The Men in Tara's Life?
Nov. 2, 2005
In this article for Court TV's crimelibrary.com, the always-excellent Seamus McGraw added more layers to the mystery of what happened to Tara Faye Grinstead, age 30.
Since editor Marilyn Bardsley has spent some time in Ocilla, Georgia this week, she's been able to gather copious amounts of info verifying some rumors extant about the disappearance of the former Beauty Queen and 11th-grade social studies teacher at Irwin County High, down in rural south Georgia, near Valdosta and the Florida border. Marilyn was also able to dispel some rumors for me personally and Seamus's article is highly recommended for the clear-headed way he lays all this out. Court TV's crimelibrary.com is also now developing a full coverage of the Grinstead case, as they have done for years with many high-profile cases, as I most recently did, co-writing The Disappearance of Taylor Behl for them with Marilyn.
A significant development in Seamus's article is the first public mention of which I am aware of the name of Tara's long-time ex, Marcus T. Harper. From Relationships Could Provide Clues to Missing Woman's State of Mind, by Seamus McGraw:
Friends and others familiar with the probe say that her sometimes-stormy relationship with long time boyfriend Marcus T. Harper may help authorities piece together Grinstead's state of mind before she disappeared.
According to several sources who spoke on condition that they not be named, the couple began their relationship six years ago, and it was, in most respects, a classic small town romance. Harper, who could not be reached for comment for this story, had, according to friends of Grinstead, a fascination with law enforcement, and a driving desire to join the local police department, while Grinstead, a church going teetotaler, focused her attention on education and on the local beauty contest which she had once won.
In fact, according to several sources, Grinstead was deeply in love with Harper, he had a key to her home, a source said, and she had anticipated that someday they would marry. But that all changed after 9-11 when Harper left the police department and joined the U.S. Army, becoming a member of the Rangers, an elite branch of the special forces. He served, according to friends in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But during his stint in the military, and later as a contractor working in Iraq, the relationship changed.
According to one source, Harper became disenchanted with the relationship and, the source said, the couple began to bicker frequently. There was never any hint of violence between the pair, according to several sources, and in April, they finally broke up. By all accounts, Grinstead was deeply distressed by the breakup.
In fact, although she dated at least one other man, one friend told Crime Library that she remained deeply in love with Harper. In mid October one friend said, Grinstead had made efforts to reconnect with Harper, and when he resisted, she became so overwrought that she took a long drive and had to pull over and call for assistance to get home. The next day, uncharacteristically, she called in sick to school. A few days later, when a policeman from a neighboring community whom she had dated turned up at school, she left early. That too was unusual for the highly devoted and motivated ninth grade teacher...
What Marilyn's research and Seamus's article provided for me was a new perspective on the case of the missing teacher. While Tara was apparently well-adjusted and gifted in many ways (I couldn't help but note, from my own research, that her talent as a pageant contestant was singing), Tara Grinstead's life was not without its anxieties and stresses. Harper is not mentioned as an object of suspicion so much as a catalyst, perhaps. Through details Seamus McGraw included in the article and other details he wasn't able to fit that Marilyn gave me in a phone conversation (ironically, one we had as I stood in the book section at the Super Wal-Mart thumbing through true crime selections) the reason Tara's vanishing from Ocilla was, at least initially, not cause for the kind of concern in the press one might expect is fairly obvious. Sources close to the investigation unanimously agree -- what disarray there might have been at Tara's home was so minimal as to provide police with very little reason to think a confrontation or struggle had taken place. The first investigators on the scene also attached very little significance to certain details like Tara's phone being in her bathroom, and her bedside lamp being "broken." It had apparently been broken before, perhaps as a result of rambunctious behavior by Tara's cat, Herman.
Seamus also referenced Anthony Vickers, the 20-year-old former student from Wray, GA who apparently had a crush on Tara Grinstead:
Among the relationships that have attracted the attention of authorities is the missing woman's dealings with a 20-year-old former student. The student had apparently become smitten with Grinstead, and on at least one occasion, was so aggressive that Grinstead called police when he showed up at her home and began banging on her door. The young man was charged with disorderly conduct. Authorities interviewed the man on Monday...
