Episode 7

Phineas Gage

Original Air Date    11.21.2016

In This Episode

Payne dives into the circumstances surrounding the 2010 suicide of a former student of Tara’s, including a chat with Dusty Vassey, who knew the young man’s brother. Did he really know something about what happened to her, or was his behavior the result of a head injury sustained in a car accident? The nature of Tara’s relationship with Heath Dykes as well as Marcus Harper’s alibi are further discussed, including an examination of the 911 dispatch logs from the night of Tara’s disappearance.

“Our friend's brother was freaking out because the people that killed Tara Grinstead were trying to get him.” - Dusty Vassey

People in this Episode

Heath Dykes
A captain at the Perry Police Department, Dykes was thought to be romantically involved with Tara. Dykes was the last known person at Tara’s residence, where he wedged his business card in the front door after a "wellness check."

Heath Dykes

Chief - Perry Police Department

Joe Portier
A next-door neighbor to whom Tara was very close. He and his wife became worried after never seeing her bedroom lamp turn on the night of her disappearance. They entered her house the next day to find it in disarray.

Joe Portier

Next Door Neighbor

Marcus Harper
A year before Tara’s disappearance, Marcus broke off their six-year relationship, which left Tara broken-hearted. A week before her disappearance, Marcus and Tara became entangled in an argument, leaving police and detectives convinced that Marcus was a prime suspect before his alibi cleared him.

Marcus Harper

Ex-Boyfriend and Former Police Officer

Anthony Vickers
He claimed to have an intimate, romantic relationship with Tara. Six months before her disappearance, she called the police, citing that Anthony had become aggressive and was trying to force his way into her house. He was also a person of interest, but was cleared after providing a tight alibi.

Anthony Vickers

Former Student

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

Former student who committed suicide. He wrote a letter saying he couldn't live with himself any longer, because he knew what happened to Tara Grinstead. The letter also listed twelve other names.


Former Student, Committed Suicide

Dr. Maurice Godwin
Private forensic detective who investigated Tara’s disappearance, beginning in 2006. He investigated her home and firmly believed there were signs of foul play.

Dr. Maurice Godwin

Private Forensic Detective

Evidence in this Episode

911 Dispatch Logs

911 Dispatch Logs

Suicide Letter

Suicide Letter

“I was fifteen and I remember the day that she didn't show up for school. It was such a big deal in Ocilla because Ocilla's so small...” - Local Resident


Rob: This episode of Up and Vanished contains graphic and sexually explicit content that is not suitable for children. Listener discretion is advised.

Payne Lindsey: Take a right?

Donald Albright: Yeah.

GPS voice: Keep right on Mystic Highway. In half a mile, arrive at Ocilla.

Payne Lindsey: That's it right there. Right there.

Donald Albright: That's her house?

Payne Lindsey: Yep. That's her house.

Donald Albright: It's just you picture it in your head, this is not at all what I pictured. It makes you feel like yeah, you could definitely disappear in this area after dark.

Payne Lindsey: How remote and random is this place after dark?

Intro: Ten years ago today marked the last time anybody reported seeing [crosstalk].

Officially police are calling this a missing persons case.

Investigators say [crosstalk]

$80,000 reward is being offered for information.

Latex glove found in [crosstalk].

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, Paine Lindsey.

Last month, the streets of Ocilla were packed with people for the 57th annual Sweet Potato Festival. Hundreds of civilians gathered in celebration as a parade marched through the downtown streets. It was on this same weekend, 11 years ago, that Tara Grinstead disappeared.

Unknown female: We knew something was wrong immediately. She was not the kind of teacher that would not show up without alerting somebody.

Unknown male 1: We was expecting her to pull up any time and say, "What are you guys doing at my house?" That didn't happen.

Unknown male 2: I think about Tara, virtually every day and I certainly think about her when October comes around.

News reporter: For now, time stands still. Grinstead's friends, family, the town, still held captive by the unknown.

