Original Air Date 08.21.2016
In This Episode
Payne Lindsey travels to Ocilla and meets with Dusty Vassey, reporter for the local newspaper. He also talks with his grandma’s friend Melba, who has a tip that may or may not mean something. Maurice Godwin warns Payne against chasing after “white rabbits,” leads that send you running in circles but don’t lead anywhere. Payne also interviews Noah Griffin, a friend of Tara’s from the beauty pageant circuit.
People in this Episode
Chief, Ocilla Police Dept.
Ex-Boyfriend and Former Police Officer
Son of the Landlord
Dr. Maurice Godwin
Private Forensic Detective
Journalist, Ocilla Star
Evidence in this Episode
Tara's Cell Phone
Dusty Vassey: When I would talk to people, they would say, "They're never gonna find her, because she's in some swamp or she's in some well." And those people were right, because 10 years now and I mean, you always have hope that she'll be found and at this point, I'm really doubting she ever will be found. I mean because this is basically swampland.
I can tell you ought to solve this, that would be your ideal ending, I'm sure. Unless this gets shook up and gets approached in a different way, it's not gonna, nothing's ever gonna happen and that's probably gonna be really hard to do.
Intro: Ten years ago today marked the last time anybody reported seeing or talking with Tara Grinstead.
Police are calling this a missing persons case.
GBI officials are saying investigators-
Latex glove found in Grinstead's driveway.
An $80,000.00 reward is being offered for information.
Where is Tara Grinstead?
Payne Lindsey: From Tenderfoot TV in Atlanta, you are listening to Up and Vanished, The Investigation of Tara Grinstead. I'm your host, Payne Lindsey. The person talking in the first segment is Dusty Vassey, the lead reporter for the local newspaper, called the Ocilla Star. He reached out to me and offered his help.
Dusty Vassey: We're in.
Payne Lindsey: He took me to an old office in downtown Ocilla. The door had no markings or signage and we entered a huge, dim lit room. There were buckets on the ground full of water catching the leaks from the ceiling. You could tell it was a place that didn't have very many guests. On the back wall was a shelf full of hardbound newspaper archives. He was looking for 2005.
Dusty Vassey: We keep them in these bound volumes.
Payne Lindsey: So you're still in the paper system.
Dusty Vassey: Yeah. 2005, that. Sweet Potato Festival missing. Wednesday.
Payne Lindsey: Tara was reported missing at 8:50 a.m. on Monday, October 24th and by that Wednesday, she was already in the paper.
Dusty Vassey: You can tell that people really were worried, people that worked with her and stuff. Like, there was a teacher that I knew that, I mean you could tell she was very concerned that this, it was more than just concern. It was like-
Payne Lindsey: Yeah.
Dusty Vassey: At that point they realized something bad's happened. You know, it wasn't just, "She's gone off." Or whatever.
Payne Lindsey: Dusty went to his desk for a minute and left me alone with the archives. As I was flipping through, I noticed a small piece of paper wedged between two pages. It looked like a makeshift bookmark. When I pulled it out, I realized it was actually a piece of Tara's missing poster that had been cut into fours and the print date on the bottom was October 24th, the day she was reported missing. All of the sudden, I felt like I was in a movie scene and I had found some big clue. I was almost positive it was nothing, but I called Dusty over anyways.
Dusty Vassey: What is that?
Payne Lindsey: That says Tara's name on it.
Dusty Vassey: Probably nothing nefarious, probably just chopped up.
Payne Lindsey: Nah.
Dusty Vassey: Yeah.
Payne Lindsey: Right, probably nothing nefarious. But then we found a whole bunch of them, like a lot more.
Dusty Vassey: Oh, my goodness, there's all sorts of them.
Payne Lindsey: It is kind of weird, right?
Dusty Vassey: It is. It is, I'm a little, I mean, because I've looked through these before and didn't ... I mean, they probably were here and I didn't pay attention to it. The hairs on the back of your neck are up here. What's going on?
Payne Lindsey: Who are the people that could have done this?
Dusty Vassey: My predecessor, Kristy, who used to, was a reporter. She's the Kristy Pruitt, something.
Payne Lindsey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.
Dusty Vassey: On all these stories.
