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Motives and deception abound in a story of a millionaire’s murder and the wife who stopped at nothing to see him dead. Celeste Beard Johnson, who was featured in the very first episode of "Snapped" back in 2004, continues to proclaim her innocence from a Texas prison.
“Any time I’m offered an opportunity to proclaim my innocence, I take it, to hopefully get the pubic to turn their mind; not against me, but maybe for my cause of my innocence,” Celeste told "Snapped: Behind Bars," airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “I’ve been rotting in here for something that I didn’t do.”
The crime that Celeste claims she did not commit happened in an Austin mansion on Oct. 2, 1999. It was near 3:30 a.m. when police received a 911 call from 74-year-old Steven Beard.
“I need an ambulance, hurry,” said the caller. “My guts just came out of my stomach.”
Responders arrived at the Beard mansion, where they found Steven alone in his bedroom, holding his intestines from a hole in his abdomen. Initially, the victim believed the injury stemmed from a recent medical procedure performed at the hospital. As responders tried to figure out what happened, Celeste stormed in, seemingly surprised by all the commotion.
According to Celeste, she typically slept in a separate wing of the mansion on account of the noise from Steven’s CPAP machine. She followed Steven to the hospital.
Born in California, 36-year-old Celeste had a tough time in her youth. She allegedly sustained sexual abuse at the hands of a male relative and partook in a rebellious adolescence. At 17, the teen gave birth to a pair of twin girls, Jennifer and Kristina. When her marriage to her daughters’ father didn’t work out, she took the girls and traveled from state to state, marrying again and then again.
After her third marriage failed, Celeste and the girls moved to Texas in 1993, where Celeste found work as a waitress at a country club. There, the then-30-year-old single mother met the affluent Steven Beard.
Steven Beard was a self-made millionaire who found success in media and local television, selling his station for a rumored $15 million. He was a widower whose wife of 42 years had recently died of terminal brain cancer.
Things moved fast from there. Steven’s wife had only been dead for two weeks when he met Celeste, and after only one month, he invited Celeste and her daughters to move into his mansion.
On Feb. 18, 1995, they married. Steven also agreed to adopt Jennifer and Kristina as his own, just one month before their 18th birthday.
Celeste wasted no time spending Steven’s money. She bought herself cars and jewelry, sometimes spending between $15,000 and $30,000 on daily shopping sprees. But her dream come true began unraveling on the night of Oct. 2, 1999, when Steven was rushed to the hospital.
Back at the mansion, investigators made a shocking discovery: a 20-gauge shotgun shell casing near Steven’s bed.
But who would want to hurt Steven?
Steven survived the surgery, but he wasn’t out of the woods just yet. Investigators went to speak with him at the hospital, but according to them, Celeste hired a criminal defense lawyer and denied them access to her husband. Left with few options, authorities interviewed Jennifer and Kristina, and the twins were quick to name a suspect: Tracey Tarlton.
“She was Celeste’s friend, and they hung out quite a bit,” said Celeste’s daughter, Jennifer Beard. “They met at a mental hospital.”
Authorities learned Celeste had a history of severe depression. The twins spoke of one occasion when they witnessed Celeste holding a gun to her own head during an explosive argument with Steven.
“Our house was a complete war zone,” said Celeste. “Steven wanted me to have nothing to do with the kids, as far as disciplining them. I felt like I was going to be totally alone in this big house because he passed out every night. It was just too much, and I was so upset about everything. I was so depressed. I just wanted to kill myself at that point.”
At the psychiatric facility, Celeste met Tarlton, who allegedly struggled with alcoholism. The pair bonded, having both been raised in abusive households. After Celeste and Tracey were released in the summer of 1999, they spent time together. Celeste even threw her a lavish party at her home.
“… It was pretty obvious that she had feelings for Celeste,” said Jennifer Beard.
Friends noticed the affection between the two, including Celeste sitting on Tarlton's lap or Tarlton snuggling and whispering in her ear. On one occasion, Kristina Beard said she caught them kissing in Celeste’s bed. Kristina told her adoptive father, but Celeste denied the whole thing.
“They never saw that,” said Celeste. “And I never kissed her.”
Despite Celeste’s denial, Steven forbade Talrton from visiting the mansion. When investigators went to Tracey’s house to ask about the shooting, they found what they referred to as a shrine of Celeste’s photos. When they inquired about firearms, Tracey willingly handed over her gun: a 20-gauge shotgun.
Later testing proved it was the same shotgun used to shoot Steven Beard. Upon authorities’ initial interrogation, Tracey admitted that she shot Steven but wouldn’t say why.
Four months later, doctors released Steven into Celeste’s care, and they returned home. But one day later, he was readmitted to the hospital with a severe infection.
Steven Beard died, and for Tarlton, the charges were upgraded to murder. Celeste meanwhile quickly got back to spending and partying.
“The way she acted wouldn’t be a way a widow would act … ” said Jennifer Beard. “I just remember her laughing a lot, kind of in a way that she was relieved that he wasn’t around anymore.”
Then, six months later, detectives received a shocking phone call: It was Tracey Tarlton, ready to tell them why she shot Steven Beard that early October morning.
Tarlton's change of heart came after she saw a newspaper clipping about Celeste marrying her fifth husband.
Tarlton confessed to detectives that she and Celeste had a romantic relationship. According to her, Celeste said that if she had to stay with Steven, she’d take her own life because, she claimed, Steven was an abuser.
“We spoke to a lot of people who knew them,” said Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier. “And there was no indication that Steven Beard was ever physically or mentally abusive towards Celeste or the twins.”
Jennifer also denied abuse claims, but Tarlton bought into Celeste’s lies. Eventually, Celeste suggested Tarlton use her own gun to kill Steven. Celeste offered to help by turning off the burglar alarm and leaving his bedroom door unlocked. But even though she shot Steven, Tarlton said that she wasn’t the one who actually killed him. Instead, after Steven returned home to Celeste’s care, Celeste put things in his wound to purposefully infect it.
“That’s just another one of their lies,” said Celeste. “He wasn’t home long enough.”
Based on Tarlton’s confession, authorities arrested Celeste Beard Johnson. She was charged with capital murder and entered a plea of not guilty.
Celeste continued to deny a lesbian affair with Tarlton, claiming she was delusional and made it all up in her head. But when the state added Celeste’s twin daughters to the stand at her trial, they corroborated that they’d seen their mother and Tarlton kiss.
“It makes me sick,” said Celeste. “You always hear blood is thicker than water. Not in my case. I want to call them the Menendez sisters.”
In court, the defense attempted to paint the daughters as greedy gold diggers who testified against their mother to attain Steven’s wealth.
“When they found out that they weren’t going to get any money ‘til I died or went to prison, that’s when they turned against me,” said Celeste. “My kids sold me to the state of Texas.”
Jennifer Beard said the trial was the last time she ever saw her mother.
A jury found Celeste Beard Johnson guilty of capital murder. She was sentenced to life in prison.
“I was devastated,” said Celeste. “It’s not right that I’m spending the rest of my life in prison, and there is no evidence against me. I just wish somebody could come forward and help me.”
In exchange for her testimony, Tracey Tarlton was sentenced to 20 years behind bars and was paroled in 2011.
Celeste will be eligible for parole in 2042 when she is 80 years old.
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