Bittersweet 16: The Harrowing Story of an Unsolved Case, From a Mother’s Perspective

JB Beasley and Tracie Hawlett

JB (left) and Trace Hawlett (right) on a trip to Panama City Beach, Florida
shortly before their murder.

Bittersweet 16: The Harrowing Story of
an Unsolved Case, From a Mother’s Perspective
| published August 1, 2015 |

By Jennifer James
Thursday Review contributor

Two girls. A party. A misdirection. A single phone call. A double murder. A parent’s worst nightmare—their worlds shattered. Two south Alabama communities rocked to their knees.

The fateful story of JB Beasley and Tracie Hawlett’s untimely deaths is as veiled by mystery as it is filled with tragedy. August 1 marks the 16th anniversary of when both victims were found shot to death in the trunk of JB’s Black 1993 Mazda 929 less than 12 hours after being reported missing. Despite round-the-clock investigation, countless tips, several persons of interest, and even a false confession, police still haven’t been able to find the killer.

Roadside memorial today Today, a roadside shrine consisting of two crosses, flowers, wind chimes, cherubs, and even a coin from the US Postal Service marks the spot where the one of humanity’s most baleful acts was carried out a decade and a half ago.

The air on Herring Avenue in the sleepy southern town of Ozark, Alabama sits heavy with the oppressive humidity and heat that plagues Southeast Alabama every summer. But even in the humidity, the warm breeze blows thick with the scent of pine. A small creek trickles through a wooded ravine in the distance. Nothing but the droning lullaby of crickets or the occasional passing car can be heard. It’s hard to believe that what is now the setting of such a serene atmosphere was once the stage of the area’s biggest unsolved double homicide.

Ask any Dothan or Ozark area native and you’ll soon see that the horror still lingers in the memories of these two communities that were so tragically affected. Despite hopes for solving the mystery, many residents live with the haunting notion that somewhere out there, a brutal killer still lurks beyond the shadows.

Perhaps, to better understand the scope of the tragedy that took place so many years ago, we should start by looking at it from a more personal perspective. Deep down, all of us want to be remembered in some way—mostly for how we lived, but not for how we died. Unfortunately, the latter is the case for JB Beasley. Her story is often overshadowed by the mystery clouding the circumstances in which her life—and the life of her friend—were extinguished all too soon. But exactly who was this beautiful brunette smiling in her senior portrait? What stories befell her soft brown eyes? Most of us remember her simply as a tragic victim, but for those who knew her, she was much, much more. Before we delve further into the case, perhaps we should step back and peer through the lens of another perspective: a victim’s mother’s perspective, to be exact.

Recently, Thursday Review was able to speak with JB’s mom, Cheryl Burgoon, to get a closer glance at this outgoing little girl with a big thirst for life.

A Portrait of JB

JB Hilton Green Beasley was born to Cheryl and then-husband, Lanier on July 31st, 1982 in Dothan, Alabama. And through the downfall of her parent’s marriage, JB would prove to be her mother’s toddling stronghold that was destined to leave a remarkable impact on all who knew her.

TR: Tell us a little bit about JB. What were her interests and hobbies?

CB: I don’t even know where to start. I taught JB how to swim when she was 9 months old. She learned to play the piano at 5 years old and played for two or three years until dancing became more demanding than piano. She was a precocious child. When she wasn’t in school, it seemed she was always in dance class, competitions, recitals, and other productions. JB and her sisters and I all modeled for Gayfers, Parisians, and McRae’s. She (JB) was a Gayfers Girl.

TR: What kind of student was she? What kind of grades did she make?

CB: Her 1st-5th grade behavior was atrocious. I had to see a child psychologist to see why I and no one else could get her to behave at school. Finally, in 6-9th grades, she seemed to get that under control and actually made Junior Honor Society! She always made A’s and had bad behavior. I cried like a baby when she was inducted. She added cheerleading to her repertoire and won All-American Cheerleader in Junior High. She was a cheerleader only in the 9th grade at Northview High School, however. She danced her whole life.

TR: What type of music did she listen to?

CB: She loved country music!

TR: What do you want the public to know about her?

CB: I had JB in church every Sunday and most Wednesdays when she didn’t have dance practice. And she could do anything well. I gave her swim lessons to learn the breast strokes and I also gave her tennis lessons.

TR: Was JB an extrovert or an introvert?

