Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 19

The flags flew at half-mast at the Texas State Capitol the following Monday, February 3, 2003, on the first day of testimony in the Celeste Beard case. Over the weekend, the U.S. had suffered a tragedy; the space shuttle Columbia had exploded in the Texas skies as it descended toward earth. Austin and the country mourned.

Two hundred fifty miles northeast in Nacogdoches, searchers retrieved shuttle debris, while at Woolridge Park, a green, public square with a gracious white-pillared gazebo across from the Travis County courthouse, the gnarled branches of graceful oaks reached out across the sloping grounds like arms offering shelter. Under them, the city’s homeless rearranged shopping cart estates. The winter had been a difficult one, at times bitterly cold, but this day was a balmy respite, 60 degrees by the nine o’clock start time. It was expected to be near 80 by afternoon.

Even on quiet days courthouses are unsettling places. Those who work there try to make them homey, bringing family photos, their children’s grade school art, and doughnuts to share. Opening day of a big case, the anxiety is so powerful it seems nearly palpable. It bristles in the faces in the hallways, sparks from the fluorescent lights overhead, and sends a static tension through those who file into the courtroom. The Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center was no exception that morning, as it buzzed with anticipation. Half a block away, on Tenth Street, TV-news satellite trucks waited for sound bites. Inside, lines formed at the first-floor metal detectors and elevators filled with the curious.

Just after nine, Judge Kocurek announced the beginning of the case styled State of Texas v. Celeste Beard Johnson. The 390th District Court was standing room only as Celeste, looking reserved in a pink sweater set and beige skirt, stood with her crutches beside her attorneys as Assistant D.A. Gary Cobb read the indictment: one charge each of capital murder, murder, and injury to the elderly.

“How do you plead?” Kocurek asked.

“I am not guilty,” Celeste said firmly.

“Is the state ready?” asked the judge.

“The state is ready,” replied Allison Wetzel.

“Is the defense ready?”

“The defense is ready,” said Dick DeGuerin.

“Ms. Wetzel, you may begin your opening statement,” said the judge.

With that, Allison Wetzel stood before the jury. “On October 9, 1999, just before 3:00 A.M., Steven Beard woke up suddenly, in excruciating pain,” she said. “His intestines were spilling out of the front of his body. He didn’t know what had happened to him. Police found a spent shotgun shell at the foot of his bed. He was rushed to Brackenridge Hospital. The doctors didn’t know if he’d make it… ”

Nervous, perhaps intimidated by the cameras stationed throughout the courtroom or the reputation of the attorney who glowered at her from the defense table, Wetzel began tentatively, reading her statement. But soon she gathered momentum, her voice growing secure and her eyes flashing as she commenced where Steven Beard’s troubles had begun, the day he met an “opportunistic country club waitress.”

As the story developed, Wetzel told of Beard’s vulnerability, after nursing his beloved Elise through cancer. She recounted his first months with Celeste, when she entered his life as a housekeeper, then divorced Jimmy Martinez and set her sights on Steve and his millions. They married, yet Celeste quickly showed her true nature, emptying his safety deposit box. Steve initiated divorce proceedings, which would have left Celeste with nothing. “That divorce filing taught Celeste Beard a lesson,” Wetzel said, explaining that if Steve divorced Celeste, she got nothing. If he died, she got it all.

Celeste sat between DeGuerin and Catherine Baen, shoulders rounded, arms wrapped about her, with her head draped to the side, her chin pinned to her left shoulder. She looked pitiful, like a beaten dog or a cowering child. At times she teared up. Over the coming weeks, the reporters would dub her frequent tears as the “daily cry.” Often, she glared at witnesses and prosecutors, her blue eyes flashing pure hate.

The portrait Wetzel painted of Celeste was a damning one, a woman who married for money, then abhorred her husband, ridiculed him, and drugged him. She recounted Tracey Tarlton’s version of her romance with Celeste, asserting Celeste “worked on Tracey to convince her Steven Beard was a terrible man.”

To the world, she said, Tracey and Celeste held themselves out to be a couple. They attended a wedding together, sent each other cards, talked on the telephone “all the time.” Then Tracey came to hamburger night and kissed Celeste in front of Kristina. It was Tracey who went to the girls’ graduation party at Jimmy Martinez’s house, not Steve. He wasn’t invited. That August, Steve told his wife to rid herself of Tarlton, and Celeste, Wetzel said, “stepped up her campaign to do harm to Steven Beard…

“A few days before they were to depart for Europe, Celeste asked Tracey Tarlton to shoot Steven Beard. She promised if Tracey got caught she’d take care of her pets, pay for her lawyer, and support her.”

Wetzel recounted that night in October, detailing the plans Celeste made, claiming she’d told Tracey to shoot Steve in the stomach, not the head or chest, because that would make a mess. Afterward, Celeste attempted to wipe all remnants of Tracey from the house, anything that could tie her to the killing. When Steve died the following January 22, “Celeste’s mourning was short.”

With her final words, Wetzel delivered a punch: “This is a simple case of a greedy, manipulative defendant who took advantage of a mentally ill woman who loved her.”

For a few moments the courtroom remained silent. Then Dick DeGuerin stood. It was his opportunity to address the jury, to convince them to see the case his way. Unlike Wetzel, he showed little nervousness. For the first moments, however, he did seem overwhelmed. He knew jurors would find many of his client’s actions reprehensible. “This is a case of fatal attraction,” he said. “This is a case of a fatal obsession.”

While Celeste had barely looked up from her chin-to-shoulder pose during Wetzel’s opening, as DeGuerin spoke she sat up, listening intently. DeGuerin agreed with Wetzel that Tarlton was mentally ill. In fact, he went even further, labeling her psychotic and saying she heard voices and experienced auditory and visual hallucinations. “She is a lesbian,” he said, spitting out the words, “predatory and aggressive.”

A self-satisfied smile flashed across Celeste’s face as he spoke. Branding Tarlton that way was risky in liberal Austin, yet DeGuerin had reasoned it through. While the jurors might not condemn Tracey’s sexuality, he intended to draw her as a sexual predator, obsessed with Celeste. DeGuerin felt certain the jury wouldn’t condone that.

