Episode 22

The Gag Order

Original Air Date    07.03.2017

In This Episode

Finally, some truth.

“There's a lot more cover-up in small towns than there is in big cities, because it's personal.” - Tim Anderson

People in this Episode

Nelson Paulk
A deputy and also a relative of Ryan Duke. He searched the pecan orchard, and interviewed Ryan about two months after Tara disappeared.

Nelson Paulk

Irwin County Sheriff Deputy

Dusty Vassey
Reporter for the Ocilla Star who started covering Tara’s case a week after her disappearance. He was a strong ally and supporter of the podcast. Dusty passed away on September 8, 2017, after a battle with cancer.

Dusty Vassey

Journalist, Ocilla Star

Evidence in this Episode

Black Truck

Black Truck

“Is there more than one reason for this gag order?” - Payne Lindsey


Payne Lindsey: In the last two weeks I've been flooded with emails and messages from locals in Ocilla who are all very angry. In a very vague and misguided way, they're all angry because they feel like the podcast has disrespected them.

Many of these direct messages to me were filled with threats of violence and legal action. But the strangest thing about it is that I've never once mentioned any of these people by name on this podcast. None of them. But it seems that somewhere along the way here in recent weeks, through my investigation, I've hit a nerve in this case with a select group of people.

As a general rule of thumb I try my best to steer clear of wild speculation and to only follow the facts in this case. The problem is that in this case, as we've all learned, the facts are very hard to find and there are several reasons for that.

One, the GBI's kept this case file, which is the largest in the history of the state of Georgia, a secret from the public for well over a decade.

They chased down hundreds of leads and obtained DNA swabs from over 200 people in Tara's life, all of which had nothing to do at all with what actually happened to Tara.

And two, for the most part, before this podcast was around, almost all of Tara's close associates in her life had remained silent and the GBI was never able to officially rule anybody out as a suspect in this case.

And finally, as we've all learned over the past few months, Bo and Ryan were not the only people who knew what happened to Tara.

Unless everyone I've talked to is lying, we know there was a search that happened just a few weeks after Tara went missing out there in the orchard, based on a tip that Ryan Duke told someone at a party one night that he killed Tara.

And Bo Dukes said himself that he too told multiple people about this over the years but no one did anything.

So to me, the problem with this case is pretty clear, secrecy and silence. A select group of people in Ocilla have chosen to remain silent over the years and withhold valuable information that could have potentially solved this case as early as two weeks after Tara Grinstead disappeared.

So the recent threats I've received, stemming from practically zero basis, only underscore this problem even more.

I'm not pointing a finger at anyone. The GBI said Ryan Duke killed Tara, not me. The GBI and Bo Dukes himself said that he burned Tara's body in the pecan orchard, not me. Close friends of Bo Duke said that other people in their friend circle knew about this, not me. Bo's girlfriend, Brooke, said that eight people were there at Bo and Ryan's house that night, not me.

So let this be a public service announcement to everyone out there; I follow the facts and that's the only thing I'll ever report on. If you think that these facts are wrong, then by all means come tell the world what the real story is. And if you can't do that, then in my eyes, you're exactly the reason this case took 12 years to solve.

You choose to sit back, hiding under a rock, while rumors and speculation ran wild. And now, a decade later, I choose to spend two years of my life, dedicated to finding the truth in this case. And then you emerge from the wood works, ready to sling mud and try to paint me as the problem.

So here's my message to all of you; don't be a coward. Your measly efforts at trying to stop me from finding the truth aren't working. And to all those people both locally in Ocilla and all over the world who have shown me your support, I want you to know that I sincerely appreciate it.

There's only two episodes left. And I will stop at nothing to find the truth.

Intro: ... More than 40 GDI agents swarmed a pecan orchard in Ben Hill County this afternoon ...

... Not one, but two former students from this school under arrest ...

... with the intent to and did involve serious bodily harm to the person of Tara Grintstead ...

... charging Ryan Alexander Duke with the murder of Tara Grinstead ...

