This report aired Dateline Sunday, April 30
OCILLA, GEORGIA — For 6 months her smiling face has haunted tiny Ocilla, Georgia and points beyond.
Tara Grinstead was a 31-year-old hometown beauty queen was a beloved high school history teacher. She went to a barbecue with friends one Saturday night in October—and then disappeared.
Anita Gattis, Tara Grinstead’s sister: She’s the friend that everybody wants. She’s the teacher that you hope your child will have one day.
And now she’s the first person in the town’s memory who has vanished without a trace.
A striking brunette, Tara got involved in beauty pageants early on, but friends say only used her good looks to better herself.
Wendy McFarland, co-teacher: She never cared about the titles in fact she entered those pageants for one purpose, and that was to receive scholarship money. She totally funded her undergraduate education through her participation.
Teacher Wendy McFarland worked along side Tara for 8 years at the local high school in Ocilla, where she was known for going above and beyond for her students.
Saturday October 22nd was like so many others: Tara’s sister Anita says she was helping some of her students participate in a local beauty pageant.
Anita Gattis: She did hair and makeup all day Saturday, and went to the pageant with them. After the pageant went to some friend’s house to a cookout.
Tara left the party at 11 p.m. that Saturday night. Monday morning, when she didn’t show up for school, fellow teachers were immediately alarmed.
McFarland: By 8:05 a.m., when the bell rings for students to come in and she wasn’t there, we knew that something was wrong.
Authorities rushed to Tara’s home and began reconstructing as best they could her last known moments.
John Bankhead, Georgia Bureau of Investigation: She had apparently went home, changed clothes, and then disappeared. There was really no signs of a violent struggle inside the house that we could find.
But when Anita and husband Larry Gattis looked at that same scene, they noticed many small details that made them think something was wrong that night.
Anita Gattis: Her car was unlocked and Tara never ever ever left her car unlocked. That struck me as very odd.
Larry Gattis, Tara's stepbrother: She was a very frugal person, and watched money carefully, and she’d gotten some cash that weekend. And the cash was still in the center console of the car.
Tara’s dog, normally inside at night, was instead left out Saturday night, furiously barking according to neighbors in the early morning hours on Sunday.
And a bedside lamp, one Tara habitually put on to let neighbors know she was home safe, was found broken.
Edie Magnus, Dateline correspondent: Can anyone account for her whereabouts on Sunday at all?
Anita Gattis: No. No one talked to her. No one saw her.
The close knit community of Ocilla seemed to convulse at the news that one of its own was missing. In the days and weeks that followed, the town was blanketed with posters and ribbons. A Tara command center was set up in town and search teams with cadaver dogs and divers fanned out across the surrounding countryside seeking any clues to Tara’s disappearance.
The mystery put this small town on the national radar as cable shows buzzed with the latest theories. Even the mother of Natalie Holloway, the student missing in Aruba, visited with Tara’s family to offer support.
Magnus: Maybe she just ran away?
Anita Gattis: How did she go anywhere? She took no money. The only activity on her credit cards since she’s disappeared has been me paying the bill. No money’s gone from her checking account, no money’s missing from her savings account.
Magnus: And your certain she didn’t commit suicide?
Larry Gattis: Yes. If you’re going to commit suicide, why make it look exactly like you’ve been abducted and leave no evidence of your body or a note?
Friends do admit Tara was upset in the days before her disappearance— by the break-up of a relationship that had lasted more than 5 years. It was no secret here that Tara had her heart broken in 2004 by a former Ocilla cop and ex-Army Ranger named Marcus Harper.
Marcus Harper, ex-boyfriend: She gave me an ultimatum and it was either get married or she was moving along. And I chose to move along.
Harper, is now a civilian contractor for the defense department, doing stints in Afghanistan and Iraq so sensitive that he didn’t want Dateline to show his entire face.
Harper had returned to Ocilla shortly before Tara’s disappearance and many in the small town, chief among them Tara’s sister and brother-in-law, believe he should be the prime suspect.
Anita Gattis: For Tara to have vanished without a clue, you gotta think who’s capable of doing that?
Magnus: Why would he have wanted to hurt Tara?
Anita Gattis: They had several volatile fights in the couple weeks prior to her disappearing.
Larry Gattis: It could have been something as simple as an argument that just went terribly wrong. And someone lost their temper and did something in a rash of rage.
Anita Gattis: He had motive, opportunity, definitely had the training.
It is just these kinds of accusations however that prompted Marcus Harper to sit down and talk to us.
Harper: I’ve never hit or hurt any woman and never will.
He vehemently denies having any involvement in her disappearance. Harper says the last time he saw Tara was a week before she vanished, when Tara begged him not to end their relationship.
Harper: She wanted me back and all. And I said, "I’ve started shopping outside of Ocilla, I think you need to do the same. Everybody in this town is connected to us one way or another."
Magnus: How did she take that advice?
Harper: She was crying at first. And by the time she left, we were kind of laughing about certain things. I mean, it wasn’t gonna work out.
Harper has told authorities he was with friends and family—including a former partner on the Ocilla police force during the night Tara went missing. He ays he’s sick and tired of being on people’s short list of suspects in Tara’s disappearance and particularly tired of her sister’s focus on his military training.
Harper: What police officer and what soldier is not taught to defend his country or protect the innocent?
Magnus: Did you have anything to do with the disappearance of Tara Grinstead?
Harper: No, no. I don’t wanna hurt any innocent civilian much less someone I spent 5 ½ years of my life with.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is being very tight-lipped about this case, but Harper is not the only man in Tara’s life being questioned. A former student who tried to break into her home, a married police officer from another county, and even her own brother-in-law have all been questioned. All have denied any involvement. Authorities have not named any suspects—in fact this is still considered a “missing person” case—but clearly, it doesn’t look good.
Bankhead: Finding Tara Grinstead alive at this point is very slim.
McFarland: My gut wants to tell me that she’s alive. But as time goes by— and it has, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that she’ll be found safe. And so our hope and prayer now is that good, bad, or ugly, or whatever has happened... that it will reveal itself.
There is a $200,000 reward offered to help find Tara Grinstead and the person responsible for her disappearance.
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