Lifestyle

How I helped solve a decade-old missing person's case with my podcast

Payne Lindsey started with a cold case and a microphone, and wound up with the arrest of two men.

By Catriona Harvey-Jenner
Payne Lindsey started with a cold case and a microphone...

When the podcast Serial was released back in 2014, it triggered a new obsession over true crime. Listeners worldwide were hooked as they tried to determine whether Adnan Syed really was responsible for the death of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and it quickly escalated to become one of the most downloaded podcasts of all time.

One person who was listening with interest was Payne Lindsey, a 30-year-old independent filmmaker from a town just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Payne wasn't just fascinated because he wanted a resolution to the murder mystery like the rest of us, but because it sparked an idea: that he himself could investigate a cold case and turn it into an audio documentary.

OUSMAN SAHKO
OUSMAN SAHKO

With no detective experience whatsoever, Payne started scouring old news articles and online forums to hunt out possible investigations. But he could never have imagined, at that point, that he was about to help solve a missing persons case that had been puzzling police, family and local residents for 11 years.

The disappearance of Tara Grinstead immediately stuck out to Payne. Being based near Atlanta, he knew he wanted to concentrate on an incident that had occurred locally so he could "go and physically investigate, and talk to people".

"I was going to be either all in, or all out on this," he told Cosmopolitan UK.

These were the facts: 30-year-old beauty queen and high school history teacher, Tara Grinstead, went missing from her home in the small town of Ocilla, Georgia on October 22, 2005. On the night of her disappearance, a Saturday, she had attended a barbecue at her friend's house, but left shortly after 10.30pm. When Tara failed to show up at school the following Monday, police were called to investigate.

Tara Grinstead, COURTESY OF MARIA HARBER
Tara Grinstead, COURTESY OF MARIA HARBER

At Tara's home, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) found no signs of forced entry, and no indication of any kind of struggle. Tara's car was still parked in the driveway, her phone was still charging in her bedroom, and the clothes she had been wearing were still in a pile on the bedroom floor. But there was no Tara. She had simply upped and vanished.

Where to start?

Despite various bits of evidence from the scene emerging over the years – a broken necklace, a lone latex glove, a misplaced alarm clock – neither local police, the GBI, nor private investigators hired by Tara's family could piece together the puzzle to work out what really happened to her. But that was the task Payne challenged himself with 11 years later in his podcast, Up and Vanished.

Determining that the first thing he had to do was "to get the basic gist of the story", Payne read up on the Tara Grinstead case. A lot. "I basically picked up essentially right where everyone left off," Payne said.

And then he went out to start talking to people. Not being able to gain access to the official police case file – which is the largest in the state of Georgia's history - it was Payne's only option. "The answer might be in a case file somewhere, but oftentimes someone out there is keeping a secret. Someone knows something, even if they don't think what they know is important.

"So I just started talking to people," Payne explained. "That's all I knew how to do, and that's all I did. It just snowballed from there."

Tara (right) with her best friend, Maria Harber, COURTESY OF MARIA HARBER
Tara (right) with her best friend, Maria Harber, COURTESY OF MARIA HARBER

To begin with, the people of Ocilla were reluctant to talk about the Tara Grinstead case. 11 years had passed, and it seemed everyone had become tight-lipped. "Everyone was talking about it - but behind closed doors. No-one had talked openly about the Tara Grinstead case really in almost in a decade," Payne said.

Realising he wasn't going to get anywhere by diving straight in and causing ripples trying to interview those closest to Tara, Payne decided to ease his way in. "I went to the outer circle surrounding Tara. Some of her acquaintances who were a little more comfortable talking about stuff," he said. "What I found was that people were willing to talk, but they were scared about what other people would think of what they had to say.

"So much time had gone by, rumours had developed, and stories had got twisted and tangled," Payne explained.

As time went on and the podcast began to air, delving into all the possible suspects – Tara's ex-boyfriend Marcus Harper, a police officer she was believed to have been romantically involved with, and a former high school student it was thought may have had an interest in her – Payne noticed people becoming more and more willing to talk. "It became a lot more socially acceptable in the town," he said.

Finding out what really happened

While researching the case, Payne posted on a forum about Tara's case, and was contacted in response by Dr Maurice Godwin. Dr Godwin was a private investigator originally hired by Tara's family, and he'd been working on the case for almost a decade. Together, the pair followed up several arresting leads which felt, at times, like they might be about to crack the case.

"I got a call to go search underneath this house for potential bones," Payne recalled. "Sure enough, days later, the law enforcement came out there and searched the same place I did - and they dug up some bones.

"In that moment I thought, 'oh wow, this is it'," he said. "But it ended up being animal bones."

Tara (left) and Maria, COURTESY OF MARIA HARBER
Tara (left) and Maria, COURTESY OF MARIA HARBER

The bones under the house might not have led Payne to discover what really happened to Tara Grinstead, but it triggered police to re-focus on the investigation. And sure enough, six months after the podcast first aired, a man was arrested in connection with the case.

Two months later, that man was indicted on six charges including murder and aggravated assault. The case was no longer a missing person, but a murder investigation. Four months after the initial arrest, another man was indicted on charges including concealing the death of another. The two arrests were made following a tip which came from outside Payne's podcast, but there's no doubt that Up and Vanished played a huge part in these major new developments.

"The podcast created an environment in this small Georgia town that was almost like a pressure-cooker," Payne told Cosmopolitan UK. "Everyone around you was talking about the case openly for the first time ever, so if you were someone who was walking around with a dark secret, it became very difficult to keep that secret. Certainly people were feeling the pressure – Who are they going to interview next? Are they going to talk to someone who knows about what I know?

"That created this fear in people who knew what happened, and I think that's what ultimately led to the tip coming forward."

The podcast, responding to the arrests, ultimately began to unfold as a realtime investigation. Payne himself began interviewing people close to the arrested men in an attempt to find out exactly what happened, piecing together her murder.

Teenage Tara (left), COURTESY OF MARIA HARBER
Teenage Tara (left), COURTESY OF MARIA HARBER

There are still a lot of holes in the Tara Grinstead case. The exact circumstances are yet to be established in detail, and Payne believes the specifics will only emerge when there's a trial. For now, though, thanks to Payne's diligence and determination to get people talking about Tara Grinstead once more, her family and friends have received some sort of closure.

"They have been tormented by this for over a decade, and so to finally get some truth – even if it's just the partial truth – feels really good," said Payne. "Not knowing is really painful, and I think that's what Tara's family and these locals needed - just to know what happened so they could move on and heal."

To have played a significant role in solving a murder, Payne thinks is "crazy. So crazy."

"To think that I almost just never did this at one point, and for this to have made any difference at all in real life, is just completely insane to me," he said. "But I'm just really inspired in the idea that people can make a difference. I didn't have any experience, I'm not any better at this than you are, but I decided to do it. I gave it everything I've got and, sure enough, something happened."

You can listen to the whole of series 1 of 'Up and Vanished' series either here or on your podcast app. Series 2 of 'Up and Vanished', which investigates a new case centred around the disappearance of a young woman, this time outside of Georgia, is released on August 20, 2018. Listen to the trailer here or the first episode here.