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The Shocking True Story of Up and Vanished: How an Arm-Chair Detective Solved a 12-Year Old Cold Case
It all started with a Google search.
“Like a lot of people, I was pretty obsessed with the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer,” Payne Lindsey admitted in the opening minute of the very first episode of his podcast Up and Vanished, released on August 7, 2016. “And I thought to myself, what if I made one of those?”
Well, two years and 240 million downloads later, Lindsey is one of the most well-known true crime podcast host and producers. Why? Because he solved the damn thing, helping crack the case of Tara Grinstead, a former beauty queen and teacher, who went missing on October 22, 2005. While the first season of Up and Vanished concluded in July 2017, Payne and his team’s investigation will pick up once again in Oxygen‘s new Up and Vanished special, airing Sunday, Nov. 18, which will follow his citizen sleuthing and give podcast listeners their first look at many of the voices they listened to for hours.
But the special will pick up where the podcast left off, which was with the arrest of two men who plead not guilty and are still awaiting trial.
During season one’s year-long journey, Payne, self-described “millennial podcaster,”, played a major part in the arrest of Ryan Alexander Duke and Bo Dukes, those two men charged with the murder and conspiracy to help dispose of a body, respectively. And he also then became a major part of the story itself.
From the start, Payne, 30, admitted he was just “looking for cold cases and other unsolved mysteries” to explore after the unexpected success of Serial and Making a Murderer, which lead to a tsunami wave of true crime-related content.
“I think there’s something about an unsolved case that intrigues everyone, this urge to solve the puzzle and reveal the truth,” he said. “And this universal satisfaction when we catch the bad guy. We all want an answer, an explanation for the unexplained.”
But more often than not, your rare The Jinx or Up and Vanished aside, the case remains cold by the end of any given podcast or TV show about a real-life murder or crime, which is what made Payne’s real-time investigation so captivating: It was a living, breathing Reddit thread.
But how did Payne and his team actually do it? Again, we come back to that initial Google search, with Payne specifically looking for a local case to make his investigation easier, he searched for an unsolved mystery in Georgia, and landed on the missing persons case of Tara, who had been missing for over 10 years in Ocilla, Georgia. Lindsey was immediately intrigued and posted on a forum about her case on a site called Websleuths…and even more intrigued when he received a voicemail soon after, officially kicking off his journey.
The disappearance of Tara in 2005 rocked the small town of Ocilla, which has a population just over 3,000 people. She was a beloved history teacher at the local high school, a cheerleading coach and a coach to young beauty pageant contestants after winning Miss Tifton in 1999 competing in the Miss Georgia beauty pageant.
On Oct. 22, Tara attended a friend’s barbecue just eight blocks away from her apartment after visiting a beauty pageant earlier in the day. When she left around 11 p.m., that would be the last time any of her family or friends would see her alive, with concerned co-workers calling the police on Monday, Oct. 24, when she failed to show up for work.
While her car was in the driveway and there was no sign of a break-in or forced entry, police discovered purse and keys gone. Her cell phone was inside her apartment. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) was soon brought in after it was clear something was definitely wrong.
“We’re a small community and this has really touched home because it is something you read about happening elsewhere,” Irwin County High School principal Bobby Conner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. “This is someone with a tremendous, magnetic personality, and the kids just love her.”
Save a 48 Hours Mystery special that aired on CBS in 2008 and a possible lead in 2009 that turned out to be a hoax, not a lot of progress was made in Tara’s case, and she was declared dead in absentia iby the court in 2010. That is until Up and Vanished shone an unavoidable light on it in the summer of 2016, renewing interest in the decade-old unsolved mystery of the disappearing beauty queen.
But Payne’s investigation probably wouldn’t even have started if private investigator Dr. Maurice Godwin hadn’t seen Payne’s Websleuth posting and contacted him, revealing he had been working on the case since 2006 and was willing to share everything he had on what was the “largest case file in Georgia history” after he was hired by Anita, Tara’s sister, five months after she went missing. He shared evidence he found in her house all those months later and was openly critical of the GBI’s investigation, rating it a 3 out of 10.
Dr. Godwin also offered one critical piece of advice: “If you go to Ocilla, take somebody else with you now…it’s a weird place.”
However, it was a weird place that Payne had an unexpected connection to: His grandmother lived in Tifton, which was just a half hour away from Ocilla, and wouldn’t you know it, one of her friends was one of the last people to see Tara alive.
And that was just the end of the first episode.
Over the course of the next few months, episodes dissected key pieces of evidence and looked into possible suspects (including Tara’s ex-boyfriend, a former student who claimed to have an intimate relationship with her that she once called the cops on, a married man she was allegedly having an affair with, a man she went on a few dates with before her disappearance, etc.). “White rabbits,” as Dr. Godwin called them, were not in short supply as the investigation unfolded.
“There have been so many different persons of interest in this case,” Payne told Rolling Stone last year. “There was really a lack of evidence that pointed definitively to any particular person.”
