"As district attorney, it is my job to not only seek justice, but to be fair to everyone involved. This has been an incredible series of events and, undoubtedly, led from above."
- Dale County District Attorney Kirke Adams
It was the 7th of March 1990. A Wednesday. Twenty two year old Tracey Harris was reported missing from her home in Ozark, Alabama, United States.
One week later, Tracey's body was found just a few miles from her home in the Choctawhatchee River. She was naked from the waist up.
The Autopsy revealed that there was water and sand in Tracey's lungs which indicated that she had drowned but the marks and bruising that were found around her neck were signs of strangulation which led the Medical Examiner to determine that her death was a homicide.
Tracey was known to spend time in the area around the river where her body was found. She liked to meet up with friends there.
At the time of her disappearance, Tracey lived with her husband Carl Harris and their four year old daughter Carolyn. Police questioned Carl. It emerged that Tracey and Carl began dating when Tracey was around sixteen. Carl was three years older than her. She got pregnant when she was in her senior year at school and they married. Tracey and Carl divorced shortly afterwards but got back together to try to make things work.
Police discovered that Carl was dating a seventeen year old girl at the time of Tracey's disappearance and that led them to believe that he may have been involved in Tracey’s death. Police also learned, from discussions with people known to both Tracey and Carl, that Carl had had conversations with his girlfriend about marrying her. According to others, he told her that he wanted to but couldn't as he would have to pay child support if he left Tracey. Due to that, police believed that Carl had a motive to want to harm Tracey. But when they searched the house, with Carl's permission and cooperation, they found no evidence of foul play.
Carl was the last known person to see Tracey. Police were aware that on the 7th of March, he collected her after work at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. According to Carl, he dropped her off at their house and then he left. He had work that night at a local supermarket.
As police investigated further, they spoke to a number of people who knew Carl and Tracey, and some of them indicated that Carl was abusive. When police asked him if he was abusive towards Tracey, Carl denied it.
Tracey never filed any police reports about any of the alleged abuse so there was no official record of domestic violence but police obtained fourteen statements from people who said they had witnessed it in some form or another.
Jeff Beasley and his wife Dawn Beasley lived with Carl and Tracey for one month. Jeff worked with Carl and Carl and Tracey offered them a place to stay when they needed one. When they lived there, Dawn and Tracey became friends. Tracey was a young mother and Dawn was pregnant at the time so they shared stories and tips about motherhood.
According to Dawn, she saw a side of Carl when living with them both that she didn't like. She described him as a controlling man. He was verbally abusive towards Tracey and did not want her to have friends. Dawn told police that she had also witnessed physical violence. On one occasion, she claimed that when Tracey asked Carl for some money to pay the bills, he flew into a rage. So much force was used that Carl had Tracey bent over backwards with his hands around her throat choking her.
Even though police believed Carl was guilty and that he had a motive to kill Tracey, they felt they didn't have enough evidence to press charges. The case went cold.
With rumors circulating around Ozark that Carl was responsible for Tracey's death, Tracey's mother adopted Carolyn and they moved to Texas. It was only in 2015, when Carolyn's grandmother died, that she returned to Ozark to bury her next to Tracey. While she was in Ozark, she spoke with the sheriff and the Ozark Police Department. The case was reopened and the Ozark Police cold case unit took a look at it. They wanted to get justice for Tracey and they knew they already had the prime suspect. They just needed to ensure there was enough evidence to prove it and secure a conviction.
Carl, Tracey and Carolyn
When they looked at the evidence on file, they believed that what they had already in the file was strong enough to bring charges. Even though it was a circumstantial case, they felt the evidence was strong enough to secure a conviction.
Police discovered that Carl no longer lived in Ozark. After Tracey's death, Carl and his girlfriend split up and he left Ozark. He moved around a bit, had several jobs, met a woman and had another daughter. Police found him living in South Carolina and they arrested him and charged him with murder.
The Prosecution believed they had a strong case but despite that, Carl was determined to plead not guilty. He maintained that he had nothing to do with Tracey's death.
Before the Trial, the outline of what the Prosecution's case would be emerged. It was their case that on the 7th of March 1990, Carl left his job at the supermarket where he worked at around 9pm. When he arrived home, a physical altercation took place that resulted in Carl strangling Tracey to death inside their house. He then put her in his vehicle and subsequently drove her to the Choctawhatchee River and threw her into the water. It was their case that Tracey was still alive, albeit barely, at that point and that was why sand and water were found in her lungs.
The Prosecution believed Carl then collected a friend at 9.30pm.
Carl's Defense Attorney, David Harrison, claimed that the entire Prosecution case was completely made up. He argued that by their own account, Carl would not have time to kill Tracey and dump her body. They told the Prosecution that at the Trial they would be putting forward the name of an alternative suspect. The alternative suspect they named was Bobby Herring.
Bobby was the man that the Prosecution claimed that Carl picked up the night of the 7th of March at 9.30pm. He was convicted of raping another woman. And it was the Defense’s case that he may have been responsible for Tracey’s death.
