Original Air Date 10.10.2016
In This Episode
Payne interviews search dog owner Jim Hanley about the burned house on Snapdragon Road. Payne and Maurice discuss a black truck that was seen at and near Tara’s house around the time of her disappearance. Payne also addresses some false leads and hoaxes that have cropped up around this case, such as the so-called “Catch Me Killer.” Payne continues his attempts to verify Marcus Harper’s alibi.
People in this Episode
Ex-Boyfriend and Former Police Officer
Dr. Maurice Godwin
Private Forensic Detective
Evidence in this Episode
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.
Payne Lindsey: Previously on Up and Vanished.
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.
Payne Lindsey: On Friday, October 14th, at 6:43 a.m., Tara sent Marcus Harper's mother an email.
Tara voice actor: If I do 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. 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.
Mary: Like I said though, the night of the Sweet Potato Pageant, 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: The second piece of evidence was a business card found in Tara's front door. The card belonged to a friend of Tara's family, a police officer from a nearby town called Perry.
Maurice Godwin: Detective Heath Dikes, Perry Police Department.
Payne Lindsey: Late Sunday night on October 23rd, Tara's mom was concerned because she wasn't responding. So she asked this family friend to go check on her. 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 Dikes didn't see the glove on the ground?
Maurice Godwin: I think it's unusual. You're dealing with a veteran detective.
Unknown Caller: The only thing that the dogs showed any indication to was a burned house. We determined that they were responding to some septic lines or sewage.
Payne Lindsey: The residence was completely destroyed. Also destroyed by the fire was a 2000 Ford Expedition. The vehicle belonged to Michael Lankford.
The fire marshal report that I have right here says the cause of the fire is unknown.
Vernon Singley: It was completely burnt.
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: Basically, are you telling me that somebody other than the folks who lived there owned that?
Payne Lindsey: A guy named Michael Lankford owned the vehicle. The homeowner did not own that.
Vernon Singley: Why was his vehicle there? Is what I'm getting at now. I don't remember nobody talking about, "We gonna interview this guy." I can't believe nobody didn't say nothing like that.
Payne Lindsey: Was Marcus and Michael friends or what?
Maurice Godwin: Marcus Harper and Michael Lankford worked at the Ocilla PD together. They are friends, yes.
Intro: Ten years ago today marked the last time anybody reported seeing or talking with Tara Grinstead.
Officially, police are calling this a missing persons case.
GBI officials are saying investigators-
Latex gloves found in-
$80,000.00 reward was being offered for information-
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.
The first thing I want to jump into in this episode is the fire on Snapdragon Road. If you missed last weeks' episode of Case Evidence, I'm gonna fill you in real quick. Let's start with the basics. Why is this fire suspicious to me? One, it's the only place in the entire 200 square miles they searched that the cadaver dogs made a hit on, and it wasn't just one dog, it was several dogs.
Number two, behind the house there was a Ford Expedition that was completely burned too, but it didn't belong to the homeowner. It belonged to a man named Michael Lankford. And Michael Lankford had actually worked at Ocilla Police Department at the same time Tara's ex-boyfriend Marcus Harper did and they were friends. Number three, on top of all that, the fire marshal couldn't determine what caused the fire. It's still undetermined to this day.
I spoke to a man last week named Jim Hanley, who also had one of his search dogs hit on the house.
Jim Hanley: I went down there with my search dogs. I brought another one in. They spent many hours sifting the debris. I mean, like according, about 10 hours. First of all, if they didn't feel there was something there, are they gonna do that, spend that much time and work? Yes, my dog had interest at the building. Was it Tara? I cannot prove it. That's DNA and that. My dog, I just put her down after 14 and a half years, but she'd be tested and tested and tested. Her nose was parts per quadrillion tested to. That's as high as you can get.
A dog is not like a person. A dog just does what it's trained to do. To my knowledge, which as best as I can do, she never false indicated. Now you can, there is some chemical compositions that will trigger as the same as cadaverine, which is what the dog is searching for. What she did at that house, I am 95% sure that it was cadaver. I believe that place, in my heart, has everything involved, I mean it has everything to do with this case. Everything.
