Tracie Jean Hawlett
Birth: March 3, 1982
Death: August 1, 1999
Father: Robert H. Hawlett
Burial: Memory Hill Cemetery, Dothan, Houston County, Alabama, USA
July 19, 2017
On Saturday, July 31, 1999, JB Hilton Green Beasley, white female and Tracie Hawlett, white female, both 17 years of age, were reported missing to the Dothan Police Department by family members. The girls were reportedly headed to a party and were last seen in Ozark, Alabama. At about 9:00 A.M. on Sunday, August 1, 1999, the vehicle they were traveling in, a black Mazda, was located on Herring Avenue in Ozark by the Ozark Police Department. It was later determined that both girls were deceased in the trunk of that vehicle; both were victims of apparent homicide.
DimeDective - March 5, 2013
I've been researching this case for the past couple of months. I've organized all the facts uncovered thus far into a sort of case file, which follows in its entirety. It is my hope that this will provide a foundation on which we can build, ignite a new conversation and bring some much-needed attention to this ice-cold case. —DD
1. ON THE WAY TO A BIRTHDAY PARTY
At approximately 10:00 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 for her at the rural home of Beasley’s friend and fellow dancer Janna Hare in Headland, about 10 miles north of Dothan.
Earlier that evening Tracie Hawlett had finished her shift in the menswear department at J.C. Penney, left work shortly after 9:00 p.m., and went home to change clothes before Beasley, of 205 Woodleigh Road in Dothan, arrived to pick her up sometime between 9:45 and just past 10:00 at her house in the Hickory Hill Drive/Rock Spring Road neighborhood in Dothan.
The girls never arrived at the party. Carol Roberts, Tracie Hawlett’s mother, said, “They never found the party. They just couldn’t understand the directions.”
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. 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 5:00 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. When police found the car, the driver's side window was rolled down a few inches and the door was 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
They 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.”
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 and 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, whose police mug shot makes him look like he might have just been startled from a slumber, 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. OTHER SUSPECTS
- The Man from Michigan: A man from Michigan who was at a party the night of the murders near where the car was found is also a "very viable" suspect, Chief Spivey said, even after tests failed to match the man's DNA to that found on J.B. Beasley’s clothing. The man, whom Spivey would not name, left town within days of the murders, the chief said, adding that investigators have traveled to Michigan three times to interview him. The man cannot account for three or four hours of his time on the night of the murders, and later made "suspicious" statements to people, Spivey said. He would not elaborate on what he meant by suspicious.
- The Driver of the Small White Pickup Truck: A video surveillance camera inside the Big/Little Store caught a grainy, poor quality image of what appears to be a small white pickup truck at the gas pumps at the same time that J.B. and Tracie were at the outside phone calling Tracie's mother. The store had closed, and there was no record of a gas purchase being made at the pump by credit card or debit card at that time, Chief Spivey said. The video never reveals anyone getting out of the truck, and never clearly shows the driver. After releasing a photo of the truck to the media a month into the investigation, no one had come forward to say it was him in the truck. The truck -- and its driver -- seem to have disappeared. “So that may be the key,” Spivey said.
- The Man from Mississippi (Presumably ruled out - DNA): In early March 2000, it was reported that a DNA sample taken from a Jones County, Mississippi, man was being compared to samples taken from the body of J.B. Beasley, but Chief Spivey said no factual evidence known at the time linked the man to the brutal murders of Beasley and Hawlett. Spivey said the man, who was extradited from Jones County, had been arrested there on an outstanding warrant for possessions of drug paraphernalia issued in Ozark. The man had been staying in Ozark with relatives but left two days after the murders. Spivey said investigators wanted to question him in connection with the case. “He has been extensively interviewed and DNA samples have been obtained and sent to the forensics lab," Spivey said at the time. "But at this time we do not have any factual information to connect him to this case. We just want to be double sure that he's not involved.”
10. 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.
Despite its brutal ending, that final Saturday evening began on a festive note. It was J. B. Beasley's 17th birthday, and there was much to celebrate. She was an up-and-coming high school senior. Her future was promising, even if her past had not been trouble-free. Her relationship with her mother was admittedly strained, and her dance instructor had become her legal guardian. Even now, Cheryl Stout-Burgoon describes her daughter as rebellious and manipulative -- albeit very smart. But others considered her spirited, including her pastor, Lawson Bryan, who called her an “extremely vivacious, friendly, outgoing person.”
Tracie Jean Hawlett was born Wednesday, March 3, 1982. She was a second-year majorette at Northview High School, as well as a beauty contest finalist. [I've had a hard time finding facts on Ms. Hawlett. I'm hoping someone can help me here. —DD]
11. INVESTIGATION: DEVELOPMENTS
Police were stumped almost from the beginning. When state and county detectives joined the hunt, more than 50 investigators were working on the case in a city with just 45 officers on its force.
An FBI suspect profiler was brought in. But the profile revealed nothing dramatic, Chief Spivey said. The profiler said the killer most likely was a young male who could be described as a loner.
2008-2009: Ozark Police Chief Tony Spivey says they have investigated new leads over the past year and a majority of those leads have taken them out of Alabama. They’ve interviewed about a dozen people according to the Chief, some in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Michigan, Arkansas and South Carolina. But he says they’ve come up empty-handed. Chief Spivey says it is personally frustrating that they have not found the killers but the department continues to work with the Attorney General’s Cold Case Unit and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation.
12. AGENCIES INVOLVED IN THE INVESTIGATION
- Ozark Police Department
- Alabama Bureau of Investigation
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Alabama State Troopers
- Dale County Sheriff’s Department
- Daleville Department of Public Safety
- Wiregrass Violent Crime/Drug Task Force
- FBI Violent Crimes Task Force
- Dothan Police Department
- Houston County Sheriff’s Department
- Alabama Department of Game and Fish
- Dale County District Attorney’s Office
- Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences
- Attorney General’s Cold Case Unit
- Richard Walters, Cold Case Investigator
- Attorney General Troy King’s Cold Case Commission
13. TELEVISION COVERAGE
- Summer 2000: Spivey contacts America’s Most Wanted. The FOX network television show had helped Ozark police catch two suspects in a 1989 murder case.
- July 28, 2007: AMW airs a segment on the Beasley-Hawlett murders.
- August 15, 2007: CourtTV’s Haunting Evidence “Wiregrass Murders” (Beasley-Hawlett murders) episode airs.
14. 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've said, 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 they still sit. [July 2000]
Tipton said forensics experts will compare the dirt from that location with dirt found on J.B.'s and Tracie's clothing.
He said they will also examine the unique "extraction marks" left on the two casings by the gun that ejected them.
Because investigators are still awaiting those test results from the forensics lab, they don't know if the scene south of town is the actual murder scene.