courthouse.
Duke became extremely emotional as Irwin County Superior Court Clerk Nancy Ross read the verdicts on Friday that acquitted him on the charges of Malice Murder, Felony Murder, Aggravated Assault, and Burglary.
He was convicted on the charge of Concealing a Death, which carries a sentence of 1 to 10 years in prison. He has been incarcerated since his February 2017 arrest, which his attorney Ashleigh Merchant said should count as time served (five years and two months) toward his 10-year sentence that was handed down by Chief Superior Court Judge Bill Reinhardt.
Judge Reinhardt said the victim impact statements provided on Monday morning by Tara’s stepmother Connie Grinstead, her lifelong friend Miriam Sealey, and her sister Anita Grinstead Gattis weighed heavily in him giving Duke the maximum sentence. All asked for Duke to be sentenced to the maximum punishment allowable by law.
Gattis’ statement was powerful, as she stated “four words” that were stated to her on the phone call she received on October 24, 2005, sent her family’s lives into an “out of control spiral” that has been ongoing for the past “16 years, 6 months, and 27 days – 6,053 days.” The “four words” were “They can’t find Tara.”
She said while Ryan Duke offered “excuses” as to why he didn’t report the crime, she said he only confessed to being involved because he was “caught.”
She told Duke directly that she’s been a “prisoner of hell for the last 6,053 days,” which she called “her and her family’s sentence.” She also said that just because Duke was “acquitted” on charges it “does not mean he’s innocent.”
She also said she “believes the legal system failed” her, her family, and friends.
Gattis also said it was important for her to tell of the person Tara was. She said Tara was a “Christian,” “an exemplary daughter,” “a dedicated teacher who was adored by her students,” and “a faithful and devoted friend to all who knew her.”
Duke’s attorneys asked for “first offender status” for their client as part of Duke’s sentencing, specifically a “split sentence,” which would result in Duke being placed on probation.
Judge Reinhardt then handed down the sentence and stated, “Compared to what you were acquitted on the punishment for this charge for concealing a death is minimum, there’s no doubt about it. You had a great defense and that is what it is and you should be punished accordingly. The community, you, your family – everybody has to live with that. But you don’t know the reality of the pain your actions caused until somebody reminds you that every day what they live with is ‘they can’t find Tara.’ And it is true that despite whatever your selfish feelings were by not coming forward, you had the power to stop that pain for years. I think your testimony was remorseful, and you should be remorseful. And it won’t ever leave you I’m sure. But it won’t ever leave them either until the day they
die. They didn’t do anything, but love their sister, love their friend. And that can’t be minimized. It’s up to me to impose an appropriate sentence – and that sentence is 10 years in prison.”
Following the verdict on Friday, Ryan Duke’s defense team of John & Ashleigh Merchant and Evan Gibbs, an Alum of Irwin County High School, emerged from the courthouse and addressed the media.
“The jury got it right,” said Ashleigh Merchant. “We believe in Ryan and have this entire time.”
She later said she believed Duke’s testimony at trial “made the difference” in the case.
Many were surprised Duke, who confessed to murdering Grinstead in February 2017 to the GBI, took the stand to testify on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. His defense argued that Duke “falsely confessed” in 2017 while under the influence of prescription drugs, while the State contended Duke “admitted his guilt” with his confession, which he chose to provide to law enforcement at that time.
His testimony was shocking, as he testified that Bo Dukes, his former best friend who was sentenced to prison for lying to Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) during the investigation into the disappearance of Tara Grinstead, admitted that he killed Grinstead on the morning of Sunday, October 23, 2005.
Duke did admit to helping Bo Dukes conceal Grinstead’s death at a Ben Hill County pecan orchard owned by a family member of Bo Dukes, but said he was not involved in causing her death and he did not know how she died.
