Stolen Beauty

A Young Teacher And A Financial Analyst Vanish. Are Their Cases Linked?

Produced by Katherine Davis
This story was originally broadcast on July 1, 2008.

Tara Grinstead, an 11th-grade history teacher in Ocilla, Ga., disappeared without a trace in October 2005. Three months later, another young woman, Jennifer Kesse, also vanished in Orlando, Fla.

There were some similarities in the cases, leading investigators to wonder: are these disappearances somehow linked?

Student Dana Wilder remembers feeling a sense of dread when she heard an announcement in school that teacher Tara Grinstead should report to the office.

Dana was sitting in class at Irwin County High School on that Monday, Oct. 24, 2005. “I knew something was up then. I knew Tara would just not come to school. I think it got all the student’s minds worried,” Dana remembers.

Besides being a beloved teacher, 30-year-old Tara was also a mentor and friend to Dana, especially when it came to Tara’s passion for beauty pageants.

Just two days earlier, Dana had been at Tara’s house with some other girls to get ready for a big local event in this small town, the “Miss Georgia Sweet Potato” pageant. “She was in a great mood. Which of course, whenever she did hair and makeup for any pageant girls she was in a great mood,” Dana remembers.

Tara’s stepmother, Connie, and father, Billy, say Tara fell in love with pageants as a teenager. Besides winning crowns, the pageant victories also fulfilled another goal for Tara: money for school.

But none of her successes meant more to Tara than winning the title of Miss Tifton in 1999. Best friend Maria Hulett says the title meant Tara could now fulfill her lifelong dream of competing in the Miss Georgia pageant. “It was, for her, more than a dream come true. It was the chance for her to be really proud of herself,” Maria remembers.

Tara didn’t place in the competition, but was thrilled when her friend Osjha Anderson won. Her friends say after the Miss Georgia pageant, Tara refocused on her career in education. “She wanted to be a principal. She was well on her way,” Osjha says.

By the fall of 2005, she was teaching by day and taking classes by night; she applied for a doctoral program. Tara was even filling in as an assistant principal from time to time.

Everything seemed to be going so well, until that October morning.

By the time Police Chief Billy Hancock arrived at Tara’s house, nobody had seen or heard from Tara for 34 hours. “When I arrived the car was parked in the carport. You could actually see it as you were pulling up,” he remembers.

Hancock says the fact she had gone missing but her car was still there was “certainly a red flag.”

But maybe most disturbing was a latex glove, found laying in the front yard.

Hancock noticed that inside the house everything appeared to be normal. “I walked through the house. No apparent sign of struggle, no forced entry,” he remembers. “Her cell phone was in the charger by the nightstand. Her pocketbook and keys were missing.”

Asked what his gut feeling was as he walked through that house, Hancock tells Van Sant, “I did have kind of a gut feeling that something was wrong.”

At 11 a.m., Chief Hancock called Gary Rothwell, a special agent at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Rothwell’s initial impression? “It appeared that Tara may have left on her own. However, we had a glove, a latex glove that we couldn’t explain. That glove indicates foul play to us.”

He was also intrigued by something else found at Tara’s house: a business card found wedged in the front door of Tara’s home.

Investigators sealed the house, and took Tara’s car and the glove in for processing. Then they started reconstructing her last known movements.