Late last month, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation held a press conference in the courthouse in Ocilla, Georgia. The GBI had come down from Atlanta, some 168 miles away, to announce that they had arrested Ryan Alexander Duke for the murder of Tara Grinstead, who had disappeared without a trace 12 years earlier. As the crowd jostled for room in the packed courthouse, a pastor lead the group in a prayer, and then Agent J.T. Ricketson, a spokesperson for the GBI, took the microphone. He offered thoughts and prayers to Grinstead’s family, and recognized the community’s support during the long search. He then paused to thank the media for their help. “You guys have just been phenomenal in this whole endeavor,” he said. “Please know that you have had an impact, a significant role in this investigation and I am confident that today we have reached the point where we are in this investigation because of that involvement.” While he didn’t name names, everyone in that courtroom knew what he was referring to – a podcast called Up and Vanished.
Before he made Up and Vanished, Payne Lindsey had been working in film in the Atlanta area. He’d directed a handful of shorts and music videos, but wanted to dive into something larger. Lindsey, 29, was pretty sure he wanted to do something in the true-crime vein – he’d been a fan of shows like The Jinx and How to Make a Murderer. “The general idea was to take my storytelling and people skills and apply them to a cold case and try and do something good with it,” says Lindsey. He had worked as an editor and sound designer and knew that a podcast was something he could just do without funding, studios and approvals of higher ups. So, lured by the low barrier, he decided to go for it. “I know people can make movies on a dime,” he says, “and I’ve done it before in the past, but I didn’t want to approach this project that way. I wanted to do it right.”
Next, Lindsey just needed a story. He spent time scouring the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s cold case files online, and stumbled on the case of Tara Grinstead, a history teacher and former beauty queen, who vanished from her home in Ocilla, Georgia, on October 22nd, 2005. After she didn’t show up for work that morning, police went to investigate. Her house was locked, cell phone was inside, her unlocked car was in the driveway and the only things missing were her purse and keys. It might have seemed innocent save for a broken clock lamp in her bedroom, and a latex glove – the kind worn by police and coroners – found in her front yard. Despite search parties, tip lines, private investigators, a website and a $100,000 reward, nothing surfaced. In 2010, a probate judge declared Grinstead legally dead. In short, it was a very, very cold case.
Lindsey was hooked. Not only was it the largest case file in the history of Georgia, there was a personal connection. “After I did a little digging around I realized my grandma’s best friend is one of the last people to see Tara the night she disappeared,” he says. The final push came after he posted about his work in a WebSleuths.com forum, and a private investigator reached out to him. The P.I. had
been working on the case for over 10 years and needed fresh eyes. “He
offered me all of his resources and help and basically said, ‘If you want to take
this on, I’ll tell you everything that I know,'” says Lindsey. “It
was like the stars aligned.”
Lindsay spent eight months combing through records, re-tracing police work and trying to get people in the small town of Ocilla to talk. “At first it was slow going,” says Lindsey. “It’s such a mystery down there that a lot of people were afraid to talk at first.” Eventually, he had enough information to take his investigation public with the podcast. The debut episode, “Cold as Alaska,” premiered August 2016 and it was instantly big news in Ocilla. “After the podcast gained more attention, people grew more comfortable telling people what they thought or had seen or had heard,” he says. “The podcast itself started to generate new leads.”
As Lindsey earned the trust of the residents of the small town, they started to open up to him and share their stories, he was able to piece together a list of suspects in the case. “There have been so many different persons of interest in this case,” he explains. “There was really a lack of evidence that pointed definitively to any particular person.”
Lindsey started his investigation by looking at what he called “white rabbits,” or persons of interest in Grinstead’s disappearance. “We first went through the people who were closest to Tara – her ex-boyfriend, her friends, any associates in her life,” explains Lindsey. “I was always very objective. I didn’t want to point a finger at anybody.” Over the course of the podcast, he followed the white rabbits, allowing him to eliminate some suspects and leading him to others. “It was always a goose chase,” he says.
Six months after the first episode of Up and Vanished, someone called the GBI with a tip about Ryan Duke. On February 22nd, the GBI arrested the 33-year old Duke and charged him with burglary, aggravated assault, murder and concealment of a body. He’ll remain in jail until a grand jury convenes on April 12th.
For his part, Lindsey was stunned – especially because out of all the suspects he had looked at, Duke had never come up. “I had never heard Ryan Duke’s name,” Lindsey admits. He’d heard about Duke’s group of friends, but had nothing to go on aside from innuendo and whispers. “I never had anything worthy of talking about on the podcast,” says Lindsey.
On March 3rd, GBI arrested Duke’s friend Bo Dukes and charged him with concealing death and tampering with evidence for allegedly helping Duke bury Grinstead’s body at his uncle’s pecan farm. “Everyone I talked to was more surprised at Ryan [allegedly] being involved or capable of doing this on his own, but they were less surprised about Bo’s [alleged] involvement,” says Lindsey.
After he got word of the arrest, Lindsey quickly posted a three-minute clip of an interview with an anonymous female source telling him of Duke’s arrest. In the episode, it’s clear that Lindsey is freaking out at the stunning turn of events. He can be heard muttering to himself, “Oh shit, oh shit!” over and over again on the tape.
While the GBI couldn’t comment on the case or Lindsey’s involvement with it, due to a gag order (although that order is currently under review by a judge and may be overturned), at the initial press conference, the GBI spokesman earnestly thanked the media for keeping the spotlight on the case – Up and Vanished included. “Over the first five years there was a great deal of news coverage about [Grinstead’s disappearance], but it all sort of fizzled out,” says Lindsey. “When I came into the picture it hadn’t been in the news in two years at all. I would like to think that in some way they were crediting the podcast.”
Now, the state of Georgia is working to prove their cases against Duke and Dukes, and their investigation is not over yet. “We have several more interviews to conduct that might lead to additional evidence collection,” GBI special agent Ricketson told Georgia news outlet 13WMAZ. “I can say that the information we have gained in the last week has been very beneficial and has provided us more insight into Tara’s disappearance.”
As their work continues, so will Lindsey’s as he has a lot of unanswered questions about the case. “Did anybody else know about this? Was there a third person involved? There’s the whole story of how this affected the community,” Lindsey said. “The story is far from over but for the first time in 12 years we have some answers.”