While friends and family were at Steven Beard’s side at the hospital in Austin, police received a tip that led them to the home of Tracey Tarlton.
“We introduced ourselves. She invited us in,” says Detective Rick Wines. “We asked if she owned a 20-gauge shotgun, and she said yes, she did.”
Within days, Wines linked Tracey’s gun to the crime scene.
“The shotgun shell that we found at the scene came from the shotgun that we found in her house,” says Wines. “You know, two and two to me has always been four.”
On October 8, 1999, Tracey Tarlton, the well-respected manager of Austin’s largest independent bookstore, was arrested.
“I did it for Celeste,” says Tracey.
And what’s more, she and Celeste were the best of friends.
“We saw each other for the most part, every day at some point or another,” remembers Tracey. “Celeste is fun. She’s fun-loving.”
“I genuinely liked her. I mean, she was a nice person,” says Celeste. “She had a lot of good qualities. I cared very much for Tracey as a friend.”
But today, Tracey’s version of almost everything that happened back in 1999 is completely different from her one-time best friend’s, including the state of the Beard marriage.
Did Celeste love her husband?
“No,” says Tracey. “She often called him disgusting. She thought that he was a ridiculous, old, fat man.”
Tracey also says Celeste told her it wasn’t just Steven’s physical appearance that she hated. It was the way he treated her. “He just emotionally crushed her all the time, ran her down, and belittled her and berated her and taunted, tortured her emotionally until it left her in these really depressed suicidal states.”
So why didn’t Celeste just get a divorce?
“She would become terrified about that,” says Tracey. “She would say she couldn’t, that he would hunt her down. She could never get out from under him.”
Celeste felt like a prisoner in her own home, says Tracey. So to escape her husband she came up with outlandish ways to knock him out.
“He drank a lot of vodka, but she would take the vodka bottle and pour most of it out and fill it up with everclear, which is higher proof alcohol,” says Tracey. “Or she would take sleeping pills and grind them up and put them in his food.”
Tracey says this would make Steve pass out early so Celeste could leave. Also, because of his age, this would help serve as a slow poisoning.
Just days before Celeste and Steven were leaving for a long trip to Europe, Tracey says Celeste couldn’t take it anymore.
“She came over and was just hysterical, beside herself,” remembers Tracey. “She said, ‘I’ll never survive this trip.’”
Tracey says Celeste had her totally convinced that Steve’s abuse was going to lead her to suicide.
“I wanted to help her,” she says.
Two days later, Tracey drove over to the Beard estate with a weapon in hand.
“That gun was given to me by my father who had had it engraved for me. It has my name on it,” says Tracey.
“I had stepped into a space that was just numb when I went into that bedroom, and I shot him."
But who is willing to commit murder and risk the death penalty for a friend?
Tracey says she and Celeste were more than friends. They were lovers. And even after Tracey was arrested and released on bond for wounding Steven Beard, Tracey says she and Celeste continued their affair.
Tracey says pictures of them dancing at a party, attending a wedding, prove they were a couple.
“Tracey wasn’t secretive,” says Jeremy Ellis, who worked with Tracey at Book People, the trendy bookstore she managed. “Everyone in the store knew she was dating someone named Celeste. She spoke about her like she was her girlfriend. They were sort of physical, close with each other and I thought, ‘Well good for Tracey.’”
But months after Steven died, Tracey says her relationship with Celeste was over.
“Celeste started going bananas, hysterical a lot of the time,” remembers Tracey. “We both said, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore. You won’t see me again.’”
Then Tracey read something about Celeste that would change everything.
“Three weeks after we'd split up I read an article in the newspaper,” she says. “And in that article, there were a lot of things said.”
Thing including the startling news that Celeste had gotten remarried to a man she met in a bar named Cole Johnson.
“She’s off at her honeymoon in Aspen,” says Tracey. “Even I couldn’t overlook that. It was like everything started unraveling very quickly for me after that article.”
From then on, Tracey became more and more convinced that all of Celeste’s stories were lies.
“When I started realizing Celeste had been lying to me all along, that this man was not abusing her, that she had married him for his money, that she had been lying to me about our relationship, all of it was a farce.”
Tracey began to suspect she'd been set up for murder. “I think she manipulated me from the beginning,” she says.
A little more than a year after Steven died, Tracey, who’d already been charged with his shooting, was now taken into custody on charges of his murder.
“I know what the truth is,” says Tracey. But the truth, she claims, was that Celeste was the mastermind behind Steven’s murder.
For more than a year, Tracey sat in jail keeping Celeste’s involvement in Steven’s shooting a secret. But in March of 2002, just days before her own murder trial was set to begin, Tracey struck a deal with prosecutors.
In exchange for a 20-year sentence, Tracey would testify that it was Celeste who had planned the murder of Steven Beard. Two years after her husband’s death, Celeste Beard was arrested for capital murder.
Tracey’s story is convincing. But can she be believed?
“She’s crazy,” says Celeste. “That’s the only way I can describe her. She’s nuts.”