Eleven years and four months.
That’s how long it took investigators to find enough evidence to arrest and charge someone in the infamous disappearance of Tara Grinstead, an Ocilla, Georgia, teacher who vanished from her home in October 2005 at the age of 30.
During that time, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation followed hundreds of leads but to no avail.
Billboards plastered with her face and a hefty reward popped up across the state. Her disappearance catapulted Ocilla, a tiny town of just a few thousand in the southern part of the state, into the national spotlight.
As the years passed, her case became the largest file in GBI history, and the public became more and more intrigued the longer the disappearance remained unsolved.
In February, a fresh tip led GBI agents to Ryan Alexander Duke, a 31-year-old who attended Irwin County High when Grinstead taught there.
Duke was arrested and charged with the murder of Grinstead. A week later, his longtime friend, Bo Dukes, was arrested and charged with helping hide the body.
That fresh tip — that one tiny piece of new information — is often all it takes to break open a case as cold as ice, investigators say.
Grinstead’s family and friends, along with a captivated public, are one step closer to knowing what exactly happened to her all of those years ago.
But her death isn’t the only unsolved mystery scarring the region.
Across the SunLight Project coverage area — a swath of southern Georgia and northern Florida — murders and disappearances stretching back decades stand unresolved.
An 87-year-old World War II veteran murdered along with his wife at their home on Lake Oconee in Georgia.
A Valdosta insurance man found dead in a field, brutally killed with a machete.
They and many others were stripped of their lives, and the culprits remain free and unknown, leaving a burning desire inside family and law enforcement alike to search out the truth and bring justice to those lost.
A 45-year-old whodunit
John Henry Vick, 34, was found dead on the morning of Sept. 24, 1972, a Sunday. His date for the previous evening, Annie Carol Whitley Wilson, 31, was missing.
Vick's body was found in a pool of drying blood near what today is the entrance to the Thomasville-Thomas County, Georgia Landfill. The vehicle Vick had been driving was parked a short distance away.
His clothing had been rifled through. Nothing was left in his pockets. Tracks of another vehicle were nearby. So were footprints of a barefoot person.
Vick's skull had been cracked in several places. The blows were believed to have been inflicted by a heavy metal pipe or ax.
His date’s body was found three days later beside a church on Nine Mile Post Road, a dozen miles from where Vick's body was found. Wilson also had been beaten to death, and suffered blows to the head.
The murderer — or murderers — have not been apprehended. The motive is unknown.
"I think my suspects are dead," said Lt. Tim Watkins, Thomas County Sheriff's Office chief investigator.
Thomas County Sheriff Carlton Powell, then chief deputy and a lead investigator in the case, said Vick and Wilson were last seen on Saturday night, Sept. 23, 1972, at a U.S. 84 East truck stop.
Returning to the site where Vick's body was found, Powell recalled the car — which had been backed in — was parked near the body. Vick was lying lifeless on the ground near the rear of the vehicle, a station wagon belonging to his father.
The case became active again in 2014, when a letter about the case was mailed to the clerk of court's office. Then-Clerk of Court David Hutchings gave the letter to Thomasville assistant district attorneys, who passed it along to the sheriff.
Information in the letter could not be verified, Watkins said, adding he thinks the writer was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Another dead end.
The 1972 investigation revolved around Vick being the intended victim and it didn’t look at Wilson's background and activities.
"They thought he had been murdered because of a child custody dispute. That's the way it was handled," Watkins said.
But now Watkins wonders if the murder had less to do with Vick and more with Wilson.
"Someone might have been mad at her," he said.
Nothing is known about the Wilson family's whereabouts.
Watkins still searches for new leads. He wants to talk to a boy who was at the truck stop where the murder victims were last seen but whose current whereabouts are unknown.
The boy, then 14, is Danny Williams. He was never interviewed, but Watkins thinks he could be a valuable witness. Watkins, who can be reached at (229) 225-3315, also would like to talk to Wilson family members, who were also never interviewed.
In the initial investigation, evidence was gathered from Thomas County and surrounding areas, including a blood-covered tire tool. Now the evidence cannot be found, Watkins said.
Until new information is brought to light, the case remains a mystery.
– Patti Dozier, Thomasville Times-Enterprise
A mother’s flickering hope
For the first year after the death, Geraldine Smith held a candle on the 27th of each month in memory of her son, who was shot and killed seven years ago.
As she relentlessly held vigils throughout the frigid winter, her son’s case grew colder.
“Whoever killed him, when they killed him, they killed my whole family,” Smith said in a previous Suwannee, Florida, Democrat article.