Payne Lindsey: From Tenderfoot TV at Industrious Atlanta, this is Up and Vanished, the investigation of Tara Grinstead. I'm your host, Payne Lindsey.

Speaker 1: They're very well connected, they're very wealthy. They're also a bunch of hell raisers and did a lot of bad things. There was one particular incident where a group of guys from Irwin County went over to Ben Hill County, went over to Fitzgerald and got in a fight with some guys over there and they jumped on somebody with a baseball bat and nearly killed him, hospitalized him, beat him very badly. And nothing ever came from it. They didn't get in any trouble, nothing was ever said, no charges were filed, nothing.

You know that's just the kind of things, from what I understand, that they used to do. This circle of friends was always doing bad things, they were always covering for each other and this was just one more thing to cover for.

Payne Lindsey: According to one of my early sources, Bo and Ryan's group of friends were part of a huge fight back in 2004 that left two men nearly beaten to death.

As the story goes, Bo's group of friends were never charged and instead three men from Fitzgerald became the scapegoats.

If this fight was so big, I figured there had to be a record of it somewhere. So I first went to the Ocilla Star archives and sure enough, Dusty knew what I was talking about right away.

Dusty Vassey: Somebody said something to somebody on the phone and all the sudden this big posse of people showed up. But the only people that got arrested were three guys from Fitzgerald.

Payne Lindsey: Really?

Dusty Vassey: Yeah.

Payne Lindsey: It made the paper?

Dusty Vassey: Yeah, front page. They beat somebody damn near to death.

Payne Lindsey: Dusty seemed to know all about this story and he even recalled there being an article about it in the paper, back in 2004. That seemed pretty surprising to me, that a local fight would make the front page news. All accounts, this was not your typical neighborhood fight.

Dusty Vassey: According to witnesses, the May 2 fight apparently broke out when a group of young men from Irwin and Ben Hill Counties, about 10 to 15 in number, came to the mystic location ready to fight.

Payne Lindsey: 10 to 15?

Dusty Vassey: Yeah. I heard there were like 40 or something people there.

Payne Lindsey: This was a huge brawl that involved dozens of people, some reportedly with pipes and baseball bats. And it left two men nearly dead, one of them an older man in his mid-60s who apparently was just trying to break up the fight.

Payne Lindsey: Lewis Fussell the third, Joseph Stone, all Fitzgerald residents.

Dusty Vassey: Yeah, but the Irwin residents didn't get charged. Strange, isn't it?

Payne Lindsey: As I read the names of the men in Fitzgerald who were charged in this fight, one of those names rang a bell in my head.

Joey Stone. Joseph Stone is the guy that I talked to before on the podcast, who told me the story about being in the truck with Ryan.

It clicked. Joey was someone I had talked to before. I had never mentioned his name in the podcast, but you probably remember hearing a story.

Joseph Stone: We rode out to that orchard. It was just a few people. Only three trucks around the fire. I took one dude out there. And that was Bo Dukes. You know this Bo Dukes, I had always kind of heard about him and known about him through high school and then something happened.

Bo Dukes got upset. I don't know if he was upset because we were out there or what but we got kind of a funny vibe and we just saw him get upset. We saw kind of a commotion at the back of the truck.

Payne Lindsey: Joey told me about a time back in 2005 that he had been out there on the pecan orchard. He remembered there being a huge fire with trucks around it and Bo Dukes being there.

Joey sat in a truck and talked to a guy that he didn't know for about an hour that night.

Joseph Stone: And I sat in this truck and I talked to this guy for probably an hour and I've been going over it for the last couple of days in my mind over and over again and it seems to me the guy I was talking to was Ryan Duke.

Payne Lindsey: Looking back on it, he thought that it may have been Ryan Duke he was talking to in the truck. Ironically, a black truck as he recalled.

Joseph Stone: To the best of my memory, a black single-cab truck.

Payne Lindsey: And as I went back to re-listen to this phone call myself, I realized one more detail he had told me about his conversation in the black truck with whom he thinks was Ryan Duke.

Joseph Stone: We were talking about the fight that me and my friend that was there with me got into the previous year, 2004.