CB: JB was very much an extrovert. She was nominated by her teachers to represent her class in the Racial Club in 9th grade.

TR: What is your fondest memory of JB?

CB: One of my many, many, many fondest memories of JB was when she and her sisters modeled for the Girls Club Fashion show all together. Priceless! Then, one Mother’s Day, all the girls and I modeled together in a Gayfers Mother’s Day Fashion Show. Again, priceless! I have many wonderful memories of JB! I miss her! She was a very busy girl and as of the 11th grade, she was number seven in her class.

TR: When remembering your daughter, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

CB: The first thing I can think of, and I can almost hear it now, was her “Valley Girl” voice! I sure would like to hear it now.

TR: What’s the last thing she ever said to you?

CB: JB and I talked Thursday night (two nights before her birthday) about two different dates she had scheduled the next day! Lordy, Lordy! She left very early Friday morning and I had to go to work. She spent Friday night away. I called her three times on Saturday to wish her a happy birthday and never got her (no cell phones).

Tracie Hawlett

TR: What can you tell us about Tracie Hawlett?

CB: I don’t really know anything about Tracie. She was a late high school friend JB met. They couldn’t have been friends more than a couple of months. I don’t know how they met. JB was clearly the leader and Tracie was the follower.

TR: Do you and her family ever communicate?

CB: No. I never understood why we couldn’t grieve together.

The Nightmare

Amidst the presence of a faceless killer and despite the uncertainty involving where the murders actually took place, here is what we do know:

On July 31, 1999 at 10:05p.m., JB and fellow incoming Northview High School Senior, Tracie Hawlett, left Dothan, Alabama together in Beasley’s black ’93 Mazda 929. The pair were headed to a field party in the neighboring town of Headland that was being held in honor of JB’s birthday—a celebration for which neither would ever arrive.

Gas Station Somewhere en route, the two became lost along the curvy backroads leading to their intended destination. Their misdirection led them to eventually wind up in the town of Ozark which was twenty miles north of Dothan. At 11:30 p.m., JB and Tracie stopped at what was then a Big/Little Store in town, a Big/Little being a regional chain of convenience stores and gas stations. The store had just closed, but a woman and her daughter who happened to be at the store gave the girls directions. Thursday Review also got a chance to speak with this witness. The woman (whose name is being withheld for privacy) said that the girls were nice and polite; JB was outgoing. She also said that Tracie called her mother from the payphone outside the store. After getting directions to Dothan, the girls seemed clear on where to go. The woman who briefly spoke with the girls now says she wished that she had followed the girls to make sure they made it ok to the party.

Tracie then used the pay phone to call her parents to let them know they were lost, but had got directions and would be home soon. That would be the last time anyone besides the killer saw or heard from either teenager alive.

TR: Can you tell us what you know about what happened that night?

CB: All I know is what I’ve been told and read. At about 10:30 p.m. [the night of July 31st, 1999], they were headed to Headland and never made it. Curfew was at 11:30 p.m. and I’m sure JB had no intentions of hitting it. It has been said that they traveled Hwy 27 to Ozark and stopped at the closed Big/Little Store where Tracie called her parents and said they were lost, but got directions and would be home soon. A woman and her daughter also gave the girls directions. They wish they had followed them to make sure they made it ok.

TR: Where were you during this time frame?

CB: I was working in the tennis shop at the Dothan Country Club that whole weekend; there was a tennis tournament that I was working and playing in. When I got off around 10:00 that night, I stopped by a friend’s house to feed his dog since he was out of town. At about 10:30, I stopped by the block party that was being held at Poplar Head [then a popular local restaurant and pub in downtown Dothan]. While there, I met up with my friend, Mace Holman. I remember I kept hoping I’d run into JB there so I could wish her a happy birthday in person. Throughout the evening, Mace kept noticing me searching the crowd. “Did ya see her yet?” he kept asking. But of course, she wasn’t there.

TR: When did you first realize that something was wrong?

CB: At around 9:15 Sunday morning, I got a call from JB’s dance teacher asking me who was responsible for JB that weekend. I thought to myself, that’s an odd question to ask out of the blue. So I asked her, “Why? What’s wrong?” The dance teacher said, “Oh…nothing.” And that was that.

