Original Air Date 09.15.2016
In This Episode
Payne and Maurice discuss the prime piece of evidence, the blue latex glove found outside Tara’s house with some kind of DNA evidence on it. Was it dropped before or after family friend Heath Dykes came to the house to check on Tara? Payne talks to Anthony Vickers, a young man who was arrested for trying to break in to Tara’s house, and also investigates the alibi of Marcus Harper, Tara’s ex-boyfriend. He then interviews dog trainer Tracey Underwood, whose cadaver dogs have searched hundreds of acres in Irwin County, hunting for Tara’s scent.
People in this Episode
Chief - Perry Police Department
Ex-Boyfriend and Former Police Officer
Dr. Maurice Godwin
Private Forensic Detective
Evidence in this Episode
[Star Spangled Banner sung by Tara Grinstead]
Payne Lindsey: Hey is Anthony there?
Anthony: Yeah, this is him.
Payne Lindsey: This is Payne Lindsey, I'm doing the documentary podcast on Tara Grinstead.
Anthony: Oh I understood [inaudible 00:00:58] of her.
Male: 10 years ago today marked the last time anybody could've seen or talking to Tara Grinstead.
Female: Officially police are calling this a missing persons case. They have not been-
Female: Latex gloves found in-
Female: $80,000 reward is being offered for information.
Male: Where is Tara Grinstead?
Payne Lindsey: From Tenderfoot TV in Atlanta, this is Up and Vanished. The investigation of Tara Grinstead. I'm your host Payne Lindsey.
Before I jump into my interview with Anthony Vickers, we need to go over some of the finer details in this case. There were two major pieces of evidence that investigators found at Tara's home. The first, and perhaps the biggest one, was a single latex glove found in Tara's yard. Here's Maurice Godwin on the glove.
Maurice Godwin: It was in front of the steps, and it was laying there at the edge of the grass with some pine straw. They collected it, and they did analysis on it. They found full profile of white male DNA on the glove, and it's been entered into the Georgia DNA database, and it's been entered into CODIS for like 10 years, and there's never been a match.
Payne Lindsey: How many people did they swab in this case?
Maurice Godwin: Upwards to 200. Students, any males or stuff that knew her. In Georgia, you have to be convicted of a felony to be swabbed.
Payne Lindsey: So in Georgia you have to willingly give up a DNA swab, they can't make you do it?
Maurice Godwin: They walk up to you, they ask you for it. If you volunteer it fine, if you don't then they have to have enough probable cause to write a warrant and go back and get the swab.
My question about the glove is this. If you have got to somebody, and you're struggling with that individual, why is the glove even off of the hand? To be able to even fall to the ground?
Payne Lindsey: Right. So you're saying, if you're going to wear latex gloves to commit a crime, why are they off your hands before you leave the scene?
Maurice Godwin: I think it's a 50/50 chance that the glove was a plant.
Payne Lindsey: The second piece of evidence was a business card found in Tara's front door, but as ominous as that seemed there appeared to be a valid explanation for it. The card belonged to a friend of Tara's family, a police officer from a nearby town called Perry.
Late Sunday night on October 23rd, before she was reported missing, Tara's mom was concerned because she wasn't responding. So, she asked this family friend to go check on her.
Maurice Godwin: He was called by Faye, Tara's mother, to go check on Tara. So, he drove from Perry to Ocilla. Probably arriving about 12:30 AM, it would be Monday morning.
Payne Lindsey: So Sunday night, Monday morning?
Maurice Godwin: Sunday night, Monday morning yes. He went to the house, knocked on the door, couldn't get anyone, and left a business card wedge between the door, and then left.
Payne Lindsey: Now that we're a little more up to speed, here's my call with Anthony Vickers.
Anthony: I really and truly didn't want to talk you, but you'd probably play nicer if I was nice to you. When people quit looking at you funny, then a day of [inaudible 00:04:20] things come out. You know what I mean?
Payne Lindsey: So, tell me about your relationship with Tara.
Anthony: We saw each other after high school, and went on there for a year or two.
Payne Lindsey: Okay. So this relationship you had with Tara, was it at all sexual?
Payne Lindsey: Okay. When you two would hang out, where'd you guys usually go?
Anthony: Most of the time it was just her house.