Payne Lindsey: He mentioned the fight from 2004. According to my first source, Bo and Ryan's friend circle were the major players in this fight, but they all got off scot free. And according to the paper, Joey Stone and two other men from Fitzgerald were the ones charged for the crime.

Before I got ahead of myself, I wanted to call Joey again. What was his side of the story? I called him back to see.

Joseph Stone: A guy got pulverized in the face. I forget his name. He had to have like reconstructive face surgery and see if you read back in that article, they slander us. They say that it happened. They didn't use the word allegedly or this, that, the other. No. They said I hit a guy with a pipe, which is totally false.

It's all very strange and that story, the story that they got was just total fabrications like totally made-up stories.

Payne Lindsey: Still, nearly 13 years later, Joey Stone plead his innocence and claimed that he was just a scapegoat for Bo's circle of friends.

Joey wasn't very close to Bo's friend circle, he only knew them through his friend Lewis, who was also charged in the fight. Lewis was good friends with a guy named Josh Bowden, who ran in the circle of Bo Dukes' friends. Josh Bowden had invited Lewis to the orchard that one night and he brought along Joey Stone.

That's when Joey sat in the truck with who he now thinks is Ryan Duke.

Joseph Stone: I mean Josh and Lewis were close and they had always been close. Lewis knows the most of the people but he ain't close with nobody like he is Josh Bowden.

We was all partying in Fitzgerald and then Bowden shows up in Fitzgerald like, "Ya'll come on. Let's go, these boys are talking junk. Let's go get 'em."

It is a solid fact in my mind that Josh is the one who called us out there. He was the ring leader who rounded us all up and took us to the fight. He was the man.

You know, none of the Ocilla people, it was just Fitzgerald people. They threw us under the bus. You know, it ruined my life but it was all because of Josh Bowden.

Payne Lindsey: It's a lot of names to remember. Trust me, I know. But as I learn more and more about this story I began to see why this all might be so important.

According to Joey, the fight was essentially started by Josh Bowden. Joey Stone was charged with a felony and says it still haunts him today. And as for Josh Bowden and the rest of Bo's friends, they were never charged and Joey says that's not by coincidence.

Joseph Stone: He just said to himself, "Well, my son's not going to be involved" and he didn't involve him. He didn't get charged with nothing even though he was the number one cohort of- he was the guy who started it all.

Payne Lindsey: Josh Bowden is the son of Paul Bowden, the district attorney for the Tifton Judicial Circuit covering Irwin County.

Two men were hospitalized and nearly beaten to death, so this crime was not going unpunished. And here was guy who was convinced that the district attorney, Paul Bowden, blamed the fight on him and his two friends in order to shield his own son and his close friends from any of the charges.

I wasn't there so I can't tell you what happened that night. But if Joey's story had any truth to it, it definitely makes things look a little shady in the Tara Grinstead case.

Joseph Stone: He was willing to put us in jail for nine years 'cause if we had went to trial and been convicted it'd been nine years that we had to serve. He was willing to do that to us to save his son because his son was the one who done it all.

So I know personally they will lie. They will lie to help their own people. What I gather from it and it's also why I decided I wanted to talk about it and say something about it.

Before all this Tara Grinstead stuff broke out, I see him on Facebook all the time posting pictures, looked like he was having a good life. And then after that try to look him up, no more. Couldn't find him. Can't be found on social media.

And when I learned that I was like, dang, that is so, so weird. Why would he disappear right at that moment when I'd been seeing him for years post stuff on Facebook, pictures, him and his girlfriends, stuff like that and then all of a sudden, Tara Grinstead breaks out again and he's nowhere to be found.

It's just small town corruption. It's probably been going on for decades, the same family, you know? But something like this could bring it all crumbling down.

As if Bowden just knew, that's enough right there. The one that covered up and made it go away.

How far is he willing to go? He's willing to throw three college students from Fitzgerald in prison for nine years for something his son started.

Payne Lindsey: Paul Bowden is still the district attorney today and is prosecuting Ryan Duke for the murder of Tara Grinstead.

