Tara Grinstead murder: Did authorities miss leads that could have potentially solved the case over a decade ago?

Teacher and former beauty queen disappeared in October 2005.

The Tara Grinstead Mystery
The Tara Grinstead Mystery 41:33

Tara Grinstead was a teacher and former beauty queen when she disappeared in October 2005. But nearly 12 years would pass before investigators finally learned what happened -- and now recent revelations indicate local law enforcement and state investigators may have been able to solve the case soon after she vanished.

John McCullough, who maintains he tried to give investigators a key tip in 2007 that could have cracked the case, speaks out on television for the first time to "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant. . McCullough said a buddy named Bo Dukes told him he knew who killed Grinstead. McCullough said he called authorities, but they never followed up. 

"He told me that his friend accidentally strangled her, and he needed help getting rid of the body," McCullough tells Van Sant.

Tara Grinstead
Tara Grinstead was a 30-year-old history teacher at the Irwin County High School in Ocilla, Georgia, when she was reported missing on October 24, 2005.  Connie Grinstead

The small town of Ocilla, Georgia has been consumed with suspicion and theories about the disappearance of Grinstead. On the morning of Oct. 22, 2005, Grinstead helped some teens prepare for a local beauty pageant. She later went to a cookout and was last seen heading home. 

"I covered this story for 12 years, and hardly anyone thought this case would ever be solved," Van Sant reports.

THE MYSTERY BEGINS

For more than 15 years, the disappearance of Tara Grinstead — beloved teacher and local beauty queen — mystified the people of Ocilla, Georgia, like Jannis Paulk, who lived just around the corner from Tara.

Jannis Paulk: Ocilla is a big family. … we all wanted to do something that we could do to help … There were flyers. There were billboards. … We had search efforts like nothing you've ever seen. 

Jannis, who ran a local web design company, became an expert on the case — keeping a close watch since Tara was reported missing. 

Peter Van Sant: What were some of the theories as to what had happened to Tara?

Jannis Paulk: There were people who believed she ran away. … Somebody has abducted her and holding her somewhere hostage. And … the one we didn't want to think about was somebody killed her. 

But who would want to harm this vibrant 30-year-old woman? Maria Woods Harber grew up with Tara.

Maria Woods Harber: My best friend, Tara Grinstead, was a beautiful person on the inside and the outside. … She was radiant. I mean, she had the biggest smile. She could tell you anything to make you feel better.

Tara Grinstead's house
Peter Van Sant and Mary Woods Harber in front of Tara Grinstead's Ocilla home. CBS News

Maria Woods Harber:  This is where Tara Grinstead lived in 2005.

Peter Van Sant:  What emotional impact does this have for you when you see this house? 

Maria Woods Harber: Well, it's very emotional. I don't like to come very often … she loved this place. … I can still see her standing at the door. 

grinstead-tifton.jpg
 In 1999, Tara Grinstead won the Miss Tifton pageant, which landed her a spot at the 1999 Miss Georgia competition. Connie Grinstead

Maria says Tara was determined to live her dreams from a young age, competing in beauty pageants to help earn scholarship money for college.  

Maria Woods Harber: She was absolutely elegant onstage. … her main goal was to win Miss Georgia or at least to get to Miss Georgia, and she did.  

Tara didn't bring home the Miss Georgia crown, but just competing was a huge achievement says Dana Wilder, who grew up in Ocilla. 

Dana Wilder: As little girls, we looked up to her … she was famous.  

After college, Tara got a job at Ocilla's Irwin County high school, teaching 11th grade history.  

Maria Woods Harber: She was an excellent teacher.  …  was dedicated to making her students feel wonderful.

And even when she no longer competed, Tara helped other women, like Dana, break into that world. 

Dana Wilder: She just took me underneath her wing … She taught me the ins and outs of interviews, hair and makeup, wardrobe.  

At night, Tara studied for a specialist degree in school administration, but other parts of her life hadn't come together as she'd hoped.  

