Post by Graveyardbride on Jul 28, 2014 14:21:06 GMT -5
Unsolved Murders of Two Alabama Teenagers
For 15 years, Mike and Carol Roberts have prayed for justice in the murders of their daughter, Tracie Jean Hawlett (above left) and her friend, Hilton Green “J.B.” Beasley (right), both 17, and for 15 years, they have been disappointed. But there’s always hope, Mrs. Roberts says. There has to be hope. To spur that hope, families and friends will gather Thursday for a candlelight prayer vigil on Herring Avenue in Ozark, where the 17-year-old Northview High School girls were found shot to death in the trunk of J.B.’s Mazda Sunday, August 1, 1999.
Tracie and J.B. had been headed to a party near Midland City and Headland the night before. Tracie had called her parents to say she and J.B. were lost in Ozark, but were headed home. They were never heard from again. The girls were killed execution style with a single gunshot each to their heads, then stuffed in the trunk of a car and left on Herring Avenue in Ozark, Alabama.
At approximately 10:05 p.m. on that night, the two girls left their hometown of Dothan together in Beasley’s 1993 black Mazda 929. It was J.B.’s 17th birthday and the friends were planning to attend a field party in J.B.’s honor in Headland, about 10 miles north of Dothan. The girls never arrived at the party. Just after 11:30 p.m., the pair turned up in Ozark – more than 20 miles northwest of Dothan – at the Big/Little convenience store and Chevron station located at 763 East Broad Street. The store had closed for the evening at 11:00 p.m., but the girls encountered a woman, Marilyn Merritt, and her daughter, who had stopped to buy a soda. The girls asked for and were provided directions to US Highway 231, which would take them the 20 miles southeast to Dothan. Ms. Merritt and her daughter later told police that Beasley’s car was spotless, the girls were clean and nothing seemed amiss. Using the pay phone at the far right end of the store front, Tracie Hawlett called her mother to say they had gotten lost and ended up in Ozark, but now had directions and were on their way home. Tracie’s mother, Carol Roberts, later said, “Nothing was wrong in Tracie’s voice. It was ‘Mom, I love you. Be home soon.’” Ms. Merritt and her daughter watched as the girls pulled out of the parking lot and turned right toward the highway, as directed. It was the last time anyone other than their killer saw them alive.
At 8 o’clock the following morning, J.B.and Tracie were reported missing and at almost the same time, Ozark police officers found the black Mazda 929 parked on Herring Avenue, less than a mile from the pay phone Tracie Hawlett had used the night before. According to police, when the car was initially discovered, there were no outright signs of foul play. Police said why the girls stopped remains a mystery and it did not appear the pair had been forced off the road because there was no damage to the car. Though undamaged, the car was muddy and almost out of gas despite a fill-up the previous day. The driver’s side window was rolled down a few inches and the doors were unlocked. JB’s driver’s license was on the dashboard and the girls’ purses were inside the car. However, the car keys were missing.
The Crime Scene. Hours passed with no sign of the girls and 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 discovered he could open the trunk with an inside lever and did not need the keys. Six hours had passed since the discovery of the car and 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. The girls were clothed and there were no obvious signs of a struggle, however, Tracie had a single shot to the temple, a scratch on her arm and there were briar thorns on her pants. The $95 New Balance shoes she had purchased the week before were covered in mud. From the positioning of the bodies, it was apparent she had been stuffed into the trunk first. A 9mm shell casing rested precariously on her leg. J.B. had been shot in the cheek and she was noticeably “dirty” with mud on her shoes. Both girls’ pants were wet below the knee. 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 inside the car. The only known missing item was J.B’s key chain, which held her car and other keys. It was described as having white blocks with black letters spelling out “HARD2GET.”
Autopsies confirmed neither girl had been raped and there were no traces of alcohol or drugs. However, more than two months later, the state crime lab issued a report indicating there were traces of semen on J.B.’s bra, panties and skin. Law enforcement hope the semen will eventually lead to a suspect. Additionally, an unknown palm print was recovered from the lid of the trunk. Authorities were also able to determine the girls had not been killed where the car was parked on Herring Avenue. “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.”
The Strange Confession of Johnny William Barrentine. At 11:30 on the night of July 31, 1999, at the same time Tracie Hawlett called her mother from the pay phone at the Big/Little Store, 28-year-old part-time mechanic Johnny William Barrentine told his young wife he was going out to buy milk for the couple’s 2-year-old son. Barrentine did not 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 to 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 the authorities and collect the reward.