The fact the district attorney's son was friends with Bo or Ryan at all seemed really strange. Sure, it's a small town, but wouldn't this be a conflict of interest?

I asked Dusty what he thought of Joey's story.

Dusty Vassey: It's probably true. It could be that he's saying that because the DA charged him with these charges but, see, I've always heard about that fight. It was kind of famous. You know what I mean? Because it was this big fight with a lot of people involved and there's always been rumors about there being cover-ups as far as who did it.

You know, obviously three guys from Fitzgerald. That's not the names you heard of being the ones who did it.

Payne Lindsey: He was right. Joey would clearly have a reason to be mad about this because he was charged. But the story he told me wasn't really that crazy.

If so many others were involved in the fight, why were only three people charged?

I called up Joey's friend Lewis Fussell, who was friends with Josh Bowden and was also charged in the fight.

Lewis Fussell: I mean, we had nothing to do with it. We just went. And so we got caught up in it. So I think Paul threw us under the bus. They just wanted somebody to be arrested. Make it look like they were doing something and they just picked us.

Payne Lindsey: I asked Lewis how well he knew Josh Bowden and if he knew Bo or Ryan too.

Lewis Fussell: See I was hanging out with Bo and Ryan a lot, just that summer. Every time I spent the night, Josh spend the night, you know? Because he was just an acquaintance. I knew him through Josh. When I was with Josh we were hanging out with Bo.

Payne Lindsey: The stories about this fight began to highlight what I always thought was a serious issue in this case; the gag order.

Lewis Fussell: I don't know what that gag order's about. It's like he's trying to protect somebody that knew. He was keeping- staying silent. That's what it looks like to me but I don't know for sure.

They threw us under- I was friends with Josh and they threw us under the bus because we were from Fitzgerald. That's how they are. That's how it just is, they gonna protect their own. They're gonna protect their own.

Payne Lindsey: Within four days of Ryan Duke's arrest, Judge Melanie Cross signed into effect a gag order preventing all law enforcement, suspects and potential witnesses from speaking about the case.

Every news report I read about this claimed the gag order was requested by Ryan Duke's public defender, John Mobley.

News reporter 1: Irwin County Public Defender John Mobley, whose representing murder suspect Ryan Duke, asked for the gag order right after his client was arrested.

Payne Lindsey: A few weeks after the gag order was put into effect, several prominent media outlets came together to oppose it. Some claiming that the extreme vagueness and all encompassing nature of the order was completely unconstitutional.

News reporter 1: The media lawyers urged the judge to at least revise her order, limiting who is covered and opening up records that are normally public record.

Payne Lindsey: I was there in the courtroom that day. On both sides of the courtroom were the two opposing parties pleading their case to the judge.

Representative for News Outlets: Under Georgia law, gag orders are justified if there is a substantial likelihood that extra judicious statements-

Payne Lindsey: On one side where the representatives from news outlets and their attorneys, each making their own argument about why the gag order was unjustified.

On the other side of the courtroom was Ryan Duke's defense attorney, John Mobley, because he was the one who requested the gag order in the first place.

John Mobley: The gag order is not directed in this case-

Payne Lindsey: John Mobley was the only one speaking to the judge that day in favor of the order, but he wasn't the only one sitting at the table.

Right there beside him was Paul Bowden, the district attorney, whose prosecuting Mr. Mobley's client for felony murder.

I am by no means an expert when it comes to the court process but this, to me, appeared incredibly ironic.

Why would the district attorney be there in favor of the gag order, too? Ryan Duke is not his client. Is it normal to go out of your way to show support for something that's supposed to give the person you're prosecuting a better chance at fighting off the charges or is there more than one reason for this gag order?

Every article I could find about the gag order said it was requested by Ryan Duke's attorney. All but one, that is.

Published in a local Fitzgerald paper, called the Herald Leader, on March 8, 2017, was a different story. The article reads, "the gag order was placed on investigators in the Grinstead case by a Tifton Circuit superior county judge remains in place."

One law enforcement official did say that the district attorney's office asked for the gag order as a means to maintain some control over the case information.