Maria Woods Harber: Personal side — she was having a little bit of a rough time. … she was in her 30s and not married, and I think she was a little down about that. … Tara had a boyfriend for a long time … And during the summer of 2005, they broke up.

That boyfriend was Marcus Harper, a former cop from Ocilla. 

Marcus Harper: She obviously wanted to get married. … It just wasn't what I wanted. … I definitely didn't wanna settle down in small town America.     

Marcus enlisted with the Army Rangers and spent time overseas.  

Marcus Harper: It was like a calling. It was somethin' I felt like, you know, I had to do.  

The couple broke things off but stayed in touch. 

Maria Woods Harber: Tara really did want to get back with Marcus. She did not want to end it. And she was very distraught.

Peter Van Sant: This was the man she thought she'd build a life with. 

Maria Woods Harber: Yeah, she did. … she was seeing other people. And I think she was just trying to move on … in a small town of Ocilla, everyone knew their situation.  

It was part of town gossip that they had gotten into an argument after Marcus had come back to town earlier than expected that October. But no one in Ocilla knew what had happened when Tara seemingly vanished after leaving that barbecue on Saturday night, October 22.

Peter Van Sant: What time did she go home?  

Maria Woods Harber: About 11 o'clock.

On Sunday, Tara's mom called her several times, but Tara didn't answer. 

Maria Woods Harber: And the next morning … I got a call saying that I need to get to Ocilla.

Tara had failed to show up at school. 

Maria Woods Harber: She would never do that. She would never leave her kids.  

Tara's car was parked in the driveway. Neighbors knocked on her door but got no response. The Ocilla police were called and entered Tara's home, and right behind them was Maria.

Peter Van SantWhat did you see when you walked into her house?

Maria Woods Harber [outside Tara's house]: I wasn't quite sure what I was going to walk in and see, … her den was exactly the way it always was,  … and there were a few things on the floor, like a hair dryer … and then her bed was unmade, like she had been in the bed.  

Tara's purse and keys were missing; her cell phone was charging next to her bed. Maria noticed something out of place: Tara's alarm clock was under her bed. And a bedside lamp was broken. And then, there was something else

Tara Grinstead evidence
Outside, in front of Tara's house, authorities found something that didn't seem to belong – a latex glove. On the glove they not only identified Tara's DNA, but that of an unknown male. Georgia Bureau of Investigation

Maria Woods Harber: So, when I came back out of the house, I saw … right out from the front door, there was a latex glove.  

Peter Van Sant: On the ground?  

Maria Woods Harber: On the ground.

Also found was a business card from a police officer in a nearby town – authorities couldn't explain either and collected them as evidence. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, known as the GBI, was called in. Back in 2008, Van Sant spoke with Special Agent Gary Rothwell. 

Gary Rothwell [2008]:  It is one of the most extensive investigations undertaken by the GBI.  

Gary Rothwell [2008]: It appeared that Tara may have left on her own. However, we had a glove, a latex glove that we couldn't explain. So that gave us a stronger indication that something bad had happened. 

The GBI tested that glove and found not only Tara's DNA on it, but the DNA profile of an unknown male. The case generated hundreds of tips over the years. Jannis Paulk even created a website to help authorities collect information. 

Jannis Paulk: FindTara.com. … I built a message board because I thought that there was a good chance that whoever … knew what had happened to her would potentially come and say something. 

As Jannis recalls, early on, suspicion focused on the men in Tara's life.  

Jannis Paulk: She was dating, I think, more than people realized that she was dating. … and that's nobody's business, but in this case, it made it tough.  

Rumors swirled about that cop whose card was found at Tara's house. He was a family friend — married, with kids — who said he'd gone by that Sunday night and left the card after Tara didn't answer the doorbell. He had an alibi, but the whispers continued.  

Jannis Paulk: … there were several people, several men, who got a lot of scrutiny for a long time …

Another was a former student who claimed he and Tara been secretly seeing each other. But when questioned about her disappearance, he had an alibi and was never charged. Then, there was Tara's ex-boyfriend, Marcus Harper.