Payne Lindsey: He called Kristy and it wasn't her.
Dusty Vassey: My boss [crosstalk].
Payne Lindsey: I mean it was probably nothing, but still, who would expect to find chopped up pieces of Tara's missing poster scattered throughout the 2005 archive? Kind of weird right? We both agreed. Before I left, Dusty said he had a surprise for me. Oh, front page. There's me.
The podcast had made the front page of the latest paper.
It's kind of weird actually seeing my name and Tara Grinstead's name on the front page of the Ocilla Star.
Dusty Vassey: At this point I can understand why, yeah.
Payne Lindsey: I guess, I'm like part of the narrative now or something.
The word was getting out and people were finally talking.
News Clip: An investigative podcast about the disappearance of an Ocilla teacher is set to premier Monday. Titled Up and Vanished, the story details the findings of Atlanta filmmaker, Payne Lindsey as he makes a documentary on Tara Grinstead. The podcast will be released every other week as Lindsey works on the documentary. He said ...
Payne Lindsey: Let's pick up from the last episode.
So my grandma's friend Melba told her that Tara went to a former student's house in Fitzgerald before going back to the barbecue that night in Ocilla. If this is true, it's a major discrepancy in Tara's timeline. Is there another person that we've just never known about? I wrote some questions down and I gave Melba a call.
My grandma said that you saw Tara that Saturday at the beauty pageant, correct?
Melba: I did. For several years, I emceed all the beauty pageants and I don't do that anymore, but I was directing the pageant, the afternoon that she disappeared that night. But she always helped. She taught school and she always helped the girls in the pageants with their makeup and their hair and choosing gowns and that sort of thing. As I was leaving, she and one of the girls were there in the back as I was leaving. This was about 6 o'clock in the afternoon because I had a dinner date. And I was leaving and stopped and spoke with them just a few minutes. Just, you know, "How are you?" And that sort of thing. So I was really, really surprised when I heard the news on Monday that she was missing.
Payne Lindsey: What did you guys talk about? When you talked to her what did you guys say?
Melba: Just in passing, you know, "How are you today? It's good to see you." And I didn't stay there more than five minutes I don't guess because I was on my way; and I certainly would have stayed longer and talked more if I had known what was gonna happen. But nobody knew that, you know.
Payne Lindsey: Where'd she go after the pageant?
Melba: One of the students that she had taught in times past now lived in Fitzgerald and my understanding is she went to his house for just a short while, just to visit and then left there and came to one of the principals' houses, which is a couple blocks from me, for a cookout they were doing. And I understand she left there probably around 10:30, 11:00 that night and it was evident that she got home. Her car was there and I believe she had taken off some of her clothing and so forth.
Payne Lindsey: So from all the stuff that I've read and from people I've talked to, I had never heard that she went to a student's house in between the pageant and the barbecue.
Melba: I've heard that in talk around town, that she went to the friend's house for just a short time.
Payne Lindsey: Is there anyway to find out who that student was?
Melba: I'm trying to think what his name was. One she had taught. Good gracious, that's been 10 years or more ago and I really don't recall who it was now. In the meantime, I'll try to arrive at who she visited in Fitzgerald, but right offhand I don't recall.
Payne Lindsey: Okay, if you think of it, please let me know.
Melba: His name will probably come to me, but right offhand I don't remember. But like I say, Payne, I hope you can get some new information or come up with something because I know her parents and I know how devastated they were and how devastated they still are. We have no idea what happened to her. It's just one of the strangest things. You know, we always hear there's no perfect crime but evidently this one is perfect so far, because there's no indication of who it could be.
Payne Lindsey: I wasn't really sure what to make of that. Melba seemed to think that Tara's visit to a student's house was just common knowledge, but I couldn't find it anywhere. She said she heard it in the talk around town. Not the most reliable sounding source. Really, other than Melba just saying she heard this happened, I don't really have anything at all. It was time for a second opinion.
Maurice Godwin: Well, when I first heard it, I just couldn't find any basis for the information at all. I guess you would call it chasing one of those white rabbits.
Payne Lindsey: So you know, that was a term I was about to get very familiar with.