I hadn't heard that before. If this was true, it made a lot more sense why district attorney Paul Bowden would be sitting at the table with Ryan Duke's defense attorney that day.

The article was written by a man named Tim Anderson. I gave him a call to get some clarity on this. The first thing that I asked was where that request for the gag order came from.

Tim Anderson: All that came from the DA's office. You know, every defense attorney would ask for a gag order in every trial if they could. That wouldn't be even remotely unusual but the DA's reasoning, as I understand it, is that they're worried about finding an impartial jury. The attorney for Georgia press is David Hudson and David knows more about open records than anybody in the state.

He said that the law is not written so that you always have to have a deaf, dumb and blind juror to have a trial. That pre-knowledge does not disqualify a juror from sitting on a jury. You know so, what's the deal?

Well, it's hush-hush too late though. 11 years after the fact is not when you try to shut everybody up. That horse has left.

Well, I think Ryan probably did it but I don't- It's just like with the Bo Dukes thing. He was so obviously involved in a deep and serious way, how do we know he wasn't involved in her actual murder? And we don't.

I think it's kind of a foregone conclusion that he helped dispose of the body but what'd he do before that? And don't we have a right to find that out first?

I don't know. It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out in a court room. They'll be lot of people trying to keep the truth from coming out for their personal reasons. You know, because their son or their nephew or their whoever had some involvement, they don't want them drawn into it.

And there's a lot more cover up in small towns than there is in big cities, because it's personal.

It's going to be an interesting story as it plays out. I just want to see the truth told, whatever it is.

So, you keep after them. I've been the thorn in peoples' sides more than once and nobody dies just makes them made. They'll get over it.

Young Ocilla Resident: I wanted to kind of like reach out to you and to be honest kind of had like anxiety about doing it because on second thought, it's like why does he give a crap what I think?

Payne Lindsey: One week after Ryan Duke's arrest I got a random phone call from a young man in Ocilla. He seemed overwhelmed by all the new information, as did I. But I couldn't really understand why he was calling me.

Young Ocilla Resident: My grandfather, which I rarely even hear about in this case, my grandfather was actually the one- when Ryan was in the courtroom he was actually the one standing like right next to him where you can see him on camera. Matter of fact, most of the pictures that are in there, that's my grandfather that's walking out.

This whole things just baffling me. I'm looking at everybody's point of view and when I'm reading your podcast, you do, you have all these suspects.

But then last week the game changed. It changed everything we thought we knew about this case, who we thought would have been in it. I've been studying this case ever since it happened.

I do know I thought that Ryan lived in Pleasure Lane, which is crazy because that's about three miles from my grandfather's house.

This happened in my little town of one red light, man. Where everybody knows everything.

Payne Lindsey: He mentioned several times to me about his grandfather having worked closely on the case. And that he was the one standing next to Ryan Duke in the courtroom that day.

I learned nothing substantial in our call, but I told him to keep in touch. Four months later, just a few weeks ago, he texted me.

He said, "How was my grandfather related to Ryan?"

He sent me this text shortly after I released the last episode where I aired this phone call.

Young Ocilla Resident: I can tell you things that would make your hair spin on end. Ryan is related to Nelson Paulk who is the deputy that walked him into the courtroom for his arraignment that day. He's the deputy sheriff.

Payne Lindsey: Was Nelson Paulk this guy's grandfather?

To refresh your memory, Nelson Paulk was an officer at the Irwin County Sheriff's Department and supposedly it was Nelson Paulk and another officer, named Alan Morgan, who performed that search in the pecan orchard back in 2005.

Young Ocilla Resident: Nelson Paulk and Alan Morgan were part of that first investigation just a couple of weeks after she went missing in that pecan orchard.

Payne Lindsey: I called him back immediately and this time he gave me a lot more detail about what he was trying to tell me the first time he called.

He told me that even before the gag order, throughout the years, his grandfather, Nelson Paulk, never told him much about this case even when he asked him about it.

