One of the many reasons I decided to quit writing true crime is because of convicted killer Tracey Tarlton. Tracey and I attended the same summer camp, and though Tracey and I didn’t know each other, I knew her name and we shared many friends.
In fact, one of those friends, who is mentioned in my book The Fortune Hunter, is the one who suggested I write the book. What our mutual friend didn’t know is that I already wanted to write the book. In fact, years earlier I’d pitched it to my then publishing house. Why did I want to write this book that caused me to quit true crime? Because of the mental health aspect.
Tracey and Celeste Beard, who was the woman Tracey loved and the woman who convinced Tracey to shoot Celeste’s husband, Steven Beard, met in a mental health facility. And as someone who has spent too many years in therapy due to an on-going battle with depression, I’m always interested in stories that involve mental health issues, which true crime — or at the least ones I’ve written — always seems to do.
Add to that the fact that Tracey managed BookPeople, the best bookstore in Austin, and had helped me promote my first book Wasted (though I don’t think she remembers that), and that we shared that same summer camp, one that gets in your blood and doesn’t leave you, well, I felt this story was MINE.
I was wrong about it being MINE. It wasn’t. But I sometimes wonder if it was a God-thing that I write the book because, and as I finally get back to my point, it was the one that made me quit true crime.
Let me back track again and explain. Tracey is probably the only killer I’ve ever interviewed who I respected and that’s because she’s the only killer I’ve interviewed who admitted what she did. (I didn’t get to interview Andrea Yates.)
So, after a horrible and lengthy trial, I was told that I could speak to Tracey for a few minutes to introduce myself. Let me repeat, it was a horrible and lengthy trial. I’d get up, go to court, watch Celeste Beard try to portray herself as a prim and proper innocent lady, have lunch with a Beard family member, go back to court and watch Celeste Beard, again, as witness after witness described Celeste’s cruel, selfish, and manipulative behavior, and then have dinner with Steven Beard’s daughter Becky, during which we’d talk, cry and laugh. I’d get home around 10 PM, exchange emails with the prosecutor until maybe midnight, and finally crash until I was up early and out the door for court the next day. And throughout, I was covering the trial for ABC News.
By the time Celeste was convicted of murder, I was punchy with exhaustion, which usually worked out fine because I was Becky Beard’s comic relief … as Becky was my comic relief. I can’t tell you how many stupid jokes Becky and I cracked. So when I walked into that room to meet Tracey, I was spent, punchy, and used to cracking less than tasteful jokes with Becky, who had become my friend, and I was singing an old camp song that I knew Tracey knew — “Catfish Floatin’ Down a River.”
I thought it’d make Tracey laugh after a stressful trial, like I knew it’d make Becky laugh. It didn’t. Tracey was offended. She thought I was being disrespectful to Steven Beard. And since she was horribly guilty of his murder, and knew it and fully admitted to it, and desperately wanted to make it right and knew she couldn’t, she wanted to be respectful of Steve, his memory, and his family.
And while my singing of “Catfish” turned Tracey off of me, it made me respect Tracey even more. (No, I didn’t feel like I was betraying the Beard family by respecting Tracey. I knew that while Becky abhorred what Tracey had done to her father, she was grateful to Tracey because Becky believed that without Tracey’s testimony, Celeste Beard would have gotten away with murder.)
But since Tracey was disgusted by my behavior, she only reluctantly agreed to grant me a couple of prison interviews. During the first of those interviews, I promised Tracey I would never write another true crime book, because I too was disgusted with my behavior. No, I’m not talking about innocently but stupidly singing “Catfish Floatin’ Down a River.” I’m talking about who I’d become as a true crime writer — an insecure, angry, and bitter person.
Certainly there are additional reasons I quit true crime, which you’ll read about when my memoir, Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, comes out in October 2012, but my promise to Tracey is one of the primary reasons. I try my darnedest not to go back on my promises.
By now you may be saying, Suzy, your headline says “Update: Tracey Tarlton …” and all you’ve done is talk about yourself. So here’s the update on Tracey: She’s out of prison and trying to start over her life in San Antonio, Texas,* while never ever forgetting what she did. And by clicking on this KENS 5 TV link, you can finally hear her speak for herself. I think you’ll see why I still respect her.
So, Tracey, if it doesn’t offend you, can I offer you one big CLH “Attaway to go!” Truly, I wish you a great new life. And with all my heart, I believe Becky does, too. She was a kind and generous woman.
*On June 27, 2012, I learned that Tracey has moved to Houston, Texas.
And for those of you looking for an update on Celeste Beard, check out this announcement in the Ventura County Star. By the way, the phrase “employed … by the State of Texas” is code for she’s a prisoner in the Texas state penal system.
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Please take a look at Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, my memoir about my journalistic research into Americans’ alternative sex practices.