Maurice Godwin: Well, white rabbit is leads or information in a criminal investigation that lead you down a rabbit hole to nowhere. I mean I'm not saying it wasn't true and it still may be true, we just don't have any information to take that any further than it is right now.
Payne Lindsey: Right.
Maurice Godwin: So really you just have to set it aside and let it go, because otherwise, it'd just be a waste of time. Until you can get further information to say it's legitimate you just have to refute it. But it would be very useful if it was the truth and we would have to know the name of the individual.
Payne Lindsey: So pretty much without that name, I had nothing. Maurice also brought up another good point. If you remember, Tara did make one more stop before the barbecue that was confirmed. She met her landlord's son, Rhett Roberts at the curb of the road. Only for about 15 minutes before heading over to the barbecue. Was Melba confusing this with some student in Fitzgerald?
Maurice Godwin: It's very possible that she's talking about Rhett Roberts, but he's not a former student.
Payne Lindsey: Okay, so Rhett was not a former student of Tara's.
Maurice Godwin: No they were about the same age.
Payne Lindsey: And she got to Rhett's around what time?
Maurice Godwin: I would say around 20 minutes to 8:00, a quarter to 8:00.
Payne Lindsey: So you're saying that the time gap is pretty small for that to happen?
Maurice Godwin: Yeah, in fact the whole time line of this entire case is pretty narrow.
Payne Lindsey: What's the earliest Tara could have left the pageant, you think?
Maurice Godwin: I would say 7:15.
Payne Lindsey: So does Tara stopping at a student's for a minute sound farfetched for the time line? Or is it still possible?
Maurice Godwin: Well in a unknown case, a unsolved case as this, with the twists and turns in it? It's possible. Is it probable? No.
Payne Lindsey: So really I was back to square one. Until I had that name there was really no further way to verify this ever actually happened. And even if I could prove it was true, would it lead me to what happened to Tara? The term white rabbit was bouncing around my head for a couple of days and just like clockwork, white rabbits were falling in my lap.
Wendy Floyd: I have been ... It's true God giving revelations with me. I'm not gonna throw God at you, you know, shove God down your throat, but there is a lot that's been going on. Her remains is within the park here in Ocilla, Cumbee Park. I have absolutely no doubt. It is called Cumbee Park. The park was never searched 10 years ago. It was in such an obvious place, everybody overlooked it. Nobody even thought nothing about it, not even I. I was shocked. I took all the information, like I said, to GBI. It all come about with me March of last year, I boldly, bravely 100%, like I said, God's gave me a job to do, and I'm gonna do it and ain't none of them gonna back me down, sit me down or shut me up.
Payne Lindsey: I knew the investigator's first impression was that the whole student thing was probably a white rabbit, and as much as I believed him, the rookie investigative mind of mine just couldn't let it go. Besides the fact that we didn't have a name for this guy, he also said that the timeline was really narrow for Tara to have gone anywhere else that night. But before I just completely ruled it out, I had to test it myself. I decided to time the route that Tara most likely took that night. Either way, I figured it'd be useful information.
I started at the theater in Fitzgerald where Tara left the pageant from. I left the theater and started driving towards Ocilla.
Automated GPS: Starting route to Ocilla.
Payne Lindsey: My first stop was Rhett Roberts' house, which I found out was only a couple of blocks from the barbecue. I actually had to drive past the house where the barbecue was held to get to Rhett's house.
Automated GPS: The destination is on your right.
Payne Lindsey: So Tara didn't just see Rhett at the curb of the road. It's likely that they had planned to meet there. It took 13 minutes and seven seconds to get to Rhett's house from the theater. One minute and 22 seconds to get back to the barbecue. All of this stuff was just a lot closer than I thought it was. So if Tara left the pageant at 7:15 drove straight to Rhett's house, stayed for 15 minutes, then went to the barbecue, she would have easily arrived before 7:45. Assuming that all accounts of her time were true, she would have had at least 15 minutes to spare. Was it enough time for Tara to go somewhere else real quick? I think so. Was it likely? I don't know. I decided to give the whole student theory a rest for now. There were some other prominent figures in this case that I really needed to focus on.
News Clip: It's now been two weeks since a former beauty queen disappeared in Georgia. 30 year-old high school teacher Tara Grinstead was last seen at a dinner party with friends. Anita Gattis joins this morning, she's Tara's sister. Good morning.
