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One Aspect of the Search for Tara Grinstead Has Been Completed, But the Probe Continues
by Seamus McGraw
OCILLA, GA (Crime Library)
For the past few days, members of Tara Grinstead's family have been harboring a secret fantasy that maybe, just maybe if they hope and pray hard enough, the 30-year-old high school teacher and former beauty queen might just throw open the door on Thanksgiving Day, sidle up to the dinner table and the month-long nightmare will be over.
It would , of course, take a miracle for that to happen and miracles are in short supply these days in rural Irwin County, a community still rocked by the young woman's disappearance on Oct. 22.
Absent a miracle, the search for the missing woman continues, authorities and family members say. Equusearch, the Texas-based search and rescue operation has just begun its detailed work, going over much of the same ground that an army of searchers combed inch by inch before the official search was concluded two weeks ago. Volunteers continue their hunt for Tara as well, and a reward for information about her whereabouts or her fate has now reached $90,000.
Officials from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have said they too remain on the case, which is still officially classified as a missing person's investigation, though they maintain that there have been no major developments in the case.
There are some people close to Tara, however, who have begun to question whether the GBI and the other agencies involved in the investigation are pursuing the case as aggressively as they once did.
In the days immediately following Tara's disappearance, they note, investigators quickly identified and interviewed most if not all of the major players in her life in and around Ocilla. They talked to her close companions and confidants, including Capt. Heath Dykes, a Perry police officer who Tara often turned to in times of stress. They interviewed Anthony Vickers, a love-struck 20-year-old former student who was arrested months before her disappearance after banging repeatedly on the teacher's door. And they talked at length with her ex-boyfriend, Marcus Harper, a former local cop and Army Ranger. The end of that six-year relationship left Tara emotionally shattered, and Harper had even suggested that Tara had contemplated suicide, though her family and close friends discount that.
Marcus Harper and Tara
Authorities even trolled the Internet, which continue to be rife with speculation, rumor and innuendo about Tara's personal life to locate other potential witnesses, among them young women who had dated Harper Tara had been heard fuming about at least one of Harper's 18-year-old companions. But after all the interviews, authorities maintained, that they were no closer to discovering Tara's fate.
Privately, some of those closest to Tara wonder whether the investigation is winding down.
Stones Left Unturned
As evidence they point to the fact that even now, more than four weeks after the investigation began, investigators have still not interviewed professors, classmates, and others at the university in Tifton where Tara was completing her studies in advance of beginning studies for her doctorate in education. As one source familiar with the probe put it, "GBI hadn't been down there andwhy would they not?"
Though authorities maintain their investigation is ongoing, some close to Tara fret that "they may have already decided this is no crime, this is a runaway, and if they've decided that, they may not be beating the bushes that much."
John Bankhead, a GBI spokesman, declined Tuesday to discuss specific elements of the investigation. But in similar missing person's cases, investigators sometimes decide that interviews in far-flung locations would be unlikely to yield significant new evidence, Bankhead said. It's also possible, he suggested, that investigators might still decide to focus on Tifton and other locales she might have frequented.
"We'll let the facts take us where we're going," he said. "At this point, we don't even know of she's alive or dead."
Tara's supporters contend that Tifton could prove a rich vein for information.
At the very least interviews with fellow students, professors and others who had contact with Tara outside of the tightly constricted community in Ocilla might be able to shed more light on her state of mind, one source familiar with the probe said. They may also be able to suggest other leads, the source said. Perhaps, the source suggests, there was another man in her life. Maybe she had developed other relationships in Tifton and Valdosta where she also studied that might offer a clue. So far, those avenues of investigation have not been explored, the source said.
And that means that despite all the energy that has been exerted, both by the cops and the public, the question of what happened to Tara remains an open question.
Early on, of course, there was some speculation that the young woman who vanished from her home after returning home from the annual Sweet Potato festival and dinner with friends, may have committed suicide.
Even now, those closest to Tara discount that possibility. They note that she left no note, and that authorities arriving at her house Monday morning found little out of place. Her car was parked in the driveway, though the driver's seat seemed to have been pushed farther back than the diminutive Grinstead would have preferred. The clothes she wore that night were found in the home, buried under a pile of other clothing. Her cellular phone was also recovered at her home, though source familiar with her habits, say it was highly unusual that she left it behind.
"I mean have you ever heard of anybody going to such lengths to get away cleanly?" the source asked. "If I'm going to kill myself why would I care about making it look like I disappeared?"
What's more the statistics argue against that possibility. Women who attempt suicide most often do it at home and use pills or other comparatively clean methods, and in the vast of majority of cases, unlike men, they fail on the first attempt. There is no indication that Tara had pills, or that she had ever tried suicide before.
But in the absence of any evidence of suicide, and with no hard evidence to suggest that she was abducted or worse, other options must be considered. For weeks now, some close to Tara have been pressing her friends and others who knew her about the possibility that she might have changed her appearance and simply taken off to start a new life, perhaps alone, or perhaps in the company of someone else.
Given Tara's history, that seems unlikely, those closest to her say. "Everybody I question I ask them the same thing; is there any possibility that she might go off to pursue a different existence somewhere?" the source said. "I keep getting the same answer; 'no way'."
"She's never colored her hair, the make up's been the same for years, she's always absolutely perfect," the source said. "I mean she is meticulouseven on a bad day she looks like she just stepped out of Vogue magazine."
But as the other theories about her fate fall by the wayside, the source said, Tara's loved ones are carving out room in their hearts for the remote possibility that she did engineer her own disappearance. "That can't be excluded," the source said. Certainly, for that to have been the case, there would have to have been a sea change in Tara, the source said, "a real breakdown, worse than anything she had ever had before."
Tragically, in the weeks since her disappearance, the normally reserved people of Ocilla, including those close to Tara, have begun for the first time to talk openly about just how distraught the young woman was. "Obviously, she was heading into something and there was lots of warning signs," the source said. "I'm beginning to get pissed off at the people who saw themand didn't tell anybody."
But given those upheavals in Tara's life, the pressure of her studies and her job, the emotional torment of coping with the end of her long time relationship with Harper, given her displeasure of his choice of at least one young woman to replace her, and the possibility that there might have been other personal struggles that have not yet come to light, Tara's die-hard searchers are no longer willing to dismiss the possibility that she simply ran away.
"I have to include that as possibility," the source said. "Ignore that and I might be ignoring a possibility of finding her and getting her backwhen you touch all the horses in the forest, you know, you start looking for zebras."