The Unsolved Murders of J.B. Beasley & Tracie Hawlett

 
1. ON THE WAY TO A BIRTHDAY PARTY

At approximately 10:05 p.m. on the night of Saturday, July 31, 1999, Northview High School incoming seniors J.B. Hilton Green Beasley, 17, and Tracie Jean Hawlett, 17, left their hometown of Dothan, Alabama together in Beasley's 1993 black Mazda 929. It was Beasley's 17th birthday, and the friends were headed to a field party in J.B.'s honor at the rural home of Beasley's friend and fellow dancer Janna Hare in Headland, about 10 miles north of Dothan.

The girls never arrived at the party.

According to Tracie's mother Carol Roberts, "They never found the party. They just couldn't understand the directions."

2. LOST

Beasley and Hawlett were spotted in Headland at about 10:30 p.m. Police records show that they stopped at a BP gas station near the intersection of Routes 173 and 431 in Headland, where they used one of two side-by-side pay phones to call friends, probably to get clearer directions to the party or possibly to tell friends they wouldn’t be able to make it: Hawlett’s curfew that night was 11:30 p.m., giving the girls a relatively short night out given their departure time, made all the shorter by their becoming lost.

One hour later, just after 11:30 p.m., Beasley and Hawlett turned up in Ozark — more than 20 miles northwest of Dothan — at the Big/Little convenience store-Chevron station located at 763 East Broad Street. The store had closed for the evening at 11:00 p.m. Beasley and Hawlett encountered a woman, Marilyn Merritt, and her daughter, who had stopped to buy a soda; the girls asked for and were provided directions to U.S. Highway 231, which would take them the 20 miles southeast to Dothan. Merritt and her daughter later told police that Beasley’s car was spotless, the girls were clean and nothing seemed awry.

Using the pay phone at the far right end of the store front, Tracie Hawlett then called her mother to say they had gotten lost and wound up in Ozark but had gotten directions and were on their way home. Carol Roberts stated, “Nothing was wrong in Tracie’s voice. It was ‘Mom, I love you. Be home soon.’”

Merritt and her daughter then saw Beasley and Hawlett pull out of the parking lot and turn right toward the highway, as directed. It was the last time Beasley and Hawlett were seen alive.


3. THE NEXT MORNING

Exhausted from a double shift as a nurse's aide at Wesley Manor nursing home, Carol Roberts fell asleep after the call from her daughter. When she awoke at 4:45 a.m., Tracie had not returned. Of Tracie’s failure to return that night, Roberts stated, “Tracie’s never late. I knew that something beyond her control was keeping her from getting home.”

At 8:00 that morning, August 1, 1999, Roberts called Dothan police. Officers started to search for a possible car wreck.

At almost that exact moment, Ozark police officers found Beasley's black Mazda 929 just before 8:00 a.m., parked along Herring Avenue, about 30 yards from the James Street intersection, less than a mile from the pay phone Hawlett had used the night before. Though a residential street, the stretch of Herring Avenue where the car was found is houseless, flanked by dense woods on both sides. It is dark in the daytime and near pitch-black at night.


4. THE CAR

According to police, when the car was initially found, there were no outright signs of foul play. Police say why the girls stopped remains a mystery. They say it doesn't look like someone forced the girls off the road, since there was no damage to the car.

Though undamaged, the car was muddy and almost out of gas despite a fill-up the day before. The driver's side window was rolled down a few inches and the doors were unlocked. J.B. Beasley’s driver's license was on the dashboard. The girls' purses were inside the car. It appeared only the car keys were missing.


 5. "SOMETHING ABOUT THIS FEELS FUNNY."

Lieutenant Rex Tipton, the chief of detectives with the Ozark Police Department, was contacted by a sergeant at the Herring Avenue scene and told about the discovery.

“I don't know why I'm bothering you," the sergeant said, "but something about this feels funny.”

Tipton told the sergeant to keep an eye on the car, figuring that teenagers may have left it there after a night of partying, which would not have been unusual. The sergeant ran the car's license plates and discovered that it was registered in Dothan, the region's largest city with just under 60,000 people. He contacted police there.

The Dothan police told Tipton they were just then taking a missing person's report from Tracie's parents.

Tipton reiterated his order to keep an eye on the car.

“At that point," Tipton said, "I didn't think about popping the trunk. There was nothing to indicate anything was wrong.”

6. INSIDE THE TRUNK

Hours passed with no sign of the girls. By lunchtime, Tipton had become worried. Dothan police sent an investigator, who planned to have the car towed back to Dothan. As officers waited for a tow truck, the Dothan investigator noticed that he could open J.B.'s trunk with an inside lever; the missing keys weren't needed.

Six hours had passed since the discovery of the car. It was nearing 2:00 p.m. when he popped the trunk:

J.B. Beasley and Tracie Hawlett were inside, each dead from a single 9mm gunshot wound to the head.