Marcus Harper: Somebody pulled me to the side, and they were like, "Listen, you know, there's been some things said … bringin' up your military past, bringin' up how you're … Trained to kill" …

Marcus always maintained his innocence but remained under suspicion.

Investigators chased down dozens of leads across the country, but tips emerged that led right back to the high school where Tara was a teacher and perhaps someone who had sat in her classroom. 

Dana Wilder: I never thought it was somebody … from our community. But in the same sense, I always thought, "Well, it has to be."   

A DISTURBING STORY EMERGES

For years, Marcus Harper lived under a cloud — some might say a thunderstorm — of suspicion. He was the talk of Ocilla, Georgia, and none of it was good.

Marcus Harper: What they're sayin' at the local … grocery store, and at the local restaurants— They don't think that it's gettin' to someone who's my family or my friend? …  I'm not gonna shy away to the fact that I was— I was bitter.

grinstead-tara-marcus.jpg
For around 6 years, Tara Grinstead dated Marcus Harper, a former Ocilla cop who joined the Army Rangers. Marcus was often overseas, and though they had broken up by the fall of 2005, friends say Tara was distraught about the relationship ending. Connie Grinstead

 
Police never called him a suspect, but Marcus was more closely investigated than anyone in the disappearance of his former girlfriend, Tara Grinstead.

Marcus Harper: I was swabbed for DNA. My truck was Luminoled … photographs were taken. … Had to tell my alibi, you know, or where was I at, who I was around. And that was corroborated.

Year after year passed with no arrests. But back in 2005, authorities either missed or ignored a tip that may have solved the case. Just weeks after Tara vanished at a party in a pecan orchard, one of Jannis Paulk's employees told her that he had overheard two young men tell a disturbing story.

Jannis Paulk: That they had been at a party bragging about their involvement in Tara's disappearance and that ultimately, they had taken her body out to a pecan orchard and burn it in a firepit.

It was a shocking statement.   

Peter Van Sant: Did he have names of who these two men were who claimed they had killed Tara?

Jannis Paulk: It was Bo Dukes and Ryan Duke.

The two — who were friends— had similar sounding names but weren't related. At the time, Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes were 21 years old. Ryan worked at a plastics manufacturing plant, while Bo would occasionally work at his family's pecan farm. Both had been students at Tara's high school.

Jannis Paulk: We shared that tip with the local sheriff's department.

That tip went nowhere. And it wasn't the only one overlooked.

Jannis Paulk [emotional]: It just brings up a lot. So, it's kind of crappy right now.

Peter Van Sant: I'm sorry.

John McCullough says he is still haunted by painful memories of being ignored by investigators 14 years ago.  

Peter Van Sant: This really affects you, though, talking about this.

John McCullough: Yes.

McCullough, now a manager at a water company in Texas, had met Bo Dukes at Army boot camp in 2006. 

Peter Van Sant: So, two Southern boys meet in Oklahoma in the Army.

John McCullough: Yes. 

Peter Van Sant: And you guys hit it off?

John McCullough: Yeah … and we were pretty close.

Dukes invited McCullough to Ocilla to spend Christmas with his family. It was a year after Tara's disappearance.  And as they were driving around town, a billboard caught his eye.

John McCullough: And it had this very, you know, attractive woman on it.

Peter Van Sant: Tara Grinstead.

John McCullough: Yeah, Tara Grinstead, and said, you know, "missing."

The two then went to a party.  After a few drinks, McCullough says Bo began talking about Tara.

John McCullough: He was like, "yeah, do you remember that bulletin that you had asked me about with that girl on it?" And I was like, "yeah." And he was like, 'I know what happened."

McCullough wasn't ready for what Bo would say next.

John McCullough: He had told me that his friend … accidentally strangled her and he needed help getting rid of the body so that way there was —nothing to find.

Stunned as he was, McCullough was in a dilemma.  Could he betray his friend?  His fellow soldier?