Good morning, Hannah.
Anita, I'm sure this is just a terrible time for you and your family. Can you fill us in a bit on this story. Maybe our viewers will be able to help you out. The last time your sister was seen was about 11:00 p.m. on October 24th. What did police find when they went to her home?
Well, they didn't find a lot. The house was locked. Her cellphone was back in the charger. She always takes her cellphone with her everywhere she goes. Her purse and her keys were missing. The car was home, but it was unlocked, which is very unusual. Tara always kept her car locked.
Is there any chance she might have left of her own free will with someone that she knew?
I think that's how it started out, and then something went very wrong after that. I don't know if it started out to be an abduction and she was just lured out of her home, or if she went with somebody and then something happened. I'm just not sure, but I mean, I really do feel like it is an abduction at this point.
Authorities are really frustrated because they say they haven't come close yet to calling anyone a suspect, but they have questioned a couple of key people. One of them being a former boyfriend of your sister's. What can you tell us about him?
They broke up approximately nine months ago. He has been questioned many times at length. He has obtained an attorney. They had had a very bad argument, I just found out, several days before she went missing, concerning a 18 year-old that he was dating and my sister did not think that her parents would approve of a 30 year-old dating an 18 year-old. I was told that she threatened to tell the parents and they had a very heated argument over this.
Payne Lindsey: Shortly after Tara went missing, the first major person of interest in this case was her ex-boyfriend, Marcus Harper. To get you up to speed on Marcus, I'll have my friend Rob detail his background.
Rob: Marcus Harper was Tara's long-term boyfriend of five years. They met in 1999 through a mutual friend named John David Anderson. Around that time, Marcus was an officer at the Ocilla Police Department. Marcus joined the Army after the 9/11 Attacks in 2001. He went on to become an Army Ranger and served in Iraq. In September of 2005, Marcus was still serving overseas, but in October, he returned home to Ocilla for three weeks. Marcus and Tara's relationship had become pretty rocky at that point, and when Marcus arrived back home, he didn't tell Tara he was there. It was during those three weeks back at home in Ocilla that Tara disappeared.
Marcus told Fox News commentator Greta Van Susteren that Tara had ended their relationship well before she went missing. He said he felt a little rejected at first but that, "We continued to be friends." Harper, in the televised interview with Fox, described his relationship with Tara as a commitment. "We did not date other people," He said, "But I was honest with her when I said I had no intentions of marriage." After they broke up, Marcus said in the interview that, "She was very irrational, and she told me that if she found out I was dating someone, she would commit suicide."
Payne Lindsey: Right away, Marcus didn't look very good. But despite everyone's suspicions, he was very open and cooperative with the investigation. He also did several nationally televised interviews. The biggest thing to me was the timing. He was gone overseas for several months and then when he comes home to Ocilla for three weeks, Tara coincidentally disappears. Marcus did have an alibi however, that checked out pretty flawlessly. But before we get into that, there was one more person that really struck the interest of investigators.
News Clip: Also questioned is a man who apparently stalked your sister and was arrested a year ago, is that right?
Well, actually, I think it was more like four to six months ago. She had taught him when he was in the ninth grade. He had just recently graduated. I think maybe after her and the boyfriend broke up, he kind of saw a window of opportunity, although Tara would never ever date a former student. And he was arrested attempting to break in her house and she was at home at the time.
Payne Lindsey: A former student that was stalking her? Then arrested for trying to break in her house? Red flags were everywhere. This person's name is Anthony Vickers. He was the second person police were highly interested in. The whole student thing had me from the get-go and I started researching as much as I could. To fill you in on his background, here's Rob again.
Rob: Anthony Vickers was a former student of Tara's who was engaged in some sort of relationship with her in the months prior to her disappearance. Shortly after Tara disappeared, Anthony was featured briefly on the Nancy Grace and discussed their relationship over the phone. This was the only interview Anthony has ever done. He said, "Very few people knew about our relationship. There's probably only three or four people that actually knew and we knew that they would not talk at all. When we would see each other, I would usually go over to her house. Would be the easiest thing to do. She would pick me up and we would go over there and just hang out. You know, watch a movie or something. That's kind of how we did it. I would like to help, but you know, if you try to help, a lot of times you just get scrutinized against."