Payne Lindsey: For many people in Irwin county, this weekend brings back painful memories. That fateful night on October 22nd, 2005 would haunt this community for over a decade. Tara's missing poster still hangs in front of the police station. It's now faded and hard to read but Ocilla is still holding on for an answer. In the last episode, Maurice had called me with a new lead. He told me about a man who committed suicide in Knoxville, Tennessee. The man also wrote a letter and it said he couldn't live with himself any longer because he knew what happened to Tara Grinstead. The letter also listed 12 people's names.

Maurice Godwin: This has to be very sensitive because I have been dealing with a distraught family for two months. And that family, just one person from the family. The rest of them are so distraught that they refuse everything. They were mad, really, in the beginning, that's the reason why I'm telling you things. It's very, very, sensitive. It wouldn't take but a little swift and this whole family and everything would absolute put a stop to it.

Payne Lindsey: He stressed to me that this was a very sensitive situation. This was not a rumor or hearsay. A real person committed suicide. Out of respect for the grieving family, I was asked not to say his name in this podcast. It's a very confusing and eerie story but I'll do my best to explain it.

Maurice Godwin: He lived in Fitzgerald but he went to Irwin County. Because it's right there on the lines, a lot of people do that. He would've been 31, 32 now. So then ten years ago he would've been 21 or 22. He was a avid fisherman and a avid hunter too. This came to me by an anonymous, somebody created the Gmail account about two and a half months ago or more. I don't know who sent it to me but she was a female, she wasn't from Ocilla, she was from Tifton and she was in college when this happened. She dated one of the guys whose name was on the list. This is new information. This individual wrote a letter and said that he couldn't live with himself anymore and that he knew what happened to Tara.

Those 12 people were hauled in by the GBI and they were all swabbed, they were all swabbed but see that doesn't necessarily mean anything. There's no use to search the Internet. Just one obituary, that's it but there's nothing in the internet about this. For one thing, he killed himself in southern Tennessee but he's from Fitzgerald but there's nothing in the internet about any of it. Other than obituary, there's nothing on the internet about his suicide. The question is, did he do it? Well, no. He didn't. What it is, is that he was threatened and he saw something that he shouldn't have seen. He was actually threatened. He had told family, see he didn't say who but he was threatened. It's either two things. Either that and he saw something or there were a group of them, you could've had ten people standing around one or two people harming somebody and you could list those ten people's names in a letter and swab them and you won't get any hit.

Payne Lindsey: The suicide note didn't give any details about what happened to Tara. It just said that he knew what happened and then he listed 12 people's names. The letter was given to the GBI and they brought in all 12 people for questioning. They also got a DNA swab from each individual. Reece was saying though these people's DNA presumably didn't match the glove found in Tara's yard, it didn't really mean anything. He's saying if there was a group of people involved and they were all standing around watching, then their DNA wouldn't be on the glove anyways.

Maurice Godwin: The main thing is, none of the families have the note. The GBI has the letter. So I've submitted a records request for that letter to GBI. I made the argument that none of this is tied to the Tara case. I don't know if they'll buy it or not but I want a copy the letter. Tennessee law is if something is an active investigation or open, you don't get it. Just like Georgia but the thing is, they don't have the letter in Tennessee. I've already confirmed that. They've got the original letter, GBI has it. That's what they pulled the boys up on.

Payne Lindsey: Just like Georgia's record law, Tennessee doesn't have to give us the letter either.

Maurice Godwin: You have to deal with the family, see. They're still hurtin’ after five years of that he killed himself. He went to Georgia for one year and then in '09 he was a honor student at the community college there. He was a pretty good guy, it seemed like. I said, there's about four or five people I don't have the names on. I have five. They're all ‘01 or ‘02. All of them had Tara as a teacher. None of them were ‘05. They were all ‘01, ‘02, or ‘03 graduates of Irwin County. I don't have the letter, I just know that the 12 individuals on the letter, they were all swabbed.

Payne Lindsey: The source that gave him this information only told him five of the names on the list, so we're still missing half of them but it's still a good start. Maurice was able to contact one of the names on the list and he told me about their conversation.

