August 11, 2003 12:00 PM

People whispered but Steven Beard Jr. didn’t care. As a recent widower in 1995, the 70-year-old had married Celeste Martinez, then 32. Beard wasn’t about to let the age difference interfere with his happiness. Nor did the wealthy retired television executive care that Martinez was a waitress at his country club in Austin, Texas. In fact, he and his new bride lived in a million-dollar home and traveled the world first-class. Still, some friends and relatives wondered how long this unlikely union would last. “They didn’t have anything in common,” recalls neighbor Robert Dennison, 74, a retired surgeon. “Except his money.”

A sensational murder is what links them now. Earlier this year Celeste Beard Johnson, 40, was convicted of killing her husband, in a case that rocked Austin society. From the start Beard’s three children wondered whether Celeste was out for their father’s fortune. “I wasn’t happy about the relationship,” says daughter Becky, 50, who has two brothers, Steven III, 54, and Paul, 49. “But Dad was really happy.”

Celeste had often lived hand-to-mouth and had already been married three times; she’d had twin daughters, Jennifer and Kristina, by her first husband, welder Craig Bratcher. The twins later recalled having a “troubled” relationship with their mother, who they say often neglected them. By contrast Beard had exhibited a magical touch as a businessman. Smart, hardworking and amiable, he was worth more than $10 million following the sale of KBVO, the Austin TV station he owned. (His first wife, Elise, to whom he had been happily married for 45 years, died of cancer in 1993.)

It did not take long for his family’s concerns about Celeste to be realized. A few months after the marriage, Beard’s banker informed him that his new bride had been removing jewelry and silver belonging to Elise from his safety deposit box. Beard quickly filed for divorce. “Steve couldn’t have his wife stealing from him,” says his friend Jerry Inglis. “He was really sad about it.” But the couple managed to reconcile, and Beard soon withdrew his divorce petition. For a while everything seemed to go smoothly. Celeste’s twin daughters were adopted by Beard when they were 17. Says Kristina, now 22: “He was funny. I really got attached to him.” In 1999 Celeste, who had long suffered from depression, checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Austin because she had become suicidal. She spent weeks in treatment at the facility, where she befriended a fellow patient, Tracey Tarlton, now 46, the manager of an Austin bookstore.

The nature of their relationship is a matter of debate. Prosecutors, backed by witnesses who saw the pair together after their release from the hospital, maintain that Celeste and Tarlton became lovers. Celeste’s lawyer later argued that Tarlton was obsessed with Celeste, who simply wanted to be friends. Whatever the case, eight months after they met, events came to a head. At around 3 a.m. on Oct. 2, Beard called 911 for help. A blast from a shotgun had torn into his stomach while he slept at home. When police sergeant Greg Truitt arrived on the scene, he noticed that Celeste—who had supposedly been sleeping in another part of the house—acted strangely. “I remember her saying, ‘This is perfect timing. We were supposed to go to Europe tomorrow,'” recalls Truitt. “I found that an odd thing for a wife to say after her husband had just been shot.”

More oddities lay ahead. Remarkably, Beard survived the initial shotgun blast, despite massive internal injuries. After spending months in hospitals, he was released, apparently making a full recovery. Meanwhile, within days of the shooting Jennifer had told police of her mother’s friendship with Tarlton, whose shotgun was quickly linked to a spent shell casing at the scene. But on Jan. 22 Beard suddenly died from a blood clot, which was ruled a complication from the gunshot wound, making the case a homicide. His kids had assumed all along that Celeste was behind the attack. Following her husband’s death, she hardly seemed the grieving widow. She told friends she was so distraught that she was checking into a clinic but instead traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Five months after Beard died, she married a carpenter named Cole Johnson, 41. “She just didn’t seem upset,” says Kristina, who along with sister Jennifer had increasing suspicions about their mother.

But Celeste’s life was about to start unraveling. In exchange for a sentence of 20 years, Tarlton finally agreed to testify against her friend, which led to Celeste’s indictment for murder in March 2002. At the trial Tarlton said that Celeste had told her Beard was the only thing standing in the way of the women’s future together. “She was flirtatious from the first time I met her,” Tarlton testified. Another bombshell piece of evidence was the tape recording of a conversation between Celeste and Kristina, in which Celeste told of trying to hire someone to kill Tarlton, apparently to prevent her from testifying. In the end it took the jury three days this past March to convict Celeste, who was sentenced to life in prison, though her lawyer Dick DeGuerin recently filed an appeal that will certainly drag the case out. Even so, says Beard’s son Steven III, “we know now our father is finally at rest.”

Bill Hewitt

Alicia Dennis in Austin

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