A 34-year-old attractive suburban wife and mother of two whose management job regularly sends her to Puerto Rico disappears after her husband said she got into a waiting sedan in their driveway.
Local interest and media attention builds as more details emerge: The husband alleges his wife has been unfaithful in e-mails to an ex-girlfriend and says he is tracking her communications on a home computer. He maintains his innocence — but says police have told him he's the focus of the case, a claim the sheriff denies. While he grants frequent interviews with reporters, he communicates only by fax with authorities since retaining a lawyer.
The case of Tara Grant — missing from her suburban Detroit home for nearly three weeks — is a daily fixture on local TV newscasts and in Detroit's newspapers. And it's beginning to conjure comparisons to media-saturated missing-women cases such as Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway.
The headlines and sound bites make Grant's story ripe for cable TV shows and other national and international media outlets. But one 40-year-old Detroit-area woman with a full-time job and two kids of her own said her fascination with the story has more to do with a personal connection than prurient details.
"Tara could be any woman — your sister, your friends, yourself," says Lisa Watson, who has written several entries about Grant on her blog, "The Lisa Life: My Life in a Suburban Town."
"She seems like a fairly normal (person). ... It always comes back to, 'Could that be me?'"
Husband waited to report her missing
Grant, of Macomb County's Washington Township, has been missing since Feb. 9. Stephen Grant, 37, reported her missing five days later. He has said he waited to tell police because she might have been "blowing off steam" before returning home.
Police say the day she went missing, the Grants argued over her frequent business trips abroad. Her cell phone and credit cards haven't been used since that evening, when she returned home from a business trip to Puerto Rico.
A 4 1/2-hour search over the weekend through wooded areas near the couple's home turned up no clues.
Tara Grant and her husband have two children, ages 4 and 6. She works as an operations manager for Boise, Idaho-based Washington Group International, an engineering and construction firm with an office in the Detroit suburb of Troy.
The company said in a statement it's concerned over her disappearance and hopes for a safe return. Washington Group spokesman Jerry Holloway, who spent five days in the Troy office to help respond to the media calls, said managers and security staff have provided requested materials and information to the county sheriff's department.
After an initial two-hour interview with authorities, Stephen Grant has communicated only by fax with the sheriff's office — which his attorney, David Griem, says keeps the case objective.
Grant says authorities have told him he's the focus of the investigation.
Sheriff Mark Hackel denies Grant is a suspect but questions why some details that could be critical to the investigation were not provided.
Police have examined a series of e-mails turned over by a woman who identified herself as Stephen Grant's ex-girlfriend. The e-mails indicate that Grant suspected his wife was having an affair and installed a device on their home computer to track her communications.
Hackel says investigators want access to the computer but they don't have Stephen Grant's approval. He provided police with two laptops used by his wife.
Griem said he and his client did not release the home computer because it includes privileged information between Griem and Stephen Grant as well as Grant's personal and business documents, and was rarely if ever used by Tara Grant.
Griem said the computer and e-mail issues are examples of the sheriff's department using the media to try to "make an innocent man look guilty." As for Stephen Grant's numerous local TV appearances, Griem said they are a response to when his client has been "bashed" by the police.
Media attention a mixed blessing
Hackel said his department is asking questions because it's trying to get information and needs full cooperation from everybody involved.
The growing frenzy is a mixed blessing for the sheriff and the lawyer.
For Hackel, more exposure means more tips, including psychics who believe she is in a wooded area, and others who say they saw her in a Florida restaurant and on "Wheel of Fortune."
"We want attention drawn to the fact that Tara is missing," Hackel says. "The media is the one that gets it out — I can't knock on every door in my county, state or country.
"The downside ... is you get a lot of people calling with information that leads you nowhere, but you don't discount it. That's why it's so intense."
Griem, who said he received more than 40 media calls one day last week and has heard from "every national news show you can think of," said more coverage increases the odds she will come home or the case will be solved.
Still, he's surprised by the attention, when "poor women disappear from our cities and are many times never heard from."
Tens of thousands of missing persons
The FBI's National Crime Information Center, a database reported by local and state law enforcement officials, had 24,037 missing women on its active list as of Jan. 1. Including girls, the list grows to 58,776, though an FBI spokesman said the numbers might be slightly lower because some solved cases haven't been cleared.
Matthew Felling, media director for The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based nonprofit research and educational group, said he has done extensive research on missing white women and the Grant case "has filled out the checklist for media frenzy."
Felling said the skin-color distinction is important. For instance, the world learned everything there was to know about Laci Peterson, while few have heard of Evelyn Hernandez, a Salvadoran immigrant whose disappearance and death had many similarities to Peterson's case.
"The most compelling — and compelling is a code word for marketable — missing white women stories share a lot of elements with the Lifetime Movie Network," he said.