Upon taking the stand, Ryan Duke was immediately asked if he “murdered” Grinstead, which he replied, “No.” Duke said he has never been in Grinstead’s home or car, and he never left a glove at Grinstead’s home. Duke testified that Bo Dukes killed Grinstead and admitted to doing so. He also said he didn’t tell law enforcement the truth because he feared Bo Dukes would hurt him and/or his family.
Ryan Duke said he drank heavily on Saturday, October 22, 2005, and got sick from the alcohol and “passed out” on the floor of the bathroom in the mobile home he lived in with his brother, Steven Duke and Bo Dukes in Fitzgerald, Georgia.
Ryan Duke said he was awakened the next morning “around 8:00 or 8:30 a.m.” by Bo Dukes, and he described Bo as looking “panicked, pale, and freaked out.”
“He looked like he’d been up all night, he looked different” said Ryan, who added, “You could tell something was wrong.”
Ryan the said that Bo said something that “freaked him out,” but he didn’t believe him, adding, “He [Bo] would say shit to make you uncomfortable.”
The State objected to Duke’s testimony, which Superior Court Judge Bill Reinhardt overruled after a brief discussion.
Evan Gibbs, one of Ryan Duke’s defense attorneys, then asked for Ryan to say what it was that Bo told him on the morning of October 23, 2005. Ryan replied that Bo specifically said, “I killed Tara.”
Ryan then said that Bo Dukes ”pulled out a wallet” that contained Grinstead’s driver’s license, which led him to “assume” that Bo stole Grinstead’s purse and wallet. He also said he still didn’t believe Bo had killed Grinstead at that time.
Ryan said Bo then exited the room and went to a bedroom in the mobile home, and Ryan made the decision to attempt to return Grinstead’s purse to her despite not knowing where she lived. He said he then traveled to Ocilla and stopped at what is now the G&G Convenience Store and used a payphone to call her home by using 411 around 9:30 a.m.
That telephone call was considered to be a key piece of evidence for the State, as they considered Duke’s reference to the phone call during his 2017 confession to be “guilty knowledge,” information that only someone involved in the crime or having direct knowledge of the crime would know. The State claimed that Duke made the call prior to returning to Grinstead’s home to retrieve her deceased body to transport it to the orchard in Ben Hill County.
However, the defense argued that the GBI first mentioned the phone call to Duke during his confession prior to him referencing the call, something the defense said eliminates the State’s argument of Duke possessing “guilty knowledge.” They also argued that someone would have likely witnessed someone on Grisntead’s property at that time of day had someone been at her home.
Duke said that no one answered the call he made, and though he didn’t know exactly where she lived, he said he believed he knew the vicinity in which she lived.
He testified that after riding around for a few minutes, he didn’t locate Grinstead’s home and returned to his home in Fitzgerald.
Ryan said Bo was still at his residence when he returned to Fitzgerald, and short time later Bo took him to the pecan orchard.
Upon arriving at the orchard in Bo’s pickup truck, Ryan said Bo traveled to the back portion of the orchard to an area where the orchard ends and a wooded area with pine trees begins. Ryan said Bo told him to exit the truck and the two began walking into the wooded area.
Ryan said after walking “20 to 25 feet” he saw “a spot of white” that was covered with “leaves, limbs, and debris.” He said he “walked to that spot” at which time “Bo reached down, grabbed her [Grinstead’s] arm, and flipped her over,” as he said Grinstead was laying face down. Ryan said Bo then stated, “I told you.”
Ryan said Grinstead was “wearing clothes.”
He then said he started “walking to the truck,” when Bo told him, “We’ve got something to do, come on.”
Ryan said he and Bo got back into the truck and drove back to a different area of the orchard where a barn is located.
Ryan said the two exited the vehicle and he saw Bo “break a lock” on the barn and go inside. Ryan said he “felt shocked” and “separated from himself,” but he did help Bo “load wood” that was in the barn onto the back of Bo’s truck.
He said they then drove back to the rear portion of the orchard and exited the vehicle again, at which time Bo asked him to help him “pick up” Grinstead’s body.
