Killing for Money: The Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer

Celeste Bears Johnson had everything she had ever wanted: a rich, elderly husband, a life of luxury, and a fortune to collect when her husband died. However, her world came crashing down when her husband, Steven Beard, tried to put a stop to Johnson’s outrageous spending. Instead of cutting back, she decided to cut him out.

Celeste Bears Johnson / Magazine Cover / Tracey Tarlton / Julie Benz / Celeste Bears Johnson.
Source: Getty Images

There was one problem; Johnson didn’t want to do the dirty work. Therefore, she convinced a close friend to kill Beard and hoped they could ride into the sunset with his fortune. Johnson did everything for money and didn’t care whom she had to kill to get it.

She Never Knew What Love Was

From an early age, Celeste Beard Johnson never understood what it was like to be loved. She was given up for adoption as a baby and adopted by Edwin Johnson. She claimed that Edwin physically abused her as a child, and Johnson tried to take her life as a teenager.

An image of Celeste in court.
Source: YouTube

She never felt wanted as a child, which affected her in later years. Johnson searched for her birth mother, but only met her one time. Johnson’s biological mom told her, “I am not your mother; I was just your incubator.” Between the abuse and rejection, it’s no wonder she snapped.

Her First Toxic Relationship

Johnson had a few marriages before she met Steven Beard. Her first husband, Craig Bratcher, was very abusive, but that’s the only kind of relationship Johnson knew. At 17, she became pregnant and gave birth to twins Jennifer and Kristina. She and Bratcher eventually divorced because he was awful to her.

Celeste and Craig Bratcher during a dinner celebration.
Source: YouTube

When her marriage with Bratcher didn’t work out, Johnson took the twins and traveled from state to state, marrying one man after the other. Her second husband was Henry Wold, and her third was Jimmy Martinez. Unfortunately, these relationships always ended the same way, and Johnson moved to Texas in 1993.

Eyes on the Prize

When Johnson got to Texas, she found work as a waitress at an affluent country club in Austin. It was there that the 30-year-old single mom met Steven Beard. Many of the country club members were wealthy, but Beard stood out because he was a widower and twice her age.

A dated photo of Johnson and her daughters in Texas.
Source: Pinterest

Beard was a retired Fox Broadcasting executive and self-made millionaire. Johnson had money signs in her eyes when she started talking to Beard. She learned that his wife had recently passed away from cancer, and she took his vulnerability as the perfect opportunity to move up in the world.

Their Relationship Moved Fast

Once Beard and Johnson started dating, their relationship moved quickly. His wife had only been dead for two weeks when he met Johnson. A month later, Johnson and her daughters moved into Beard’s mansion. They didn’t want to take their time with the pleasantries of a new relationship.

A picture of Beard and Johnson.
Source: YouTube

On February 18, 1995, Johnson and Beard got married, and he agreed to adopt her daughters a month before their 18th birthday. Beard’s family attended the wedding, but Johnson had no family. His friends were suspicious that she was only in the relationship for the money, and they weren’t wrong.

Money, Money, Money

As soon as they said, “I do,” Johnson started spending Beard’s money. She bought cars, jewelry, sometimes spending $15,000 to $30,000 in one day. She would swipe his cards like there was no tomorrow and didn’t have a care in the world because she had money.

Johnson and Beard’s wedding portrait.
Source: Pinterest

Johnson had dreamed of being rich her whole life. She got everything she wanted and never looked at the price because she assumed Beard didn’t care. Johnson knew he had millions of dollars and figured she could spend it without him noticing.

A Bump in the Road

Beard and Johnson’s marriage came to a halt when his banker revealed that Johnson had stolen silver and expensive jewelry from his safety deposit box. Beard was angry because that jewelry belonged to his late wife, whom he’d been married to for more than 40 years.

A picture of Beard.
Source: YouTube

Unlike Johnson, Beard’s first marriage was full of love, and he assumed Johnson loved him. However, the breach of trust was enough for Beard to file for divorce. He later decided not to go through with it, and the couple reconciled. But more problems soon arose.

She Became Depressed

Whether it was the stress of a possible divorce or her childhood trauma, Johnson decided to check herself into a mental health facility for depression and suicidal thoughts. It was there that she met another patient, Tracey Tarlton. The two bonded over shared experiences.