By January 30, 2017, Payne had released 12 episodes of Up and Vanished, along with seven special case evidence mini-episodes.
Then on February 23, 2017, the GBI held a press conference to announce they had arrested Ryan Alexander Duke, a former student at Irwin County High School, charging him with Tara’s murder.
“You guys have just been phenomenal in this whole endeavor,” agent T.J. Ricketson said to the media in the packed courthouse. “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.”
He didn’t mention the podcast by name, but everyone knew it was what Ricketson was referring to…even if Ryan’s name had never even been mentioned on Up and Vanished, but he was also never considered a suspect by the police. (Sources later disputed this in interviews with Payne on the podcast.)
So the question was: Who the hell was Ryan Duke? And how did the police ultimately come to arrest him?
“A few days ago, an individual came forward and reported that they had information into Tara’s disappearance. This information made it to my office, and our case Jason Shoudel was sent out to conduct an interview,” Ricketson said during the press conference. “This interview generated several more interviews, which was followed up by the rest of our office here. Through these interviews, enough probable cause was discovered so we could swear out an arrest warrant charging Ryan Alexander Duke with the murder of Tara Grinstead.”
Ryan, it turns out, was a former student of Tara’s, having graduated three years prior to the alleged murder.
“We still don’t know exactly why the tipster came forward now, 12 years later,” Payne admitted on the first podcast episode after the shocking news. “But I hope the renewed interest in the podcast at least helped create an environment that encouraged the sharing of truth throughout the whole community.”
During his court hearing on Feb. 23, Ryan was officially charged with burglary, aggravated assault, murder, and concealing a death.
Of course, immediately after his arrest, Lindsey went to work, trying to get any information on Ryan, now 32. He interviewed an old high school friend, who said, “He was a good friend. He was a really nice guy…he was a good guy…you never expect it. Never in a million years.”
But this unidentified source also brought up another name that came up in the rumor mill…one Up and Vanished initially bleeped as this was an ongoing investigation.
“There’s no way he did that by himself. He wasn’t a dumb guy, but he wasn’t sophisticated,” the source said. “Right after she disappeared, a couple weeks after she disappeared, there was a party and this kid was talking, eavesdrop, he was talking about having killed Tara and dropped her body in a pecan orchard in Fitzgerald.”
There was also talk of the police looking for someone around the same age as Duke, someone who may have acted as an accomplice, a “white rabbit” Payne seemed on the verge of catching.
Cut to March 3, 2017, when a second suspect was arrested: Bo Dukes. (Yes, it was the name originally bleeped out by Payne in the earlier episode, and no, he has no relation to Ryan.) He was charged with tampering with evidence, concealing a death, and hindering the apprehension of a criminal.
The grandson of a former state representative (Newt Hudson) and another former student of Tara’s, Bo’s family happened to own a pecan grove in Fitzgerald, the very orchard that was at the center of the town’s gossip years ago in connection to the case.
“They were pretty much a package duo,” an old friend of Ryan’s told Lindsey in episode 14.
In April 2017, a grand jury indicted Ryan on six counts, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary and concealing the death of another.
Two months later, Bo was indicted on charges including concealing a death, tampering with evidence, and hindering apprehension of a criminal.
Both had previous criminal records, one minor, one a bit more major. Ryan was arrested and charged with DUI in 2010, with a former inmate claiming he was placed under suicide watch after that incident while in jail. The same source claimed he was also on suicide watch again after his 2017 arrest.
Bo meanwhile was often described as “volatile” and the former United States Army unit supply specialist was sentenced to three years in prison after he and his then-wife, Emily, plead guilty to stealing more than $ 150,000 from the United States Army.
Oh, and just before his arrest in 2017, he was spending time on the Up and Vanished discussion boards, hosting Q&As under the name “AAA,” and he continued to speak out online following his arrest when he posted bail (violating the court-ordered gag order.)
You just can’t make this stuff up.
“How do I know it was him? Well, he proved it himself. He posted a selfie on Twitter, facing the mirror with his hand sticking out. Then, in a separate close up picture, you could see the date written in pen on his palm,” Lindsey said in episode 14. “Among other things, Bo Dukes graciously declared that I didn’t owe him an apology, but he did accuse me of being biased and ‘downright false in my interviews.’ But the highlight of his stint on the discussion board had to be this. He wrote: I think the GBI’s done a great job. Justice is a finicky thing, and subjective.”
He also had several private conversations with other people on the message boards, where he would answer their questions. And literallt laid out his narrative of the crime.
“Let me spell it out for you hypothetically. Imagine your roommate takes your truck out. You wake up to them telling you they killed her for reasons unknown,” he allegedly said. “Tell the other roommate and brother she’s on your land. You ask again later, and you get a blank stare from them, and two days later on Wednesday they show you the body.”