Payne Lindsey: So was this a serious relationship, or was it more of like a fling, or something?
Anthony: It was kind of a little bit of both, but it was so recent that I got out of school that we kind of kept it, just kept it on the low.
Payne Lindsey: Describe to me what it was like when Tara went missing.
Anthony: I really didn't think nothing was wrong there when the GBI came and talked to me. They told me that she had missed school or whatever that day. I think it was a Monday, and they come and told me, and I was kind of upset with them. They going through her house and all that, been gone two days and she ain't really got to report to nobody, so I didn't really see the ... If I go off the grid for a couple of days, and somebody's in my house I'm going to be upset. So I didn't place it as her being missing until later on. She's grown, single, she can do what she wants to. I really didn't think too much about it. There until about four or five days in where she done missed a few days of work, and stuff like that wasn't like her.
Payne Lindsey: A few weeks after Tara disappeared Anthony received a mysterious phone call from an unknown number. All he could hear was a girl that was screaming and crying, and he was convinced it was Tara. Here's what he said about it.
Anthony: It sounded like her squalling on the phone to me dude. I mean, I really thought it was her. I was watching my little cousin, and I had somebody come and get him, so I could go figure out what was going on. It wasn't really no overreaction, I still think it was her. The story I got told is they researched it and it was a known drug dealer's house. That's what they told me. I was like, wow. How do y'all know that? The feedback they gave me on it didn't make any sense.
Payne Lindsey: So what went down when the GBI reached out to you?
Anthony: Basically they asked me if I would do a DNA swab? Would I be okay with that? Lie detector? Some other thing?
Payne Lindsey: So you did a DNA swab?
Anthony: Yeah, I did all of that.
Payne Lindsey: What were the results of your lie detector test?
Anthony: Oh, they said I was true there, and they cleared me after that.
Payne Lindsey: Did they search your property at all?
Anthony: They went through my vehicle and through my dad's vehicle. When all this was going on, I didn't want to get involved. You know, one thing tells you how you're gonna figure out where she's at, and the other one's, you know, you see people arrested for stuff they didn't do all the time? And my thing got to be just cooperate with them, do everything you got to do, and get out their way.
Payne Lindsey: Do you remember when the last time you saw Tara was?
Anthony: Right off hand, I really don't know. I really don't remember.
Payne Lindsey: Did you have any involvement in Tara's disappearance?
Anthony: Oh no.
Payne Lindsey: Can you give me the rundown on what happened on March 30th of 05? When you got arrested at Tara's house?
Anthony: She wouldn't answer her phone, and I went over there, and knocked on the door. And we were still kinda on the low. She didn't want a bunch of folks knowing that I was over there. And we got into a little argument there, and I went to leave, and the police station's only a block away. So, a neighbor called, and only a block away, I was getting in the car, I was actually driving, pulling out of her driveway. And hey stopped and pulled me out of the car.
I was trying to leave and trying to do right. I said what I needed to say, and I was leaving, and then I couldn't leave. Well, I only lived like two blocks down the road so it wasn't like I made a thirty mile trip or nothing.
Payne Lindsey: Before I called Anthony, I scoured every detail of this police report. And I found something kind of interesting. It appears there was another man inside Tara's house that day. And this man provided the statement to police. His name was blacked out in the reports I received, but at the very bottom, the officer refers to him in the report. With the initials H.D. Maybe Anthony can help clarify this.
Was there someone else in Tara's house that day?
Anthony: Oh yeah, there was. I don't know who he was or, he told me to come to the door. He was some guy from Perry. Some cop from Perry.
Payne Lindsey: What was he like?
Anthony: He [inaudible 00:08:59]. I don't know what it was. I don't know. You can judge a book by its cover, but I didn't like the cover.
Payne Lindsey: So this cop from Perry was inside Tara's house that day. It seemed a little strange to me. His initials were H.D. Remember the guy who left the business card? His name was
Maurice Godwin: Detective Heath Dykes, Perry Police Department.
Payne Lindsey: Detective Heath Dykes, Perry Police Department. Initials H.D., just like the police report. So he drove there with the sole intent of checking on Tara, correct?
Maurice Godwin: Oh yeah.
Payne Lindsey: How far is Perry from Ocilla?