Peter Van Sant: The kind of guy you want to share a foxhole with, right? Who you can trust with your life?

John McCullough: Yes. Right.

John McCullough
John McCullough maintains he tried to get investigators a key tip in 2007 that could have cracked the case. McCullough said he called authorities but they never followed up. CBS News

The weight of what McCullough says Bo told him became unbearable. Two months later, in February 2007, McCullough says he called three police departments in Georgia— including Ocilla, where he left a voice message saying:

John McCullough: "This is John McCullough. I know who killed Tara Grinstead or had a part of it. It was told to me when I was in Georgia. … Here's my number … I'll do whatever has to happen for y'all to take me serious. I just got off the phone with another department that had — didn't do sh—."

Incredibly, McCullough says, no one returned his calls.

Peter Van Sant: This is the murder of Tara Grinstead … and there seemed to be little interest, is that right?

John McCullough: Very little interest.

But McCullough was determined to get the truth out.  He called the state's top law enforcement agency heading the investigation, the GBI.

John McCullough: I mean, nobody ever called me back, ever, even whenever I reached out to the GBI, which is the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Peter Van Sant: How many times did you call the GBI over what period of time and you still didn't get any … 

John McCullough: I would say from the year of 2007 until 2016 … I would probably say I reached out nine or 10 times to the GBI.

Peter Van Sant: Why do you think investigators ignored you?  

John McCullough: I have no idea. Maybe because I'm a nobody. I don't know.

Jannis Paulk also spoke to the GBI in 2008 as the agency was reviewing the case.  And she told them about her employee's tip three years earlier regarding Bo Dukes and Ryan Duke. 

Jannis Paulk: So, I sat down with an agent and we just went through everything.

But again, as far as she knew, it went nowhere. Tara's family could do little but pray for a breakthrough.

Maria Woods Harper: They've had a really hard time. I can't imagine the loss of a child. But I think it's taken a lot of toll on them mentally and physically.

Then, more than 11 years after Tara disappeared, Brooke Sheridan came out of nowhere with her account about not only Bo Dukes – but his friend Ryan Duke.

Brooke Sheridan: Ryan … Woke him up and said, "I killed Tara Grinstead."

FINALLY, A CONFESSION

Maria Woods Harber: She was charismatic, determined, a beautiful personality. 

Peter Van Sant: What would anyone's motive be to kill Tara Grinstead?

Maria Woods Harber: I don't know.

In 2017, more than 11 years after Tara vanished, Brooke Sheridan came forward with a potential answer.

Brooke Sheridan: I had to tell some— I had to tell. There was no other option.

And what she had to say implicated a man whose name had repeatedly been given to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Peter Van Sant: How did you and Bo Dukes meet? 

Brooke Sheridan: We actually met on Tinder. 

Brooke says she was studying in Savannah to become a pharmacist when, in 2015, she came face-to-face with her online date.   

Brooke Sheridan: It was love at first sight.

Bo Dukes and Brooke Sheridan
In 2017, Brooke Sheridan came forward to the GBI saying that her boyfriend, Bo Dukes, told her that he had helped his friend, Ryan Duke, cover up Tara Grinstead's murder.  Georgia Bureau of Investigation

Bo Dukes comes from a prominent family that owned a huge pecan orchard in the Ocilla area.

Peter Van Sant: And what is it about him that you love?

Brooke Sheridan: He has a beautiful mind. He is extremely intelligent.

Jannis Paulk, who knows the family, paints a different picture of Bo. 

Jannis Paulk: So, Bo was known in the community for being a little over the top, unfiltered. … One of those always showing off and talking big and running his mouth.

Bo got in big trouble while in the Army. In 2012 he was charged and convicted of stealing more than $150,000 worth of military supplies. And Bo spent more than two years in federal prison. Bo confessed all of this to Brooke, who stuck with him.

Brooke Sheridan: I had never connected with somebody and had fun with somebody like I have with him.

But she says Bo was often moody. 

Brooke Sheridan: I said, "You have to talk to me. …he's very shut— shut off emotions, feelings he doesn't talk about.