You're on the right track. Was she there when the house burned? No. I'll guarantee you that not. Was she there beforehand? Yeah. The body leaks, you know, bloats, in 80 degree weather. They can't clean it up. There'd be a spot there from hell. "Okay, let's burn it." There was bushes in between the house and the car that didn't burn.
Payne Lindsey: He told me there was no trail of fire between the house and the car and bushes in between them were never burned. This suggested that the car and the house were burned separately and that would mean arson, not an accident. Jim also told me that before he came down with his dogs, he was talking in a chat room with some people about the case and when he said he going to Ocilla, somebody threatened him.
Jim Hanley: I kind of knew we must have ruffled some feathers on, I'm thinking the one involved. Because we were on the internet, you know, in a chat room and discussing what could be happening and what should be done. You know, the plans were made, we're making it work. So this big search. You know, I got on there and they were asking me about canines and what you do and how you do it. It's just a normal chat room. All of the sudden, this guy gets on there and nobody's antagonistic in this whole deal and somebody writes, "You come down here, I'm gonna punch you in the face and kick your dog." Why would somebody say that? It was somebody involved and they didn't want somebody searching a certain spot.
Payne Lindsey: I met up with Maurice Godwin in person, and he told me about a big lead he was chasing back in 2006.
Maurice Godwin: I found a kid who lived right around the corner from Tara's house on Ash Street. He told me that he was riding his bike around that area Sunday. And he saw a black truck parked in the yard. He said that there was a individual in there and that individual said something to him. Like a nasty comment. They came to interview this kid again when GBI went to talk with them, they actually searched their mama's truck and they also searched her house. So they clammed up and never discussed anything about the black truck because it felt like they were being treated as suspects. No kind of composite, they never got anything close to that.
Then I found another witness. From their porch, you can see Tara's driveway. They saw a black truck first at 7:30 Sunday evening, parked in the driveway. This same person at 6:00 a.m. that morning, that person's husband, going to get milk, saw the truck there at the house again.
Payne Lindsey: So who do you speculate that truck belonged to?
Maurice Godwin: I have no idea. GBI's response: there's hundreds of black trucks in Irwin County.
Payne Lindsey: So you think the black truck is important to this case?
Maurice Godwin: Oh, I think so. Too many people seen it. Here's another thing, a year ago, I got a, information about another report of a black truck incident. This was that Saturday night. The lady was backing up out of her driveway into the road and car pulled the stop light and liked to hit her. But it was a black truck and that was it. See, at the time, you could have done something. You could have done a DMV on it, Department of Motor Vehicle, of trucks in the area, but it's way too late now.
Payne Lindsey: According to Maurice, a lot of people saw this black truck that weekend, driving by Tara's house or even parked in the yard next to it. He's convinced that the truck is related to Tara. Too many people have seen it, but where are these people now? I spent a solid two months trying to find the kid who saw the truck. He claimed that he actually saw the man driving and that the man cursed at him when he drove by. If this kid really saw the man, then maybe he can remember what he looks like, and maybe a sketch artist can do a composite. But this kid was really off the map. I mean, I tried everything to find this kid, but no luck. So I moved onto other witnesses.
Witness 1: I remember the night that she went missing, because me and my best friend was on the phone. My house, when you go to Ocilla, you turn on the right on Paulk Street, and my property is down in the last block before you turn on Alder Street to go to her house. Her house was on the next block on the right, a block away from me. Well, I remember, me and Kristy, the girl that was living in my house, we were on the phone because I was making the church bulletin for our church. I was having some complications and she says, "Don't worry, I'm on my way, I'm gonna come help you."
