It’s been almost 17 years since a former Georgia beauty queen vanished from her home, but this week her accused killer is slated to go on trial.
Jury selection in the trial of 36-year-old Ryan Duke got underway Monday at the Irwin County Courthouse in Ocilla, Georgia and is expected to last a week and a half, according to local station WSB-TV.
Duke is facing charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary and concealing a body in the death of 30-year-old Tara Grinstead, a former beauty queen and beloved teacher in the small town community of Ocilla. He's pleaded not guilty to the charges.
A total of 400 people were summoned to appear at the courthouse Monday morning as jury selection began; another 400 are expected to be summoned next week.
“This case has certainly captivated the hearts and minds of this town,” metro Atlanta attorney Philip Holloway told the news outlet. “This community needs to know the truth, it’s important for Irwin County.”
Holloway has no direct connection to the case but lives in the Irwin County area and has been following the twists and turns in what has become the largest case in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s history.
The 11th grade history teacher was last seen on Oct. 22, 2005, before she vanished from her home leaving no signs of forced entry and few clues to her whereabouts, according to Oxygen’s “Up and Vanished,” which featured the case in 2018.
An officer from the Ocilla Police Department, who conducted a welfare check on the 30-year-old after she failed to show up to work two days later, discovered her car still parked in the driveway, the door of the home locked and Grinstead’s cell phone still plugged into its charger on her nightstand, WAGA-TV reports.
A bedside clock had been knocked to the floor and was six hours off the correct time. The officer also found a broken lamp propped up against her nightstand and noticed that Grinstead’s keys and purse were missing.
For years, investigators tried to find out what happened to the beloved high school teacher but eventually the case went cold, until Payne Lindsey took a new look at the case for the popular podcast “Up and Vanished.”
Duke was linked to the case in 2017. According to court documents obtained by Fox News, prosecutors believe Duke climbed through the window of Grinstead’s home, climbed into bed with her and strangled the 30-year-old.
Duke became a suspect in the case after his friend, Bo Dukes, told investigators in February of 2017 that Duke had killed Grinstead, then called him to help dispose of the body in a pecan field owned by Dukes’ family.
Dukes—who was sentenced to 25 years behind bars in 2019 for his role in the crime—admitted to helping his friend burn the body until “it looked like it was all ash.”
Investigators were later able to match DNA found on a glove at Grinstead’s home to Duke and he allegedly confessed to authorities; however, his attorneys have argued that he did not kill Grinstead and only falsely confessed to the murder because he was on drugs at the time of the interrogation, according to WMAZ.
For five years, authorities have been building evidence against Duke and will now finally bring their case to a jury in a trial expected to last more than a month and include testimony from almost 90 witnesses.
Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, told the outlet he believes the number of GBI investigators expected to take the stand will be one of the strengths of the prosecution’s case.
“My experience with the GBI, they’re some of the best investigators in the nation, so they’re quite professional in their job,” he said. “They’re very detailed in their documentation.”
But while prosecutors are expected to present a robust case, Skandalakis said one of the weaknesses could be the significant time that has lapsed since Grinstead first disappeared.
“Witnesses don’t often recall what they told police five years ago; six years ago, 10 years ago, so you go through this process of refreshing their memory,” he said. “So, obviously, the longer it takes a case to get to trial, the harder it becomes.”