Maurice Godwin: It's about an hour fifteen minutes.
Payne Lindsey: You think it's odd that Heath Dykes didn't see the glove on the ground?
Maurice Godwin: I think it's unusual. Also you remember, you're not dealing with just a regular just civilian type individual. You're dealing with a veteran detective. Possibly the argument would be that it was too dark, but, he needs to be asked that question.
Payne Lindsey: It was odd that he was inside Tara's house that day when Anthony got arrested. But it was even more odd to me that a veteran detective, who drove over an hour to check on Tara Sunday night wouldn't have seen that latex glove on the ground. You would think that there would be a little detective work, but all he did was leave his business card.
From the beginning, I approached this thing with the certainty that was foul play involved in Tara's disappearance. It just seemed impossible that she could walk away from her life and remain hidden for all these years. But I guess there's always that possibility. I called a missing persons expert named Thomas Lauth. He has over twenty years of experience in these sort of cases. I wanted him to weigh in.
Thomas Lauth: I think there's a better way that she could have found to stage if she wanted to go missing. The fact that that necklace is on the floor I agree with the investigator. To me, that's very unusual. Especially if her apartment is nice and clean. Now, and the latex glove outside, to me, is obviously, a very important piece. I definitely think that foul play was involved. I rarely have seen maliciously missing women. It's a rarity. If they go missing, it's because someone has abducted them or murdered them. But it does happen.
Payne Lindsey: How often do you know, man or woman, do you see somebody who's gone for ten plus years with no trace at all, and they turn up alive?
Thomas Lauth: It's not common at all, but it's possible. It does happen. But it's not because they turned up themselves. It's because someone informed law enforcement or the family that they saw them. But it would be that case where the subject was missing, there was a police report filed, but the circumstances of the disappearance showed them that there was a small amount of detail that would reveal that they went maliciously missing. Such as they were last seen walking, you know, walking away somewhere. They went on a run, and they went missing in the mountains. Something like that. People go missing on their own accord if their suffering from schizophrenia, and usually the reason they're missing is because they have such paranoia that they choose to follow those conspiracies in their head. It's typically a medical reason. Most people don't really understand that. They think oh they just went missing because their life got complicated, but really a lot of adults go missing because they suffer from their first psychotic episode. They become transient and homeless on the street. I would definitely lean on foul play in this case because all the signs are there, really.
Did she have multiple boyfriends? One of them got jealous? And she let them in the apartment for some reason to talk probably, and their intent was different from what she obviously expected.
Marcus Harper: We dated for about five and a half years.
Greta Van S.: When you say dated, was it a serious or a casual relationship?
Marcus Harper: It was a commitment.
Payne Lindsey: That's Tara's ex-boyfriend, Marcus Harper in his first televised interview with Greta Van Susteren in 2005, just weeks after Tara disappeared.
Marcus Harper: We did not date other people but, I was honest with her when I said I had no intentions of marriage because of my career.
Greta Van S.: Did there come a time when this dating relationship ended?
Marcus Harper: Yes. She told me she felt like it was time for her to move on.
Greta Van S.: And, you're getting dumped, essentially?
Marcus Harper: More or less.
Greta Van S.: Were you upset by that at all?
Marcus Harper: At first. We continued to remain friends, but I felt a little rejected at first. But, I brushed my shoulders off and went on and started dating other people. She asked several times about rekindling the relationship, and I told her we could stay friends, but I didn't want any type of commitment.
Greta Van S.: So, then you were rejecting her essentially at this point?
Marcus Harper: Pretty much.
Greta Van S.: Did she accept that?
Marcus Harper: No.
Greta Van S.: How many times have you talk to the GBI?
Marcus Harper: Four, five times?
Greta Van S.: They've asked you for things, and asked you to talk and you've provided all of that?
Marcus Harper: Yes.
Greta Van S.: When was the last time you actually saw her?
Marcus Harper: The 14th of October. It was on a Friday morning.
Greta Van S.: About what time?
Marcus Harper: Around nine o'clock.
Greta Van S.: And what were the circumstances?
Marcus Harper: She woke me by knocking on my windows.
Greta Van S.: Is that something common where she would knock on your windows or not?