At that moment, Cheryl’s motherly instincts kicked in and she knew deep down that it wasn’t nothing—that something was wrong. About 45 minutes later, a family friend would show up at the tennis tournament where Cheryl was working to inform her that JB and Tracie never made it home the night before and that, as of 8:00 that morning, JB’s Black Mazda 929 had been found off of Herring Avenue in Ozark, less than three miles from the convenient store where they were last seen.

Police Scene then

(Above: JB's Black Mazda 929 was found parked off of Herring Ave at 8:00am on Sunday, August 1st. Right: The same location where the car was found as it appears today.)

The car was muddy and, despite the fact that the gas tank had been filled the day before, the tank was then almost empty. The driver’s side window was partially down, but the doors were locked. Robbery was immediately ruled out as a motive. There were no indications of forced entry into the vehicle. JB’s driver’s license was visible on the dash. Both purses were still inside, along with some cash. The only thing missing? JB’s car keys which were held together on a keychain with block letters that spelled “HARD2GET.” Police made a thorough search of the car, even under the seats, but without the keys could not open the locked trunk.

After first being notified that the girls were missing, Cheryl would spend the next several hours talking to police and making frantic calls to JB’s friends, hoping to find someone who knew of where JB and Tracie might be at that moment. Then, around 2:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Cheryl’s worst fears were realized when police informed her that both girls were dead. Six hours after the car was first discovered off of Herring Ave., police discovered they could open the trunk using an interior latch and, therefore, would not need the car’s missing key—or a locksmith—to gain entry. That’s when they made the gruesome discovery.

Roadside angel memorial Both girls were found lying in the trunk—each suffered a single fatal gunshot wound to the head. A 9mm shell casing was lying precariously on Tracie’s knee. Mud covered Tracie’s $90 New Balance tennis shoes that she had purchased a week earlier. Both of the girls’ jeans were also soiled from the knees down, leading police to believe that both girls had been shot execution style. Judging by the positioning of the bodies and the location of each gunshot wound—Tracie had been shot in the temple, while JB had been shot in the cheek—officials also surmised that Tracie was shot first. The only known DNA source linking the killer to the crime scene was found in the traces of semen on JB’s bra and panties.

CB: I remember I just started throwing up. Everything was pretty much a blur. My world was tossed upside down. My baby was killed on her birthday. And my biggest fear is that in her last moments, JB was calling out to me, her momma, and I wasn’t there.

TR: Other than news outlets, has this story been featured anywhere else to spread awareness?

CB: Yes, Americas Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries, OWN, Haunted Evidence, and The Maury Show flew me and my youngest daughter to New York to do the top five unsolved murders in the country that Americas Most Wanted aired, and I met John Walsh.

TR: Do you think the girls knew their killer?

CB: I really don’t know. I, personally, think that whoever did this portrayed himself to the girls as an authority figure. That’s not to say he was a police officer or impersonating a police officer—I just believe he presented himself as some type of authority figure to either intimidate them or gain their trust. And JB wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything, so who knows?

TR: If the killer was reading this, what would you like to say to him (or her)?

CB: I don’t know if I could even look at him. I really don’t know what I would say—probably something along the lines of “Why? How could you?”

While Cheryl did not have full custody of JB at the time—the result, she says, of false allegations purported by an ex-family member—JB did stay with Cheryl every Monday through Friday. At the time of JB’s death, Cheryl was pursuing restoration of full custodial rights and making strides towards rebuilding their relationship—two goals that would never see full fruition before it was too late.

Sixteen years later, Cheryl still remains in the area. In 2006, she graduated from Troy University with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. She has made numerous attempts to start anew elsewhere, but according to her, she always ends up back here for various reasons. She has four daughters from her second marriage—one of whom bears a striking resemblance to older sister, JB. When not focusing on furthering her education, Cheryl busies herself with her job as a sitter for an elderly couple. She finds helping others to be therapeutic and purposeful in the life she is now forced to live without her firstborn. The resulting circumstances of the unsolved murder of her daughter have left her relationship with her remaining daughters somewhat strained, but she maintains that she loves them very, very much and hopes to find reconciliation with them soon. For now, at least, she clings to her faith that everything happens for a reason while believing that someday, she and JB will be eventually reunited on the other side of eternity.

There is currently a $40,000 reward for anyone providing viable information that leads to the resolution of this case. If you, or anyone you know has any information, contact Ozark Police Department at 334-445-6122 or please call your local law enforcement agency.

JB's gravesite marker

Related Thursday Review articles:

Boot Hill's Buried Crimes; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; February 3, 2014.