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.

Tracey Tarlton at our summer camp

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.)

Cokie Roberts and Tracey Tarlton at BookPeople

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.)

Steven Beard recuperating from his shotgun wound on his 75th birthday

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 StarBy the way, the phrase “employed … by the State of Texas” is code for she’s a prisoner in the Texas state penal system.

* * *

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.

Secret Sex Lives Cover

 

Suzy Spencer is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist.
  1. Paula Reply
    Just wanted to say I recently found out that Tracy had been paroled. While I don't condone in any way what she did with shooting Mr. Beard, I can undersand how she was manipulated by Celeste. Glad you're out Tracy and here's to a much better life and for you to find true happiness. Paula
    • Suzy Reply
      I know Tracey doesn't condone what she did either. Thank you for reading and commenting, Paula.
  2. Karen Reply
    I started writing Tracey while she was still in prison. Even after all these years she was still truly remorseful for what happened. She is a very intelligent and insightful person. We all do things for the cause of "love" that we regret. She has done her time and I wish I was still in touch with her but I moved and she was paroled and we lost touch. But if I can find her address, I will write her again because she truly is a sweet and genuine friend to me.
    • Suzy Reply
      Thank you, Karen. What a fabulous human being you must be. I too hope you reconnect with Tracey.
  3. Dee Reply
    I find it interesting how people can support an actual murderer and set her free when she is admittedly guilty and possibly guilty of an earlier murder as well. Is it really fair that a woman who was ganged up on for financial gain by so many and hardly a lesbian when she has been married 5 times be condemed to more time than an actual murderer that was obsessed with her? I feel Celeste had a hard life but has proven that her true intentions genuinely were to protect and make up to her daughter's all she failed to provide in their younger life with them. I also feel her strength and couragesness has been more than humbing and she does not deserve the sentence she has been given.....I think we all need to look beyond the fascination that tv eludes and see the real truth!
    • Suzy Reply
      Thank you for your comment, Dee. It's always interesting to hear from Celeste supporters, just as it's interesting to hear from Tracey supporters.
  4. Chris Reply
    "I still respect her"...wow, really??? Do you respect OJ too? I'm speechless.
    • Suzy Reply
      I respect Tracey because she admits to her crime and takes responsibility for it, unlike O.J., who continues to deny that he murdered his wife and her friend. Because of that, I don't find the two comparable. Additionally, I'm following the example set for me by Becky Beard, the murder victim's daughter, who thanked Tracey for admitting her guilt.
  5. Winson Reply
    Just watched the story on 48 hours and I am so glad to learn Tracey was released and finally has a chance to piece her life together. It was sad that a mentally unstable woman was manipulated so easily to doing something so horrible for nonexistent love. She admitted to her guilt and should be praised for it, unlike Celeste, who continues to deny plotting Steve's murder, using Tracey for her greedy reasons, and not caring about her daughters, though I kinda feel bad that she has to spend the rest of her life in jail.
  6. Dan Lester Reply
    Good grief. That announcement from the "proud parents" of their daughter graduating, obviously posed in the prison library, is disgusting. If they had been honest on where she was and what she was doing, I could accept it. I can also accept loving a child who has committed a crime, as I've done that too. But the deceit is incredible.
  7. Russ Reply
    God help this country! lazy ass prosecutors constantly making deals with cold blooded murderers to avoid having to do their JOB and convict criminals with good old fashion investigative work!! This person committed pre-meditated murder and gets a lousy 10 years because she gets a deal with prosecutors not willing to go the extra mile to convict Celeste and that is supposed to be acceptable!! No, that’s not enough, not only acceptable but someone to feel sorry for?!?! Sometimes I wonder if i woke up on another planet. It was not that long ago convicted murderers were OUT TO DEATH, what happened to that. Oh, let’s not forget that in those days the murder rate was also Far lower. But no we don't want that do we?? We would rather have folks walking around that are mentally unstable that are capable of being talked into cold, calculated pre-meditated murder...
  8. Russ Reply
    Oh and Suzy, you say you respect Tracey despite her being a cold-blooded murderer because she admitted to the crime right? Did it ever occur to you that maybe it's because the investigators found undeniable hard physical evidence linking her to the crime at the crime scene (shot gun shell at the foot of the bed that they easily matched with a shot gun they found at Traceys house). I mean what else could this crazy women have said?? Brilliant I guess by NY Times standards anyway
    • Suzy Reply
      Russ, many criminals deny their crimes despite hard evidence. (Read my book Wasted.) Many criminals admit their crimes for an easier sentence and then deny their crimes afterwards. (Read my book Wages of Sin.) It's rare for a criminal to admit his or her crime at the scene of the crime and continue to confess guilt. (Read my book Breaking Point.) Though Tracey Tarlton initially denied her crime, despite hard evidence, she eventually did admit her guilt, has never since waned in her words, and repeatedly has expressed remorse. And I am simply following the example set for me by Becky Beard, the murder victim's daughter. Thank you so much for your comments. A writer loves to stir emotions in her readers. Thank you for letting me know your emotions have been stirred.
  9. Wendy Reply
    As a retired police officer I absolutely understand the deal prosecutors made with Tracey. Celeste would still be free if it weren't for the testimony of Tracey. While I don't applaud Tracey's actions in murdering Mr. Beard, I do believe she has done her time and is entitled to move on with her life. I commend her for taking responsibility for her actions, which (I agree, Suzy) is not very common among murderers. I wish Tracey well and I hope she is in continued therapy to help her understand her choices, past and future. As far as I'm concerned, Celeste is the mastermind and is exactly where she deserves to be and needs to be.
  10. Carol Carpenter Reply
    One of my ex girlfriends is in prison for murdering a man who was trying to help her and she is exactly where she belongs. I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that she could do that. Re: Your comment to Russ, all you kept saying was read my book. Sounds like a sales pitch to me. Not much was mentioned about Tracey at all and you are right, most of what you said was about you..

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