Marcus Harper: No, it's not unusual, but she was crying and was upset about something. She was very irrational. And she told me that if she found out I was dating someone, she would commit suicide.
Maurice Godwin: The one person who has been vetted the most is her ex-boyfriend, Marcus Harper. He was absolutely tired of her. He had to hire a lawyer because in the beginning because her sister, Anita, was going after him. Basically his timeline alibi basically clears him.
Payne Lindsey: He was right. From day one, Marcus Harper had an alibi. His alibi begins that Saturday night, at the White Horse Saloon in Fitzgerald.
Speaker 9: We're live here at the White Horse. Final score of the Fitzgerald-Ocilla game: 56-19, Fitzgerald.
Payne Lindsey: I decided to pay this place a visit. Maybe have a couple beers. I made some small talk with people at the bar. You best believe they all had their own theory about Tara.
Speaker 10: Basically, we were all talking and he was like "Yeah, Tara Grinstead. I know what happened." I don't know if he was joking, but all the other guys said he acted like really serious.
Speaker 11: I heard a rumor she was out at boonies, somebody followed her. I left. I believe it's all rumor and bullshit. Some people say the ex-boyfriend, some people say it's somebody who admired her.
Payne Lindsey: So what was Marcus Harper's rock solid alibi?
October 22, 2005. The night of Tara's disappearance. Marcus Harper left a bar called the White Horse Saloon in Fitzgerald sometime after one a.m., and drove to Ocilla. He was looking for his friend, Sergeant Sean Fletcher, an Ocilla police officer. Sean Fletcher had known both Marcus and Tara. In fact, he was one of the officer's who responded to the call at Tara's house earlier that year when Anthony Vickers was arrested for disorderly conduct.
At around 1:49 a.m., according to the account Sean gave to authorities, he received a call from the dispatcher telling him that Marcus was looking for him. Sean contacted Marcus, and the two joined up. In the course of the next hour, Sean had at least one conversation with another police officer. Shortly after 2:45 a.m., Fletcher was summoned to a house on West Fourth Street, where a local man named Bennie Merritt who was known for his erratic behavior, had allegedly walked inside someone's house, and had refused to leave. Marcus joined Sean on that call. By the time they arrived, Bennie Merritt was gone.
A few minutes later, Sean and Marcus left the residence and searched for him. Authorities reported that the man appeared intoxicated, and was later apprehended by a sheriff's deputy after he frightened a night clerk at a local gas station, about a mile outside of Ocilla. According to records reviewed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, both Sean and Marcus responded to this call at the gas station. And by the time they were done, it was 4:28 a.m.
A few minutes later, Marcus claims he headed home to sleep. Marcus Harper's mother also vouched for his return home that night around 5 a.m., and said he went straight to bed.
I put in one more records request with Ocilla PD. I wanted the reports on Bennie Merritt, just to make sure all the times added up. It was pretty convenient to be with an Ocilla officer during the time Tara likely disappeared. But I can't disprove that either. But, all this was happening. Investigators were pressed for answers, and they started searching everywhere, but they found nothing.
Speaker 12: My grimness fueled by the frustration of searching nearly four hundred square miles of alligator infested waters, sprawling farmland, and tangled forest.
Speaker 13: If she's in here, she likes to be on top.
Speaker 12: To cover this whole county, it's probably gonna take us another seven to ten days. This county is like 380 square miles, we only got like nine thousand people in here.
Speaker 14: The Ocilla and Irwin County community undertook the most extensive search I've ever been associated with in my career.
Speaker 15: We searched fields. We searched swamps. We searched abandoned buildings. This is actually a case where we don't even the haystack is to look for the needle.
Payne Lindsey: Part of the initial search for Tara was a K-9 unit, tons of dogs trained to sniff out Tara's scent. Tracy Underwood is the trainer that led this part of the investigation.
Tracy Underwood: Dogs can be trained, and are trained, to find people both dead and alive. In this case, I had dogs that were trained to do both. So, the initial response was, of course, unless we find evidence that tells us otherwise, we assume that the person we're looking for is alive. So, our initial...
Payne Lindsey: Check one, check one, check one.