A picture of Celeste and Tracey at Austin psychiatric hospital St David's.
Source: YouTube

Johnson took the time in the facility to work on her mental health, and it was all paid for by Beard. She had the best treatment and spent time with Tarlton. It was like a vacation from her already luxurious life. The only difference was that she couldn’t spend money.

A Blossoming Friendship

While the nature of their relationship is unclear, Johnson spent a lot of time with Tarlton after they checked out of the facility. Their friendship was a bit confusing because Tarlton had romantic feelings for Johnson, but they might not have been mutual.

A picture of Johnson and Tarlton enjoying a night out together.
Source: YouTube

Tarlton and Johnson didn’t always bring out the best in each other. They were bad influences on each other, and Johnson was able to convince Tarlton to do something horrific. However, Tarlton was in love, so she would have done anything for Johnson, even if it meant killing someone.

The Friendship Turned Deadly

Johnson confided in Tarlton about her marriage problems, and the two hatched a plan to get rid of Beard. It wasn’t hard to convince Tarlton because she thought she and Johnson could be together once Beard was out of the picture. But that wouldn’t be the case.

A still of Tarlton in court.
Source: YouTube

In the early hours of October 2, 1999, Beard was shot in the stomach while he was sleeping in his bed. Johnson was reportedly in another room because she couldn’t sleep with the noise of his CPAP machine. She also claimed that the shooter had escaped.

Jennifer Knew Something Was Wrong

On October 1, 1999, Johnson suggested that Jennifer, her boyfriend, and another friend stay at the lake house. It was unusual because they usually had to ask permission. They naturally accepted the offer. However, later that evening, Johnson showed up with Beard’s dog.

Jennifer and Kristina speak during an interview.
Source: YouTube

They were surprised to see the dog because she was old and always slept with Beard. Johnson told them that he got drunk and started hitting the dog. This was also odd because Beard was very fond of the dog and would have never hurt her.

Kristina Never Had a Curfew

The same night, Kristina and her boyfriend went to a movie. Although she usually didn’t have a curfew, Johnson told her to be home by 11. Her boyfriend was typically allowed to stay the night, but Johnson told him he had to go home that evening.

A picture of Kristina and a date.
Source: YouTube

When Kristina came home, her mom wasn’t there, so she went to sleep. In the middle of the night, Johnson woke up Kristina, saying someone was at the front door. Kristina went downstairs and saw the emergency vehicles responding to Beard’s call.

He Clung to Life

After Beard was shot, he was still conscious enough to call 911. He said, “I need an ambulance, hurry. My guts just came out of my stomach.” Responders arrived at Beard’s home, where they found him holding the massive wound on his stomach.

An image of Celeste crying during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Initially, Beard thought that a recent procedure had caused the injury, but a shotgun shell was left behind. As responders tried to figure out what happened and get Beard to the hospital, Johnson stormed into the room, surprised by the commotion. She was crying, but there weren’t any tears.

A Miraculous Recovery

Johnson followed the ambulance to the hospital, where Beard was rushed into emergency surgery. Despite his devastating injury, he survived the surgery, but Beard wasn’t in the clear yet. He had a long road to recovery ahead of him, and his situation was about to get worse.

A photo of Steven in a hospital bed.
Source: YouTube

When investigators tried to speak to Beard at the hospital, Johnson turned them away. She hired a criminal defense lawyer and denied them access to her husband. For someone who claims they are innocent, it was immediately suspicious that she hired a lawyer.

The Police Interviewed the Twins

Investigators were left with few options because Johnson wouldn’t talk to them, so they interviewed her daughters. Jennifer and Kristina were quick to name Tarlton as a suspect. Jennifer said, “She was Celeste’s friend, and they hung out quite a bit. They met at a mental hospital.”

A picture of Celeste with Kristina and Jennifer.
Source: Pinterest

Authorities soon learned about Johnson’s history of severe depression. The twins told police about an instance when Johnson held a gun to her head after an argument with Beard. Jennifer also said that it was evident that Tarlton had feelings for their mom.

Johnson Told Them to Lie

After investigators spoke to the twins, Johnson told Kristina, Jennifer, and their boyfriends, not to mention Tarlton. She didn’t know that they had already talked to the police. Her daughters later testified that Johnson told them not to speak to the police.