As their relationship evolved, Brooke sensed that something seemed to be eating away at Bo.

Brooke Sheridan: It was something very dark and I— I chalked it up to, you know, serving his time in the military.

And Brooke says she helped pull Bo back from taking his own life.

Peter Van Sant: He had talked about that?

Brooke Sheridan: Yes. 

Peter Van Sant: And you weren't gonna let that happen.

Brooke Sheridan: No.                                                         

Brooke kept encouraging Bo to open up —to talk about this dark subject that was destroying him.  Finally, he cracked. 

Brooke Sheridan: He said, "You've heard of the Tara Grinstead case?" And I was like, "Yeah." He said, "My roommate killed her."

His roommate and close friend was Ryan Duke.  

Peter Van Sant: Why would Ryan Duke have murdered Tara Grinstead? 

Brooke Sheridan: He said, "That's something that only God and Ryan know." He said, "I don't know why he did it."

But there was more— Bo told Brooke about his own involvement in the crime, saying:

Brooke Sheridan: "And I helped him burn her body."

Brooke Sheridan: I was— felt like I was gonna be sick. I didn't know who I was staring at. I didn't know who he was.

Brooke Sheridan
Brooke Sheridan says she encouraged Bo Dukes to tell his story to investigators. "I said, 'You need to confess. You need to own what you've done and confess," Sheridan told "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant in 2017. CBS News

Bo told Brooke that Ryan stole his pickup truck that night and used it to transport Tara's body to a remote part of a pecan orchard that was owned by Bo's family. 

Brooke Sheridan: Ryan looked at Bo and said, "It's your truck. Your family's land." And he said he threw his arms up just like this [shrugs her shoulders], "What are you gonna do?" 

Peter Van Sant: And by Ryan saying to him, "Hey, buddy. This is your truck, and this is your family's land," basically that was interpreted by Bo as a threat that – we're partners now in this?  

Brooke Sheridan: Yes.

Bo told her they moved Tara's body to a pit in the orchard, where it took two days to burn, destroying all evidence.

Brooke Sheridan [emotional]: I kept thinking about her family and — I couldn't sleep at night. 

Now, it was Brooke's turn to be tormented by a terrible secret.

Brooke Sheridan: I had to tell some— I had to tell. There was no other option.

Weeks later she called the GBI to turn in the boyfriend she loved.

Brooke Sheridan: That family's peace to me was more important than his freedom.   

But if you're ready for thisBo had already been interviewed by the GBI a year earlier in 2016.   That was after investigators finally reached out to John McCullough.

John McCullough: I'm glad somebody's finally listening. … so, I talk to him, tell him everything I know.

But back then, Bo denied everything. With no hard evidence, authorities couldn't make an arrest. But after he broke down to Brooke, she told Bo it was time to tell the truth.   

Brooke Sheridan: I said, "You need to confess. You need to own to what you've done and confess."

Peter Van Sant: And what does Bo say?

Brooke Sheridan: He says, "I just want her family to know." 

GBI AGENT to BO DUKES: I'm gonna just kinda leave it – open the floor to you, and just tell me about you knowing about Tara …

Bo Dukes GBI interview
Bo Dukes shares details of what happened to Tara Grinstead with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Superior Courts, Cordele Judicial Circuit

Bo told the GBI all the grisly details:

GBI AGENT: You could still see the body? 

BO DUKES: Yeah. Yeah. 

GBI AGENT: Just kinda like charred? 

BO DUKES: Yeah. 

The day after Bo's confession, his one-time friend Ryan Duke was arrested. Nearly 12 years after Tara's disappearance, on February 23, 2017, Ryan Duke appeared in court, charged with Tara's murder.  He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Marcus Harper: I received a phone call … And the voice on the other end of the phone said, you know, "Brother, your 12 years of hell is over. … we have made an arrest."

Investigators say Ryan confessed to killing Grinstead.