Maurice Godwin: I've talked to one person that was on the list. The question that I asked this individual was this. I said, "Why do you think that you were listed on here." He said he doesn't know. The family doesn't know why these people were on the list. I asked him, he said he doesn't know. he said he doesn't know. I said, "Well what did the GBI say?" He said, "Well, they mentioned about the glove and the DNA in the glove. Then they asked if any of us had, had sex with Tara." So I don't know the source of the DNA on the glove. Could it be body fluids? Whether it's saliva or sweat or skin cells or something like that. Could it be body fluids or something on the glove? I don't know why they asked him that question. The tipster was his girlfriend for two years.

Payne Lindsey: The tip was given to Maurice by an ex girlfriend of one of the men listed in the suicide note. When Maurice questioned this man about the letter, he told him he had no idea why his name was in there. He had no clue. The GBI supposedly asked him and the other men in the letter if they ever had sex with Tara and they were all swabbed for DNA. This was very confusing because it seemed to imply that the glove was somehow linked back to Tara. The whole thing just gave me an uneasy feeling and the whole nature of this thing and where it goes is honestly pretty uncomfortable to talk about. Is this the answer to solving the case? Or am I just jumping down another rabbit hole. I knew that either way, this was an area I needed to tread very cautiously. Maurice gave me the names that he knew from the list and I've tried to reach out to them but they've all ignored me. I decided to do some more research on the man who committed suicide. I hoped that maybe searching through his friends and background would turn up something and it did.

It turns out, that this guy's brother was friends with someone that I knew and someone that you know too. I decided to pay him a visit in Ocilla, in person.

Dusty, what's up man?

Dusty Vassey: How's it going man?

Payne Lindsey: This is my friend Donald by the way.

Dusty Vassey: Hi Donald.

Payne Lindsey: Dusty Vassey. The reporter from the Oscilla newspaper, he knew this guy's brother.

Did you have lunch or anything?

Dusty Vassey: Nuh uh.

Payne Lindsey: No. You want to get some lunch or something?

Dusty Vassey: Yeah, that's good. Miss Dianne?

Miss Dianne: Yes sir?

Dusty Vassey: I'm gonna go get lunch.

Miss Dianne: Okay.

Payne Lindsey: We went to one of the local restaurants for lunch. I had my friend Donald with me too. I like Dusty a lot but he had no clue I was going to ask him about this suicide. I hope it didn't catch him off guard too much.

Waitress: We change it to where you order here now.

Dusty Vassey: Oh okay.

Waitress: But here's a menu if y'all want to look at it. It's the same as up there.

Payne Lindsey: We sat down at the table and I told him I wanted to ask about this person. To my surprise, he had a story of his own.

Dusty Vassey: A friend called and said one of our friend's brother was freaking out because the people that killed Tara Grinstead were trying to get him. This was, I want to say probably 2007. He said, "What should we do? What should I do?" And I was like, "The police need to know." I called and talked to, I believe it was Allen Morgan, was the deputy I talked to and told him basically what I've been told which wasn't much but he was very upset and there was something, whoever it was, was after him. Three years later or something, he committed suicide. I didn't know much about it at the time. It wasn't until years later after you had started the podcast that I heard that he had left a note that apparently had indicated some people were involved in Tara Grinstead's murder.

Payne Lindsey: You knew this guy, right?

Dusty Vassey: When he was a kid I knew him. I went to high school with his brother, his much older brother. He told me more of something about the story, something about ... you know it's been years but something about, said he encountered somebody on a dirt road, I got the impression it was more than one person and somehow or another and somehow they were connected to the death of Tara Grinstead. It's some really messed up stuff. This guy and another guy encountered the supposed killers and they had supposedly a black girl with them and they made them carve their initials into her and put their DNA on her so that they couldn't rat the other people out.

Payne Lindsey: This is extremely graphic and terrifying. The uneasy feeling I was getting earlier, came right back. I asked what the police did that day when he was freaking out. What do they think about this?