Tarlton killed Steve to get him out of Celeste’s life, DeGuerin charged, because she wanted her for herself. She then turned on Celeste, fingering her as the planner, to escape the death penalty or a life sentence. To defuse later testimony, he admitted parts of what Wetzel had charged. Yes, he said, Celeste married Steven Beard for his money, for security, for his promise that he would support her. Steve knew that. He was a kind, generous, outgoing and friendly man. He was bighearted with Celeste and gave her everything she wanted. “He was generous,” said DeGuerin, “to a fault.”

The twins were “spoiled brats,” he said, who turned against their own mother to get their adoptive father’s money.

Yes, Celeste was unfaithful, had a relationship with her ex-husband. But, he implied, Steve knew and didn’t object. He was sexually impotent, DeGuerin said, requiring a shot in his penis to get an erection. He drank too much, had heart problems, breathing problems. He knew Celeste married him for his support and money and didn’t care. And Steve was happy with her, happier than he’d ever been.

On the overhead projector, he displayed photos of Steve and Celeste at their wedding, on rafting trips to Colorado, in Hong Kong and San Francisco, and at the lake on their matching wave runners. Then Celeste had a breakdown, caused by post-traumatic stress from years of sexual abuse when she was a child. She tried to kill herself, and met Tracey Tarlton in the psychiatric unit at St. David’s.

There, he said, they became friends. He showed pictures of the two women at the wedding in Atlanta and at the lake house party Celeste threw for Tracey. He described it not as a lover’s gift but a favor for a friend, because “Tracey’s house wasn’t big enough.” On the screen he projected a snapshot of Celeste and Tracey dancing.

Yet, in the world DeGuerin portrayed, the relationship on Celeste’s part was never more than platonic. The two women had never been lovers.

Perhaps DeGuerin didn’t know how openly the women had courted. Or he may have felt hamstrung by his client, who insisted to him as she had to Steve, “I don’t eat at the Y.” Of course, proving Tracey had lied about the nature of the relationship offered an intriguing upside for DeGuerin. The question before the jury wasn’t if Celeste and Tracey were lovers or friends, only if they conspired to kill Steve. Yet disproving Tracey’s story of the love affair would brand her a liar. It then wouldn’t be difficult for him to persuade the jurors to view her entire testimony as a lie.

DeGuerin then brought out the written evidence, bits he’d pulled from the journals and cards to bolster his version. First: a note from Timberlawn, where Celeste wrote to Tracey, “I just want to be your friend. Nothing more.” Second: a snatch of Tracey’s voluminous psychiatric reports, the day she’d said all her problems would be solved “if a certain person met with an untimely death.”

Where Wetzel’s conclusion had been that Celeste loaded Tracey with anger toward Steve and then pointed her, as one might a gun, at her husband, DeGuerin took the opposite stance. The relationship, everything Tracey said about Celeste’s involvement, was all a fabrication of Tarlton’s sickness.

“It’s just in Tracey’s mind,” he said.

He admitted Celeste’s actions in the months following her husband’s death would raise eyebrows. “She drank, partied, spent money, she mutilated herself,” he said. “She threatened Tracey.” Yet, no matter what, it was all unimportant, because Steve, he insisted, hadn’t died of a complication from the gunshot wound but an unrelated infection. It was the argument that worried Wetzel the most, that he’d be able to rewrite the autopsy and change Steve Beard’s cause of death.

“The state’s evidence will make Celeste look bad,” he admitted. “It will make her look like a gold digger.”

But he wanted the jurors to remember: To believe a confessed killer like Tracey Tarlton, the state had to have corroborative evidence. DeGuerin said the evidence they would present was tainted. The sources, particularly the twins, were clouded with suspicion. They were after Steve’s money, he said. And the only way they could get their hands on it was to get rid of their mother. “Corroborative evidence must show Celeste was involved in the commission of the crime,” DeGuerin concluded. “It is not enough to just make her look bad.”

Before he sat down, DeGuerin looked at the jurors and made one last statement: “Celeste Beard is not guilty.”

In the front two rows behind the prosecutors sat the elder Beard children, Becky, Paul and his wife Kim, and Steve III. They’d waited three years for this day in court. Paul glanced at Celeste, remembering the one time he’d seen her before, with his father on their visit in Virginia. That day, she’d catered to Steve and acted as if she loved him. Now, Paul judged, like so much else in Celeste’s life, it had all been a sham.

Next to the Beard children sat Ellen Halbert, the prosecutor’s head of victim assistance. Steve’s friends filed in, including the Baumans, eager to see justice done. The rest of the seats filled with the media and those who were drawn by the sensational headlines. Noticeably absent was anyone supporting Celeste. Neither her mother nor her sister attended. Even her husband, Cole, wasn’t there. Catherine Baen dismissed questions about his absence by saying simply, “He has to work.”

Celeste’s only constant supporter in the courthouse was Marilou Gibbs, the elderly woman she’d befriended at the lake. Gibbs wasn’t allowed in the courtroom because she would later testify, so she sat in the hallway reading novels. “Celeste asked me to come,” she said. “It makes her feel better to know I’m here.”

Meanwhile, Wetzel brought Steve into the courtroom. As her first piece of evidence, she presented the 911 tape from the shooting. The jurors listened intently to the frightened, gravelly voice of a dead man:

“My—My—My guts are coming out.”

“Do you need an ambulance?”

“I need an ambulance, hurry.”

The prosecutor wanted Steve to become a presence for the jurors, and the tape accomplished that. As his voice filled the courtroom, it was easy to hear his pain and picture his bloody hands holding in his internal organs.

“My guts just jumped out of my stomach … my wife in the house… call her.”

One after the other, Cobb called to the stand those first on the scene: Deputy Alan Howard, Stephen Alexander, and Sergeant Greg Truitt. At three A.M., three years before, they responded to a call from an elderly man at a mansion in an exclusive residential neighborhood in the hills over Austin. Lights flashing behind him, Howard rang the bell. No response. With the others trailing, he picked his way around the side of the house and onto a patio. Through a window, he saw Steve, critically injured.