A mugshot of Johnson.
Source: YouTube

Johnson also made sure they told her lawyer that she loved Beard and would never hurt him. After Beard died, Johnson told her daughters that his dying wish was that they do not cooperate with the police investigation. We are sure he would never have wanted them to stay quiet.

Painting a Negative Picture of Beard

When Johnson talked about their life at home, she described it as “a complete war zone.” She claimed that Beard didn’t want her to discipline the kids or have anything to do with them. Although her life looked amazing from the outside, Johnson said that wasn’t the case.

Celeste speaks during an interview.
Source: Channel 4

Johnson felt completely alone in their home because Beard would pass out every night. She said, “It was too much, and I was so upset about everything. I was so depressed. I just wanted to kill myself at that point.”

Friends Thought Johnson and Tarlton’s Relationship Was Strange

Johnson and Tarlton were very close and didn’t hide their affection. Johnson even threw a lavish party for Tarlton at Beard’s mansion. They would sit on each other’s laps, whisper in each other’s ears, and Kristina even caught them kissing one time. She told Beard, but Johnson denied it.

A picture of Tracey Tarlton holding her cat.
Source: YouTube

Although she denied having kissed Tarlton, Beard forbade Tarlton from visiting their home. Even their friends thought Johnson and Tarlton’s relationship was more than a friendship. It was a strange dynamic, but Johnson always denied that there was more going on between them.

Interviewing Tarlton

After Johnson’s daughters named Tarlton as a suspect, investigators went to her home. They discovered what they described as a shrine composed of Johnson’s photos. When they asked if she had any firearms in her home, Tarlton willingly handed over her 20-gauge shotgun.

A newspaper clipping reads “Fortune Hunter.”
Source: Pinterest

Authorities confiscated the gun, and further testing revealed that it matched the gun used to shoot Beard. Upon their initial interrogation, Tarlton admitted to shooting Beard. However, she wouldn’t explain why she did it. Soon she would be in more trouble than she initially thought.

The Charges Were Upgraded

After four months in the hospital, doctors released Beard into Johnson’s care. Shortly after being released, Beard returned to the hospital because of an infection. He later died because of a blood clot related to the shooting. Meanwhile, Tarlton’s charges were upgraded to murder.

A close-up of Celeste’s facial expression during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Tarlton was arrested, but she was initially tight-lipped about Johnson’s involvement in the murder. While Tarlton was sitting in jail, Johnson was free and didn’t care that her friend was taking the fall for Beard’s death. It caused Tarlton to slowly resent Johnson.

That’s Not How a Widow Acts

Most widows would be grieving the loss of their husbands, but Johnson got right back to spending money and partying. Her daughter said, “I just remember her laughing a lot, kind of in a way that she was relieved that he wasn’t around anymore.”

A picture of Celeste smiling during an interview.
Source: Pinterest

People could see that she was happy that her husband was dead. She also married another man within six months of Beard’s death. It only made her look more suspicious. However, Tarlton kept quiet for a while until she had enough of Johnson’s antics.

Tarlton Had a Change of Heart

After seeing a newspaper clipping about Johnson marrying her fifth husband, she made a shocking decision. She confessed to investigators that she and Johnson had a romantic relationship. Johnson apparently told Tarlton that she’d take her own life if she had to stay with Beard.

A newspaper clipping reads “A True Story of Sex, Murder, and a Texas Millionaire.”
Source: Pinterest

Tarlton got the impression that Beard was abusive. However, when she saw Johnson flaunting her freedom, Tarlton told the police that she would testify against Johnson in exchange for a shorter sentence. She also revealed how they came up with their plan.

Johnson Manipulated Tarlton

Because of her feelings for Johnson, Tarlton bought into her lies about the abuse. Johnson later suggested that Tarlton shoot Beard with her gun. Johnson said she could help by turning the alarm off and leaving his bedroom door unlocked. However, their plan didn’t go well.

A picture of Celeste in prison.
Source: YouTube

When Beard survived the attack, Johnson had to figure out a new plan to get rid of him. Tarlton said that even though she shot Beard, she wasn’t the one who actually killed him. She revealed that Johnson put things in his wound to infect him.

No Evidence of Abuse

Investigators spoke to people who knew Beard and Johnson, and everyone said there was no indication that he was physically or mentally abusive towards Johnson or the twins. Jennifer also denied the abuse claims. However, Johnson was able to convince Tarlton that she was suffering.