Young Ocilla Resident: Every time I've ever asked him about this case he's tries to brush it off and nothing's new or anything like that and it is, man, for all these years anytime I've ever asked him anything about the case- You know, when your friend's a cop they tell you stuff.

But everything about this case has been kept hush. Whenever this first happened or whatever Nelson's never said anything about it, never talked about it.

I remember looking him in his eye and it just looked like he had something heavy weighing on his mind, like something he had just been kept in a closet forever. The man looked dark.

I asked him how was the case going and did anything new come up in the case or like what was going on and he didn't say anything to me that day. And this was two days after they brought Ryan in for the arraignment that's what I was talking about where my papa brought him in. You can see him on the camera the whole time and other than that he hasn't said anything to me.

The man knows something. Whether or not he'd be willing to tell it to me, I don't know. He's been a part of that sheriff's department going on 20, 30 years. Think about how embedded he is into that community.

The man knows more than what we know. This just affected me in a way, that it's just no longer cool with me to just sit by anymore.

This is like one of the craziest murder stories I've ever seen and you've done a hell of a job uncovering it, it's just this point from me following a podcast about a murder that's in my town to being involved with it. If I could get him to talk or say something I would. I'm about to be pulling into my road right now.

Payne Lindsey: He was extremely bothered by this, but who wouldn't be. To have followed this case your whole life and over a decade later your grandpa's name. That would be pretty alarming. Ironically, less than 10 minutes later, his grandfather called him.

Nelson Paulk: Hello?

Young Ocilla Resident: Hey, are you in a place that you can talk?

Nelson Paulk: Do what?

Young Ocilla Resident: Are you like in a comfortable place where you can talk?

Nelson Paulk: Yeah.

Young Ocilla Resident: Look, I know a lot of stuff is being said and going on with this case and everything and I've just been hearing your name thrown around a lot. I've just really become like concerned about you and want to like know what's going on, 'cause- Are you related to Ryan ...

Nelson Paulk: Yeah. I'm just a kin to him. I don't even whether they- Far as I know I've never met him.

Young Ocilla Resident: Well I know I just- I wasn't calling to like accuse you of anything like that. It just went from being a case about Tara- so many people are throwing my family members around it that I just wanted- I've been wanting to talk to you I just didn't know how to approach you about it 'cause I didn't want you to think that I was accusing you of anything it was just like god dang, people were throwing my grandfather's name around. They've got all on that podcast about how you and some guy, Alan Morgan, went and did an original search on Tara in the pecan orchard or something like that.

Nelson Paulk: That's exactly right. We did. There was a guy that went to another man or woman and told- his friends- and told them that Ryan was at a party and was drunk and he said he did all of this. They called me and Alan Morgan and we met up with them, we went through the pecan orchard and we searched it. Got a statement from him and turned it over to the GBI. But the GBI now, which is all new agents said well it's not in the file. It's not in the file, it didn't happen.

So I went to his boss man and told him and he came back and course, he got a statement from me and got a statement from that guy and all that. Yeah, we knew about this less than two months after she disappeared that the GBI didn't do anything.

They was working it, we couldn't basically interfere with their investigation. I know how it all come about and I know all about the investigation and all this stuff on podcasts and all that stuff.

He's just trying to make a name for himself. He lied on some of that and he's wrong on some of that. I don't even watch it. I don't even pay it no attentions.

Young Ocilla Resident: Okay, well papa I just want you to know that I love you and that I care about you. I just wanted to call and ask you and if you didn't want to talk to me about it, you know, I'd be fine with that.

Nelson Paulk: No, I'm not even involved. I'm not involved in any way, shape, form or fashion.

Young Ocilla Resident: That's all I wanted to know, papa. I mean literally it could have made me cry hearing your name thrown around in this and I know how good of a man you are.

So they know what happened to her though?

Nelson Paulk: Oh yeah. Yeah, they know the whole story. And see there's a gag order and they ain't gonna release that information anyway. There is a gag order so they can't. They can't tell the public.

Young Ocilla Resident: There were rumors these whole 12 years. How did this slip by for 12 years?

Nelson Paulk: Well I can't really go all into that you know on account of that gag order.