On March 30, 2005, about six months before Tara went missing, Ocilla police officers were dispatched to Tara's house for a disturbance call. They received a report that someone was trying to break down the owner's door. The individual was Anthony Vickers. Based on the incident report, Anthony was very agitated. He started cussing and shouting at some of the neighbors who were watching. Vickers yelled so loud that a neighbor outside doing yard work about two blocks from Tara's house could hear him shouting. The officers asked Anthony to keep quiet, but he refused to cooperate. He was then handcuffed and arrested and taken to the Irwin County Detention Center.
Payne Lindsey: I made an open records request with the Ocilla Police Department to obtain a copy of Anthony's arrest report. With all the rumors flying around this town, I had to verify this incident myself. Chief Billy Hancock with the Ocilla PD was very helpful in getting me this information. In the report, Tara had made a handwritten statement to police, some of which said this: "Anthony's behavior was abnormal and was very aggressive on this day. I was very scared for my well-being as well as scared about Anthony. Anthony invaded my privacy in my home, while doing so in a raging and out of control manner.
Anthony's written statement seemed to tell a different story. He claimed that he was actually getting in his car to leave when the police arrived and they screamed at him to step away from his vehicle. He also stated that an officer ran towards him and chest bumped him, almost knocking him over and that he never once tried to resist arrest.
According to Tara's friends and family, Anthony's relationship with her was some sort of delusion or fantasy, but I wondered if maybe there was some truth to it. I reached out several times to Anthony for an interview but no luck, and the same for Marcus Harper, Tara's ex-boyfriend. These two were very tight-lipped about this case, and honestly, I could totally see why. In the meantime, I was able to get a hold of somebody. His name is Noah Griffin. He knew Tara for several years and worked very closely with her in all the pageants. I was just thankful somebody close to her was willing to talk to me.
Noah Griffin: Well, to sum it up, Tara was driven. She was very determined to succeed at whatever she set out to do. I knew for a fact that she would never leave. Everybody said, "Oh, she's gone. She's just run off, da da da da da." And I said, "No, she wouldn't do that." I want to say, and I'm not good with time-
Payne Lindsey: Right.
Noah Griffin: ... But I want to say, like six months had passed before I was ever questioned by the GBI. I told the GBI, I said, "You know, I could have went to her house at 2 o'clock in the morning and knocked on her door and she'd have opened the door for me."
Payne Lindsey: Yeah.
Noah Griffin: "You know, and why was I not a suspect from the get-go?" When the GBI talked to me, they wanted to know if anybody had videotaped that pageant that night? Somebody at the party that night that she went to, that cookout, said when she left that she was going home to watch the video of the pageant. And I can not to this day, don't know if there was a video or if that was you know, and it's just like one night it just hit me that a distant cousin of mine, step daughter was in the pageant and he was to the left of us, up against the wall with a video camera.
Payne Lindsey: Could this be the pageant tape that Tara was talking about? And if it is, does it actually help us at all? Regardless, if he still has it, I want a copy.
Noah Griffin: This is the sad thing. There has been so much small town gossip and lies told that the truth with never be known. I'm just, I've just been constantly racking my brains. There's not a day goes by that she doesn't run across my mind and I don't try to relive that day and that time and what could have happened to her. You know, there was a side of Tara that I didn't know.
Payne Lindsey: Yeah.
Noah Griffin: Which was very well hidden, if it was in fact true, I try not to believe that it was. You know, I know how people talk and how they gossip. I've had people say they've seen this and they've seen that. Well, I didn't see it, so if I didn't see it, I don't know it. You know what I'm saying?
Payne Lindsey: What side are you talking about?
Noah Griffin: Very free with men and one of them was a student. Vickers. Anthony Vickers. I heard his mother casually say in a crowd one time that she caught her climbing out his bedroom window one night.
Anthony Vickers: Hello?
Payne Lindsey: Hey, is Anthony there?
Anthony Vickers: Yeah, this is him.
Payne Lindsey: Thank you guys for listening to episode two of Up and Vanished. The response from episode one was really awesome. I just want to thank everybody out there who's listening..