Ryna Duke court appearance
Ryan Duke at his first court hearing after his arrest in February 2017, charged with Tara Grinstead's murder. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. CBS News

According to notes of Ryan's confession taken by the GBI — which leaked out— Ryan told investigators he was a drug addict and: "… broke into Grinstead's house and was attempting to steal from her purse when he believed she came up behind him … he struck her with his fist. Duke did not mean to strike Grinstead, but he was just reacting and scared …  Duke … said Grinstead died when he hit her." 

And remember that latex glove found at the crime scene? A DNA sample from Ryan Duke was a perfect match.   

Peter Van Sant: Was it an emotional moment for you to realize someone had been arrested after all that time?

Maria Woods Harber: Yes. I cried for days, couldn't sleep for days. It was very hard to grasp.

And the next month, Bo Dukes – who years earlier had sat in Tara's class — was arrested and charged — not with murder, but with concealing a death, hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and lying to investigators.  Two years later, in March 2019, Bo was the first to go on trial.

PROSECUTOR OPENING: This case is about Bo's lies … it's about Bo's concealment that his best friend, Ryan, had killed Tara Grinstead and then they both burn the body. 

And for the first time, everyone heard Bo's own account when his GBI interview was played in court:

BO DUKES [GBI video interview]: He told me he had killed Tara Grinstead. … And he asked me to help him get rid of her body.

But was Bo telling the whole story? 

Maria Woods Harber [standing at Tara's house]: I don't believe Ryan could have done it all by himself.

JUSTICE SERVED?

In March 2019, in a county courthouse about 30 miles from where beloved teacher and beauty pageant mentor Tara Grinstead was murdered, Bo Dukes went on trial on charges relating to covering up her death.

BRAD RIGBY | PROSECUTOR: This case is about Bo's lies, lies that lasted from 2005 to 2016.

grinstead-bo-trial.jpg
Bo Dukes – who years earlier had sat in Tara Grinstead's class — was arrested and charged — not with murder, but with concealing a death, hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and lying to investigators. Two years later, in March 2019, he was the first to go on trial.  WGCL

=Bo was facing a maximum 25-year sentence. So, he went to trial hoping jurors might show mercy for a man who had already confessed to his role in the crime.

Prosecutors played that videotape of Bo's interview with the GBI. Bo recounted what Ryan told him the day after Tara disappeared:

BO DUKES [GBI interview]: He told me that he had killed Tara Grinstead. I didn't believe him. I thought he was out of his mind. I told him, you know, leave me alone …

When Ryan repeated his story to Bo a couple of days later...

BO DUKES [GBI interview]: Again, I didn't believe him … he asked me to come with him out to —to the pecan orchard.

Pecan orchard
Bo Dukes told  the GBI  that in October 2005, Ryan Duke came to him saying he had killed Grinstead and dumped her body in a pecan orchard that Bo Dukes' family owned. Dukes said that together, he and Ryan Duke burned Grinstead's body there in the orchard over the period of two days.  CBS News

So, the two men took Bo Dukes' pickup truck and drove out of town onto a highway and pulled off on a dirt road leading to the pecan orchard that's owned by Bo Dukes' family. The two men drove about 200 yards up the road to where Tara Grinstead's body had been placed.

BO DUKES [GBI interview]: We drove back into the back, and he showed me where her body was.

GBI AGENT: Of all the people, why Tara, what's the connection?

BO DUKES: No connection.

BO DUKES: As far as I know, he didn't know her.   

The agent asks Bo his first reaction when he went to the orchard with Ryan.  

GBI AGENT: So, you immediately see this and you're like "what in the hell did you do?"

BO DUKES: Yeah. And why the f-— would you do it here on my family's pecan orchard? I mean…

GBI AGENT: What did he say? 

BO DUKES: "Help me."

Bo then gave his account of moving and then burning her body, which began on a Wednesday and took two days. 

GBI AGENT: So, by Friday, there's nothing left?

BO DUKES: No. 