Dusty Vassey: That basically, he was just disturbed. There wasn't any truth to it. I talked to his brother and I actually talked to somebody who went to school with him, they both said he had a wreck at some point with some other guy which was I think on the dirt road. There's some speculation that maybe he had some damage from the wreck that may have contributed to this. It was after the wreck that he started withdrawing from his friends and started saying all this stuff. I don't really know the extent of the injuries or anything like that. Just that these claimed started coming after the wreck. Sometimes he would say things and it would seem crazy and sometimes he would say things and it seemed like it would make sense.

Payne Lindsey: This is one of two things. True or false. We know for sure this guy killed himself and left a note about Tara but it's up to us to determine if there's any truth to it. As creepy and messed up as that story just was, I find it comforting that there might be an explanation for all this. Maybe that story along with the context of the suicide note, simply just aren't true. Apparently this guy had been in a bad car wreck a few years prior to his suicide. It was after that, when his friends started noticing his weird behavior. He became more reclusive and began telling crazy stories about how he knew what happened to Tara. That the person, or the people, responsible were out to get him. It seemed like whatever the car injury was, it had to be severe enough for someone to start acting like this.

I am nothing close to a doctor but my best friend Matt is a doctor. I wanted him to weigh in on this theory. Was this the behavior of a deranged person? Or somebody with a traumatic brain injury?

Remember how I was talking to you about the guy who killed himself and left that note?

Matt: Yeah.

Payne Lindsey: I guess a few people told me that he got in a car wreck or something. Basically, ever since the car wreck he wasn't acting right. Is there any sort of injury that he could've sustained that would make him act like that all of the sudden?

Matt: Yeah but it'd have to be like or to have a really acute personality change, you'd have to damage one particular part of the brain. The famous example if you want to look it up is this guy, Phineas Gage, is his name. He's a railroad worker. He set off a stick of dynamite and it blew up and a piece of the railroad went flying up through the roof of his mouth and came out the top of his head.

Payne Lindsey: Damn.

Matt: It didn't kill him but he forever after that was a different person.

Payne Lindsey: Oh wow. How different? How did he act?

Matt: I think angry. He just kind of deserted his family.

Payne Lindsey: Gotcha. That's kind of how this guy was acting. Kind of deserted his friends, didn't really hang out with anybody anymore, was real reclusive.

Matt: That's interesting. You would think it'd have to be like an actual in the head injury. Chronic concussive injuries or a one time in the brain injury would make it more realistic that he would kind of just go off the rails ... know what I'm saying?

Payne Lindsey: Do you think it would be more likely that he would get in a wreck and knock a screw loose in his head and start rambling off crazy stuff or start telling the truth?

Matt: I think if anything, if he was in a car wreck that was particularly bad, I think it probably makes you contemplate life a little bit more especially end of life stuff. Maybe that brings out feelings of guilt from a psych perspective. I don't know. I think if he was gonna tell the truth, he was gonna do it anyway. I don't think really the car wreck would send you off the rails, so to speak.

Payne Lindsey: Right. Okay. But it's possible out there that he could've damaged something in his brain to where he just became simply a crazy person. I mean, I don't know how else to put it.

Matt: Yeah, like I said it's happened before. It's definitely within the realm of possibility, that has happened before. Yeah, it could happen.

Payne Lindsey: Sometimes with a bad head injury, especially inside the brain, the person could undergo a complete personality change. The first famous case of this was the man named Phineas Gage. Also known as The American Crowbar Case. In 1848, this man was working on a railroad. A stick of dynamite went off and a piece of the railroad the size of a crowbar, went straight through his head but miraculously he survived. He was forever a different person. He was angry and isolated and eventually started acting crazy. Could this be what happened to the man who committed suicide in this case? It's hard to determine for sure at this moment but the explanation for his behavior seems plausible. The GBI investigated this thing too and I guess they felt there was nothing to it. Regardless, even if the stories were true, the man who committed suicide never implicated who Tara's killer actually was. So in my opinion, it could've been anybody. It doesn't change who we're looking for.

