Since I’ve been sharing intel with you, my partners in crime, I’ve spoken to some of the most recognizable figures in true crime, and it has been exceptionally cool. My mission is to bring you exclusive information from some of the most prominent investigators, authors, and podcasters. I’ve executed that mission with a determined focus to deliver something new and exciting to our readers. And to suppress my urge to jump around the room scream-giggling with every interview. Until I get off the phone.
But when Payne Lindsey answered the phone for our conversation, I was starstruck. Full-on sweaty palms, clumsy stammering, shrill pitch starstruck.
I was nervous because as you know, I’m a podcast junkie, and Payne Lindsey has - perhaps inadvertently - reached the pinnacle of true crime podcasting with season one of Up and Vanished. He has achieved the thing that nearly every true crime enthusiast dreams of doing.
“Of course I wanted to solve it,” Payne says. “I didn’t think it was impossible, but I thought it was unrealistic. It didn’t deter me from trying any harder.”
He’s talking about the mysterious disappearance of beloved high school teacher Tara Grinstead. Tara’s disappearance from her Ocilla, Georgia home in 2005 sent shock waves through the tiny town. Residents demanded answers and justice for Tara and her family.
But none would come. Almost immediately, Tara’s case went cold, flash-frozen and suspended in permafrost. After twelve years with no new evidence, no leads, no eyewitnesses, the perpetrator who took Tara must have been confident that he had gotten away with it.
But he didn’t know that one day in 2015, an Atlanta documentary filmmaker decided to investigate the case, to find Tara. He didn’t know that his days as a free man began ticking away at that moment.
“I just wanted to stir things up,” says Payne. “I wanted to put a spotlight on the community and pressure people to talk. I thought maybe in doing that some truth would come out.”
Spoiler alert: Mission. Definitely. Accomplished.
In small towns, there’s rarely much to do except talk. And Payne’s almost constant presence in sleepy Ocilla, Georgia certainly set people talking. They talked about Payne, they talked about the podcast, but most importantly, they began talking about Tara’s disappearance again. Payne’s investigation reignited a fervor that lay dormant for twelve years.
Consider things stirred.
Payne published twelve well-researched, impeccably-produced episodes of Up and Vanished before that stir grew into a vortex of new information.
Shortly after his twelfth episode, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested a man named Ryan Alexander Duke for the disappearance and murder of Tara Grinstead. Duke’s arrest was the result of an anonymous tip and led to substantial probable cause to serve a warrant. In an interim that could be clocked with an egg timer, Duke implicated an accomplice with the serendipitous name of Bo Dukes. No relation.
Still, there had been false leads in the past. Payne suppressed the urge to celebrate and, with great effort, remained skeptical. Until he arrived in Ocilla the day the news broke.
“The first place I went was the police station.” The memory lends a faint excitement to his voice. “I saw [Ocilla Police Chief] Billy Hancock sitting outside. I asked, “Is it good news?” and he nodded, smiled, and just said, “Yes.” That’s when I let myself believe it.”
As it tends to do in high-profile cold cases, that good news spread like whatever thing is faster than wildfire. And Payne was right in the middle of it. Life after the Duke/ses has been slightly different than life before.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been intense. It’s been a roller-coaster ride,” he answers with what sounds like part bewilderment and part well-earned pride. “There’s all this new information, and we’re sorting through what we know and what we don’t know about the arrests and all the new information the GBI has provided.”
By this point, the threadbare veil of professionalism that I manage to maintain most some of the time had melted away. So I stumbled through a question that, according to the audio, went something like this: “I was impressed with the uh. . . speed? and agility with which you switched gears when the news broke, and you moved from kind of. . .investigating the case to, uh. . . to. . . I mean, from investigating it to actually covering it as news broke.” I apparently forgot to ask an actual question, but Payne is pretty intuitive.
“It’s been a frantic time and a very active investigation for the GBI,” he answers my non-question about how he so quickly transitioned between roles. That’s what I meant to say. Transition.
“So it’s been frantic for me, too. The day before the arrest, it seemed like I was the only person reporting on or looking into the case. Then I became one of hundreds. I had to be ahead of the curve and be the first to get information, scrap some things I was looking into that weren’t so important, and completely change up what I was doing. I was constantly updating the podcast with the new information but also had to seek out and research or verify that information. It’s been a wild ride trying to stay on top of things and make sense of what happened to Tara.”
What happened to Tara?
That’s been the question plaguing Ocilla for twelve years. How did a beloved beauty queen-turned-beloved high school teacher disappear from her well-known home, in a tiny town, with neighbors just feet away, without anyone in such a small town hearing, seeing, or knowing anything? That question is the reason why, when Payne was researching cases to feature on his new podcast, Tara’s was the one he was most drawn to.
“It just amazed me that no one knew what happened,” he recalls. “Under the (very weird) circumstances, it felt impossible that nobody in this tiny town knew what happened for over a decade. That was the drive for me to take a look at it myself and see if I could find anything that may have been overlooked that would breathe some life back into it.”
(Informant’s note: Every time he says his motivations were to “stir things up” or “breathe new life” or “get people talking,” it’s a battle with my brain not to shout “You did it!” and throw confetti in the air.)
So he had goals. Some more achievable than others. But he knew what he wanted to do.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he begins after a brief pause. He pulls words into thoughtful consideration before committing to a response, which is something that likely helped him make inroads with Ocilla residents.
