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Judge's orders seal Grinstead case file and hearings

A Tifton Judicial Circuit judge has sealed the court file in the Tara Grinstead murder case and closed any pre-trial hearings to the public.

Judge Melanie Cross signed two orders on the case Feb. 28, the same day she signed a gag order on the Grinstead investigation.

Her orders states that extensive media coverage in the case may jeopardize defendant Ryan Duke's right to a fair trial.

Cross writes that the entire case file, including pre-trial motions, should be sealed from public access. Any hearings in the case must be "in camera" -- behind closed doors, with no access to the public and media -- until further notice, Cross's orders say.

Judge Melanie Cross heard arguments on the matter for about 45 minutes Thursday -- mostly from lawyers for media groups who said her order was unnecessary.

Those two orders came to light Thursday, the same day that lawyers for several media companies argued in Irwin County Superior Court against Cross's gag order. That order says lawyers in the Duke case, law enforcement officers, possible witnesses and others involved in the investigation cannot comment publicly on the case.

13WMAZ and WXIA-TV in Atlanta are among the media outlets that have challenged the gag order.

Media lawyers argued Thursday that the gag order was unnecessary and too broad and would infringe on the media's First Amendment rights to gather and report the news.

They said Cross has other tools available to protect Duke's Sixth Amendment rights. They include questioning potential jurors for possible bias, instructing the jury about disregarding media coverage, moving the trial out of Irwin County or bringing an outside jury panel.

Cross said Thursday she would review briefs and documents filed by the attorneys, and she hoped to rule within a week on whether to lift the gag order.

Atlanta attorney Derek Bauer, who represented 13WMAZ and WXIA in the gag-order hearing, wrote Thursday that he was reviewing the two orders sealing the court records and closing hearings in the Duke case.

Grinstead, an Irwin County High School teacher, went missing in 2005, Last month, Duke was charged with killing her and concealing her body. A second man, Bo Dukes, is also charged with helping him conceal her body.

Investigators have declined to comment on the case since last month's gag order.

A Break In the Case

The recent arrests of two Georgia men signify major breaks in the October 2005 disappearance and murder of Irwin County High School teacher Tara Grinstead. The arrests of Irwin County High classmates - Ryan Duke, 33, and Bo Dukes, 32, culminated an investigation that has lasted over a decade.

Below are Top 5 things to know about this case and the recent arrests.

1.) The Disappearance:

  • October 2005: Irwin County High School teacher and local beauty queen Tara Grinstead, 31, goes missing. Wendy McFarland, a fellow teacher at Irwin County High was one of the last people to talk to Grinstead at about 10 p.m., Oct. 22. "She had just come in from her pageant and was on her way to the barbecue … then, we never heard from her again." McFarland told 13WMAZ in a 2015 interview.

2.) Tips Come Up Empty:

  • The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement have been emphatic that the Grinstead case has never gone cold. GBI officials said they’ve continued to receive and follow-up on tips in the teacher’s disappearance and murder. In 2011, the Irwin County sheriff said he got a tip telling him to search near a bridge on Reedy Creek. He says a dive team and deputies searched for more than four hours and found nothing. In 2015, law enforcement searched a pond in Ben Hill County but said they found nothing.

GBI, law enforcement pray before announcing arrest of suspected Tara Grinstead killer

3.) Ryan Duke, Arrested:

  • Feb. 23, 2017, The GBI calls a 3 p.m. news conference. They announce the arrest of Ryan Duke, 33, a former student at Irwin County High, where Grinstead taught. Duke is accused of burglary - breaking into Grinstead's 300 West Park St., Ocilla, Ga. home. Two hours after the GBI’s news conference, Duke appeared before an Irwin County magistrate judge who told the suspect he’s accused of using "his hands in an offensive manner with the intent to cause bodily harm," to Grinstead and "concealing" the beauty pageant winner’s body.

Teacher recalls accused Grinstead killer as "sweet, clean cut"

Ryan Alexander Duke, 33, in court Thursday. He's charged in the Oct. 2005 death of Tara Grinstead.

Tara Grinstead's stepmother: 'We always believed it would be solved, we just didn't know when'

4.) Investigators search pecan farm for Grinstead’s remains as judge issues gag order:

  • A Tifton Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge issues a gag order five days after Duke’s arrest preventing law enforcement, or any agencies involved in the case, from speaking about it. The order was issued as investigators searched Ben Hill County, Ga.'s Hudson Pecan farm off Bowen’s Mill Highway. They searched the farm for three days. Officials have not said if Grindstead's remains were found. 13WMAZ-TV, Macon, Ga. is challenging the judge's gag order.

Investigators apparently stop searching Ben Hill farm for Tara Grinstead's remains

Hudson Pecan farm in Fitzgerald on Wednesday morning as crews searched for Tara Grinstead.

5.) Classmate of accused Grinstead killer also arrested:

  • 13WMAZ learned Friday that Bo Dukes – an Inrwin County High School classmate of Ryan Duke – was arrested. Dukes, 32, is charged with concealing death, hindering apprehension or punishment of a criminal, and tampering with evidence. Dukes is the nephew of Randy Hudson, owner of the pecan farm where investigators searched for Grinstead’s remains. Dukes is also the grandson of former Ga. State Rep. Newt Hudson. Less than two hours after he was arrested, Dukes was released on $16,700 bond.

Bo Dukes booking photo from Friday after he was booked in connection to the Tara Grinstead case.
2001 Irwin County High School yearbook photos of Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes, side-by-side.