So according to Bo, Ryan killed Tara, and then asked him for help disposing the body, burning and burying it on his family’s pecan orchard. It’s the same story he would later tell police. (The property had been searched by investigators soon after the arrests, but Tara’s body has never been found.)
“For some reason, after not talking at all for 12 years, he suddenly has the urge, and he’s doing it with a sense of pride that is incomprehensible,” Payne pondered in episode 16. “What’s wrong with this guy? He just can’t seem to stay out of the spotlight.”
As for Ryan’s motive, it was unclear why he went to Tara’s home that night and he remained silent from jail. But a forensic psychologist Doug Miller theorized in episode 15 that Ryan may have had a crush on his former teacher, and a possible unhealthy obsession with teacher figures.
This theory received a boost from a bombshell discovery Payne ended episode 15 with: a Facebook message Duke sent to one of his other former teachers in 2015. “How are you? Just an older wiser fool, seeing how you are doing. Gotta admit, thought you were sexy,” he wrote. “Things aren’t great for me, but it’s okay. Like is the singularity we all share. If this is the last we speak, I want you to know you’re a wonderful teacher, and a kind person. Thank you for allowing me and my stubborn self to learn. I wish you the best. Ryan A. Duke.”
But back to that anonymous tipster that contacted the GBI, eventually leading them to arrest Ryan. It turned out to be Bo’s girlfriend, Brooke Sheridan.
A source claimed to Lindsey in episode 16 that it was all a plan concocted by Bo, Brooke and her mother to receive the reward money ($ 100,000, which could go along way in helping Bo repay the money he still owed the U.S. Army). “I think the plan was to turn him in, let the other guy take the fall for all of it. Bo would admit to his part in it and take a plea, so he doesn’t serve any time, and then they would have the reward money.”
And in episode 18, which was released in May 2017, just before Bo’s indictment, Brooke broke her silence, agreeing to talk to Lindsey on the record for the podcast, and the interview was filled with tension as Brooke sort of tried to justify Bo going along with Ryan’s plan and keeping such a horrible secret for over a decade. Payne? Not having any of that.
Brooke claimed Bo had confessed everything to her while they were broken up, that Ryan had murdered Tara and forced him to help cover it up. She also claimed he had told his ex-wife and an old army buddy about the murder, and that he had taken her out to the spot in the pecan orchard where they burned her body.
So why did he come forward now? “Because I made him confess,” Brooke told Payne, adding that she believed “he would have committed suicide” if he didn’t come forward.
Or was he actually covering up his own murder, pinning it on his old buddy, who was living with him at the time?
Payne questioned Brooke’s intentions.
“In my conversations with Brooke, she kept telling me she was a victim in this situation and that the podcast brought her unwanted attention, even though, at the time, I hadn’t even said her name yet,” he said in episode 19. “But now, just a few days ago, Brooke did an exclusive televised interview with the CBS show 48 Hours, taking credit for having solved this case.”
Aside from landing the interview with Brooke, Payne also unleashed a major bit of news about the original investigation over 12 years ago: They had searched the pecan orchard a few weeks after Tara went missing, based on a tip that Ryan and/or Bo had told someone at a party one night that they had killed Tara and disposed of the body. (Remember when the police said Ryan was never on their radar during the press conference?)
They had basically confessed, telling several people over the years about what had happened, and no one did anything.
“The problem with this case is pretty clear, secrecy and silence,” Payne said in episode 22. “A select group of people in Ocilla have chosen to remain silent over the years and withhold valuable information that could have potentially solved this case as early as two weeks after Tara Grinstead disappeared
As the episodes continued, more weird stuff kept happening: Payne’s Facebook account was hacked. He was receiving threats from Ocilla locals, unhappy with things said on the podcast. The Up and Vanished message boards were accused of leaking confidential information from the grand jury.
While Payne was still conducting interviews and receiving information from anonymous sources, and had uncovered that bombshell information about the 2005 search, it felt like his time with the case was winding down. There wasn’t a trial start date in sight. Even if there were so many doubts Payne still had, his real-time search had some to a standstill.
In a 2017 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Payne laid out his lingering questions in Tara’s case and Ryan and Bo’s roles in her murder: “Are the charges that are laid against them the right charges? Are the roles switched? Are they more involved, less involved? Did somebody know about this beforehand? Was there a way to have solved this 10 or 12 years ago? And if there was, let’s not cover that up. Let’s let that out there, let’s let the truth out.”
And that’s exactly what he is trying to do in the new special airing on Oxygen on Sunday, which will pick up where is podcast left off in August 2017, with Payne heading back to Ocilla to uncover new information and continue his investigation.
With their trials set to begin in 2019, Ryan is in jail while Bo is out on bail. But which one is the real killer? Payne’s curiosity cracked the case, but will he now be able to officially solve it?
Up and Vanished premieres Sunday, November 18, at 7 p.m. on Oxygen.
(E! and Oxygen are both part of the NBCUniversal Family.)