Tracy Underwood: Search efforts with the dogs were to check for Tara to see if we could get her scent in any of that area. Unfortunately, being a week from the time she was last seen, as far as tracking, after a week, especially in this type of hot South Georgia weather, with the sun and dry conditions that we had back then, if she did just walk away from her home, the scent for a tracking dog after a week would be totally gone.
Payne Lindsey: Oh wow.
Tracy Underwood: We just did what we call area searches. So, we just took the dogs to an area, and had them check the area, not so much for a track, but just an area to see if they could pick up any human scent. The other thing that's important to note, Payne, about dogs is that the dogs always tell us two things. They'll tell us where something is but what is just as important, and in sometimes even more important, is that they tell us where something isn't. We searched for over a year for this individual in North Georgia, and we searched 28 different places over that year. And long story short, we winded up finding him on the 29th search.
Payne Lindsey: Wow.
Tracy Underwood: The dogs were one hundred percent correct. They told us in all those previous 28 times we searched "Guys, I don't know where he is, but he's not here.".
Payne Lindsey: Okay.
Tracy Underwood: So, that would certainly, and did apply, to Tara's case and would continue applying to her case if we do search for her again.
Payne Lindsey: So what were the results of the initial search for Tara?
Tracy Underwood: We've been asked to go down there over the years I would dare say at least twenty or thirty times. We have been down there, searching in different places.
Payne Lindsey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tracy Underwood: And we searched hundreds and hundreds of acres. I want to say thirty searches, that means thirty times we went down there, and we may have searched ten different places in one day.
Payne Lindsey: Right.
Tracy Underwood: With all of that, the only thing that the dogs showed any indication to was a burned house that had burnt down actually when we were down there. And they did alert there at the burnt remains there at the house. When dogs do quote alert or indicate something, we have to look and investigate and say "Hey, is it something that's related to this case? Or is it total unrelated to what we're looking for?". Why did the dogs alert or indicate in this area in this spot, is it related to our case? In this situation, we determined that they were responding to some septic lines or sewage 'cause it was an old house with exposed pipes and things like that.
Payne Lindsey: Based on the searches you guys did throughout Ocilla and the Irwin County area, do you think it's possible Tara's body's still there, and it was missed? Or the right area wasn't searched?
Tracy Underwood: Well, I will say this, Payne. You can't rule out any area one hundred percent until you find the person. There's always the possibility, absolutely, but the search efforts and everything, and all the resources that we used? Is she there? The possibility of that I think would be pretty low. But we can't clear an area a hundred percent until the person's found. I've been doing this for about 25 years. I would say about 99% of these cases, there pretty black and white. And I would say Tara's case is that rare exception. Can we definitively say if she was kidnapped? Can we definitively say that she just walked away? Can we definitively say that she started a new life somewhere? That's a question that really can't be definitively answered. Personal and professional opinion, do I think it's ever gonna be solved? I do. We all still have to have that hope. However long it takes, Payne, we're in it for the duration. If the officials called me, or the family called me today, even after eleven years, I would get in the car, go down there with the dogs, and do whatever I can. No family ever thinks they're going to be living this nightmare. And certainly not living it after eleven years.
Payne Lindsey: I got my reports back from Ocilla PD on Bennie Merritt. I requested literally every report they have on him. I wanted to crosscheck the time of each incident that Marcus and Sean responded to that night. I have four reports on Bennie Merritt, but not a single one of these happened on Saturday night. None of them.
What I'm about to read you has never been released to the public. Tara's emails.
On October 14th, Tara sent Marcus's mom an email. On the bottom paragraph, Tara says this: "Just remind Marcus what I said about something happening to me, or even him. He leaves it like this, and something may happen to me."
Thank you guys for listening to episode three of Up and Vanished. I am getting married on September 17th, so the next episode might be a little shorter than usual. Sorry guys. I've had a ton of feedback from you guys about making this podcast weekly. And trust me, I would love to do that. I'm in the process now of trying to make that happen. On that note, if you like what you hear, you want to hear this podcast every week too, you can support that by gifting a small donation, on the website, upandvanished.com. All donations go straight into the production of this podcast. There's a lot of moving parts to this operation, and every penny is seriously helpful. Also, the winner of the cowboy cookies is Brooklyn Parton. Send me an email on the website, and I'll mail your cookies.
Thanks again guys for listening, and see you next time.