Rob: Anthony Vickers was charged with disorderly conduct for trying to beat Tara's door down. He claimed that Tara was not answering her phone so he became upset because she would not respond. The Ocilla police were called and Sergeant Sean Fletcher was one of the officers who responded to the call. Sergeant Fletcher noticed that another vehicle was parked in Tara's driveway, which may have been the real reason that Anthony became jealous after he saw the vehicle at Tara's house. At the time of the incident, no one except Tara knew who was in the house with her. It was later learned that the individual with Tara that day, was Detective Heath Dykes a Detective with the Perry Georgia Police Department. The day after the Vickers' incident, Tara went to the Ocilla Police Department to get a restraining order against Vickers at Dykes' urging because he told her the boy was apparently a nut and dangerous.

Sean Fletcher was the Ocilla Police Officer who took the report. He would not give Tara the restraining order until she told him who the person was at her house that day. Tara didn't want to tell Sergeant Fletcher because she knew he was friends with her ex boyfriend, Marcus Harper and was afraid he would tell him. Fletcher assured her he wouldn't tell but had to have the person's name to file the report. Tara told him it was Dykes, a police officer from Perry, Georgia. Marcus Harper was in Afghanistan at the time the report was filed. A couple of months after the Vickers' incident when Marcus came home, he angrily confronted Tara and told her about the entire incident saying Fletcher had told him. Tara filed a complaint against Sergeant Fletcher at that time for telling Marcus about the incident after assuring her he would not tell and he was suspended from his job and almost got fired.

Payne Lindsey: Heath Dykes, the Perry Police Officer was inside Tara's house on the day of the Anthony Vickers' incident. Sean Fletcher was one of the arresting officers that day. Sean Fletcher is the same guy Marcus Harper was riding around with in the cop car on the night of Tara's disappearance. It's a pretty strange thing, a circle of different persons of interest in this case, all involved in this little incident that happened six months prior to her disappearance. Tara asked Sean Fletcher to not tell Marcus Harper that Heath Dykes was in her house. The question is, why did Tara want to keep that a secret. Sean Fletcher broke protocol and told Marcus anyways. He almost lost his job over it.

Shortly after Tara went missing, rumors ran wild about an affair she may have been having Heath Dykes. Some people painted him as an innocent family friend. The guy who went to go check on her and left his business card but some people claim that they were in a heated affair and that there's much more to this story. Like I've said before, to solve this we need all the facts no matter how small, insignificant or uncomfortable they might be. So far this idea that Tara and Heath Dykes were having an affair, has just been hearsay. If there was any truth to it, it would definitely change things.

News reporter 2: Search crews just cleared out of this area right here off of Freight Satterfield Road about 20 mins ago and Captain Heath Dykes says nothing showed up on their search today. I just spoke with Sam's father, Christian Poss, about an hour ago. He says if nothing shows up on the search today, there's really nothing left to do except keep hoping and keep spreading the word about his son.

Payne Lindsey: This is a local news report from Perry, Georgia. Heath Dykes is now the police captain in Perry. A quick Internet search took me to this video. This is from two weeks ago.

Maurice Godwin: There's a creek area, it runs through this property that we've ... takes a little bit more time to get through it.

News reporter 2: Dykes says every tip they've received has come up cold.

Payne Lindsey: Maurice had the chance to interview Heath Dykes in person back in 2006. A friend of his, a former GBI agent, helped set it up.

Maurice Godwin: See I had the opportunity to interview him because their cousin, retired GBI had briefly set it up. The thing is she said he couldn't do it, he couldn't do it on the weekends because his wife wouldn't allow him to leave. That she was keepin’ an eye on him, that he couldn't meet with me on the weekend because there was marital problems.

Payne Lindsey: The in person interview never happened. He was only able to do it over the phone. I asked him more about Heath Dykes being in the house on the day of the Anthony Vickers' incident.

