Original Air Date 09.26.2016
In This Episode
Payne has a rather creepy experience collecting soil samples from a body-sized mound of dirt in a crawlspace underneath a house in Ocilla. He then examines Tara’s emotional state in the days and weeks before her disappearance. Finally, Payne interviews former fire marshal Vernon Singley regarding a suspicious house fire on Snapdragon Road, at the one site where cadaver dogs had possibly identified Tara’s scent.
People in this Episode
Ex-Boyfriend and Former Police Officer
Dr. Maurice Godwin
Private Forensic Detective
Evidence in this Episode
Soil Samples from Crawlspace
Fire Marshal's Report
The fire that burned down the house on Snapdragon Road extended into the driveway, also burning up a black SUV. The SUV belonged to Ocilla police officer Michael Langford.
Bones and Panties
Rob: Previously on Up and Vanished.
Payne Lindsey: I had never heard that she went to a student's house in between the pageant and the barbecue.
Melba: I heard that in the talk around town.
Payne Lindsey: Is there anyway to find out who that student was?
Melba: Good gracious, that's been 10 years or more ago.
Maurice Godwin: They found full profile of white male DNA on the glove, and its been entered into the Georgia DNA database and its been entered into COTIS for like 10 years and there's never been a match.
Noah Griffin: You know, there was a side of Tara that I didn't know. Very free with men, and one of them was a student. Vickers, Anthony Vickers.
Payne Lindsey: Hey, is Anthony there?
Anthony Vickers: Hey man, this stuff is kind of funny to talk about. Just calling to talk. What's up?
Payne Lindsey: Did you have any involvement in Tara's disappearance?
Anthony Vickers: No no.
Payne Lindsey: Was there someone else in Tara's house that day?
Anthony Vickers: Oh yes, there was some guy from Perry.
Maurice Godwin: Detective Heath Dykes, Perry Police Department.
Payne Lindsey: So he drove there with the sole intent of checking on Tara.
Maurice Godwin: Oh yeah.
Payne Lindsey: Do you think it's odd that Heath Dykes didn't see the glove on the ground?
Maurice Godwin: I think it's unusual. You're dealing with a veteran detective.
News reporter: Is there any chance she might've left under her own free will with someone that she knew?
News Clip: I think that's how it started out, and then something went very wrong after that. I really do feel like it is an abduction at this point.
Maurice Godwin: The one person who has been vetted the most is her ex-boyfriend, Marcus Harper. He was absolutely tired of her.
Marcus Harper: 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.
Tracy Underwood: The only thing that the dogs showed any indication to was a burned house that had burned down actually when were down there. In this situation, we determined that they were responding to some septic lines or sewage.
Payne Lindsey: What I'm about to read you has never been released to the public. Tara's emails. On October 14th, Tara sent Marcus' mom an email. 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."
Intro: Ten years ago today marked the last time anybody reported seeing or talking to Tara Grinstead.
Officially police are calling this a missing persons' case. [crosstalk 00:02:36] $80,000 reward is being offered.
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. During the last six to eight months, I've had my fair share of white rabbits in this case. Dead end leads have sent me on countless tangents that would last for weeks before I realized there was nothing to it. It's made me live by the phrase, "If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is."
I think the hardest part about the whole thing is separating what could be important information from what is completely meaningless. To solve something you have to follow every single lead, regardless of your first impression. Sometimes the completely meaningless ends up meaning everything in a cold case.
A few weeks ago, the private investigator received a new tip which he shared with me. This was by far the biggest and likely the craziest tip I have heard yet, and as doubtful as it seemed in the beginning, it actually matched up with several accounts that I have received from separate people over the past couple months.
The tip suggested that we search underneath a home in Ocilla. We had reason to believe that Tara's body was once there, or maybe it still was. For now, I have to keep the details about the location confidential, but I can assure you this place is very significant. This whole thing started with a phone call from Maurice just a few weeks ago.
Maurice Godwin: I got a tip tonight. That dude, an air conditioner salesman, the air conditioner went out on that house. He went under the house briefly. He had his flashlight and stuff like that. He said the middle back, there was an oblong mound of dirt that was solid pack up, and he said in the corner was a shovel. To do the proper thing, you have to do a chemical analysis of the soil. The neighbor and the guy who owns the house, they're digging up three one gallon paper bags of debris like I instructed.
