It was a mystery over a decade old; the largest case file in the state of Georgia’s history. In 2005, high school teacher Tara Grinstead disappeared from the town of Ocilla, Georgia (population under 4,000). By 2016, the case had long-stalled, no arrests had been made.
That’s when the team behind Tenderfoot TV, a two-man team with a background in music videos, documentaries, and entertainment, decided to open the case back up on their own.
Payne Lindsey, a director and independent filmmaker, and music industry veteran Donald Albright were searching for a new project to flex their creative muscles, and originally looked into creating a video docu-series. But budget was low (read: almost non-existent), so, inspired by the success of true crime podcast Serial, the team decided to explore the audio genre.
“Honestly it was just economics. It’s much cheaper to produce a podcast than it is to produce an independent documentary,” says Albright. “I personally was not a big podcaster and Payne had only listened to a couple of podcasts — Serial being one of them.”
Lindsey had no investigative background; he literally found the case through a Google search. They began putting out feelers for the podcast, which they named ‘Up and Vanished,’ online and were surprised to get a quick response from private investigator Dr. Maurice Godwin, who had been hired by Grinstead’s sister in 2006.
“That was really when this thing kicked into another gear,” says Albright.
“He [Dr. Godwin] had been working the case for 10-plus years, on his own time and as a favor to the family, in the interest of justice,” says Albright. “After 10 years of investigating, he went on TV and told CNN that the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) needed to change their strategy on how they were going to pursue this case because nothing had happened in 10 years. So he was just willing to share everything he knew about this case.”
With Dr. Godwin’s help, Lindsey began reviewing old case files and interviewing residents of the town that had known Grinstead before she disappeared. In many episodes, listeners could hear the interview subjects reveal uncovered facts or insights about Grinstead as Lindsey and Albright learned them.
And the town was listening too.
“Everyone was like their own private investigator,” says Albright. “It’s such a small town that these people are relatives of some of the persons of interest, relatives of some of the people who may have been property owners of some of these sites. In such a close-knit community, when a few people start talking leads and reach 300 people — well, that’s 10 percent of the town. This thing was being talked about from grocery stores to the banks to the police to the courthouse.”
In the middle of the podcast, the authorities made their first arrest.
“Once there were arrests made and there were names being named and associates of those people started getting dragged into it, then we started to see a change,” says Albright. “From people seeing this as a 10-year-old case where we were trying to get justice for one person — well, now it looks like a few, maybe 10 people, could potentially be involved in knowing about this.”
“It started to get a little bit sketchy when it came to the response. People felt like they were being targeted.”
Since the wrap-up of Season 1 of UAV (which has since surpassed 130 million downloads), two suspects have been arrested. There was an indictment, and a judge issued a gag order for the GBI.
“We’re at a place now where there have been two arrests made and the overall response is positive. I think there are still people who probably want the rest of the story, as we do, but where we sit now with the town in general is very positive. I think as the arrests were made, it became more clear that a lot of these theories are actually true,” says Albright.
Since wrapping the podcast, the Tenderfoot team has taken the UAV story on a live tour around the country. They’re working on a Season 2, which will highlight a different cold case each episode, along with a TV deal.
They also landed a partnership with Atlanta-based podcast giant HowStuffWorks, the largest for-profit podcasting company in the world, to produce a new true crime series called Atlanta Monster. It will focus on a series of child murders in Atlanta that took place over thirty years ago from 1979-81. All the victims were African American, ranging from children to adults, during a period in history rife with racial tensions; there was one arrest made, but the convicted man continues to maintain his innocence.
Atlanta Monster is HowStuffWorks’ first foray into the true crime genre.
“It’s incredible working with HowStuffWorks,” says Albright. “We’re just learning the industry, learning the business of it, and we’re starting to have a grasp on where it’s going. We’d like to be seen as bringing new blood into an industry that’s relatively new — to knock down any barriers and rules that are there.”
Albright says they see their reporting as bringing attention to not only cold cases, but also some of the larger socioeconomic and policy issues within the criminal justice system.
“With Atlanta Monster and Season 2, we’re using this platform to bring awareness. So whether it’s missing children in Atlanta or just the some of the discrepancies between the reporting of missing black or minority children, we want to bring awareness to these tragedies within the community,” says Albright.
With Atlanta Monster slated for January 2018, investigation for Season 2 underway, and more work yet on UAV — the Tenderfoot team is committed to remaining true to their roots as content creators.
“The main thing — whether it’s true crime, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, no matter what medium you’re going to actually use — it’s all about the story,” says Albright.
“We don’t consider ourselves podcasters, we consider ourselves storytellers.”