Maurice Godwin: After that incident, she went next door to Joe, a next door neighbor, and asked him if Heath could park his car, his vehicle, next door so it would look like nobody was at her house. Heath was always there at the house.

Payne Lindsey: After I made numerous phone calls to the Urban County Sheriff's Department, they kept their word with me and finally sent me the dispatch logs from the night of Tara's disappearance. Marcus Harper's alibi involved multiple run ins and stops with a man named Bennie Merritt. There were no reports in Ocilla and there were no reports at the county either. These dispatch logs are the very last place these Bennie Merritt incidents could be recorded. If they're not there, then Marcus Harper's alibi simply isn't true. Before we dive into these dispatch logs, I want to share an email that I recently received from a local in Ocilla. She told me that on Monday when Tara didn't show up for school, someone told her something strange and it always stuck with her. A man that her family knew, named Joe Hilton, told her and her mother at a restaurant after school that day that Tara was missing and they think Marcus did it but he knows it wasn't him because he was with him all night. That definitely sounded odd to me too. Who was Joe Hilton and where does he fit into this alibi. I asked if she could tell me this story over the phone for the podcast and she did.

Local in Ocilla: I was 15 and I remember the day that she didn't show up for school. It was such a big deal in Ocilla because Ocilla's a small ... this is a restaurant in Ocilla called Pecks and that's where everybody went after school to get a drink, get something to eat before you go home. So that's where we went, me and my mom and my brother. At that point I don't remember if we knew she was missing yet but Ocilla was kind of crazy, people everywhere, cop cars everywhere. We were at Pecks, we saw Joe. He said "Tara Grinstead's missing. They think it was Marcus but it can't be him because I was with him all night." I don't know. It was just weird. It didn't sit well.

Irwin County Sheriff's Department: All right, I'm gonna make sure I have the fax number for you. Okay. All right, give me just a minute and ill get this sent through, okay? There's gonna be about give or take, ten pages or so.

Payne Lindsey: I got the dispatch logs and I called Maurice so we could review them together on the phone.

Maurice Godwin: Yes. You have to look up there it has the number, says dispatch from, 016 which is Fletcher to D7 to D7 to D7, from time received is 16 minutes past midnight. Then at 0146, he's downtown. Then I see eight minutes past two o'clock and that's to Apricot, 111 South Apricot. That's where Bennie Merritt lived at. That's Bennie Merritt's place.

Payne Lindsey: So it looks like there is some truth to Marcus Harper's alibi. There's two police calls from Bennie Merritt. One at 2:08 a.m. and one at 2:49 a.m. Marcus said he left the white horse saloon shortly after 1 a.m., the bar is located in Fitzgerald, about a ten min drive to Ocilla. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, let's say he left at 1:15 in the morning. The latest he would be back in Ocilla to tag up with Sean Fletcher would be around 1:30 a.m. Upon a second glance, I notice one glaring piece of information in the dispatch logs.

These records have corresponding numbers for each officer on duty that night. So each officer that responds to a call is listed next to the incident. The first call for Bennie Merritt was at 2:08 a.m. but Sean Fletcher wasn't there. Another officer was, Sergeant Kissling. On the second call at 2:49 a.m., Sean Fletcher was there. What this means is, the first and only time we can place Marcus Harper anywhere that night is at 2:49 a.m. So if he left the bar at 1:15, then where was he for almost 90 minutes.

Maurice Godwin: It's just a weird time to do ride alongs and it's so suddenly. If he did this, then he did something temporarily then he had to do the alibi, then he had to take care of the business later on the next day or whatever. If he did this, he did something fast and temporarily hid it and then went back and took care of it as soon as he could. See, he was with Joe Hilton Sunday night. It's just odd that he's riding around with these people Saturday and Sunday but he damn sure was with Joe Hilton. Joe Hilton told one of the people that Monday that had the vigil outside of her house, he said that they would never find her.

Payne Lindsey: Thanks guys for listening to episode seven. Up and Vanished is now back in full swing. Next Monday, there will be another case evidence episode and the following Monday will be episode eight.