Howard broke the glass.

“Did you make a lot of noise?” Cobb asked Truitt.

“When Howard broke the door, we did,” he replied.

“No one came?”

“No.”

Truitt later encountered Celeste and Kristina in the living room.

“Don’t let my husband die,” she cried.

STAR Flight had already been called to the Beard residence when Deputy Russell Thompson noticed something yellow visible under the corner of an EMS bag: a spent shotgun shell. “This is a crime scene,” he announced. “Secure the area.”

The officers agreed on nearly every point, except one: Celeste Beard’s demeanor. One described her as very upset; others disagreed, saying she seemed intermittently concerned and calm. One said, “She cried, but there weren’t any tears.”

This was the prosecutors’ case, and they offered DeGuerin little to work with. Still, on cross examination, he pulled together what he could. He repeated every entry from every incident log that described Celeste as distraught. He drew the image of her as a hysterical wife, worried about her husband. “Kristina didn’t seem worried?” he asked.

No, they said. In fact, Kristina comforted her mother.

Again and again he asked about the handles to the bedroom door, the ones through which the officers and medics entered. Brass, they appeared to pull open, but instead slid. Why were the doors important? Later it would seem he wanted to establish that the doors were locked from the inside. If so, Tracey couldn’t have left as she said she did and locked the door behind her. If that was his hope, it never materialized.

With that night carefully drawn, Cobb led the jury into the investigation, and Knight, by then a lieutenant, and Detective Wines each took turns on the stand. They described the disarray of the master bedroom—drawers pulled out—saying it looked like a staged robbery. Knight implied Celeste offered an alibi too quickly and that her suggestion of a robbery seemed suspicious. Knight and Wines recounted their trip to Tracey’s house and how they followed Tracey into a back room, where she retrieved the shotgun.

In the courtroom, Cobb brought Wines the shotgun. He checked the serial number, the case number, and Tracey’s name etched in the metal. “This is it,” he said, displaying the weapon with its polished wood handle and long black metal barrel for the jury. Cobb also used Knight and Wines to introduce Celeste’s lack of cooperation with police. Even after Knight heard Tracey Tarlton’s name from the teens and asked Celeste pointedly if she had any relationship that could put Steve in jeopardy, Celeste said no. She refused to let them interview her husband and removed her consent to search her home.

“Was she a help or a hindrance?” asked Cobb.

“A hindrance,” said Wines.

When he took over, DeGuerin disputed the image of his client as uncooperative. Celeste, he pointed out, signed the consent to search and initially allowed them into her home. Then he questioned the integrity of the investigation, asking what had happened to items, including the cell phone Knight found that displayed Tarlton’s phone numbers.

“They went into evidence at the Sheriff’s Department,” Truitt said.

But the phone had disappeared, something for which no explanation was offered.

“Patients in ICU can only have visitors for so many minutes a day?” DeGuerin said, suggesting the officers’ visits ate into Celeste’s time with Steve. “Isn’t that true?”

Knight at first balked, then agreed, “That’s probably true.”

Through it all, the two attorneys went toe-to-toe, Cobb revealing suspicious details and DeGuerin offering alternative scenarios to lessen the implication of guilt. He also did what he tells law students to do during his criminal defense law classes at UT: He “embraced the ugly baby,” the element in the trial that would stun the jury. While questioning Wines, he flashed photos on the overhead projector of Celeste and Tracey, arms around each other, dancing and sitting on each other’s laps. By doing so, he lessened the shock value of the photos, taking from prosecutors the opportunity to introduce them at a more dramatic moment. Yet again, he insisted the women were no more than friends.

With the gray-haired and goateed Wines on the witness stand, Cobb explained the long delay in the case. Steve Beard was shot in October 1999 and died the following January. Tracey at first denied the charges, fighting the admission of the evidence against her. Then, nearly two years later, she confessed and implicated Celeste.

On cross exam DeGuerin made the most of Tracey’s early statements. “She denied shooting Steven Beard?” he said.

“Yes, sir,” said Wines.

“It was a lie, wasn’t it?”

“It turned out to be. Yes, sir.”

When Wines searched Tracey’s house, he found her journal, including passages about her love of Celeste. “Did it seem to you that Tracey Tarlton had an obsession with Celeste Beard?” asked DeGuerin.

“Yes, sir,” said Wines.

One passage DeGuerin read from her journal said that with Celeste gone so much on family trips, it was “hard to pretend I have a girlfriend.”

“That means she’s making it up?” DeGuerin said.

“It could,” said Wines.

One photo from the party Celeste threw for Tracey, the “Fashion Victims” soiree, seemed to especially interest DeGuerin. Perhaps it offered an explanation for photos that showed Celeste and Tracey looking very much like a couple. In it, Celeste munched a brownie. “Is that a marijuana brownie Celeste is eating?” he asked.

“It could be,” Wines said.

DeGuerin’s final words to Wines hung in the air. They were about the twins and their friends. “Did they seem to you to be spoiled little brats?”

Wetzel objected, and DeGuerin said, “No further questions, Your Honor.”

“She would say, ‘Oh, God, I wish he would just die already,’” Amy Cozart testified. “Celeste made it clear she married Steve for his money.”

By then a University of Texas student, Cozart was the first of the teens to take the stand. She’d changed over the three years since Steve’s death. Heavier, she looked world-weary and reluctant to be there. Yet she answered questions calmly. With Cozart, Wetzel gave jurors their first glimpse of Celeste’s world, filled with greed and sex. Celeste hated her husband, Cozart testified, and she hid things from him. “If Steve found out she had sex with Jimmy Martinez it would nullify their marital agreement. She wouldn’t get any money,” Cozart said. “She said when Steve died, she’d act like she was mourning. Based on her reaction, no one would know she never loved him.”

