A U S T I N, Texas, April 11, 2003 -- The tony suburbs outside Austin, an area that some locals call "Lexusland," are a far cry from the honky-tonks where you hear songs of broken hearts and hard times. But the tale behind the murder of Steve Beard is as dark as any you'll hear in song.
In the early morning hours of, Oct. 2, 1999, an intruder entered the home of self-made millionaire and local TV tycoon Steven Beard and shot him.
Beard himself made the call to 911 for help, telling the operator "my guts are in my hands." After lingering in the hospital for nearly four months, Beard died of complications from his gunshot wound.
The story begins a decade ago when the recently widowed Beard began a relationship with Celeste Beard Johnson, a waitress at an elite Austin country club where he was a member. He was 69 at the time, she was 32.
Their marriage drew raised eyebrows not only from the community, but also from Celeste's twin daughters, Kristina and Jennifer, who said their mother married Beard only because of his money.
While Celeste is now behind bars for her husband's murder, she did not shoot Beard that October night. Another woman — who claims she was Celeste's lesbian lover — is in prison for pulling the trigger.
‘A Tawdry Story’
Within hours of the shooting, police were given a tip that led them to a suspect — Tracey Tarlton, a family friend. Police soon discovered the personalized shotgun Tarlton owned was a perfect match with the spent shell found on the floor of Steven Beard's bedroom.
Tarlton was arrested. Although she initially denied it, she later admitted shooting Beard and agreed to a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for testifying against Celeste, she would be given a 20-year sentence for fatally shooting Beard.
"This is definitely a tawdry story. There's not a lot of redeeming factors in this," said Suzy Spencer, one of Austin's best-known crime authors, who was hired by ABCNEWS to help cover this story.
Whatever Celeste's motives for marriage were, Steven's were simple: companionship, and a new family. Shortly after marrying Celeste, he adopted her twin girls, giving them a life and a world they had never known.
There were vacations, trips around the world, and most importantly, love and affection — emotions the girls say they rarely felt from their mother.
"I can't remember the last time we hugged," Jennifer said, "I just remember her dropping us off because the husband she had [at the time] didn't like kids. So I turned off the switch long ago."
Steven Beard tried to turn that switch on again. For the first time, Celeste and the girls had the semblance of a stable home. Moreover, Beard rewrote his will, including not just the three children from his first marriage, but also Celeste and her twin daughters.
An Unusual Affair
For much of her life, Celeste had been haunted by depression. In 1999, with Beard's support, she checked herself into St. David's Clinic for treatment. It was there that Beard began a relationship with another patient. That patient was Tracey Tarlton.
The two women became fast friends. In fact, Tarlton became convinced Celeste wanted much more than friendship.
Tarlton had a history of lesbian relationships and had been open about her homosexuality since she was a teen, according to Spencer.
Did Beard's murder stem from a messy love triangle? Had Celeste and Tarlton fallen in love, and were they looking for a way to be together and share in Beard's fortune?
Prosecutors Allison Wetzel and Gary Cobb painted a different picture. They asserted that Celeste had manipulated a psychologically unstable woman, seducing her and convincing her to kill Beard.
The prosecution's key witness was Tarlton, who, during more than two days of testimony, graphically told her story. She admitted to shooting Beard, but described how Celeste orchestrated the time and place of the shooting.
"She said that she had a plan and she wanted me to shoot him," Tarlton said on the witness stand.
"By this time," Tarlton said, "I cared about her tremendously, and I did believe her. I believed what she told me, and I believed that she cared in the same way for me."
But was Tarlton, who has a history of emotional problems, imagining this love affair, or was it real? Photographs produced at the trial showed Tarlton and Celeste embracing at a party. Letters and journal entries leave no doubt that Tarlton, at least, was very much a woman in love.
Celeste, however, married her fifth husband, Austin carpenter Spencer Johnson, in July 2000, six months after Beard's death.
Was Celeste a Victim?
Celeste's defense attorney, Dick DeGuerrin, portrays her as the victim of a deranged woman. Tarlton's testimony, DeGuerrin said in his closing argument, was "either delusional, or fabrications, or lies or fantasies … but it's not the truth."
DeGuerrin told Primetime Celeste "is innocent and did not have anything to do with the shooting of Steven Beard."
Did DeGuerrin think Celeste had a lesbian relationship with Tarlton? "I think Tracey probably took advantage of Celeste … whether you call it recruiting or what you call it," he said. "I don't think its right … I don't think it's normal."
DeGuerrin was brutally hard on Tarlton in the courtroom, saying she couldn't be believed — not only because she had struck a deal with prosecutors to reduce her sentence to a 20-year term, but "because she's a crazy woman."
He argued that there never was a love affair, or a conspiracy to commit murder. He claimed the shooting was a lone act by a lonely and obsessed woman.
Tarlton's version of events was not enough to convict Celeste. Legally, prosecutors needed corroborating testimony to make their case against Celeste stick.
That testimony came from Celeste's own flesh and blood — Kristina and Jennifer.
Understandably, it was difficult for the young women to testify in a murder case against their mother. But they said they weren't frightened to face a renowned defense attorney.
Instead, Kristina said, she was afraid of facing her mother. "Her eyes were like daggers, they just dig at you … It's just hard to sit across from someone who hates you so much," she said.
But if Celeste had daggers in her eyes, the twins had dollar signs in theirs, according to DeGuerrin.
The twins, DeGuerrin said, stood to make millions if their mother went to prison. Because if Celeste were convicted, her share of the family fortune would be split between Beard's three grown children and Jennifer and Kristina.
But the twins say this has never been about Beard's money, but about their mother's increasingly bizarre behavior, which, they say, spiraled from strange to sadistic.
Her cruelty ranged, they say, from belittling Beard to cheating on him with her ex-husband, Jimmy Martinez. "She would say she loves him to his face, then we'd walk off, she'd flip him off, you know, and joke about his weight," Jennifer said.
Jennifer and Kristina, 22, now say they regret standing by silently for too long and cowering at their mother's threats.
Phone Call Seals Celeste’s Fate
It wasn't until April 2000, the twins say, that they felt they had to break their silence.
Kristina says she began recording what she considered abusive phone calls from her mother. In one of the calls, Celeste told Kristina, "I hired someone to kill Tracey."
"The day she told me about Tracey, I knew. You only want someone dead because maybe you put them up to it, and I thought, 'I know now she's guilty.' I had to separate myself from her. It was hard," Kristina said.
That taped phone call was played to a stunned courtroom. After 72 hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict.
In the wake of the March 20 verdict, Beard's oldest children issued statements, thanking the jury, the twins and even Tracey Tarlton, the woman who shot their father, for helping bring Celeste to justice.
Celeste Beard Johnson, who is facing a life sentence, is appealing the verdict.