A picture of Johnson smiling during a night out.
Source: Pinterest

Johnson made Tarlton believe the lies, which encouraged her to shoot Beard. Tarlton wanted to be with Johnson, and she was determined to get Beard out of the picture. If only she had known the abuse claims were lies.

Johnson Was Arrested

Based on Tarlton’s confession, Johnson was arrested on March 28, 2002. She was charged with capital murder and entered a plea of not guilty. Johnson said Tarlton was delusional for thinking they had an affair, and the story was made up in her head.

A close-up of Johnson’s sad facial expression.
Source: YouTube

She continued to say she was innocent and had nothing to do with the plan. Johnson turned on Tarlton and blamed everything on her because she knew Tarlton was in love with her. However, the evidence was stacking up against her, and no one believed her lies.

Her Daughter’s Testified

It seems that Johnson didn’t have the best relationship with her daughters because they agreed to testify against her. They corroborated that they saw their mother kissing Tarlton. However, Johnson said her daughters were doing this for money and just wanted to see her in prison.

A still of Johnson’s daughter during an interview.
Source: YouTube

She said, “It makes me sick. You always hear blood is thicker than water. Not in my case. I want to call them the Menendez sisters.” Johnson claimed her daughters turned on her because they found out they would only get money if she were dead or in prison.

They Were Afraid of Her

It was undeniably difficult for Kristina and Jennifer to testify against their mom. However, they were more afraid of facing their mom than the defense attorney. Kristina said her mom’s eyes were like daggers and her mother hated them so much.

An image of Celeste looking surprised in court.
Source: YouTube

Although Johnson said her daughters were after Beard’s fortune, they said it was never about the money. The twins said they testified because their mom’s behavior went from strange to sadistic. They witnessed a lot of awful things their mom did.

She Was Cruel

During their testimony, the twins revealed that Johnson would belittle Beard in arguments, cheat on him with her ex-husband, Jimmy Martinez, and manipulate him. Jennifer said, “She would say she loves him to his face, then we’d walk off, and she flipped him off.”

A picture of Celeste with her ex-husband.
Source: Pinterest

Jennifer and Kristina admitted that they regretted standing by silently for so long and cowering to their mother’s threats. They also started recording abusive phone calls from their mother, which would later put their mom behind bars.

Johnson Drugged Beard

During witness testimonies, the twins and friends revealed that they saw Johnson substitute Everclear for vodka in Beard’s drinks. She also mixed sleeping pills into his food so she could sneak off to Tarlton’s home. Johnson openly wished Beard was dead.

A dated portrait of Beard and Johnson.
Source: Pinterest

Johnson told the receptionist at the beauty salon that she hated the bastard. She didn’t know how she would last on vacation with him. Beard and Johnson were supposed to go away to Europe in October, and she was dreading it. It was clear that Johnson never wanted to be with him.

The Defense

During Johnson’s trial, her lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, alleged that she had nothing to do with the crime. They said Tarlton, whom DeGuerin dismissed as an unreliable witness due to documented mental instability, acted alone. He painted Tarlton as an obsessed person who had feelings for Johnson.

A still of Dick DeGuerin speaking during an interview.
Source: YouTube

DeGuerin alleged that Johnson’s daughter lied on the stand because they wouldn’t inherit money if she were acquitted. He pointed out that Kristina answered, “I do not remember,” 298 times. Some witnesses corroborated Johnson’s story and said Tarlton was obsessed with her.

The Prosecution

While Johnson’s lawyers blamed Tarlton, prosecutors claimed Johnson only married Beard for the money and wanted him dead because he was tired of her extravagant spending. According to Beard’s accountant, she spent $321,000 in October and November 1999 and even more after he died.

A photo of Johnson in prison.
Source: YouTube

Johnson’s fate was sealed after prosecutors submitted evidence of a taped conversation during which Johnson admitted to trying to pay someone to kill Tarlton. Why would an innocent person want to kill the only woman who could prove she was involved?

The Cell Phone Records Were Suspicious

During the investigation, police submitted cell phone records as evidence. It revealed that there were hundreds of calls between Johnson and Tarlton. On the day of the shooting, there were eight calls totaling 15 minutes between the two women. The calls continued after the shooting.