Wetzel and Cobb had carefully laid out their trial plan. Since the trial would be a long one, they wanted to keep the jury from losing interest. Interspersed among the financial and medical testimony, which could become tiresome, they planted the more interesting witnesses, including the teens. Every day, they wanted the jury to have something to spark their attention. They’d also made a decision not to begin with any of the Beard children. With their court battle over Steve’s estate, DeGuerin could suggest their interest was money not justice. Cozart and Jennifer’s old boyfriend, Christopher Doose, had no such exposure and no reason to lie.

At the same time, DeGuerin tried hard to bend each of the prosecution witnesses’ testimony to his view of the case. “You’re only recalling the bad times, aren’t you?” he asked Cozart, after which she admitted there were times when Celeste was affectionate toward Steve. From Tracey’s journals, he read her ramblings about her love for Celeste. That Celeste planned extended trips left Tracey feeling “short of breath and anxious,” adding details to back up his theory of a fatal attraction.

The trial continued with the prosecutors shoring up their case, laying the groundwork for the twins and Tracey to take the stand. Without a thick layer of corroboration to bolster the coming testimony, they worried that what their star witnesses had to say would be judged as just too strange to be true.

For days, they put those on the stand who’d crossed paths with Tracey and Celeste the summer before the shooting. Eight who’d attended the lake house party testified. Yes, they’d seen the women openly acting like a couple. More than one had walked in on them kissing. Some had seen them wander off to bed together. Yes, they believed the women were lovers. Cindy Light told how Celeste called her days after the shooting, wanting the photos from the party, including one in which she and Tracey kissed.

When it came to his cross exam, DeGuerin’s tactics began to suggest someone caught in the era of Leave It to Beaver when the rest of the world had moved on to Will & Grace. Though one of the jurors had answered on the pretrial questionnaire that he was gay, DeGuerin still talked of “predatory lesbians.” At times his questions seemed archaic, as when he suggested that in lesbian relationships one of the women played a masculine role. “That went out in the fifties,” scoffed a witness.

Rather than a romance, DeGuerin suggested the physical touching seen by witnesses and in the photographs of the Fashion Victim party was a product of impaired reasoning. On the overhead, he again displayed the photo of Celeste seated on Tracey’s lap with a brownie poised near her lips. DeGuerin insisted Tracey had used the marijuana it contained to break down Celeste’s defenses, despite the fact that Celeste, not Tracey, held the brownie and that the women were kissing before the drugged desserts arrived.

From the Studio 29 employees, the jurors heard about Celeste’s bizarre behavior, how she bragged about her disdain for Steve. As DeGuerin fought to make Celeste appear a victim, the prosecutors refined their portrait of the woman on trial. They wanted jurors to see her as cold and ruthless, a woman who cared for nothing more than money. The testimony of Kuperman and Steve’s other advisers backed them up as they detailed how she grabbed every cent she could— even taking Elise’s jewelry from Steve’s safety deposit box—and how quickly she spent it. The message came through clear: If Steve divorced Celeste, she got nothing beyond her half-interest in the houses and her personal possessions. If he died, she got millions more.

As it had been at the hearings on the civil case, Steve’s own actions raised doubt. “Didn’t Steve increase the amount of money Celeste was entitled to under the trust while he was in the hospital?” DeGuerin asked.

“Yes,” Kuperman answered.

“Did Steve want to divorce Celeste?”

“No. Steve didn’t want a divorce.”

Still, the image of Celeste as a gold digger never faded. C.W. Beard and Chuck Fuqua testified that with her husband gravely ill, she called them, demanding access to Steve’s bank accounts. While Steve loved Celeste, any doubt about the way she felt about him was answered by Amy MacLeod, the nurse who testified about his September hospitalization. The day he was discharged, Celeste refused to pick him up for five hours.

With MacLeod and the medical professionals who’d treated Steve, DeGuerin picked away at the gentlemanly image of Steve the prosecutors were building. While he might have been kind and generous when he was sober, he maintained, Steve was an alcoholic. “He denied dependence on alcohol, didn’t he?” the defense attorney railed.

“Yes,” MacLeod said.

Of course, another explanation was offered by the prosecutors’ witnesses: Steve had never known how much alcohol he was ingesting, unaware he drank Everclear instead of vodka. Christopher Doose backed up Amy Cozart’s testimony, but further exposed Celeste’s bizarre actions. On the trip West, he testified, he and Justin had to help Steve to the car, because Celeste fed him ground-up sleeping pills in his cottage cheese.

Then Wetzel turned her attention to the night of the shooting.

“Had she ever brought Meagan to the lake house late at night before?” she asked.

“No,” Christopher said, looking directly at the jury. “It was definitely out of the ordinary.”

“How did she look that night?”

“Frantic,” he said.

“Did you bring up a name of who you thought might have shot Steve?”

“Yes, Tracey,” Christopher said. “Celeste had been crying. She stopped. She got really serious and said, ‘No, it wasn’t and don’t say that. That’s not true.’”

“Her demeanor changed?”

“One hundred and eighty degrees,” he said.

During cross exam DeGuerin went on the attack. “You never told Steve that Celeste called him names behind his back?”

“No,” Christopher admitted.

“You never told him about the Everclear or the sleeping pills?”

“No.”

“I thought you liked Steve.”

“I did,” Christopher said.

DeGuerin came down hard on the somber-looking young man on the stand, dressed in a suit, his sandy brown hair closely cropped. As hard as he pushed, Christopher didn’t back off, even when the defense attorney accused him and the other teens of stealing the evidence they’d given prosecutors. The only time he resembled DeGuerin’s spoiled-brat theme was when he decribed ten million dollars as “a modest amount.”

For a moment the entire courtroom gasped.

“Didn’t Celeste fall apart after Steve’s death, have to go to Timberlawn?” DeGuerin asked, implying she had loved her husband.

“She went to appease the bank,” Christopher answered.

“I didn’t ask you that,” DeGuerin said, furious.

At the end, Wetzel had Christopher on redirect. “Why didn’t you tell Steve Beard the bad things his wife was doing?” she asked.