Marvin O’Hara was shot on March 26, 2010, in a rooming house at 813 Hillman Ave. in Live Oak, Florida. Police found O’Hara with a single gunshot wound at about 11 p.m.
He died the next day at the University of Florida.
Justin Bates, a Live Oak Police Department detective, said clues as to who shot and killed O’Hara are scarce.
“We don’t have a lot to go on,” Bates said then.
That hasn’t changed.
According to Live Oak Police Chief Buddy Williams, despite continued efforts, there is still not much known.
“What’s odd is there is nobody talking about this,” Williams said, adding the police used phone taps earlier in the investigation to try to gather information and even in the past few months have been re-interviewing witnesses, but to no avail.
“Nobody has any new information. We’ve polygraphed, we’ve exhausted all of our resources,” he said.
“Generally in a case like this, somebody is going to say something. That hasn’t been the case in this one. Nobody said anything. That tends to make you think that maybe something else happened. We don’t know.”
What is known is the gun used to kill O’Hara, a 9mm Hi Point semi-automatic pistol, was found later in a local retention pond. Witnesses told police O’Hara’s roommate disposed of the gun. Police then arrested him as a suspect.
He was charged with tampering with evidence, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and use of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
“On the first night working the case, we were told he was seen walking out with a gun, but we could never verify it,” retired LOPD detective Ron Shaw told a reporter in 2011.
However, Bates said investigators were not able to directly link the roommate to O’Hara’s death. He was later released from jail and sentenced to probation.
For years, Bates continued to scour the O’Hara case files searching for something investigators may have missed. Although police have followed every lead, he said no solid information has been found that could bring the case to a close.
Some information suggests there may not even be a crime to solve.
“We’d received some information that this was possibly a suicide as well,” Williams said. “But that’s kind of hard to prove or disprove. They base that on scientific evidence, location of wound, was there gunshot residue on the hands, all kinds of stuff.
“What could have helped a lot of that would have been the recovery of the weapon. We did recover the weapon but it was in a pond awhile later.”
And the inability to close the case is what bothers Williams and the others in the Live Oak Police Department the most.
“I truly want some closure for the family,” he said. “That’s been the toughest part.
“And it’s not good to have an open case where death is involved out there. I’d love to figure it out, put the pieces together, be it a homicide, be it a suicide, be it anything. It’s just not knowing that’s hard about it.
“It frustrates the investigators that are working it as much as it does anybody else. Because there’s nothing better than bringing closure to something.”
Trying to help the LOPD bring closure to the case has been the Crime Stoppers of Suwannee County. The organization has offered a reward of up to $20,000 for information about O’Hara’s death.
But even the monetary reward hasn’t provided the information necessary to solve the case.
“There’s still a reward out there,” Williams said. “That’s another frustrating part of it. Usually when you offer some dollars, somebody is going to say something.”
Until then, Smith holds a candle. She hopes and she waits.
– Thomas Lynn, The Valdosta Daily Times
A horrific Lake Oconee tragedy
Now a little more than three years old, the case of who brutally murdered an elderly couple at their home in an affluent neighborhood at Putnam County’s Lake Oconee holds as much mystery today as it did then.
Their names were Russell and Shirley Dermond, and their deaths were horrific.
The killers murdered the 87-year-old World War II veteran then cut off his head. They put his corpse in the double-garage of the couple’s lake-front home. Russell’s head has never been found.
Authorities first thought Shirley, 86, had been abducted only to learn later that she also had been viciously murdered but in a different manner than her husband.
Shirley’s body — which had been dumped into Lake Oconee about six miles from where she and her husband lived — surfaced several days later, beside two men fishing in a boat.
She had been killed with a blunt-force object and her body had been tied by rope to cement cinderblocks.
A hammer was possibly the murder weapon. Local, state and federal law-enforcement authorities have never found the weapon.
“There’s a lot of things we know about this case and a lot of things we don’t know about this case,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills told The Union-Recorder during a recent interview.
“The two biggest questions that linger in this case is who killed them and why.”
The May 2014 case made national headlines but no solid leads have turned up.
“We don’t have a motive and we still can’t say for absolute certain that they were killed in their home because of the lack of evidence we found there,” said Sills, who has solved dozens of murder cases during his law-enforcement career.
Sills said he, along with detectives from his department, and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents from the field office in Macon have never been able to pinpoint exactly where the victims were killed.
The veteran sheriff, who also serves as second-president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said the lack of knowing certain things has been frustrating.