We were still on the phone as she got in her car. You know, Ocilla's usually really quiet right where we all lived, you know? Right there where Tara lived and I lived? It was really quiet. You didn't have to worry about nothing. My friend said that she got in her car, all of the sudden she hollered. She said, "Dog, I'm about to back out of my driveway." And she said here come this black truck like if you backed out of Tara's drive and came right up Alder Street. She said that truck came around off of Alder Street and turned on Paulk Street, flying, about rear-ended her. About run her over. This was around midnight. It was a black truck and she said it wasn't a new truck. She seen some lights coming up the road, but you know, she got in her car, was gonna back out anyways. They didn't even stop for the stop sign.
If you're looking at Tara's house, Alder runs down to the side where her carport is. When you come out of her driveway and come back to Alder, you wouldn't make a right that would go to like her backyard, you would make a left. When he come up that road, or whoever it was, came to that stop sign on Alder and Paulk. That's my property that they were coming up Alder that way and made a right onto Paulk. So she said they never even stopped, they just made a right hand turn, come on Paulk Street, she had to slam on the brakes to keep from hitting her. She said, "Girl, I don't know who was driving that truck," She said, "But you know, they could have hurt me. So if I wouldn't have been paying attention and just backed on out, you know." They would have probably crashed her car pretty bad.
Payne Lindsey: Do you know if it was a bigger or a smaller sized truck?
Witness 1: It was something like a older Ford F150 or you know what I'm saying? A black one, a real older, not no new truck. But I'm just saying for it to come up that road, to come up from that way that late at night and the same night that she went missing? I don't know but it's scary.
Rob: In February 2009, a disturbing video surfaced on the internet. It featured a man with his face disguised and his voice digitally altered. He proclaimed to be a serial killer. He called himself the Catch Me Killer. In the video, he claimed to have killed 16 different females and one of these he described was determined by authorities to be Tara Grinstead. He said that he wanted to play a game and he would slowly release clues about his murders through a series of YouTube videos. He warned the viewers not to attempt in trying to discover his true identity and that his IP address could not be traced.
Catch Me Killer: I've decided to confess a few things but in order to do so ... I'm going to give everybody a clue, many clues. The first person to solve this first video, I'm gonna have you send me an email. I'll post the address for the email. This person out there that decides to play my game has a chance to become an actual hero. You have a chance to become something that I'm not. All the clues that I'm giving you are clues never released by the press or by the police department.
News reporter: The Catch Me Killer tells viewers, "Play my game and solve my puzzles and I'll lead you to 16 bodies, one by one. He claimed one of his victims was a case we've covered heavily here on Issues; Tara Grinstead, a 30 year-old teacher and former beauty queen mysteriously vanished from Georgia three years ago.
Rob: The video sparked the attention of the media nationwide and the GBI launched an investigation to track down the man's identity. Though the man's face and voice are digitally obscured, police were eventually able to track down the man by his IP address. The man was 27 year-old Andrew Hailey of Gainesville, Georgia. After a thorough police investigation, they were ultimately able to determine that the videos were part of a bizarre and elaborate hoax. Hailey was eliminated as a substantial lead in Grinstead's disappearance and was later charged and convicted of tampering with police evidence.
Payne Lindsey: This case seemed to be full of different false leads. Surprisingly, just this last week, another internet video surfaced. A man named James Rankin was hiking in the woods by his house in upstate New York when he stumbled upon something pretty creepy. Over two dozen trees all around him were covered with people's missing posters. One of the posters was Tara's. The video hit the internet just a few days ago, and has since reached over 30 million views.
James Rankin: So I come down the ... hill, and remember, we're still in the woods. We're still in the ... woods. Right? Okay. I was like, "Okay, these are probably no trespassing signs or maybe it's something for the wild life or something." Anyway, I'll cut right to the chase, because I might die. Look what these ... are. What the ... is going on in here? These are all different ... people. This is Utah, Florida. They're all different. This one's from Georgia. Now, look at this ... Like look, look where the ... we are. Who the ... does something like this?
Payne Lindsey: Though the video was indeed pretty spooky, it was likely some sort of hoax, once again. But for the sake of the podcast, I track down James himself so he could tell me the real deal about this video.