His face flushed and his eyes filled with tears. “I was young, but that’s no excuse,” he said. “I didn’t understand what was really going on, the implications.”

“Knowing what you know now, if you could go back and tell Steve Beard these things, would you?” Wetzel asked.

“Absolutely,” he said, crying harder. “Every day, I wish I could change what happened.”

In the gallery, Steve Beard’s grown children wept softly, and in the jury box some of those who would decide Celeste’s fate wiped their eyes.

“Did Celeste talk about her husband?” Cobb asked Justin when he took the stand.

“She called him, old, evil, fat, mean, and controlling… Prior to meeting him I believed he was an evil person.”

“Did your opinion change?”

“Yes. He would joke with me, tell stories, and talk to me about how I was doing in school… I liked him.”

“Was there a point where it was assumed without asking [that you would stay over in Kristina’s bedroom]?” Cobb asked.

“Yes.”

“Was there a night you were told you couldn’t stay there?”

Justin stared straight ahead, never looking toward the defense table. “Yes. The night Mr. Beard was shot.”

“Who told you that you couldn’t stay that night?”

“Celeste.”

On the stand, Justin hesitated at times, yet his answers came more quickly than at the pretrial, where he’d paused, analyzing each question before answering. With Justin, Cobb laid out the night of the shooting, including the orders not to mention Tracey’s name, and the days after, when Celeste barred the police from Steve’s hospital room. He then wove back to that summer, to the times Justin saw Tracey and Celeste together, including the time at the lake house, where they shared the same bed.

Years of worrying Celeste might find the twins had all led Justin to that day on the stand. As he testified in a somber dark suit, he looked old beyond his years, filling in for the jury more of Celeste’s bizarre world, where she jumped from man to man and treated the teens like they were her servants and her entourage, confiding in them about her sex life, including the “Sunday suck.” Earlier, Dr. Handley had contradicted DeGuerin’s opening statement. No, Steve had never needed penile shots for erections, he testified. Rather, he, like millions of men, took Viagra. Justin testified that Celeste hated the encounters, complaining loudly and often.

“I need to go make some money,” she’d say, on her way into the master bedroom.

Celeste had a secret life, with secret parties and P.O. boxes she hid from her husband, Justin said. Then he told of the chaos at Toro Canyon: While Steve lay in the hospital fighting for his life, Celeste remodeled. She bought new furniture, three new televisions, the Cadillacs, shrubs; had the garage floor, crown moldings, and rain gutters all painted. She regrouted the pool, something that had been done a year earlier, sending the bills to the trust to pay. When Steve came home, she refused to hire help. “Did you ever talk to Celeste about bringing in an aide to take care of Mr. Beard?” Cobb asked.

“Yes,” Justin said. “She didn’t want that.”

Celeste told him and the twins that she cut off all communication with Tracey after the shooting, but when he found the secret cell phone, they suspected that wasn’t so. “She told us Tracey got fired from BookPeople,” Justin said. “I wondered how she knew.”

From Celeste laughing in the funeral limousine to her wild partying with Donna Goodson, Justin had seen it all. Then he told how Celeste had given Donna money, lots of money.

On cross exam, again DeGuerin attacked. “It’s true that Steve Beard didn’t like you at all,” he charged.

“No,” Justin said.

“He called you a loser.”

“No.”

After talking about the sleeping pills and the Everclear, the parties that Steve wasn’t to be told about, DeGuerin said, “In all the bad things you said Celeste was doing to Steve Beard, you participated, didn’t you?”

Grimacing, Justin admitted, “Yes.”

DeGuerin kept at him, suggesting he and the other teens had been the ones who bad-mouthed Steve, not Celeste, and that Kristina—even more than Celeste—had been close to Tracy. He slammed Justin for having been party to tape-recording Celeste’s calls and implied they’d been edited and changed. Justin, as DeGuerin described him, was a computer nerd easily capable of altering the phone calls. About Celeste’s juvenile behavior, like pilfering For Sale signs and sticking them in the lot at the lake, DeGuerin mocked, “Now that’s something that really shows Celeste to be a killer, doesn’t it?”

“I object, Your Honor,” Cobb said.

“No more sidebars or comments,” Judge Kocurek warned DeGuerin.

Over and over again DeGuerin suggested that Justin lied. He insisted that he couldn’t have seen the women in bed together at the lake house, maintaining that the line of sight from the doorway to the bed wouldn’t have allowed it. It was Tracey who acted like a couple with Celeste, not the other way around, he said. Although at times he appeared shaken, Justin held his own.

An avid photographer, Justin had photos of so much, from Celeste’s infected hands to marijuana brownie crumbs after the lake house party, that DeGuerin asserted, “If you’d actually seen Tracey and Celeste in bed you could have taken a picture, couldn’t you?”

“No,” said Justin.

At the end of the cross examination, DeGuerin charged, “You and Kristina are still together. You have a financial stake in this case.”

“You could say that my stake would be for justice,” Justin shot back.

“For justice or for Justin?” the defense attorney countered.

Jennifer felt her mother’s eyes on her when she took the stand. At twenty-three years old, she’d grown into a woman. Still, a chill ran through her. She, more than anyone, understood her mother’s wrath. The trial promised the end of their ordeal; yet Jennifer felt only dread. She and Kristina had discussed what they would do if their mother were acquitted— they’d run. Celeste, they felt certain, would hunt them down. And if she found them? “She’d kill us,” Jennifer says.

So that day on the stand, Jennifer concentrated on Ellen Halbert’s face in the gallery and on the attorneys’ questions. The one person she couldn’t bear to look at was Celeste. Throughout her testimony, as Jennifer talked about the horrors of her childhood, her mother took her stricken pose, tucking her chin against her shoulder, as if to shrink behind the defense table. Every so often, however, she looked up. When she did, Celeste’s eyes flashed rage.

“Who took you to the foster home in Arizona and left you there?” asked Wetzel.

“Celeste,” Jennifer replied. While the jury had already heard much about Celeste’s life with Steve, what Jennifer filled in was who her mother had been before she’d married him, the woman who flitted from marriage to marriage, dragging along two small daughters, unless they became inconvenient, at which times she shuttled them off to be cared for by whichever state she was currently in.