Ryan said Bo seemed “excited” and said Bo lifted Grinstead’s shirt, revealed her breasts, and began “fondling” her, at which time Ryan said he told Bo to “stop touching her.” Ryan said Bo then grabbed Grinstead’s body by her arms while he grabbed her legs and the two loaded her body onto the tailgate of Bo’s truck.
Ryan described Grinstead as being “beat up” and said she had “bruises” on her arms and legs. He also said he “wouldn’t have recognized her” had he not been told who she was, and that Grinstead’s hair was covering her face.
Ryan became emotional at that time on the witness stand and said he and Bo then drove further into the wooded area. After coming to a stop, Bo again told him to exit the vehicle.
Ryan said she “couldn’t stop crying” and even “vomited,” which caused Bo to begin “laughing” at him.
Ryan said that Bo began unloading the wood from the truck and that he then helped Bo move Grinstead’s body from the back of the truck onto the pile of wood.
He said he began walking out of the wooded area and told Bo, “I can’t do this, take me home.” He said Bo was “putting wood on top of Grinstead’s body” and then Bo “lit her on fire.”
Ryan said Bo then drove him to his Fitzgerald home and he exited the vehicle at which time Bo left the residence. He also said that was the “last time” he saw Grinstead’s body.
Ryan said he was told by Bo that he “can’t say anything, and he “can’t ever talk about this.” He also said Bo told him that “no one will believe you” if he told of what occurred.
Ryan added he was “afraid” of Bo Dukes and he “didn’t know what Bo was capabale of,” which was why he didn’t go to police to report the crime.
He then testified Bo Dukes came to his Pleasure Lake home in February 2017, the day before he confessed to killing Grinstead to the GBI. He said Bo was a “pyro” that “loved to start fires,” so much so that he watched fires on YouTube.
He said during the conversation Bo told him that his “place [home] would go up like wild fire” if he implicated him in the crime.
Ryan testified to having a variety of health issues in the years that followed, which included multiple suicide attempts and bouts with substance abuse, including alcohol and a variety of drugs.
He also said he had taken multiple pills, including various painkillers and anxiety medication, prior to confessing to murdering Grinstead back in February 2017.
Bo Dukes was later called by the defense to testify, but he immediately invoked his Fifth Amendment rights upon taking the stand and did not answer any questions. He is expected to go to trial later this year in Ben Hill County on additional charges related to the disposal of Grinstead’s body.
Outside of Ryan Duke’s confession, the State’s other piece of key evidence was a latex glove that was discovered in the front yard of Grinstead’s home on Monday, October 24, 2005, the day she was first reported missing.
That glove, which was found to have DNA matching Ryan Duke and Grinstead, was heavily scrutinized during the trial, as it was also found to have a third DNA profile, that of an unidentified male. The latex glove was found approximately 15 feet in front of Grinstead’s front door.
The State argued that the glove proved of Ryan Duke’s involvement in her death.
The defense argued that two witnesses, Jared Luke and Heath Dykes, had been to Grinstead’s home on Sunday, October 23, 2005, and both testified that they did not see the glove in her yard.
Luke said he went to Grinstead’s home that Sunday afternoon to retrieve his dog’s “pet accessories,” as Grinstead had been “watching” his then-puppy while he and members of his family were out of town in the days prior.
Dykes, a longtime law enforcement officer who was in a romantic relationship with Grinstead at the time of her disappearance, testified he went to her home at the request of members of Tara’s family, late that Sunday night. He said he went all around the outside of her residence that night, but he did not see the glove.
The defense argued the glove was “planted,” presumably by Bo Dukes.
The defense also argued that the third DNA profile from the unidentified male is likely that of Bo Dukes, as earlier testimony and entered evidence during the trial revealed DNA tests from the unidentified DNA and Bo Dukes came back “inconclusive” from the State Crime Lab, this despite numerous other males that were DNA swabbed during the investigation being “excluded” as suspects after being tested against the unidentified profile.