James Rankin: There's a park nearby, it's got some hiking trails. I'm going through the actual park and I see this little side trail branching off of the main trail and I follow it. I see at the end of the trail there's like a fire pit and some things hung to the trees. I go down to take a closer look because I figure it's either signs that say, "Keep out." You know some of the parks hang up signs with information about local plants and the kind of animals you should be looking for, so I went down to check it out and so I get down there and it's all these missing persons posters. Which caught me completely off guard because I ... It's so incongruous to anything that I was expecting to see and anything that I've ever seen before. It was alarming.
You know, I'm looking around at where exactly I'm situated and it seemed like what I needed to do other than get the hell out of there, was get some kind of documentation about what I found. I jumped on Facebook first and I was, you know, I wanted to kind of sound a distress call. I mean, the longer I spent down there, the more fishy it looked. The minute I left, everybody that had seen this video, I got friends and people that I don't even know and they're all in complete agreement, "Take this to the police." So, that's what I did. Told them what I'd found, I showed them the footage. You know, they're like, "Thank you for calling it in, you did the right thing. Go home." The next morning, they, somebody from the office, he left a voice mail. They investigated. They were told by the home owners at the property, said that these posters were hung up by them as decorations for an upcoming Halloween party.
Payne Lindsey: A few episodes back, I talked briefly about Marcus Harper's alibi. According to Marcus, he was at the White Horse Saloon to watch his friend's band. Then he left and met up with his friend, Shawn Fletcher, an Ocilla police officer. They rode around together in the cop car that night and made several stops in reference to a man named Benny Merritt. So I made a request with the Ocilla PD to get the reports on Benny Merritt, because if these didn't add up, then Harper's alibi didn't add up either. When I got the reports back from Ocilla, none of them happened on Saturday night the 22nd. There was one that happened the night before and one on the 26th, but not a single report for Benny Merritt on the 22nd. This was a pretty big deal. If there was no reports on Benny Merritt, then maybe those stops didn't happen; and if those stops didn't happen then where was Marcus Harper?
But before I got ahead of myself, there was still one place I had to check, the Irwin County Sheriff's Department. It's possible that the reports weren't filed with Ocilla, but instead with the county. So I gave them a call.
Irwin County Sheriff's Department: Can you give me one of the person's names?
Payne Lindsey: Benny Merritt.
Irwin County Sheriff's Department: Amy?
Payne Lindsey: Benny.
Irwin County Sheriff's Department: Benny.
Payne Lindsey: Yeah.
Irwin County Sheriff's Department: All right, hold on just a second. This thing's wanting to be slow.
Payne Lindsey: It's all good.
Irwin County Sheriff's Department: M-E-R-R-I-T-T. I think that's how you spell it. All we have is one report on him. Let me see if I can see what it's about.
Payne Lindsey: Okay. What date?
Irwin County Sheriff's Department: Incident date was 10/26/2005 to 10/27/2005. It was against a lady that lives on Fillmore Road. The report date was actually 10/27/2005.
Payne Lindsey: Any other report on Benny Merritt?
Irwin County Sheriff's Department: No sir, that's the only one we got on him.
Payne Lindsey: I just got off the phone with the Irwin County Police Department, and I called them to see if they had any separate records about Benny Merritt, separate from Ocilla Police. So he actually ended up looking it up on the phone when I was there, and they only have one report on him and it's on October 26th. That's it.
Maurice Godwin: If that's true, then somebody's told a bold-faced lie. I mean, I was a police officer. I know if there was no report, then that's highly suspicious. The dispatcher gets a phone call, she has to write on the log when it came in, and she has to put what was the resolution of that. If none of that exists at all, they're just depending on the word of Marcus Harper.
Payne Lindsey: Thank you guys for listening to episode five. As a reminder, there's only one episode left this season. I'm splitting the series into two seasons of six episodes each, and in two weeks, it'll be the season one finale. But don't worry, season two's coming out in January and trust me, you're not gonna want to miss the next episode.