“We’re constantly going back over things and looking back into the files of this case, but I don’t think there’s a likelihood of us developing a suspect at this juncture, based on something we already have,” Sills said.
“I think it’s going to require somebody coming forward – somebody making a call.”
Anyone with information about the double-murder of Russell and Shirley Dermond should call the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office at (706) 485-8557.
– Billy Hobbs, The Union-Recorder
A daughter’s nightmare
On Thursday afternoon, Nov. 7, 1985, Delores Cox became worried about her parents — the Rev. DeWitt and Jessie Lou Lewis, both 66 — when they failed to show up for work. She phoned them several times but no one picked up.
Cox, the Lewis' only child, went to their Dalton, Georgia, home and found them dead, brutally beaten with severe blows to the head and body.
The murder weapon is unknown. At the time, Leon Cox, Delores’ husband, said the only item missing from the home was the fireplace set containing a poker and other tools.
Dewitt’s wallet had $700 in it that was untouched, and rings, furs and a valuable gun collection were still in the home, Leon told the Daily Citizen-News right after the murders.
James Chadwick, who was a captain in charge of the criminal investigation division of the Dalton Police Department and later became the department's chief, said at the time it looked like someone had rummaged through the home, but it wasn’t at the “ransacked” level.
Leon Cox said then he believed the Lewises knew their attacker.
“We’d come over at night and he’d cut the lights on and look outside before opening the door,” he told the newspaper. “He had a big old lock on the front door and there’s no sign it was forced.”
“(The Lewises) went to church Wednesday night at Brookwood Baptist where Lewis was the pastor," according to a past newspaper article. "... They had spoken to people on the phone as late as 10 p.m. When the bodies were found, they were dressed as though getting ready for bed.”
Chadwick told reporter Mark Millican in 2014 that detectives "probably talked to over 100 people" while investigating the case.
The case drew a lot of attention, and investigators got all kinds of calls, even from people who said they dreamed about the case.
“… And you have to follow up on every lead you get because you don’t know which one’s going to lead you in the right direction,” he said.
Chadwick said investigators had “a feeling” about who committed the murders.
While investigators have never named a suspect, Chadwick indicated in 2014 detectives did have someone in mind.
"I think in our minds and our hearts we know who did it. The problem with that is ... feeling in your heart and knowing in your mind who did it is not beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
The Dalton Police Department follows up on cold cases annually, according to spokesman Bruce Frazier. Detectives followed up on some new leads in the case in the past year, but it did not lead to any new developments.
– Charles Oliver, The Daily Citizen
A teenage disappearance
Brandi Cole was 17 in July 2007 when she was reported missing. Her disappearance left a painful void in her family’s life as they continue searching for answers and closure.
Cole’s mother, Shellie Auchtung, told The Tifton, Georgia, Gazette then that she and her daughter had a “seven-day rule.”
The agreement was either Cole contacts Auchtung every seven days or Auchtung would call law enforcement. Auchtung said Cole had never broken the rule before.
Cole was supposed to have spent the evening with Auchtung on July 6, 2007, along with Cole's daughter. She never showed.
Cole, hazel-eyed with short brown hair, was 5 feet, 7 inches tall.
“She was a lost child before she went missing,” Auchtung said. “I have asked people to help me get her off the street, but was told there was nothing anyone could do because she was 17.”
Auchtung said she believes her daughter encountered foul play.
Auchtung said Cole was last seen July 8, 2007, when she got into a white, four-door, king-cab truck with a black woman and four Hispanic men in the area of Puckett Park in South Tifton, disappearing without a trace.
Stories about what happened to Cole vary. Auchtung said she has heard Cole was randomly chosen to be the initiation into a gang.
Auchtung said even though her daughter had problems, she “is still my baby.”
To Auchtung, not only was her daughter a good mother, a straight-A student, happy, creative and a talented sketcher, she was also loved.
“She got involved with the wrong group of people but I loved her,” Auchtung said.
The day Cole went missing, Auchtung vividly remembers waking up crying and screaming that someone hurt her baby.
“I can’t explain it, it’s strange and people were telling me that I was over-exaggerating, but I felt it and knew,” Auchtung said. “I don’t believe she’s alive. I knew it that morning when I woke up. The last time I saw my baby alive was on my birthday, a day before she went missing.”
Auchtung has been searching for her daughter ever since. She continues to search for her body near ponds hoping to find some closure.
Auchtung has done all she can to help find Cole by putting up missing person fliers around Tifton in the past for some information that would lead to a break in the case.
Cole’s daughter, Carmen, who was 2 years old when Cole went missing, vaguely remembers her mother.