It was now time at the trial for Bo's one-time Army buddy, John McCullough, to finally tell his story of Bo's confession.  And this time, the whole world seemed to be listening.    

JOHN MCCULLOUGH: The exact location, he didn't tell me, but had made the comment of, you know, we took her to the middle of the pecan orchard and burned her body.

He testified calmly, but inside was still seething at Bo.  

John McCullough: If there wasn't multiple police officers that were inside the courtroom on the day that I testified on the stand, I probably would have ripped him apart with my hands.

But McCullough wasn't the only witness who gave details about Tara's death. Jannis Paulk's former employee, Garlan Lott, told the court he had overheard that 2005 conversation between Ryan and Bo at a party in the same pecan orchard where Tara's body had been burned. He wasn't sure who said what.

GARLAN LOTT: The statement that I recall was, 'We killed and burned her body."

LAWYER: Any doubt in your mind, however, that you heard these two people laughing about killing and burning Tara Grinstead's body?

GARLAN LOTT: No.

Garlan says after he reported this to Jannis Paulk, he was never formally interviewed by anyone from law enforcement.

LAWYER: It sounds like you're saying you assumed it was handled properly?

GARLAN LOTT: I assumed it was handled by law enforcement, yes.

And in this trial, Agent Gary Rothwell finally explained what happened with those tips.

AGENT GARY ROTHWELL: We thought that that lead had been addressed by local law enforcement as unfounded and did not follow up.

In cross-examination, Rothwell added that he takes responsibility for the GBI lapse.

AGENT GARY ROTHWELL: It is something we should've followed up, but we —we didn't.

It took a jury less than an hour to convict Bo Dukes on all charges.  His hope for mercy was dashed.  At his sentencing, Tara Grinstead's stepmother Connie addressed the court:

CONNIE GRINSTEAD: He knew she wasn't ever coming back. He could have at least told us that, but he didn't. And the reason he knew she wasn't coming back, is because he had put load after load of wood on her body and burned her.

Bo Dukes sentencing
Bo Dukes apologies to Tara Grinstead's family at his sentencing. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Courtroom pool/via WGCL

And Bo Dukes himself spoke directly to Tara's family"

BO DUKES: To the Tara Grinstead family, I'm truly sorry. Your long suffering has been unimaginable.

Bo was sentenced to 25 years in prison.  But Maria and others still have questions as to what really happened.  And whether Bo's statements were true.  As Bo told it:

Peter Van Sant: "Ryan did the killing. And all I did was help him dispose of the body."

Maria Woods Harber: I don't believe that.

She points to discrepancies between Ryan's version of events and Bo's. Ryan told the GBI he killed Tara by striking her. Later, he said it was possible that he choked her. But Bo says Ryan was certain about what happened:  

BO DUKES [GBI interview]: He jumped on her, while he was —she was in bed and strangled her right there in her bed.

And there were other inconsistencies.

Peter Van Sant: One said she had clothes on, the other said she did not. It's kind of odd, isn't it?

Maria Woods Harber: Yeah, very.

Maria believes those discrepancies may have a sinister explanation — that Bo Dukes had more to do with Tara's murder than either he or Ryan have said. 

Maria Woods Harber: I believe that … Ryan and Bo Duke were both in this together.

And she's not alone in believing Bo Dukes helped burn a body not just to protect his friend.

Peter Van Sant: You believe that Bo did this to protect himself?

Maurice Godwin: Oh, absolutely.

WHO REALLY KILLED TARA GRINSTEAD?

Even with Bo Dukes behind bars for 25 years for his role in covering up Tara Grinstead's murder, some people involved in this case believe he played a much larger role. Maria Woods Harber thinks Bo was with his friend Ryan here at Tara's house the night of her murder.

Maria Woods Harber: I think Bo had more to do with it. Yes.

Tara Grinstead
The small town of Ocilla, Georgia has been consumed with suspicion and theories about the disappearance of Tara Grinstead since 2005. AP Photo/Elliott Minor

So too does forensic investigator Maurice Godwin, who was hired by Tara's sister in 2006.