Just before the Trial was due to begin, the Prosecution were finalizing their case and going through the witness statements and preparing what questions to ask the various witnesses. They wanted to ensure the Jury were left in no doubt that Carl was a violent and abusive man, one who had both verbally and physically assaulted Tracey, and that he had a motive to want Tracey out of his life and he had the opportunity to do so. Just one week before the Trial, the assistant District Attorney, Jordan Davis, noticed something in the Prosecution file that she thought would help their case. It was the statement that Dawn Beasley had given to police in relation to an incident that she said that she had witnessed which involved Carl placing his hands around Tracey's throat. Jordan thought that evidence was vital for the Jury to hear as that was also what had happened to Tracey on the 7th of March. Someone put their hands around her throat and strangled her. They wanted to show that Carl had done it before so he could easily have done it again the night of the 7th of March. The only difference the second time was that it had devastating consequences.
Jordan called Dawn and asked her if she would testify on behalf of the Prosecution. Dawn declined. But Jordan would not accept no for an answer. She subpoenaed Dawn which would compel her to testify. Dawn was furious and told her:
"You're ruining my life and you don't understand why. You guys don't want me to testify."
Dawn eventually explained why she didn’t want to testify. She told the Prosecution that they were about to prosecute an entirely innocent man. Jordan asked her to explain. Dawn told Jordan that she was divorced but when she lived with Carl and Tracey, she was about to get married, and subsequently did, to a man called Jeff Beasley. Dawn said she was certain that Carl was an innocent man because the night of the 7th of March 1990, Jeff woke her up and told her that he killed Tracey. That allegation was a complete surprise to the Prosecution. Not only was Jeff never a suspect, nobody even spoke to him or took a statement from him after Tracey’s murder even though he had lived with them. That was despite the fact that Jeff had a criminal record for burglary and escape attempts.
According to Dawn, Jeff woke her in the middle of the night and told her that he had accidentally hurt Tracey and that she was now dead. Dawn asked him what happened. He told her that he called over to the house as he needed to speak to Carl but Carl wasn’t there. Tracey was home alone and he told her that she should leave Carl. According to Dawn, Jeff said that Tracey was mad when he suggested that and they fought and as a result, he accidentally hurt her. Dawn told Jordan that Jeff did not want anybody to have to find Tracey’s body so he dumped her body in the river.
Dawn kept that secret for over twenty years. Even when Jeff was arrested in 1991 and spent five years in prison for burglary, she waited for him on the outside and didn’t share what he told her with anyone. When they divorced after thirteen years of marriage, she continued to keep his secret. She claimed it was for the sake of their four children.
Police spoke to Jeff. He still lived in Ozark. At the police station, Jeff denied that he killed Tracey. He agreed to take a polygraph test and he failed it. Despite that, he continued to deny that he killed Tracey. That went on for a number of hours but after further questioning, he told police he would tell them the truth. He confessed that he killed Tracey. According to Jeff, they were having an affair. He told police that the night of the 7th of March, they went down to the river. Tracey told him that she would leave Carl so that they could be together but Jeff didn’t want to leave Dawn and he told Tracey that he wouldn’t leave her. That caused an argument. According to Jeff, they were wading in the river at that point and he said:
”She went down and didn't come back up.”
Police asked him how Tracey got the marks and bruises on her neck. Jeff claimed:
“I didn't strangle her. I remember taking her, pushing her under water. I mean if the autopsy says it, I don't, I guess …”
His confession was different to the account Dawn told Jordan. Dawn told Jordan that they argued and Tracey was killed inside her own home. Police also could not find anything to corroborate his claim that he was having an affair with Tracey. Nobody knew of any such affair and even Dawn claimed it would have been highly unlikely they were having an affair. There was also an additional piece of information that the Prosecution could not make sense of. Under the bridge at the river where Tracey’s body was found, the name Beasley was spray painted in big letters. That was there before Jeff was even questioned. They do not know why or who spray painted it.
Jeff was charged with the murder of Tracey.
The day that Carl’s Trial was due to begin, the murder charge against him was dismissed.
Jeff pleaded guilty and received a 30 year sentence.
Carl filed a lawsuit against the City of Ozark in August 2021 seeking damages. Carl claimed he never abused Tracey. The suit alleges that police fabricated information and on foot of that, damages are sought in the amount of $6 million. The suit also seeks the damages as a result of false imprisonment and pain and suffering. Carl’s Attorney, David Harrison, said:
“This appalls me. What the cold case unit at Ozark Police Department did to his life with incompetent evidence is just appalling. This all could have been avoided in the 1990s, if one phone call would have been made to the witness who came forward. Carl Harris has lost jobs, been evicted from homes, missed family members’ funerals and missed out with time with his family, all because a case was not fully investigated.”
Carl also missed out on a relationship with his daughter Carolyn. Authorities removed her from his care after Tracey’s death and her grandmother adopted her and she did not see Carl while growing up. She grew up believing that her father had murdered her mother.
Bobby Herring, the man that the Defense named as an alternative suspect, had nothing to do with Tracey’s death.
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- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
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