“(Carmen) asks if her mom is in heaven, and I tell her that she’s most likely looking over her,” Auchtung said. “She has questions, and people out there who aren’t talking have the answers."
Mike Walker, who was a captain at the Tift County Sheriff’s Office at the time, told the newspaper that investigators have explored several different leads since Cole disappeared but without success.
They interviewed multiple local people trying to determine what happened to Cole, who had led a transient lifestyle and been involved with drugs.
Officials believe at one point Cole may have been as far away as Mount Olive, N.C.
Anyone with any information in the case is encouraged to call the Tift County Sheriff’s Office, (229) 388-6020, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1-800-843-5678.
As for Auchtung, she said she just wants anyone with information to come forward so she and her family can lay the terrible ordeal to rest.
“I won’t stop looking for her,” she said.
– Eve Guevara, The Tifton Gazette
A Thomas County vanishing
Glenda Quisenberry has not been seen since 1989.
The last sight of her was at a women’s shelter in Cairo, Georgia, being carried out by her estranged boyfriend, said Lt. Tim Watkins, Thomas County Sheriff's Office chief investigator.
There was a history of domestic violence between Quisenberry and the man, Watkins said. The boyfriend told investigators Quisenberry had been asleep on a sofa at a mobile home on Lost Arrowhead Lane off Carter's Road.
He went to an Egg and Butter Road residence to get clothing, and when he got back, she was nowhere to be found.
Quisenberry was not reported missing for several months.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents interviewed the boyfriend, who denied having a hand in the disappearance, according to Watkins.
The case was reopened in 2009, after what appeared to be blood was found in the mobile home.
Watkins went to the boyfriend's Jacksonville, Florida, residence. He said the boyfriend told him what happened to Quisenberry was "between him and God."
A murder warrant was issued by a Thomas County judge. After several months, the boyfriend was picked up in Texas.
Watkins said when deputies read the warrant to the boyfriend, he said, "'That's not how it happened.'"
Investigators searched several places where they believed Quisenberry’s body had been dumped. Her remains were never found.
The boyfriend was never tried and was eventually released from the Thomas County Jail. He moved to Washington state and has since passed away, according to authorities.
The case remains unsolved.
– Patti Dozier, Thomasville Times-Enterprise
The one that got away
December 6, 1999. 11:40 p.m.
Major Raymond Drennon, chief detective at the Tifton Police Department, got a call that there had been a shooting at what was then the Georgetown Apartments at 6th and Davis in Tifton.
Raleigh Wilson, 30, had been shot. Drennon found him laying in the grass in front of building 2.
TPD’s Garfield Rhaney joined him.
According to witnesses, Wilson had been shot between buildings 6 and 7 when two black males started chasing him. He had run across David Avenue trying to get away.
One of the shooters came after him and shot him again, and Wilson fell dead in the grass where Drennon found him.
The story the investigators put together was Wilson had gone to the store to get some things before he was shot. Drennon said they found some of the items at the initial spot where he was shot and more at the location where he died.
Another witness said one of Wilson’s friends was supposed to be at the apartment complex, and Wilson had been going to see someone in building 2, but that is where the story gets murky, said Drennon, who is now assistant chief at TPD.
“Several folks saw this thing,” Drennon said. “Of course, like in a lot of cases, you’ve got witnesses who aren’t willing to be witnesses.”
He said there were several stories floating around about happened.
According to one story, Wilson owed someone money, the exact reason changing from person to person, and that was why he was shot.
Some of the witnesses identified people who were supposed to have known what happened, but either the witnesses claimed to have no idea what had occurred or had left town completely.
“It seemed that every time we turned around it was, ‘I heard it was this guy and this guy.’ Or the family would call us with what they would hear,” Drennon said.
Drennon said he was given four or five names of people who had supposedly done the shooting. He's followed every lead, but they all led to dead ends.
Witnesses gave conflicting stories, or they changed their stories. Multiple suspects were interviewed, even polygraphed, with no results. Fingerprints were submitted but never matched.
There were guns recovered from the scene, but they couldn’t be tied to the crime.
“We never even recovered the weapon itself,” he said, which means the people who shot Wilson either took the guns with them or tossed them somewhere.
Drennon said he has spoken to Wilson’s mother in the past, which is one reason he wants to solve this case — even now, almost two decades later.
“I would like to go tell her that we finally got the guy who killed her son. They still call,” Drennon said, referring to Wilson’s family. “Every couple of years, they call to see if we have any new information.