“Everyone sets out to solve these things. I was no different, but I was realistic. I’m not a LEO or an investigator; I don’t know everything about how to do this. But what I did know was that I could stir things up. [confetti!] I wanted to put a spotlight on the community and pressure people to talk. [confetti!] I thought that maybe in doing that, some truth would emerge. I think I accomplished what I set out to do and that feels good. ”
Throughout his investigation, Payne met what I assume would be the entire population of Ocilla and made plenty of new friends. One of the first people he met was Dr. Maurice Godwin, a forensic investigator from North Carolina whom the Grinstead family hired to examine the case independently. Godwin became a friend to Payne and regularly appears on Up and Vanished to provide new insights into the case.
That doesn’t mean that Payne didn’t ruffle some feathers.
“I’m not one to take “no” for an answer if I can help it,” he says with conviction. “One of my goals was to remain respectful throughout the process, but plenty of doors were slammed in my face. Many people, I think, wanted just to leave it alone or thought it was futile.”
But everything changed when Duke and Dukes were taken into custody.
“At first, everyone was happy,” Payne says of the atmosphere in Ocilla after the arrests. “They were excited to have some answers for the first time in years. The community was hurting for a long time, and they were relieved to get some answers.”
But as with every case, the atmosphere was far from jubilant.
“At the same time, it was heartbreaking because we knew for sure that Tara wasn’t coming home. There was always the small chance that she had left on her own, was living somewhere and was happy. A lot of people didn’t believe that was the case, but they were never able to rule it out. When the news broke, it crushed that tiny little sliver of hope. So they wanted answers. Then with the gag order, the answers just stopped coming.”
Soon after the arrest, a judge issued a gag order that prevented nearly everyone from speaking about what they knew. After a resounding outcry from residents and true crime enthusiasts following the case, the judge amended the gag order to apply to only law enforcement, the suspects, and a select few individuals. But it still brought the flow of information to grinding halt.
“If they’re worried about speculation or rumors, the gag order only perpetuates that,” Payne explains, a little frustrated. “It prevents people from knowing the facts, so they make up their own. In my opinion, it’s having a negative effect on the town and the case. But that community is tenacious, and I’m confident they’ll be persistent in demanding answers about what happened to Tara.”
As the gag order has kept new information from making its way to the people of Ocilla, the case might as well have frozen over again. So it’s difficult to tell what’s next for the case. Payne has made an informed guess, though.
“The GBI will try to convict Ryan Duke and wrap this up as quickly as possible without a lot of media circus. It would be in their best interest to get a guilty plea* and wrap it up as seamlessly as possible. So if we want the truth about what happened to Tara, it’s up to me, you, the public, true crime fans, even the podcast to demand those answers. We’re not going to count on the police to tell us that. So we need to be persistent and make sure we get the whole story about what happened to Tara.”
Speaking of the podcast, I’m curious to know how Payne has evaluated the role it played in Tara’s case. His response is characteristically well-considered.
“It became a special medium for people to discuss the case, listen to it together, and talk about their theories. From what I could tell, after the case went cold, people just kind of stopped discussing it.
“The podcast recreated the atmosphere, and it began to feel again like it must have felt immediately after Tara’s disappearance: everywhere you go, someone is talking about it. So if you’re holding a secret, it becomes more and more difficult, especially when the alleged killer and his accomplice are still living there. So it created a pressure cooker environment that eventually blew open.”
Still, he understands the reality of it-- that what had once been random pieces of this puzzle fell together seamlessly because the circumstances were right. And maybe because of a little luck.
“There’s no science to it. There's no way to recreate it. But if you go into it with a goal and good intentions, good things can happen.”
So what’s next? Can Payne Lindsey ever top this? Rest assured that he can, and plans to.
“We’re putting together a documentary series based on the story and Up and Vanished,” he begins with a deep breath that tells me there’s a lot of information coming my way.
“We’re also looking ahead to season two of the podcast where we want to tackle another unsolved disappearance. We’re sorting through hundreds of emails people have sent us with suggestions and, unfortunately, there’s no shortage. It’s important that we pick the right case, go into it the right way, and give it our all again. Attempt to create that atmosphere again. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.”
(Informant’s note: I pressed him for details on his shortlist of cases, so he compromised and divulged two names. I can’t say what they are, but I can say you should make it a priority to tune into season two of Up and Vanished.)
Another thing that comes next for Payne: CrimeCon. Throughout our conversation, he’s maintained a respectful stoicism that slips away now that we've gravitated to a new topic. His voice perks up at the chance to discuss his upcoming session.
“I’m excited about CrimeCon! I’m looking forward to meeting listeners, seeing other podcasters whom I admire, finding out what Nancy Grace is like in person,” he ends with a slight, but not disrespectful, chuckle.
I’m most excited about what he says next.
“I’m also conducting a seminar of sorts in which I explain how I produce episodes of the podcast. Which is kind of cool because I’ve never really broken it down to explain it, so I’m learning right along with the audience. I’m trying to make it a fun presentation about what goes into making an episode. We’ll also be recording a live episode so be sure to be there.”
My pockets are already stuffed with confetti.
*Since our interview, Ryan Alexander Duke has issued a plea of not guilty for the murder of Tara Grinstead. His attorney has requested full discovery of the GBI case file. The file is the largest in GBI history, which means that the discovery process of copying, compiling, reviewing, and interpreting everything in it could take months or even years. But Tara’s family and the people of Ocilla have waited twelve years for justice. I would hazard a guess that they’d be willing to wait a little longer if that’s what it takes to get it.