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Tara Grinstead, a teacher and three-time winner of the Miss Tifton beauty pageant, went missing almost exactly 13 years ago from her small town of Ocilla in southern Georgia — and her remains have never been discovered.
In the investigation that followed, rumors that Tara Grinstead had engaged in multiple romantic relationships in Ocilla — some, perhaps, with people who had been her students — percolated, adding a degree of intrigue and salaciousness to a would-be list of persons of interest.
“She never had a relationship with a student while they were a student,” says Wendy McFarland, Tara Grinstead’s colleague, responding to these rumors in the upcoming special “Up and Vanished” on Oxygen, November 18, 7/6c.
Tara Grinstead, who had been teaching 11th-grade history at Irwin County High School for about eight years at the time of her death, was pursuing a doctoral degree in U.S. history at Valdosta State University, according to AJC. Her older sister told AJC that Tara had hopes of becoming a high school principal or teaching college.
“If she had been involved with students after they graduated…you know, she was a young single girl,” says McFarland. “She was human.”
While Grinstead’s case almost went cold, it was reinvigorated by renewed media attention and the hugely popular “Up And Vanished” podcast from Payne Lindsey. Now, “Up And Vanished” has returned as a television special, taking a deeper look into the missing teacher and interviewing people close to the case.
In March 2005, a former student, Anthony Vickers, tried to force his way into Tara’s house, leading to an arrest and a restraining order, according to CBS. He claims they had had a sexual relationship for “one or two” years.
Some speculate that Tara may have had an intimate relationship with suspect Ryan Duke — otherwise, why was there no forced entry to her house? “There’s been a lot of speculation that Tara Grinstead was somehow sexually involved with her killers,” says journalist Nancy Grace in a conversation with Payne Lindsey on the “Up and Vanished” television special. “I don’t believe that.”
Grace points out that the focus on her love life may be used against her.
“But another issue… is the sly, clever innuendo that has been utilized to smear Tara Grinstead, suggesting she was a ‘sleep around.’”
The police indicted Ryan Duke saying he strangled Tara after a failed attempt at burglarizing her house, but online speculation about her relationship to him continues.
Grace gets right to the point: “Tara Grinstead was not a ‘sleep around.’ She was young, single, and unmarried.”
“If a guy dated a lot of girls, nobody would think anything of it. He would be a playboy,” says Grace pointing out the misogyny of the double standard. “Instead, if she’s dated a lot of people, somehow that makes her bad.”
The state needs to diffuse that, says Nancy Grace. They need to focus on the men in her life. “It’s not that complicated.”
“Many people suggested that her radiance, her friendliness, somehow resulted in her murder. The suggestion that her friendliness caused her death is so misplaced,” says Grace, pointing to how this attack on the character of Tara — who has attracted much media attention because of her looks and rumors of multiple relationships with various persons of interest — might threaten the investigation and the prosecution’s case.
“A killer murdered her. That’s what happened. Maybe she was more trusting and friendly than a lot of people. Maybe that’s why she opened the door that night to someone she recognized.”
“But that in no way should be somehow the source of suggestion she’s at fault,” says Grace.
On the television version of “Up and Vanished,” Tara’s best friend, Maria Woods, is more than happy to vouch for her. “Tara was very loving, very friendly, just a happy soul,” says Maria. “She always had a positive attitude, a loving heart. She was just a good person.”
Maria and Tara enjoyed a years-long close friendship, Maria says.
“We were best friends. We knew everything about each other. Even the stuff we didn’t want everyone knowing. We had so many good years, so many good memories. Nothing that I will ever forget.”
As for her professional life, Tara “loved teaching… the relationship with the kids,” according to Maria. “She wanted to see them do well, not just in school, but in life.”
The police, looking at Tara’s house for clues, found no forced entry, with just her keys and purse missing. Her car was parked outside. Tara Grinstead lived alone, and as neighbor Joe Portier told CNN, she had a system with her neighbors where she turned her bedroom lamp light on to let them know she was home and safe. The night of her disappearance, she returned home perhaps later than the Portiers’ usual bedtime, because they reported not seeing any light (which wasn’t unusual, they said, for the weekend).
Learn more about this highly emotional story by watching “Up And Vanished” on Oxygen, November 18, Sunday 7/6c.
[Photo: A billboard in Ocilla, Georgia in October 2006, depicting the Tara Grinstead missing poster. AP Photo/Elliott Minor]
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