Payne Lindsey: Before they dig it up, tell them that I want to come down there.
Maurice Godwin: That will be arranged probably tomorrow.
Automated GPS Voice: Starting route to Ocilla.
Plumber: I was preparing some air conditioning duct and I got under there and it looked like where something had been buried because the rest of the house is flat, the dirt is. And then there's that mound. Maybe they can figure it out with a soil sample.
Payne Lindsey: I have my younger brother with me to help run the audio, and I was filming with my camera. We were on our hands and needs, inching our way through the crawlspace. Our goal was to fill several brown paper bags full of soil. Then we would run forensic tests to see if a body had ever been there. A local from Ocilla helped us with the dig, but he wished to remain anonymous.
A crawlspace in general was pretty spooky, but this one in particular was very eerie. It was dark, and we could only see in front of us with our headlamps. In the back corner was a huge mountain of soft dirt. This is why we came here.
There's like a whole mound of dirt right here. It's pretty soft looking.
Anonymous Volunteer: Yeah.
Payne Lindsey: Is that normal or is that what kind of drew attention.
Anonymous Volunteer: Yeah, that's what drew attention.
Payne Lindsey: This area of dirt was about six to eight inches above the rest of the ground around it. And I kid you not, it looked like the exact dimensions of a human body. About six feet long, three feet wide, and the dirt was soft. So soft that your hand would sink down up to your elbow when you were digging in it. Every second I feared I would see something that I would never be able to unsee.
Definitely doesn't look natural.
Anonymous Volunteer: No.
Payne Lindsey: We kept our flashlights aimed towards the shovel. And we gathered a few pounds of soil, sifting through it as we put it in the bags.
The soil looks kind of white and chalky.
Anonymous Volunteer: That's what I was looking at.
Payne Lindsey: That looks just like that other piece I found. It's hard, like it's the inside tread of a shoe. Where's the little pile you made?
Anonymous Volunteer: Right here.
There's three paper bags under there.
Payne Lindsey: After about 30 minutes we had filled the bags, and I was ready to get the hell out of there.
Once we were back in the sunlight, we were able to take a closer look at the soil. We kept finding these little pieces of white, chalky material that was hard as a rock.
Anonymous Volunteer: It ain’t concrete.
Payne Lindsey: What is that?
Anonymous Volunteer: That's what I was thinking was lime when we went under. I'm not sure, but I think it's the hip in process of decaying a body.
Payne Lindsey: It did look a lot like lime based on pictures I saw on the internet. I called Maurice to tell him the job was done.
Maurice Godwin: Make sure they stay sealed. Send it with return receipt for me to sign for it. That follows a chain of custody, and see the bags allow the dirt to breathe. Make sure that the bags are taped and sealed and put Payne Lindsey across the tape to the bag. You have to maintain the chain of custody, because if something becomes of this that defensive lawyer will tear it off easy.
Payne Lindsey: I asked him about that white chalky stuff that looked like lime.
Maurice Godwin: People put lime on bodies to make it decompose faster, but the truth is the opposite occurs. It preserves them.
Payne Lindsey: Interesting. Just two days after our search, the Irwin County Sheriff's Department caught wind of it and they sent their own search team to the same location. With the help of a local, we were able to get live updates on the search as it was happening, and I literally couldn't believe what I was hearing.
Maurice Godwin: He said they told the whole damn house. He said there's some people over there that they found five bones and a pair of panties.
Payne Lindsey: They found five bones and a pair of panties? How in the world did we miss that?
Maurice Godwin: He said it's almost dark there and he said that they were putting on white suits or something and they were going to go back there. I mean, I'm just telling you what he told me. That's all. He just sent me a message. He said that they were putting a white suit on, and that's what they do, that's trivac.
Payne Lindsey: A few hours later, two unmarked SUVs with government plates pulled up. It was the GBI.
Maurice Godwin: They think it might be an animal bone. They're going to send it off. My experience is, law enforcement don't send animal bones to a lab. And they know the difference between an animal bone and a human bone. It's just odd that they said they were going to have it sent away for testing. I don't see anybody burying a deer or dog under a house. Do you? Who would put a dead dog under a house? That's sort of morbid. If you hadn't have been out there the other day they would never been there. There's no doubt about it. I think they probably got wind of what we were doing up there and they were just covering their butts. I guess we just have to wait and see. I'm surprised the media didn't pick it up.