Marilyn clarified for me the question of a restraining order against Vickers... there never was one. Vickers was indeed arrested for pounding on Tara's door, but that was the extent of Tara's legal action against him so far. Vickers obviously has his defenders, people who are quite sensitive about the suspicion that is, at least privately, being expressed right now in Ocilla about his infatuation with Tara Grinstead and what, if anything, he had to do with her disappearance. I know, I've heard from them. Additionally, Anthony may have a solid alibi for the night of Tara's disappearance -- that is still not entirely clear to me. I mention his name for the first time only because I've been made aware that his name will be in the media sometime today, anyway.
All the preceding tells you why I started off by saying Seamus McGraw and Marilyn Bardsley, in a way, have only added layers to the story. It is quite clear to me now how frustrating this case might be for the authorities investigating. There are, or were, perfectly good reasons at first for those with inside knowledge of Tara's life and the circumstances of her vanishing to believe she might have run off.
Now we are moving towards two weeks since Tara's disappearance, and each day so far of searching in Ocilla and the surrounding areas has been fruitless.
Often, when someone disappears like this, one of the first hints of what their fate may truly have been is broadcast when the media states that the person's finances have remained untouched since they vanished. Tara Grinstead did take her purse with her when she left her house on October 22, 2005. Has her bank account been accessed? If an automatic teller was used, could there be video somewhere of the person using her ATM card, if that was used? What about her credit cards? Did she make a big withdrawal from savings prior to Saturday, October 22? If the answers to all these questions is no, then there couldn't be a much stronger indication that foul play took the bubbly Miss Tifton of 1999 from her home that next-to-last weekend in October.
There is always the Groene factor, as I call it. When Brenda and Slade Groene and Brenda's boyfriend, Mark McKenzie, were found dead, Dylan and Shasta Groene missing, I personally made it a point to discount a theory I'd had that I thought too awful... that a stranger had simply decided he wanted the children, and the most effective way to get them was to kill any potential witnesses to the abduction. Naive as it seems now, I just couldn't wrap my head around a child predator that motivated -- that he'd brutally bludgeon two adults and a young teen just to try and get his real prey, the children.
Yet that was exactly the case. A stealthy serial predator targeted the Groene children anonymously. He staked out the home, and when he thought the time was right, he struck. I remember distinctly thinking that such an idea was so awful I didn't want to consider it... it seemed unrealistic. Now that Joseph Edward Duncan III is likely his generation's answer, in some ways, to Ted Bundy, I know that such monstrous predators do exist, and hide in plain sight. Were there any special events in Ocilla aside from the pageant in neighboring Fitzgerald the weekend of the 22nd? Events that might bring in strangers?
What about Harper? A former cop, and then an Army Ranger. As a correspondent of mine with a long and impressive career in law enforcement pointed out to me in an e-mail; what does the Army teach you to do? To kill, for one thing. Special Forces, Rangers, Green Berets, Navy Seals, all exceptionally organized and well-trained soldiers, or they don't stay in those programs. A former cop would know just what crime scene investigators look for first, as well. If he was able to switch on the kind of cool-headedness surely demanded by special operations, he would have been meticulous about making a victims' home appear as if nothing had really happened. That, and 5'3" woman who was still perhaps infatuated with him would have presented no physical challenge. But inside that statement is the very reason one might not suspect Harper at all: it sounds like he was the one being chased.
Then there is the question of being stalked. Is that what Vickers was doing? Or did he simply mistake the fact that Tara was a notably kind and sympathetic person for attraction, and get the message after she called the cops? He wouldn't be the first young man to take a welcoming smile from a pretty girl the wrong way. I'd lay good money on a bet that nearly all of us have done it at one point.
Neither man has even been mentioned publicly by police, though sources close to the investigation have admitted both have been questioned to some extent. Neither man is officially even a person-of-interest.
But where would Tara have gone late on a Saturday night in a town of about 3,300, without her own car, almost 20 miles from Interstate 75? Someone would have seen her. Suicide? How? I lived a couple of hours north of Ocilla for more than a year... it isn't like their are any high buildings, much less cliffs and/or bridges in that part of Georgia. It's pretty flat and rural.
I have to wonder, too, if something significant was missing from her home that isn't being revealed. Was all her jewelry there, for instance?
And finally, again from the article at CrimeLibrary.com, by Seamus McGraw:
Investigators are also trying to determine the origin of a latex glove ? the kind used by paramedics, doctors and police officers ? on the front lawn of her home after she was reported missing...
Evidence of my "Groene factor?" And can epithelials truly be lifted off rubber gloves? Evidence of someone highly organized having a moment of disorganization?
Questions. That's all Ocilla, Irwin County High, and people like me have, still.