Barrentine finally took the advice and on September 1, exactly one month after the bodies of J.B. and Tracie were found, he met with police for a four-hour, videotaped interview, ultimately telling six different stories and in some of them, placing himself at the scene of the crime. According to Ozark Police Chief Tony R. Spivey, Barrentine initially said that on the night of the killings, he had seen a black truck speeding away from the area where the girls were found. As the interview continued, he changed his story several times, finally claiming 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 – whom Barrentine identified as “the dead girls” – and told him to follow. He said they ended up on Herring Avenue, where the man got the girls out of the car. Barrentine claimed he heard two gunshots and when the man returned, Barrentine gave him a ride from the scene and then went home. In another version, Barrentine confessed to investigators that the man he’d picked up and given a ride was actually his neighbor. Alarmingly, Barrentine lived less than a mile (.8 to be exact) from where police discovered the girls’ 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 accounts. He never mentioned sexual activity that would account for the semen found on J.B.’s body and clothing, the neighbor he implicated had an alibi for the evening and the DNA from the semen did not match that of Barrentine or the neighbor. Barrentine, whose mug shot makes him look as though he might have just been startled from a deep sleep, immediately admitted 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,” 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 crime. Spivey said the district attorney, who was present during the September 1 interview, instructed police to arrest Barrentine. When his arrest was announced at a press conference, Spivey recalled police were confident they had arrested the right man. “What do you do?” Spivey would ask 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 the time of his arrest September 1. In an October 18 bond hearing before Circuit Judge P. B. McLauchlin, Barrentine denied he was involved in the killings, though he had told police he watched the two 17-year-olds shot to death by an acquaintance who had “tattoos all over his arms.” Barrentine told the judge he never picked up a tattooed man and didn’t see anything the night of the murders. He said he simply went to the BP about 11:00 p.m. to get milk for his little boy. McLauchlin denied Barrentine bond and appointed 36-year veteran lawyer Bill Kominos to represent the defendant.
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 2-year-old son and he is not capable of doing anything to hurt a child.”
Kominos said 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 continued, 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, the lawyer contended and that pile of reward money kept growing. It grew enough to lure in Barrentine, Kominos alleged. “Well, they started. They questioned. And questioned. And questioned. Four hours,” the lawyer explained, 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 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 car was found looking for something that might help the police solve the case. Barrentine claimed 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 leave at any time. He said police “tricked me” into telling the story. At one hearing, it was reported that Barrentine finished the 7th grade and a portion of the 8th and was in special education classes.
Daleville lawyer Joe Gallo 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 concluded.
After it was revealed Barrentine’s DNA did not match that from the semen found on J.B.’s body and clothing, the judge approved Barrentine’s bond request. He was released from jail Friday, December 17 and in January, a Dale County grand jury declined to indict the man. “Barrentine is living in Daleville now,” Kominos said at the time, “and is trying to pick up the pieces.” According to Kominos, no physical evidence exists linking Barrentine to the murders. Nevertheless, police still consider him a suspect, Spivey said, noting that Barrentine is also alleged to have made a jailhouse confession. Police have indicated Barrentine could be charged later if new evidence points to him.
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, according to Spivey, even after tests failed to match the man’s DNA to that found on Beasley’s clothing. The man, whom Spivey would not name, left town within days of the murders, 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 the girls were killed and later made “suspicious” statements to people. Spivey declined to elaborate on what he meant by suspicious.
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 J.B. and Tracie were at the outside telephone calling Tracie’s mother. The store had closed and there was no record of a gas purchase at the pump by credit or debit card at that time. The video doesn’t show 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. The truck – and its driver – seem to have disappeared. “So that may be the key,” Spivey asserted.
The Man from Mississippi. In early March 2000, it was reported that a DNA sample taken from a man in Jones County, Mississippi, was being compared to samples taken from the body of J.B. Beasley, but Spivey reported no factual evidence known at the time linked the man to the brutal murders of the Alabama girls. Spivey said the man, who was extradited from Jones County, had been arrested there on an outstanding warrant for possession of drug paraphernalia issued in Ozark. The man had been staying with relatives in Ozark, but left two days after the murders. According to Spivey, 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 reported 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.”
While the murders have spawned many leads and plenty of speculation over the last 15 years, they have still not produced a killer or closure for the families of the victims. “You get to thinking about it, and it makes you so mad because we didn’t do anything and Tracie didn’t do anything to deserve this,” Carol Roberts said Sunday, while sitting with her husband and two sons, Ben, 25, and Chris, 23. “I think she would be very proud of the boys and how they’ve grown up and what they’ve become. But because of what happened to her, they grew up without a sister. They were 8 and 10.” But it’s the emptiness that has tugged at her for the past 15 years that hurts the most, she added. “It’s just hard to fathom that it’s been that long,” Mrs. Roberts continued. “I just can’t believe that it’s been 15 years, when it seems to us that it’s been only yesterday. You know, because, you go on, but the pain is still there. The hurt is still there. Christmases, birthdays, holidays where we would all be together as a family. There’s still that void. There’s still that empty chair, so to speak.” In the meantime, she will pray for justice. And she will hope. Because there’s always got to be hope. “We still pray that there are still answers out there,” she explained. “There’s somebody that knows something. You know, you can’t give up hope. …We’re just not going to give up hope.”
A prayer vigil will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the murders of J.B. Beasley and Tracie Hawlett at 7 p.m. on Thursday. The candlelight ceremony will be held at the two crosses the families placed on Herring Avenue in Ozark where the girls were found.
Anyone with information on the case can contact the Ozark Police Department at (334) 774-2644 or the Dale County Sheriff’s Office at (334) 774-2335.
Sources: The Dothan Eagle; The Southern Star; Unresolved Murders; WebSleuths; R. Windham; and Personal files.