Payne Lindsey: He has a point. Where's the media? In 2015, the GBI drained a pond to search for evidence linked to Tara, and they made a huge deal about it in the news. But they found absolutely nothing. Now we have five bones and a pair of panties. And there's nothing about it anywhere. I had originally planned to keep this whole thing a secret, but I was getting impatient. Then finally, almost three weeks later, the GBI made a statement to WSBTV Atlanta, but only because I mentioned it to the news station myself and they were doing a story on the podcast.
WSBTV Atlanta: An Atlanta filmmaker turned podcaster is on a mission to solve the 2005 disappearance of Tara Grinstead, and his new project is getting a lot of people talking.
Lindsey says his new podcast Up and Vanished is generating new information. The GBI is the lead agency investigating the case, but nearly 11 years later no sign of Grinstead. Her remains or an arrest. This is never before seen video of Lindsey recently searching underneath a home after receiving an anonymous tip. The GBI searched the same area, and a source told Channel 2's Mark Winney they found animal bones. But Lindsey says he's doing some tests of his own that could provide a new lead.
Payne Lindsey: So there it was. Heard through the grapevine. The GBI determined they were animal bones. We still have our own soil samples to get tested, and we're currently waiting on the results. As crazy as this whole thing was, it was time to move on. At least for the time being.
At the end of episode three, I mentioned that I obtained some of Tara's emails. Other than Tara's family and presumably the GBI, these have been held confidential for over a decade. But today I'm going to share them with you. These emails are one of the few things out there that provide a true insight into Tara's state of mind before her disappearance. Before we dive into that, I wanted Maurice to share his insight about Tara's emotional state.
Maurice Godwin: She was very distraught, emotional. It was completely over with Marcus Harper.
Payne Lindsey: In the weeks prior to her disappearance, she endured a bad breakup with her boyfriend Marcus Harper and she wasn't taking it very well. Maurice described an emotional breakdown she had in her car, so bad that her friends and neighbors had to come calm her down.
Maurice Godwin: She was on the way to school, Tara was, and she received a call from Marcus and he told her that the relationship was completely over with. She became very hysterical and emotional to the point that she couldn't drive. She had an emotional breakdown then and on the way to school she had to have someone go out and pick her up and she was not able to walk and stuff because she had to have Dr. Davis to carry her into the house.
Payne Lindsey: On Friday, October 14th at 6:43 AM, Tara sent Marcus Harper's mother an email.
Tara Voice Actor: If I did not give a crap about Marcus, you all, and his feelings, I would not be in this state. If this were all about me, I would not want Marcus. I wouldn't want to see him. I would not even love him. He just truly does not believe anything I say and does not care. I've tried to remain positive, but at this point I cannot. Of course, Marcus obviously does not care and makes it worse. Since he has been ignoring me, all I can think of is the bad, bad words he said to me in the past. Now I am beginning to think he meant that.
I need to know what I did. People just do not hate folks for no reason. I need to know what I did to him or whoever. It hurts like hell to know in my heart and soul that I honestly do not think I did anything wrong and he hates me. So, he has heard or thinks something that is not true. I'm so depressed right now, but Marcus is the lucky one. He has his shell to protect him like a crab. He is strong and tough while I become weaker. This does not mean I'm a bad person. It means I have to put it first in my life and I was happy having it that way.
Just remind Marcus what I said about something happening to me or even him. He leaves it as this and something may happen to me.
Payne Lindsey: This email was sent just eight days before she went missing. It's very clear that Tara was an emotional wreck over Marcus. But according to almost everyone, by the next Saturday at the pageant and the barbecue, she was perfectly normal. But one girl who attended the pageant that night told me otherwise. She did not want to use her name in the podcast, but we'll call her “Mary.”
Mary: My mom actually was judging pageants and Tara was one of the judges, and I was involved in pageants and whatnot so Tara introduced herself to me and she wanted to be my pageant coach. So, we started off with that and she actually had a Relay for Life Pageant one year and I decided to enter it. Well, I end up winning and I was one of her queens and we went to all these events, and she's always just so bubbly and just gives so much and just had an attitude of being so welcome to everyone. It's just she was a great person.