Back then, Godwin canvassed Tara's neighborhood, and found two teenagers who said they saw strangers outside Tara's house the night she disappeared.

Maurice Godwin: That they saw two men on the right side of Tara's bedroom windows to the right side of her house. … said it was just dark.

Peter Van Sant: It was dark. But two men were standing out here by that bush?

Maurice Godwin: By that bush.

Peter Van Sant:  And who do you believe those two men were?

Maurice Godwin: Bo and Ryan.

Police have never corroborated that sighting, but Godwin speculates Tara was targeted by the two men —but not for money.

Peter Van Sant: Do you believe this was a planned sexual attack?

Maurice Godwin: Absolutely. …  I believe they sexually assaulted her in that bedroom.

Which is why, Godwin believes, Tara's body ended up in the pecan orchard.

Maurice Godwin: And they had to burn to body in order to destroy the forensic evidence.

Maria has also concluded that sexual assault was most likely the motive.

Maria Woods-Harber: They both went in her house. They both assaulted her, and they both planned it.

Bo Dukes and Ryan Duke
Bo Dukes, left, was convicted on charges relating to covering up the crime and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Ryan Duke, right, was arrested in 2017 and is awaiting trial. He has pleaded not guilty and his defense team has made public statements that Bo Dukes killed Grinstead, not Ryan Duke. AP/Georgia Bureau of Information

In public statements Bo's attorney denies that, but Maria believes that Bo was just as involved in Tara's death as Ryan allegedly was.

Maria Woods-Harber: If you look at Bo's history since that happened, yes. I definitely believe that Bo had more to do with the planning and the execution.

Maria is referring to an incident where Bo Dukes was arrested for rape and kidnapping while he was free on bond before his trial in the Grinstead case.

NEWS REPORT: The Warner Robbins Police Department says on Tuesday afternoon, Dukes brought two women to the house, and threatened them with a firearm.

He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Maurice Godwin: Everything narcissistic. Everything revolves around what he wants and when he wants it.

But Jannis Paulk continues to believe what Ryan told the GBI.

Peter Van Sant: Do you believe Ryan Duke acted alone?

Jannis Paulk: I believe what he said he did.

Ryan's confession — where he admitted killing Tara — suggests his trial will be an open-and-shut case.  But in yet another twist in this baffling murder, Ryan's attorneys have said publicly that he will recant his confession at his upcoming trial — claiming he was high on drugs and place all the blame on Bo.

Jannis Paulk: I have been told that Ryan's defense team will argue that he gave a false confession and that Bo was actually responsible for Tara's death.

For all that has transpired over the past 15 years, closure is still elusive for everyone involved.

Maria Woods Harber: I've had to come to a conclusion that I'm just gonna have to live the rest of my life not knowing.

Tara Grinstead
"What happened in this orchard was senseless…" says Woods Harber of her best friend. "Two men who had no regard for a beautiful, loving person took her life." Connie Grinstead

But there is no question that in her short and impactful life, Tara Grinstead touched people in rare ways —even those who never met her, like John McCullough. 

John McCullough: I can't explain it [emotional].  … And wish I could have been there whenever it happened so that way, I could do something [emotional].

Maria Woods-Harber: She's been an inspiration. She had a lot of life ahead of her. …  She brought great things to Irwin County High School …  And I would hope that eventually the word Tara Grinstead will be a bright spot because she did bring a lot of good things to Ocilla.

Dana Wilder: Ocilla was Tara's life. … that's where she set her roots. And that's where she wanted to stay and where she wanted to be.

Ryan Duke's trial has not been scheduled.

It has been delayed by defense motions and the Covid-19 pandemic.


Produced by Alec Sirken and Lauren Clark. Michelle Feuer is the development producer. Shaheen Tokhi and David Dow are the associate producers. Greg Kaplan, Phillip J. Tangel and Marcus Balsam are the editors. Anthony Batson is the senior broadcast producer.

  • Peter Van Sant
    Peter Van Sant

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"