Bookstores have provided the setting for numerous detective novels, but rarely does one appear in a true crime book—or host a party about a former manager's murder case. Until now.
This spring, two new books—TheFortune Hunterby Suzy Spencer (St. Martin's) and She Wanted It All by Kathryn Casey (Avon, Apr.)—examine the murder of Stephen Beard, a 72-year-old former television executive, by Tracey Tarlton, who at the time was the general manager of BookPeople in Austin, Tex.
It was not exactly a bookish murder: on October 2, 1999, Tarlton, who had a history of depression and drug use, fired a single blast from a 20-gauge shotgun at Beard while he lay in bed. The court found that she had been coerced into shooting the millionaire by Beard's 37-year-old wife, Celeste. Tarlton and Celeste had become lovers after the two met at a local psychiatric hospital.
While Beard languished in the hospital, where he died four months after the shooting, and prior to her arrest, Tarlton continued to work at the store as general manager. BookPeople owner Steve Bercu called the environment "like walking on eggshells." Some employees were a little frightened of Tarlton and remember her combative relationship with BookPeople's marketing director at the time, Jeremy Ellis. One incident ended with Tarlton threatening Ellis, "If you do that again, I'll kill you."
Bercu, who had taken over as owner of BookPeople just before the shooting, used one of his first staff meeting to advise everyone to be honest with investigators and reporters who had already begun asking questions of employees. "You've done nothing wrong," he recalled saying, "so just tell them the truth."
Bercu, a former defense attorney who firmly believes in the principle of "innocent until proven guilty," maintained it would be wrong to fire Tarlton. Instead, he relegated her to working in the administrative offices and not on the sales floor where she might have been a distraction for customers. Nevertheless, Bercu said, by December of that year, Tarlton was strongly medicated and "her work product had been reduced to zero." He let her go in late February of 2000.
At the trial, Tarlton didn't have much legal wiggle room. The shotgun that was tied to the killing had Tarlton's name engraved on the stock (it had been a gift from her father). In exchange for a 20-year prison sentence, Tarlton testified that Beard had planned the murder. Celeste Beard, despite being defended by celebrity lawyer Dick DeGuerin, was convicted of two life sentences and given a $10,000 fine.
Bizarre Launch Party
In one of the oddest twists of an odd case, Suzy Spencer's Fortune Hunter had its official launch party at BookPeople recently, one that echoed a now-infamous party thrown by Tarlton and Beard for BookPeople employees in the summer of 1999.
The theme of the 1999 party was "Fashion Victims"—guests were encouraged to wear a fashion faux pas. One photo from that night—later used as evidence at the murder trial to show ties between the two—showed Celeste Beard sitting on Tarlton's lap eating a brownie. In an attempt to copy that earlier party, the book launch party served brownies and people were encouraged to wear "fashion victim" costumes. Although the effort to reproduce the "Fashion Victim" party was in the end halfhearted, eager Austinites did buy 75 copies of the book.
Asked whether the store had any complaints about hosting the event where the murderer worked, Bercu admitted that he questioned briefly whether it was appropriate, but decided to err on the side of generosity for a local writer. "You have to admit, it's about as local as it ever gets for us," he told PW.
Spencer, who's written three true-crime books, including a bestseller about Andrea Yates, the Houston housewife who drowned her five children, told PW she sees the Tarlton murder as a psychological drama rather than a crime story. "Tracey was severely lonely and longed for someone to love her. If she had more love, then she would have had more self-worth."
She Wanted It All author Kathryn Casey concurs. "There is a really interesting psychological marriage between these two women," she said. "Tracey needed someone to need her and Celeste needed someone to take care of her. They formed a strange union." (That union came apart when, before the start of her trial, Celeste asked the receptionist at her beauty salon to hire a hit man kill Tarlton.)