The Sweet Potato Pageant, you obviously know about that. She was at it that night, but unlike what everybody else is telling from what I've heard so far, there was something about her that was different. She was not normal or anything like that that night. She was actually really odd. And the reason I know that is just because she was always so bubbly and would talk to everybody and that night she was just so to herself. I just remember it so vividly. She was just so out of it.
Payne Lindsey: Did she seem more sad or more like...
Mary: It's really hard to describe. It was just like she knew something was going to happen, in my opinion.
Payne Lindsey: Okay.
Mary: It just wasn't normal. That night she was so distant, not really wanting to talk to people, and it may have changed after she left the pageant. She just wasn't the same person that I figured that I've always known Tara. That night, we actually walked Tara to her car from the Sweet Potato Pageant. She was parked in front of the theater that it was at. And I asked her if there was anything wrong because like I said, you could tell something was off with her. If you'd spent any time with Tara, there was something off about her.
And she was like, "No, you know I'm okay." And we're like, "Okay." And I hugged her, and that was the last time I had seen her. And she waved to my mom across the street, got in her car, left, and I had no idea what she did after that.
Payne Lindsey: Had you seen her in the two weeks before that?
Mary: Yes. We actually had a parade. So the Relay for Life in Irwin County that I had won, that was the pageant, and that was one of the last times that I saw her. But she had a boyfriend there with her. I'm not sure what his name was. I can't remember. He was tall. I know she had a boyfriend that was in the armed forces or something like that, and this was apparently a new boyfriend.
Payne Lindsey: At this point I had learned of a bunch of different men in Tara's life. But who was this? She said she couldn't remember his name, but if she ever did, she'd let me know.
Mary: You know, I didn't see him very much other than that. I mean I think that was the only time I saw him. But her ex-boyfriend was very unhappy about it. The majority of people around here believe that her ex-boyfriend did something, and that cops were involved in it and that's why a lot of people can't put anything together is because somebody on the inside did something, especially since her ex-boyfriend had so many friends in that field and had a lot of knowledge with that.
Around here, it's so small the town, somebody would know something and somebody does and they're just not saying anything. Like I said though, the night of the Sweet Potato Pageant, she knew something was going to happen. I'm really positive about that. She knew something was going to happen. She just was not her normal self, and everybody can tell you that she was, but I know that she was not acting normal.
Payne Lindsey: In the last episode, I interviewed a lady in charge of the cadaver dogs during the search for Tara. She told me that the dogs only hit once, on a burned house near the area, but it turned out to be a septic line. I started researching more into the fire and obtained a copy of the fire marshal report. Everything about it just seems really suspicious.
Rob: On November 8th, 2005 an alarm was received by Irwin County communication center about a fire located at 425 Snapdragon Road, just outside of Ocilla. The name of the person that reported the fire is unknown. On November 8th, 2005 at the 0715 hour, the Irwin Country Fire Department responded to the fire. The fire occurred in a three bedroom one bath wood construction single family residence. All the utilities were connected at the time of the fire. The owner/occupant had not been living in the house. Also destroyed by the fire was a 2000 Ford Expedition, which was parked behind and near the house. The vehicle belonged to Michael Lankford. Michael Lankford claimed that he was looking after the property for the owner who lived out of state. Mr. Lankford lived on Snapdragon Road just down from where the house fire occurred.
Upon arrival by the fire investigator, the scene was not secured by local officials. Yellow crime scene tape had not been installed completely around the fire. The investigation involved an in-depth fire scene investigation. The residence was completely destroyed. The only remnants of the house were the brick pillars, a fireplace, and chimney. Due to the amount of damage to the house and SUV, the fire investigator was not able to determine if the fire originated at the residence or the vehicle.
Accelerant detection canine examined the scene and made one indication on the ground beside the driver's side of the vehicle. However, it was determined to have likely come from the vehicle's gas line. The cause of the fire was ruled undetermined and remains the same to date. To determine if the fire was connected to the disappearance of Tara Grinstead, different cadaver dogs were used on different occasions to examine the burnt house. The dogs hit in the front part of the house. The investigators determined that the dogs were hitting on a septic line at the house, and not a dead body.
