Acquitted of murder of Georgia professor Tara Grinstead, Ryan Duke sentenced to 10 years for hiding her body

A Georgia man was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Monday for hiding the body of a popular high school teacher whose disappearance has baffled family, friends and investigators in his rural hometown for more than a decade.

Ryan Alexander Duke was convicted in Irwin County Superior Court just three days after a jury acquitted him of murder in the death of Tara Grinstead in 2005. Duke testified that he gave investigators a false confession after a friend killed Grinstead. He was convicted only for hiding her death.

The 10-year sentence imposed by Judge Bill Reinhardt was the maximum punishment allowed. Duke has already served about half that time in prison awaiting trial.

A history teacher and former beauty queen, Grinstead disappeared at age 30 from her home in Ocilla. Even as the years passed, her family held out hope that Grinstead would be found alive — until Duke told investigators in 2017 that he killed Grinstead and burned her body to ashes with the help of a friend.

“Every day, they couldn’t find Tara,” Judge Reinhardt told Duke in the sentencing. “And it’s true that despite your selfish feelings for not performing, you’ve had the power to stop this pain for years.”

Five years ago, Duke told Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents that he had broken into Grinstead’s home in October 2005 to steal drug money. He said he fatally hit Grinstead when she startled him.

But Duke retracted his 2017 confession during his trial, testifying to the jury that he made amends under the influence of drugs and in fear of the real killer — his friend with a similar last name, Bo Dukes.

Prosecutors insisted Duke’s confession included details only the killer would know — such as Duke telling investigators he called Grinstead’s home from a pay phone after fleeing the house to see if she would answer. When she didn’t, he said, he came back to find her dead.

“He confessed because he got caught,” Grinstead’s sister, Anita Gattis, told the court during Duke’s sentencing hearing. “There’s nothing hypocritical about it.”

Investigators also found Duke’s DNA on a latex glove found in Grinstead’s backyard. Still, his testimony raised enough doubts with the jury that he was acquitted of all charges except for concealing her death.

Duke testified that his friend Dukes woke him up in 2005 inside the mobile home they shared and told Duke he killed Grinstead. He testified that Dukes showed him Grinstead’s purse and wallet.

He said they both took Grinstead’s body to the nut orchard and burned it. Investigators later found bone fragments at the site, but said DNA tests that sought to match them to Grinstead were inconclusive.

Dukes was called to the witness stand but refused to answer questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Dukes is already serving 25 years in prison after being convicted in 2019 of concealing Grinstead’s death, giving false statements to investigators and preventing the apprehension of a criminal.

Last year, “48 Hours” Correspondent Peter Van Santwho covered the case for more than a decade, visited the small town of Ocilla, Georgia, which was consumed by suspicions and theories about Grinstead’s disappearance.

Many people, including Maria Woods Harber, have doubts about what really happened to the teacher.

“I believe [they] both were in it together. I had to come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to live the rest of my life without knowing it,” she said.

“What happened in this orchard was meaningless…” said Woods Harber. “Two men who didn’t care about a beautiful and loving person took his life.”

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