“What was the Sunday suck?”

“Celeste giving Steve a blow job,” Jennifer replied.

Through her testimony, the entire tawdry picture of Celeste’s life came into focus. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond this woman, not shocking her teenagers with talk of sex nor bedding her ex-husband after drugging her current one. As Jennifer added to the texture of the prior testimony about events on the night of the shooting, one thing came through clearly. While they disagreed about small things, including who said Tracey’s name first, the teens were consistent about what had happened that night, including that Celeste had not been at Toro Canyon at midnight.

Another thing became clear as Jennifer talked: When Celeste told her to do something, she didn’t ask why.

“Did you ask Celeste why you weren’t to mention Tracey’s name?” Wetzel asked.

“No. I was afraid to. She would be upset.”

“And that would scare you?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you meet your mother alone?”

“I was afraid to. Little things kept adding up.” Before long Wetzel had artfully led Jennifer through what frightened her, including the pink-lined caskets.

During cross exam, DeGuerin grilled Jennifer. “When did you start calling your mother Celeste?” he charged. “Was it when you were suing her over Steve’s money?”

“No.”

“You refuse today to call your mother your mother?” he said, flushed with fury.

Wetzel jumped up and objected. Judge Kocurek sustained her objection, and DeGuerin fumed. After a pause, he said, “You didn’t like Steve, did you?”

“That’s not true.”

But then he said some things that struck home for Jennifer. “You laughed at him getting drunk, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” she said sadly.

“Not to his face but behind his back.”

“Yes,” she said again. Now, with Steve dead, she regretted those actions. At the time, she had been a teenager making fun of an adult.

The prosecutors had laid it all before the jury. In fits and starts, they’d heard about hamburger night and the way Tracey kissed Celeste; the graduation party at Jimmy’s house and finding Tracey on top of Celeste. DeGuerin did what he could, objecting, flustering, accusing. Jennifer and Kristina were kept by the bank, he suggested. Earlier he’d accused the bankers of depriving Celeste of her own money, by not funding the trust. Now he asked how Jennifer and Kristina managed to not only live but buy cars and an Austin triplex.

“We work, and we got a loan,” Jennifer said.

Still, at times, she seemed shaken. On redirect, Wetzel returned to the main issues. “Was it all right with your mother if you told authorities what you knew?” she asked.

“No,” said Jennifer. “It wasn’t all right.”

“Celeste told me to tell the others not to mention Tracey’s name,” Kristina said when she took the stand. With her, Wetzel filled in more of Celeste’s past life, including the period when she moved into Steve’s house and his bedroom. She showed how Celeste began slowly, adding sleeping pills to Steve’s food. “I didn’t realize it could hurt him,” Kristina said. “I thought he was a nice man. Celeste was never married to anyone else for very long. I didn’t think he would last, either.” Instead, Steve had stuck with Celeste, and with Kristina and Jennifer. “He became our dad.”

Much of Kristina’s testimony mirrored that of her sister and friends. On the stand, neither she nor Jennifer bore any resemblance to the spoiled brats DeGuerin described. She talked about Steve and Celeste’s arguments, mostly over money, and her mother’s suicide attempts, usually when one husband or another threatened to leave. When she saw Tracey at St. David’s, Kristina said, “She looked sad, and I felt bad for her.”

The jurors didn’t hear about Kristina’s sleepless nights as the trial approached. Even in a room full of deputies and a judge, she couldn’t look at her mother. If she met her mother’s gaze, she feared she wouldn’t be able to testify against her. She felt certain that somehow Celeste would get to her. To the twins, Celeste remained supremely powerful.

Wetzel had been looking forward to putting one item in particular before the jury. Approaching the witness stand, she handed Kristina a receipt from James Avery. When she’d discovered it in Celeste’s records, Wetzel had been delighted.

“What is this for?” Wetzel asked.

“My mother sent me to pick up an order she’d placed.”

“Is there a ring on there?”

“Yes, a wedding ring.”

“Is this the ring?” she asked, bringing to the stand a plastic bag that held the wedding ring Celeste had given Tracey, which had been placed in evidence.

“That looks like it,” Kristina said.

As Wetzel turned on the recorder to play the phone calls Kristina had taped after Celeste left Timberlawn, all present heard what the twins had heard throughout their lives: their mother emotionally manipulating and verbally abusing them. “Do you know what it feels like, do you?” Celeste screamed. “Do you know what it feels like when you’re four years old, you aren’t even in kindergarten, and some guy has a big dick sticking in you? Do you know what that does to you?… I don’t think I can ever forgive what you said to me tonight. Because as soon as I get home I feel like just fucking sticking a knife down my throat, you bitch.”

One sentence to the next Celeste’s mood changed. From talking calmly, she launched into terrible attacks, calling Kristina names and threatening to cut her off and leave her with nothing. On the witness stand, Kristina stared down at her lap, crying softly. Even years later it hurt her to listen to the tapes. It was, after all, her mother’s voice.

Next to her attorneys, Celeste cried, too. Her face red, she sobbed, with her head on the table. Looking back, it would seem Celeste’s tears nearly always came when someone said something nice about her or when her alleged abuse came up in testimony. Now, Celeste cried listening to her own voice on the tape, harder than she had at any other time during the trial.

Wetzel let the tape run out to the final sentence.

“I hired someone to kill Tracey,” Celeste said.

“Okay,” Kristina answered.

Then the tape went silent.

The courtroom became utterly quiet. As the judge ordered a break, Wetzel looked at the stunned jurors.

At 11:35 A.M. on the Tuesday of the third week of the trial, Tracey Tarlton walked into the courtroom wearing an orange V-neck jailhouse uniform over a yellow T-shirt. Heavier than in the photos the jury had seen, two years after entering jail, she was pale and somber. After being sworn in, the prosecutors’ star witness took the stand, clasped her hands in her lap, and braced for what she knew would come. At times she looked over at Celeste. Unlike the twins, she showed no fear. More than once, she smiled. When she did, Celeste averted her gaze. No one on either side doubted how important the coming testimony would be. “Tracey was crucial,” says Cobb. “For the defense to win, they had to destroy her.”