Payne Lindsey: The fire marshal report that I have right here says the cause of the fire is unknown. The report was filed by a man named Vernon Singley, the fire marshal at the time of Tara's disappearance. I was lucky to get ahold of him last week. I wanted to know why they couldn't figure out what caused the fire.
Vernon Singley: I can tell you what led us to that determination, because we ended up having to sift that thing out. We arrived at that scene, it wasn't nothing but one big black spot. I remember it had one chimney standing in the middle of this house.
Payne Lindsey: Wow.
Vernon Singley: You put charcoal on the grill and you just let them burn out on your grill, charcoal like you're going to grill a steak, that's basically what we got. We didn't have nothing but coals. It was completely burnt, all structures. It was like a country home, or a vacation home for some elders like in Florida. Now, it did have electricity running through it, but since there's no activity in it it's kind of like a little suspicious, you know what I'm saying?
Just why all of the sudden would this house just catch fire? No bad weather, no electrical problems, and then we have a fire and the house is completely on the ground. What we decided to do, we brought in these dogs and they ran those through when the scene got cool enough for the dogs. I know they run the dogs through there, the dogs hit. I mean, I thought, "Oh, we got something here. We got something." So what we eventually do is we girded this thing out, sectioned this whole plan off and we got in there and we sifted those ashes looking for any kind of remains such as bones, teeth, anything. We could find nothing.
Man, let me tell you some of the stuff they told us. One of the hottest places in the house that attracted the dogs the most was in front of the fireplace. They said, somebody could've gotten cut, cut their hands, and bled on the floor in that particular area. And then I'm like, mmhm, there was so many different scenarios that they was telling us.
Payne Lindsey: I talked to one of the ladies who had the dogs, and she told me that the dogs hit on a septic line. Do you remember that?
Vernon Singley: No, I don't know that. Did she say about somebody could've bled there or ...
Payne Lindsey: This is what she told me. She said that her dogs made a hit like you said by the fireplace for what could be human remains, and she said that one of the GBI people or whoever was there said that it was probably a septic line.
Vernon Singley: The GBI was there. I don't know what they told them. But I know I didn't tell them there was no septic line, because I ain’t heard nothing about no septic tank.
Payne Lindsey: What do you make of that car that was found on the property?
Vernon Singley: The owner was like a little Ford Explorer or something.
Payne Lindsey: What do you make of that?
Vernon Singley: It was sitting close enough to it. After the fire, I don't know.
Payne Lindsey: Did you ever remember seeing the owner of the vehicle? Did he ever come up there when you guys were there?
Vernon Singley: Are you telling me that somebody other than the folks in Florida owned that?
Payne Lindsey: A guy name Michael Lankford owned the vehicle. The homeowner did not own that.
Vernon Singley: And he didn't own the house? I don't remember that. I don't ... and why ... I mean, I'm going to be honest with you. If I don't remember nobody saying that about what you said. I can't bring somebody come up in the middle of the day to tell us that. Why would they send people there is what I'm getting at now. I mean I don't remember nobody talking about we going to interview this guy or ain’t nobody with us that day. Ain’t nobody say nothing about that. Now you got me curious. I hope somebody checked into it, but Vernon didn't.
Payne Lindsey: Why did the fire marshal not know about the septic tank? Was that every really a thing? And what about Michael Lankford? Why would they leave out the fact that the care belonged to him and not the homeowner? The fire marshal should know that. And why was this car really parked there in the first place?
Okay you there?
Payne Lindsey: What do you know about this Michael Lankford guy?
Maurice: Former police officer with Ocilla PD. He lived, when you turn on Snapdragon, he lived on the first house on the right. His SUV Expedition was found very close, within about seven feet, six feet from the back of the house. Marcus Harper and Michael Lankford worked in Ocilla PD together.
Payne Lindsey: Was Marcus and Michael friends or what?
Maurice: Oh yeah. They'll come working at Ocilla PD. All these guys know each other. They are friends, yes.
Payne Lindsey: Thank you guys for listening to episode four of Up and Vanished. Starting next Monday, each week in between a new episode I'm releasing a smaller episode called case evidence where I break down all the finer details about the case.
Again guys, thanks for listening and see you next week.