7. CRIME SCENE DETAILS

The girls were clothed and showed few signs of struggle. Hawlett's arm was scratched, her pants had briars, and the $95 New Balance tennis shoes she had bought the week before were covered in mud. First into the trunk, she had been shot once in the temple.

Beasley had been shot once in the cheek. She was noticeably dirty; her shoes were muddy.

Both girls’ pants were wet below the knee.

A single 9mm shell casing rested precariously on Hawlett’s leg.

Robbery was quickly ruled out as a motive when it was confirmed that not only the girls’ purses but also their jewelry, money, and credit cards were all found inside the car.

The only known missing item is Beasley’s key chain, which holds the car’s keys. It is described as having white blocks with black letters that have a heart on one and spell out “HARD2GET.”

Similar to J.B.'s  "HARD2GET" keychain?

An autopsy revealed that the girls had not been raped and had no alcohol or drugs in their bodies.

Authorities were able to determine that the girls had not been murdered where the car was parked on Herring Avenue.

A palm print was recovered from the trunk lid.

More than two months after the crime, a stunning revelation came from state forensics examiners: They found semen on J.B. Beasley’s bra, panties, and skin. Authorities consider this discovery the key to the unsolved murders.

"You have to assume it's a sex offense, or at least came out of a sex offense," said David Emery, the district attorney of Dale and Geneva counties. "If we could find who donated that semen, I think we'll have the killer.”

8. THE STRANGE CONFESSION OF JOHNNY WILLIAM BARRENTINE

At 11:30 p.m. on the night of July 31, 1999, at the same time Tracie Hawlett called her mother from the Big/Little Store pay phone, 28-year-old part-time mechanic Johnny William Barrentine told his young wife that he was headed out to buy milk for the couple’s 2-year-old son.

Barrentine didn’t return home until shortly before 1:00 a.m., and, according to his wife, when he came in he was visibly upset. When asked, he told her his car had been “hit by a black truck with a Dothan tag near Herring Avenue.”

In the days that followed, Barrentine would confide in others that he knew something about the murders of the two teens found on Herring Avenue . “He just said he thought he might know who did it,” said Avalyn Murphy, whose boyfriend, Leon Jordan, encouraged Barrentine to go to authorities and collect the reward.

Barrentine finally took the advice.

On September 1, exactly one month after the bodies of J.B. Beasley and Tracie Hawlett were found, Johnny Barrentine met with police for a four-hour, videotaped interview, ultimately offering six different stories, sometimes placing himself at the scene of the crime.

According to Ozark Police Chief Tony R. Spivey, Barrentine first said that on the night of the killings he'd seen a black truck speeding away from the area where the girls were found.

As the interview wore on, Barrentine changed his story several times, finally telling investigators that he'd picked up a “tattooed man” he didn't know, and the two drove by the Big/Little Store. Barrentine said the man he'd given a ride got into a car with two girls — who Barrentine identified as “the dead girls” — and told him to follow. He said they ended up on Herring Avenue. The man got the girls out of the car. Barrentine said he soon heard two gunshots and the man returned. Barrentine gave the man a ride away from the scene, then went home.

In another version, Barrentine confessed to investigators that the man he’d picked up and given a ride home wasn’t unknown to him at all — it was his neighbor. Alarmingly, Barrentine lived just eight-tenths of a mile from where police found the bodies.

Police arrested Barrentine then and there, naming him the prime suspect and charging him with two counts of capital murder.

But there were problems with his account. He never mentioned sexual activity that would account for the semen found on Beasley. The neighbor he implicated had an alibi for the evening and, like Barrentine, did not match the DNA samples.

Barrentine immediately said he'd fabricated the whole story in hopes of scoring some quick cash.

“I didn't see anything,” he later told a grand jury. “I made up everything to get the reward money.”


“He says he was there,” Police Chief Spivey said, explaining what made Barrentine a suspect. “He relayed to us about getting the girls out of the car. One of the girls ran. The girls were combative. The individual placed the girls in the trunk. Two shots were fired. The gunman comes back to the car. Something is in his hand. He drove the gunman outside the city. He returned home.”

In a September 21 preliminary hearing, Alabama Bureau of Investigation agent Charles Huggins testified that Barrentine was able to describe the girls’ clothing and other items consistent with the girls and the crime.

Police Chief Spivey said the district attorney, who was present during the September 1 interview, instructed police to arrest Barrentine. When Barrentine’s arrest was announced at a September press conference, Spivey said police were confident they had arrested the right man.

"What do you do?" Spivey would say later. “If you don't charge him, maybe you just let a killer walk out the door. You're between a rock and a hard place.”