“I can’t think of too many things that would be better than to go tell Raleigh Wilson’s momma that we found the guy that killed him.”
Drennon and Rhaney worked on the case for more than six months. They chased down a lot of leads, collected a lot of fingerprints and physical evidence.
Drennon is still willing to do more to close the case.
“I’d be tickled pink if someone called in and said, ‘I want to tell you what I know,’ cause we’d fire this thing right back up. Hell, I wouldn’t even retire till we got done.
“I feel certain that Raleigh Wilson’s killer is still right here in Tifton and there’s folks here that know it,” he said. “They could break this thing wide open if they’d just come tell what they know.
“For me, it will always be the one that got away.”
– Eve Guevara, The Tifton Gazette
Just beyond the fingertips
In many cold cases, evidence will point strongly to a certain person, but there’s just not quite enough proof to arrest and charge. So the resolution of the case stays just beyond the grasp of investigators.
In Colquitt County, several cases, one dating more than three decades, remain unsolved.
But investigators say they are still beating the bushes looking for more information.
“In quite a few of these cases, we have people that we believe are responsible, but there is not enough to bring criminal charges at this point,” said Jamy Steinberg, special agent in charge of the GBI’s Thomasville office.
“We consult with the District Attorney’s Office when we receive information and discuss the viability of prosecution in each case individually.”
The most recent unsolved slayings are those of Anthony Tyshaun Keith and Willie “Chill” Bender Jr., both of which occurred in the city of Moultrie, and the fatal shooting of Sylvester Ricky Hill, which is being investigated by the Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office.
Keith, 27, was fatally shot on the night of March 29, 2012, at an apartment complex in southwest Moultrie. He made his way to the nearby Woodmen of the World Park, where he collapsed.
The 29-year-old Bender’s death came a little more than two years earlier. His body, which had been stripped of his shorts and shoes, was found in front of his 504 Fourth St. S.W. residence.
Bender’s girlfriend reported hearing gunshots on April 14, 2010, and when police responded at 5:56 a.m., they found Bender, shot multiple times.
As the two-year anniversary of Hill’s slaying approaches, investigators are hoping to make progress on finding the 58-year-old man’s killer.
A neighbor discovered Hill’s body inside his mobile home in the 100 block of Arrowhead Lane on the morning of June 26, 2015, after noticing his truck was parked there at a time when Hill normally would have been at work.
Hill was killed by a gunshot to the chest. Investigators know the night before his death he had attended a party where he played cards.
Some time after arriving home, someone went inside the residence and shot Hill in his hallway, sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Robinson said.
There was no sign of forced entry and the motive remains unknown.
Several people have been interviewed — including everyone at the card game — but there’s never been enough information to pinpoint a suspect, Robinson said.
Robinson believes that someone out there knows who killed Hill.
“We’d like to give Mr. Hill’s family some relief, knowing the case is still open, and we hope one day to make an arrest,” Robinson said. “Somebody knows something or saw something. We just hope they come forward and will either contact us or contact the GBI.”
Investigations into Bender and Keith’s deaths are still active, Steinberg said, as is that of Throdger Johnson, who was found shot to death 15 years ago in the north end of Colquitt County near the Worth County line.
On Halloween night 1983, businessman Joey Miller’s body was found in the trunk of his car. No arrests have ever been made.
The decomposed remains of a young woman found more than 20 years ago in northwest Moultrie have never been identified.
Steinberg is sure there are people out there with information crucial to these cases.
For a loved one, not knowing the circumstances or reason for a relative’s death is difficult, said Wilma Hadley, who is Willie Bender Jr.’s aunt.
The night Bender was killed his shorts had been removed — and were never found — and his shoes were off and near his body, said Hadley, who is deputy assistant clerk in the Criminal Division of the Colquitt County Clerk of Court’s Office and a Moultrie City Council member.
“Seven years since the death, or murder, of Willie “Chill” Bender Jr., no arrests, no suspects,” she said. “But we’re still hoping that someone with information about the murder will come forward and alert the authorities.”
Bender left behind five children. Although he was not an angel and had his own brushes with the law, “He was still somebody’s child,” Hadley said.
The arrest and conviction of Bender’s killer would bring the family closure and perhaps knowledge about the motive.
“It won’t bring him back but it will close the case,” Hadley said.
– Alan Mauldin, The Moultrie Observer
This report is the second installment of a four-part series on unsolved crimes.
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Thomas Lynn, Patti Dozier, Charles Oliver, Billy Hobbs, Alan Mauldin and Eve Guevara, along with the writer, team leader John Stephen.
To contact the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.