Slowly Wetzel led her star witness through her life, from her childhood in Fort Worth, through her jobs at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, to BookPeople, where she managed a staff of 150. Then she talked about the nights Tracey drank and played Russian roulette, and how friends brought her to St. David’s.

“Did you meet someone named Celeste Beard there?”

“Yes, I did.”

Wetzel developed the relationship carefully with Tracey, showing how she and Celeste began spending more and more time together, Tracey talking about the first times they were sexual. “Your hands on her?” Wetzel asked.

“Our hands on each other,” she replied.

Soon the jurors had before them testimony about a relationship that built quickly, one in which Tracey cared for Celeste, worrying about her and taking care of her. Through it all she saw Steve as the enemy. “I only knew him through what Celeste told me,” she said. Tears in her eyes, Tracey talked of the night of the shooting, steeling her resolve to walk into the house, stand at the foot of the bed, and pull the trigger.

With Steve wheelchair bound and in terrible pain, Celeste met Tracey in the park and gave her the wedding band.

“This ring?” Wetzel asked, handing her the bag.

“Yes,” Tracey said. After she’d identified it, Wetzel handed it to the first juror to look at and pass to the others. She wanted them to satisfy their curiosity firsthand, that it was, in fact, a wedding ring.

For two days Tracey remained on the stand, and the prosecutors and defense attorneys warred, with her as the battleground. Wetzel wanted jurors to see an intelligent yet troubled woman drawn into Celeste’s web of lies. DeGuerin needed to drill his vision of Tarlton into their minds: that of an obsessed mentally ill woman. During cross exam, on a large tablet of paper beside her he wrote words he wanted jurors to identify her with: suicidal, homicidal, delusional, and psychotic. Soon it became a war of medical charts, journals, and cards. Wetzel read snatches out of the materials before her. In the journal, she asked, who’d written that they needed to go to the day program, quick?

“Celeste,” Tracey said.

As Wetzel drew out the testimony, the affair between the women developed, erratic but consensual. To the facts already before the jury, Tracey added Celeste’s attempts to poison Steve with botulism. “She laughed that he was so fat it didn’t even make him sick,” Tracey said.

Then Tracey recounted the night Celeste called her to Toro Canyon after Steve passed out. “She gave me the plastic bag and I held it around his neck,” she said. “But he moved and I couldn’t do it. I dropped it.”

If not for Steve’s children watching from the front rows, the tale of an old man whose young wife flittered from inept scheme to inept scheme in her quest to murder him might have seemed funny, as if it could have been the script for a Coen brothers’ movie. But this was real, and Steven Beard had suffered the consequences. In the gallery, Paul squirmed in his seat, furious at all his father had suffered.

When DeGuerin took over, he found no shortage of snatches of writings from Tracey’s cards, letters, and medical chart to suggest that the obsession had been one-sided and that Celeste had never wanted to be more than friends with her.

“It’s a fair statement that your notes to her were very expressive of sexual themes, and her notes to you were not expressive of sexual themes. Is that a fair statement?” he asked.

“That’s a fair statement,” she agreed.

From the pile of papers on the defense table, DeGuerin pulled out a journal that none of the prosecutors had ever seen before. “Is this yours?”

“Yes,” Tracey admitted.

“Didn’t know we had this, did you?”

“No,” she said.

For all Wetzel knew, her case had just blown wide open. She had no idea what was in the journal as DeGuerin placed it into evidence. She wondered, as he talked, if she should have objected. But instead she sat tight, not wanting the jurors to see how shaken she felt as DeGuerin read a quote from the journal in which Tracey mused, wondering why she wanted a relationship with a married woman she couldn’t always see.

“Wanting means you’re not having one,” he said.

“It means, I’m wanting this. I’m wanting myself to put on the brakes, but I’m not.”

At times DeGuerin shuffled through his legal pads, looking for his next quote. When he settled on one from Tracey’s Timberlawn chart he read from Milholland’s notes: “‘Patient’s dream is to have an affair with peer.’ You had suicidal and romantic patterns. You had a history of convincing heterosexual women to try lesbianism. Haven’t you?”

“No sir,” Tracey said. “I’ve never recruited anybody.”

“Wasn’t Zan Ray a heterosexual woman before your relationship?”

Wetzel had warned Tracey that DeGuerin would do all he could to anger her. She was determined not to be rattled. “These women both came voluntarily to the relationships,” Tracey answered calmly. “They weren’t coerced.”

At times the defense attorney tried to draw a picture of Kristina as having been close to Tracey, perhaps even closer than Celeste. Kristina, he pointed out, went to her house the night she’d threatened suicide, to take the guns away from her. She’d had a key to Tracey’s house. Somehow, it never came off. Perhaps because he couldn’t show they spent time together other than at Celeste’s behest. When it came to the relationship counseling the two women attended with Barbara Grant, something Wetzel had put in earlier when Grant was on the stand, he said, “Wasn’t that the reason you went to see Barbara Grant, because you were recruiting Celeste?”

“No,” Tracey said. “I didn’t bring her to recruit her. That’s not the reason.”

“You were hoping Barbara Grant would counsel Celeste to be more comfortable.”

This time Tracey agreed. She had wanted Celeste to become more comfortable with their sex life. “Yes, sir,” she said.

Pointing out that nowhere in Tracey’s journals did she ever recount a sexual experience with Celeste, he asked, “Is there a single journal entry in which you wrote Celeste stayed all night?”

“That wasn’t an issue for me.”

“Is there a single journal entry in which you say it finally happened, we finally had sex?”

“No,” Tracey admitted.

“It was all in your mind, wasn’t it?” he charged.

“No,” she replied.

Through it all, DeGuerin hammered at his themes. One was that Tracey had misrepresented the house and the way she’d walked through it on the night of the shooting. He contended that she couldn’t have parked where she said she did without jumping down a wall. All of this, he suggested, meant she was lying when she said that Celeste had walked through the house with her, laying out the route.

