Beauty queen murder: The trial of Tara Grinstead's alleged killer kicks off after 16 years

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A burglar broke into the home of a former beauty queen and high school teacher more than 16 years ago, killed her and set her body on fire with the help of an accomplice, Georgia prosecutors said Monday in opening statements in a case that had baffled investigators for more than a decade.

Tara Grinstead, 30, an Irwin County High School history teacher, mysteriously vanished from her home in Ocilla, Georgia Oct. 22, 2005, after helping contestants in a local pageant and attending a barbecue. 

A break in the case came in 2017 when a tip led to a local man, Ryan Duke, who admitted to Grinstead’s slaying.

Tara Grinstead is seen posing with one of her pageant crowns in a photo provided by family. 

Tara Grinstead is seen posing with one of her pageant crowns in a photo provided by family. 
(Fox 5 )

“The evidence will show that Mr. Duke confessed to the murder of Tara Grinstead over and over again with his words, with his actions, with his DNA and with his prints,” prosecutor J.D. Hart told jurors Monday in the Irwin County Courthouse in Georgia.

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She said the panel would watch Duke’s videotaped confession and hear in his own words how he broke into her house, and when Grinstead surprised him, fatally struck her.  He borrowed his roommate Bo Dukes’ truck and dumped her body in a pecan orchard, Hart said.

Ryan Duke is seen during a pre-trial hearing on March 9, 2022.

Ryan Duke is seen during a pre-trial hearing on March 9, 2022.
(Fox 5 )

Duke and his close friend, Dukes, who are not related, later visited the orchard, moved Grinstead’s body to a pine forest at the edge of the farm and “cremated” her, the prosecutor told jurors. The pecan farm is owned by Dukes’ uncle.

Duke expressed remorse for killing Grinstead, who had paid her way through college using winnings from numerous beauty pageants and competed for the Miss Georgia crown.

A photo of missing teacher Tara Grinstead is seen on a billboard in Ocilla, Georgia, in 2006.

A photo of missing teacher Tara Grinstead is seen on a billboard in Ocilla, Georgia, in 2006.
(Associated Press)

“Words are useless but I am burdened with the guilt of murdering Miss Grinstead,” he wrote in a handwritten confession. “I don’t feel like I deserve to be free to breathe. I can’t begin to comprehend the pain I have caused to her family and loved ones.”

After Duke confessed, he showed authorities where they had set Grinstead on fire, and investigators began excavating her body.

“They find Tara Grinstead piece by piece by piece,” Hart chillingly told jurors. “Her backbone, her teeth, her fingers, her toes. That’s what is left of Tara Grinstead after Bo Dukes and Ryan Duke cremated here.”

Mugshot of Bo Dukes, who was sentenced to 25 years for helping burn beauty queen Tara Grinstead's body. 

Mugshot of Bo Dukes, who was sentenced to 25 years for helping burn beauty queen Tara Grinstead’s body. 
(Ben Hill County Sheriff’s Office/WMAZ via AP, File)

The smoking gun in the case is a latex glove that was found in front of Grinstead’s home and matched Duke’s DNA and his palm print.

Defense lawyer Ashleigh Merchant said Duke had made a false confession under the influence of drugs and his close pal, Dukes, was the real killer.

It wasn’t just Duke and Grinstead’s DNA on the latex glove, but there was also third DNA profile, the attorney said.

She pointed to inconsistencies between Duke’s confession and the evidence at the scene.

“This case is about power and influence,” she said. “The people who have it and the people who don’t have it. Ryan Duke has neither… Bo Dukes has both.”

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Merchant has alleged that Dukes, who was also arrested in 2017 for helping burn Grinstead’s body, is politically connected.

The lawyer told jurors that Duke falsely confessed out of fear of his friend. “He’s scared to death of Bo Dukes,” she said. “He’s there telling what he thinks he has to tell to protect his family.”

In 2019, Dukes was convicted of helping dispose of Grinstead’s body and then lying about it to investigators. He was hit with  25 years in prison, after he admitted he and Duke burned her body for two days until “it looked like it was all ash.”

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While Dukes was out on bond in the Grinstead case, he was busted for allegedly threatening two women with a gun and raping them. The case is still pending. If convicted of murder, Duke faces an automatic life sentence.

After openings statements, prosecutors called a series of witnesses, including Grinstead’s 79-year-old father and a beauty contestant who was at Grinstead’s the day she vanished preparing for the annual Sweet Potato pageant.

Grinstead’s lover, then-married police officer Heath Dykes, said he visited her home after he couldn’t reach her. They spoke Saturday and were supposed to get together on Sunday. 

He had called her more than a dozen times Sunday but she didn’t answer. 

Grinstead’s mom, who knew the two were close friends, asked Dykes to check in on her. That night, he stopped by her house and left his business card on her door. 

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