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Trial Begins For Man Accused Of Beauty Queen, Teacher Tara Grinstead's 2005 Murder

Ryan Duke, a former student of Tara Grinstead, allegedly confessed to murdering the victim after a former roommate told police he'd helped Duke "cremate" the body in a pecan tree field. 

By Jax Miller
A photo of missing woman Tara Grinstead

The trial has begun for the man accused of murdering high school teacher and former beauty queen Tara Grinstead.

Jurors at the Irwin County Courthouse heard opening statements on Monday for the case of Ryan Duke, now 36, who is accused of brutally murdering Grinstead, 30. She vanished back in 2005, according to CBS affiliate WMAZ.

Prosecutors say Duke climbed through a window at Grinstead’s Ocilla, Georgia home — about 100 miles south of Macon — and strangled her in her own bed.

Grinstead’s disappearance went unsolved for years until Duke’s former roommate and alleged co-conspirator, Bo Dukes, implicated Duke in 2017. Dukes claimed the defendant called him to help dispose of Grinstead’s body before they “cremated” her on a pecan farm owned by Dukes’ uncle, according to Fox News.

Duke and Dukes were both reportedly former students of Tara Grinstead, who was an 11th-grade history teacher at Irwin County High School, as previously reported.

Prosecutors say Ryan Duke confessed to the murder and led authorities to what was left of the victim’s remains.

“They find Tara Grinstead piece by piece by piece,” prosecutor J.D. Hart told jurors in her opening statement. “Her backbone, her teeth, her fingers, her toes. That’s what’s left of Tara Grinstead after Bo Dukes and Ryan Duke 'cremated' her.”

At the center of the trial — which is expected to last a week and a half — are Ryan Duke’s alleged repeated 2017 confessions. Part of his handwritten admission was read aloud in court, according to Fox News.

“Words are useless, but I am burdened with the guilt of murdering Miss Grinstead,” Duke wrote. “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.”

Prosecutors said jurors can expect to watch Duke’s videotaped confession in the days ahead, in which Duke allegedly admits to breaking into Grinstead’s home and fatally striking her when she surprised him.

Duke’s defense, however, claims the confession was a false one since he was under the influence of drugs at the time of his statement.

Defense Attorney Ashleigh Merchant also claimed Duke confessed in fear of Bo Dukes, because of Dukes’ alleged political connections, according to WMAZ.

“This case is about power and influence,” Merchant said in her opening arguments. “Ryan Duke has neither. Bo Dukes has both. The State has both.”

Merchant added that her client was “scared to death of Bo Dukes,” alleging that he confessed to the murder to cover for his friend’s evildoing, according to Fox News.

Bo Dukes was the subject of a 2019 manhunt after he was accused of kidnapping and raping two women at gunpoint on New Year's Day while out on bond in the Grinstead case, according to WMAZ

Bo Dukes was found guilty by a jury in March 2019 for helping dispose of Grinstead's body, admitting that he burned her until “it looked like it was all ash,” as previously reported. He was sentenced to 25 years behind bars.

He was indicted in October 2019 for raping a different woman at knifepoint in January 2017, according to Law & Crime. Both rape cases remain pending.

One of the first witnesses to take the stand against Ryan Duke was Perry Police Capt. Heath Dykes, who was having an extramarital affair with Grinstead at the time of her disappearance. Dykes sounded the alarm after Grinstead’s mother asked him to perform a welfare check when she couldn’t get ahold of her daughter.

Dykes left more than a dozen voicemails on Grinstead’s phone, some played for jurors, according to WMAZ.

“Hey, Tara, please give me a call,” played one message. “I’m kind of getting worried about you now. Please let me know you’re alright.”

On the stand, Dykes claimed he never saw a white latex glove on Grinstead’s front lawn when he went to check on her — which prosecutors honed in on since it contained the Ryan Duke's DNA and palm print.

The defense, however, claims there was also DNA from a third party found on the glove.

Grinstead’s father and a woman she mentored in pageantry also took the stand, according to the CBS affiliate.

Grinstead disappeared after helping local contestants for the annual Sweet Potato beauty pageant and attending a cookout, according to Fox News.

The case was featured on an episode of Oxygen’sUp and Vanished” in 2018, which helped breathe new life into the once-cold case.

Duke is charged with malice murder, felony murder, burglary, concealing a death and aggravated assault, according to WMAZ. If convicted, he faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.