Barrentine was held without bond in the Dale County jail from his September 1 arrest on. In an October 18 bond hearing before Circuit Judge P.B. McLauchlin, Barrentine denied he was involved in the killings, though he had made the earlier statements to police that he watched the two 17-year-olds shot to death by an acquaintance of his who had “tattoos all over his arms.”

Barrentine told McLauchlin that he never picked up a tattooed man and that he didn't see anything the night of the murders. He said he simply went to the BP at about 11:00 p.m. to get milk for his little boy.

Barrentine was denied bond by McLauchlin, who then appointed 36-year veteran lawyer Bill Kominos to represent Barrentine.

Barrentine's friends and family stood by him, professing his innocence to anyone who would listen. “He did not do it,” his mother, Faye Barrentine, adamantly told reporters the day after her son's arrest. "He's not capable of doing it. He has a two-year-old son, and he is not capable of doing anything to hurt a child.”

Kominos would go on to say his client had obviously stumbled into a situation with investigators he wasn't capable of handling. “As a lawyer, you need to take what your client says with a grain of salt sometimes,” he said, speaking in slow, measured tones, his hands held together almost as if he were praying. “But I had a feeling from the very beginning, in viewing the car, in viewing the evidence, I said to myself, ‘No. Johnny Barrentine could not have done this.’”

The police were under intense pressure to make an arrest, Kominos contended. And that pile of reward money kept growing. It grew enough to lure Barrentine in, Kominos said.

“Well, they started. They questioned. And questioned. And questioned. Four hours,” the lawyer said, punctuating each sentence with a moment of silence. “It's all on video and the questions turn from questions to accusations. From accusations to suggestions.”

Barrentine, who had lived in Ozark for several years and was residing at 110 Young Avenue with his wife and son, said he first went to Spivey several days after the murders to tell him of a rumor. He gave Spivey a name and was told that police had already checked out the rumor and that the man Barrentine named was not a suspect.

Also several days after the murder, Barrentine reportedly said, he and his wife and brother-in-law went to the scene on Herring Street where the Beasley car was found. Barrentine said they were looking for something that might help the police solve the case.

Barrentine said he was tired when he told the story to police in the September 1 interview at the police station. He said he was interviewed for more than four hours and was not told he could go to the bathroom or could leave at any time.

Barrentine said police "tricked me" into telling the story.

At one hearing, it was reported that Barrentine finished the seventh grade and a portion of the eighth grade, and that he was in special education courses.

Daleville lawyer Joe Gallo said he didn’t believe police, who were under intense pressure to solve the case, would drop charges against Barrentine if they believed he was remotely involved. Yet Gallo offered no explanation for Barrentine's stories, except to say Barrentine suffered mild mental retardation. "You've got me," he said.

Barrentine's DNA was compared to that of the semen found on J.B. Beasley’s body.

It did not match.

A judge then approved Barrentine's bond request. He was released from jail on Friday, December 17. In January, a Dale County grand jury declined to indict Barrentine.

“Barrentine is living in Daleville now,” Kominos said at the time, “and is trying to pick up the pieces.” Kominos said no physical evidence exists that links Barrentine to the murders.

Police still consider him a suspect, Spivey said, noting that Barrentine is also alleged to have made a jailhouse confession.

Police have said Barrentine could be charged later if new evidence points to him.

9. A WITNESS

Since the day police discovered the bodies, they have said that J.B. and Tracie were shot while inside the Mazda's trunk. And they believed the actual shooting happened somewhere other than where the car was found.

Yet, months into the investigation, police couldn't say where that somewhere else was.

Then, in March 2000, a woman who lived just south of town reported that she heard screams and what sounded like two gunshots on the night of the murders.

The woman didn't report the information sooner because she "didn't want to get involved," Chief Spivey said.

The area, next to what neighbors said is a now-vacant house, is surrounded by trees and has two World War II-era buildings on the property. The spider-web-encrusted buildings — wooden structures that appear to be a barn and a half-collapsed garage — sit about 100 feet off the roadway.

With FBI help, Spivey said, crime scene specialists and investigators combed the area and found a spent 9mm shell casing, the same caliber casing found in the trunk with the bodies.


Police sent the casing and a soil sample from the area to the state forensics lab, where forensics experts compared the dirt from that location with dirt found on J.B.'s and Tracie's clothing, and also examined the unique extraction marks left on the two casings by the gun that ejected them.

Investigators have never made the results of those forensics tests public.

10. INVESTIGATION

The crime has become one of the most puzzling murder mysteries in the region's history. Police were stumped almost from the beginning.

"The oddest thing I've ever seen," Chief Spivey said.

"The strangest investigation I've ever worked," noted one chief of detectives.

"Bizarre," a defense lawyer said, then added, "There is one thing about it: The killer was very careful. Whoever did it, this was not the first time."