Behind the prosecutors’ table, Cobb and Wetzel objected when they could and watched as DeGuerin attacked the woman who formed the centerpiece of their case. Even at pretrial, Wetzel and the defense attorney had clashed. Yet she had to admit he was using everything he possibly could against the witnesses she called to the stand. He rarely left an opportunity unexplored.

Finally, the defense attorney pulled an old prosecutor’s trick out of his portfolio; he got Tracey’s shotgun. Calling her out of the witness box, he put it in her hands. It was empty, but still threatening. “Show us how you shot Steven Beard,” he ordered.

Tracey looked toward the prosecutors and the judge, but neither interceded. Instead, looking tired and deflated, she aimed at a wall. “I aimed at him and squeezed the trigger,” she said, poising the shotgun on her shoulder, like a hunter in the field. Quickly, she put the gun down.

“Show us again,” DeGuerin ordered. Again she complied, and again she immediately lowered the gun and put it on a counter. As she walked back to the stand, instead of dangerous, Tracey Tarlton appeared beaten and regretful. She’d shot and killed Steve Beard. She admitted that. But the demonstration made her look more victim than killer.

“Aren’t you testifying here today because the prosecutors gave you a sweetheart deal?” DeGuerin charged. “Isn’t that the truth?”

“No,” Tracey said, but the implication hung in the air.

At the end, before Tracey left the stand, Wetzel asked, “Why are you testifying?

“I owe it to Steve Beard,” she said. “We were both fooled by the same woman.”

As Tracey left the courtroom, Wetzel felt confident she’d done well. Despite DeGuerin’s attacks, Tracey had never lost her temper or appeared “a crazy woman,” as he attempted to paint her.

It wouldn’t be the end of the bad news for the defense, as Wetzel introduced summaries of financial and phone records. By the time the expert witnesses left the stand, the state’s case had two more linchpins: Celeste had cashed in after Steve’s death, spending wildly and using every tactic she could to pull money from his estate, and she hadn’t cut off the relationship with Tracey. Rather, they talked often and for long periods on the secret cell phone, well after the shooting. More often than not, Celeste had initiated the calls. If she felt she was being stalked by Tracey, as DeGuerin implied, why would she do that?

After the emotional roller coaster of Tracey’s testimony, Donna Goodson’s afternoon on the stand seemed a needed break. The day of Steve’s death came into even sharper focus as Goodson quoted Celeste as saying she “took him to the hospital because she didn’t want him to die in the house.” After the funeral, Celeste recovered quickly, Donna said, describing their wild forays to Houston, Lake Charles, and New Orleans. Back in Austin, Celeste bedded one man after another, talking about marriage with all of them. One day Donna found two of Steve’s robes in a closet.

“I thought I got rid of all his shit,” Celeste said, throwing them in the garbage.

While Kristina was on the stand, the jurors had heard the tape in which Celeste admitted hiring a hit man. At times it was comical, as Goodson described how she’d reeled in more and more money from Celeste.

“Did you try to find anyone to kill Tracey Tarlton?” Cobb asked.

“No. I never did.”

“Did you steal any items from Celeste Beard?” Cobb asked.

“No,” Goodson replied.

“You had pawn tickets for the jewelry you pawned, didn’t you?” DeGuerin countered. On the overhead projector he put up slides of the jewelry Celeste had reported stolen, the same items Goodson pawned. She insisted they were gifts.

“For two years you had information that Celeste had asked you to find someone to kill Tracey, and you didn’t tell anyone?” DeGuerin said.

“That’s right,” Goodson answered.

“Fourteen days in jail, and you weren’t worried at all,” DeGuerin said, referring to the time she’d spent there after the police had raided her house.

It would prove to have been one question too many, as Goodson answered, “I was safe in jail. I feared for my life. I thought Celeste had found someone to do away with me because I knew too much.”

The last witness before the state rested was Becky Beard. On the stand, she cried, describing her father as a good man. Her tears reminded everyone in the courtroom that someone very real had been brutally murdered. Steve had suffered for months and then died a horrible death. After weeks of sensational testimony, the prosecutors wanted to bring the jurors back to basics.

A full month after the trial began, Allison Wetzel rose in the courtroom and said, “The state of Texas rests.”

As she gathered her files, she thought about the forty-six witnesses she’d put on the stand. All had done well, she thought; yet she worried. More than any other issue, the cause of death gnawed at her. During the course of the case, she’d put Steve’s surgeon, Dr. Coscia, on the stand, who’d testified that the damage from the gunshot had been extensive and that he’d never been able to fully repair Steve’s colon. The physician said such a wound bred infection. Yet Dr. Coscia maintained infection hadn’t killed his patient. He agreed with Dr. Roberto Bayardo, the Travis County medical examiner, who’d conducted the autopsy: The cause of death was pulmonary embolism, blood clots to the lungs caused by the months of inactivity, a direct result of the shooting.

On the stand, Bayardo had detailed how he’d made his diagnosis, showing slides taken of Steve’s lungs. Reading from hospital charts, Cobb listed Steve’s symptoms.

“Is that consistent with infection?” he asked.

“No, it’s consistent with a blood clot in the lungs,” Bayardo said.

Yet, DeGuerin had come back hard, suggesting that his experts would disagree and testify that Steve died of an overwhelming infection not linked to the shooting. If so, Steve had died of natural causes, not homicide.

“Do you know a Dr. Charles Petty?” DeGuerin asked Bayardo.

“Yes, I admire him,” he said.

“It’s not unusual for physicians to disagree, is it?”

“If he disagrees with me, I’ll be very angry,” Bayardo said in his Latin accent, his tone highly skeptical. “Not in this case when the evidence is so clear-cut.”

The jury chuckled at the Latin doctor, who became huffy with insult. Yet, Wetzel couldn’t find it humorous. In the wings waited Dr. Petty and a second physician, both hired to blow a fatal hole through her well-crafted case.

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