Did alleged love triangle turn deadly? Wife at center of millionaire husband's murder

"I believed that she loved me,” one woman testified.

November 18, 2022, 11:50 AM

The story begins in 1993 in Austin, Texas, where a beautiful young waitress named Celeste Johnson fell in love with a self-made millionaire, Steven Beard.

For Celeste, who had two twin daughters and had been married multiple times, Beard “represented what she was looking for: stability, wealth and someone to take care of her,” according to ABC News Legal Contributor Beth Karas.

The couple met at the Austin Country Club, an exclusive country club, and soon after they married Celeste became caught up in an extravagant lifestyle that quickly spiraled out of control.

Celeste Beard told ABC News that the couple's budget was $35,000 a month and she was spending “much more” than that.

Their relationship eventually disintegrated, and Steven filed for divorce, though the couple eventually reconciled.

“I was very depressed and I just felt like I was losing everything,” Celeste told ABC News' John Quinones.

PHOTO: Celeste Beard and Steven Beard.
Celeste Beard and Steven Beard.
Courtesy of Nancy Hall

Celeste was admitted to the St. Davids Medical Center for Mental Health in Austin due to her deteriorating mental health. There, she became very close with Tracey Tarlton, the manager of a popular Austin bookstore, who was openly lesbian. Once they were both released, they began to spend a lot of time together, which led to questions about the nature of their relationship.

Tarlton said they were in a romantic relationship, which Celeste denied, saying they were just good friends.

At a BBQ party Steven allegedly saw Tracey kissing Celeste and ordered her to leave.

Celeste Beard told ABC News that they didn't kiss, but Tracey had tried to kiss her.

Celeste and Steven’s relationship had ups and downs, falling into patterns of fights and reconciliations.

The two planned an extended trip to Europe together, but the morning before they were supposed to leave, on October 2, 1999, Steven Beard was shot.

“My guts just jumped out of my stomach!” he told the 911 operator.

Steven Beard survived the shooting and was hospitalized for three months. He eventually returned home, and was released into Celeste’s care but faced complications from his injuries and later died.

Tarlton was arrested and charged with attempted murder. She owned a shotgun that matched the shotgun shell found in Steven Beard’s room. The charge would later be upgraded to murder.

“I was beside myself because I did not see that coming,” Celeste said of her husband's death. “My whole world just ended right there.”

PHOTO: Celeste Beard and Steven Beard.
Celeste Beard and Steven Beard.
Courtesy of Nancy Hall

Steven Beard’s death, the bizarre disputed circumstances of Tarlton and Celeste Beard’s relationship, and Celeste's mental unraveling that led to her husband's murder are detailed in a new episode of "20/20" airing November 18.

Shortly after Steve’s death Celeste married another man. When Tracey found out she felt she had been duped. Ever since her arrest she had maintained she shot Steven Beard on her own but now she told prosecutors an entirely new story.

In exchange for a plea bargain, she agreed to testify that Celeste had planned the murder. Celeste was charged and faced a life sentence.

During her testimony in Celeste Beard's trial, Tarlton told the jury that she and Celeste were in a romantic relationship.

“I felt like I loved her, and I believed that she loved me,” said Tarlton during her testimony. “She spent a lot of time letting me know that she did.”

PHOTO: A family photo showing Steven Beard, Celeste Beard and her daughters Kristina and Jennifer.
A family photo showing Steven Beard, Celeste Beard and her daughters Kristina and Jennifer.
Courtesy of Nancy Hall

According to Tarlton, Beard falsely alleged that her millionaire husband was abusive, claimed she wanted him killed and asked Tarlton to shoot him. Tarlton said she agreed to do it.

Celeste Beard, who did not testify at her own trial, told ABC News’ John Quinones the allegations were false.

“I never asked her to do anything to Steven,” claimed Beard. “Never!”

Beard would also deny having any sort of romantic involvement or intimate physical relationship with Tarlton.

And in yet another twist, Celeste’s twin daughters testified that their mother had said in a secretly recorded phone call that she planned to hire someone to kill Tarlton.

Celeste denied that she said that, claiming that her daughters had spliced the tape. She was never charged in connection with the alleged plot to have Tracey killed.

The daughters made the shocking decision to turn over the tape to the authorities. Their mother was ultimately found guilty of Steven Beard's murder.

Celeste Beard has continued to maintain her innocence.