The investigation into the unsolved murders of J.B. Beasley and Tracie Hawlett has been exhaustive. To date, hundreds of suspects have been cleared through DNA testing. Many leads have taken investigators out of Alabama: to Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arkansas and South Carolina.

“We haven’t generated the leads we wanted, but we’ve been to a number of states, been in the prison system. I’d say we’ve followed basically every lead into soldiers, police officers, states, many of which have turned out with nothing,” Spivey said.

The lack of progress in the investigation has led to rampant rumors. Authorities have investigated every one; each was eliminated as a possibility. "We've wasted a lot of man hours chasing rumors," said Chief Spivey. "But you have to do it."

Agencies involved in the investigation over the years include the Ozark Police Department, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, Alabama State Troopers, the Dale County Sheriff's Department, the Daleville Department of Public Safety, the Wiregrass Violent Crimes Task Force, the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force, the Dothan Police Department, the Houston County Sheriff's Department, the Alabama Department of Game and Fish, the Dale County District Attorney's Office, the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, the Attorney General's Cold Case Unit, Cold Case Investigator Richard Walters, and Attorney General Troy King's Cold Case Commission.

An FBI profiler was brought in and labeled the killer as most likely a young male who could be described as a loner.

Psychics and hypnosis have even been used.

At one point there was a mysterious white truck investigators were looking for that was thought to be the possible key to solving the case. Surveillance footage from inside the Big/Little Store showed that a small white or light-colored pickup truck was parked at the gas pump nearest the store at the same time J.B. and Tracie were there along with Marilyn Merritt and her daughter.


Why was the truck there? authorities wondered. The store was closed, no gas purchase was made, and no one exited the vehicle at any time.

Video footage showed that Marilyn Merritt and her daughter pulled out of the Big/Little Store parking lot first, followed immediately by the white truck, followed immediately by J.B. and Tracie.

For years, investigators asked the occupant(s) of the white truck to come forward, and for years there was no response. Finally, in 2004, the driver of the white truck was identified and cleared of any involvement.

In addition to searching the possible murder site south of downtown Ozark following the witness statement made in March 2000, investigators have also searched a location on Depot Lane, a narrow side street 0.3 miles — a 29-second drive, according to Google Maps — from the Big/Little Store in the direction the girls were traveling that night.

Authorities have never made it known to the public whether they have confirmed where J.B. and Tracie were taken and shot after being abducted.

“There are some things that only we in law enforcement and the perpetrator know. That information will not be released until this case is solved,” Chief Spivey has said.

Authorities say this case is constantly on their minds. The case is very much open and both a federal and local investigation is ongoing. "The public would actually be amazed at the work that is done on this case weekly," Chief Spivey states.

11. ABOUT THE VICTIMS

J.B. Hilton Green Beasley was born Saturday, July 31, 1982 in Troy, Alabama, to Hilton Lanier Beasley and Cheryl Stout. In 1984, her family moved to Dothan.

J.B. was an All-American Cheerleader in the 8th grade at Carver Middle School. She was active in dance for ten years and was the recipient of numerous dance trophies and awards. She was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Dothan.

"Her actual first name was J period B period," her mother Cheryl Burgoon said, "and J.B. wasn't afraid to let anyone know it." Burgoon remembered J.B. as a rambunctious child, never shy as a little girl. "J.B. was vibrant, fun, a precious person who couldn't have lived life more fully than she did."

Her pastor, Lawson Bryan, called J.B. an “extremely vivacious, friendly, outgoing person.”

A gifted dancer, J.B. hoped for a dance scholarship to college. She wanted to be a pediatrician. "I saw her doing great things," her mother said.

Tracie Jean Hawlett was born Wednesday, March 3, 1982 to Robert H. Hawlett and Carol Roberts.
 
She was a second-year majorette at Northview High School, and she was on the presidential honor roll two years running as well as being a beauty contest finalist.
 
"Tracie had picked up the nickname 'D.D.' because she often acted as a designated driver. She didn't smoke or drink," her mother Carol Roberts said. "She'd crawl into bed and fall asleep with her Bible and devotional book. That was the last thing she ever did at night."
 
"Tracie had her life all mapped out," her mother said. "She had already applied to Florida State University."
 
"I feel like my life is blessed by having had Tracie as a daughter," said Roberts. "If I'd have had to order a daughter, there's nothing about Tracie that I would have changed."

From the age of 3, Tracie wanted to be a doctor.

12. TIPS/CONTACT

If you have any information about the unsolved murders of J.B. Beasley and Tracie Hawlett, call the Ozark Police Department at (334) 774-2644 or the Dale County Sheriff’s Office at (334) 774-2335.

If you would like to submit a tip here, or if you have background information on this case, please contact truecrimenotebook@gmail.com. All tips will be forwarded to the Ozark Police Department.

No comments:

Post a Comment