A picture of Johnson during an interview from the prison.
Source: YouTube

There were 94 phone calls between these phones from October 2 to January 26, 2000. Her daughters asked why she was still talking to Tarlton, but Johnson denied that they had contact. The twins also found a secret phone in Johnson’s car that belonged to Tarlton.

Her Fate Was Sealed

The jury found Johnson guilty of capital murder in 2003, and she received a mandatory life sentence. She was devastated and couldn’t believe that she would spend the rest of her life in prison when “there was no evidence against her.” Johnson hoped someone would come forward to help her.

A picture of Johnson.
Source: Pinterest

Tarlton was sentenced to only 20 years in prison in exchange for her testimony. She was released on parole in 2011 and finished her sentence in August 2021. Johnson has still never admitted her involvement in the murder and won’t be eligible for parole until 2042.

Tarlton Tried to Move On

After being released from prison in 2011, Tarlton moved to San Antonio. It wasn’t easy for her to bounce back into the community. She said, “I don’t wake up one single day without feeling shame for what I did.” She had trouble finding a job and apartment because of her felony status.

A still of Tartlon after her release.
Source: YouTube

Members of the San Antonio community helped fundraise for Tarlton. She felt like the people who knew her story were very supportive and helped her through her years in jail. Due to the publicity of the trial, Tarlton prefers a quiet life now.

Johnson Remains in Custody

It has been 18 years since Johnson was sent to prison, and she continues to claim she was wrongfully convicted. In a 2020 interview, she said, “Anytime I’m offered an opportunity to proclaim my innocence, I take it.” She hopes the public will change their opinions of her.

A newspaper clipping on the case.
Source: YouTube

Johnson claimed, “I’ve been rotting in here for something I didn’t do.” She is also still resentful towards Tarlton. In 2019 Johnson said, “I mean, it’s just crazy; how does she walk around and function knowing her lies got me put in here for life?”

She Has No Contact With Her Children

Because her children testified against her, Johnson has not seen her daughters since the trial. Jennifer and Kristina want nothing to do with their mom because they knew she was involved in killing their adoptive father but wouldn’t tell the truth.

One of her children speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

They didn’t have a great relationship with their mom to begin with, because she only cared about money. Between her multiple marriages and moving around all the time, the twins grew apart from their mom, but Beard felt like a real father. Johnson took that away from them.

The Twins Were in the News

Kristina and Jennifer have tried to stay out of the spotlight since their mother’s murder trial, but they recently made news in relation to a different murder case. In November 2017, Jennifer was shot multiple times by her then-roommate, Randall Gaston Jones.

A dated photo of the twins.
Source: Pinterest

During a Halloween party in Austin, Texas, Jennifer and two other wounded victims survived, but another party guest died from his injuries. Jones pled guilty, and Kristina testified at his trial. She said her sister needed ten surgeries to recover from her wounds, and she couldn’t work or walk.

Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer

Earlier this year, Lifetime released the film Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer based on the story of Johnson and Beard. Julie Benz, who played Rita in Dexter, starred as Johnson. Benz watched every interview, read every book, and listened to every podcast related to Johnson.

Julie Benz as Celeste Beard in a still from the film.
Source: Copyright: Tv Line

To prepare for the role, Benz studied everything Johnson did. She said, “It’s a fine line to walk because the character is incredible, but the real woman she’s based on did horrible things.” They didn’t even have time to analyze all the horrific things Johnson did.

Benz Struggled to Believe Johnson

While filming the movie, Benz tried to keep an open mind about Johnson’s guilt. Johnson is incredibly convincing, so she didn’t want to pass judgment on Johnson. However, she realized there’s a reason she is still in jail. But while shooting, Benz didn’t know if Johnson was innocent or guilty.

Julie Benz attends an event.
Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Benz realized that Beard was a kind man whom Johnson took advantage of and manipulated. Although Johnson’s daughters didn’t participate in the film, Benz commended them for their courage in helping convict their mother.

Johnson Will Never Get Out of Jail

After being sentenced to life in prison, Johnson found out that she would be up for parole in 2042 when she is 80 years old. However, based on the evidence against her and her lack of remorse, there is a good chance that she will die in prison.

A dated picture of Johnson.
Source: YouTube

Johnson has no one on her side, and she truly believes she was wrongfully put in jail. Every time she is offered an interview, Johnson takes it because she wants a platform to show people she is innocent. It would be surprising if she ever takes responsibility.