Crime can shake any community, but it makes much more of an impact when the victim is a beloved local. In 1990, Ozark was just a small town in Alabama before one of its own went missing. After a week of searching, they found Tracey Harris in a nearby river. For about three decades, law enforcement only had their suspicions and circumstantial evidence, but no official arrests were made.
Then, they reopened the case and arrested Tracey’s ex-husband, Carl. Days before Carl was set to stand trial for the murder of his ex-wife, witness testimony turned everything upside down. They finally shared a secret they held onto for 30 years: they knew who really killed Tracey Harris.
Heinous Crime in Ozark, Alabama
Ozark, Alabama, was not one of the most well-known cities in the United States. But during the second week of March 1990, the city was put on the map for an awful crime. Tracey Harris, a dedicated 22-year-old mom, disappeared. She was reported missing by her ex-husband, Carl Harris, on March 7, 1990.
She was so beloved by her neighbors and friends that the search parties began looking for her as soon as she had been reported missing. After days of intensive searching, Tracey was finally found on March 14, 1990, exactly one week after she was reported missing. Her body had been located in Dale County’s Choctawhatchee River, which was a couple of miles from her house in Ozark.
Red Flags Upon Inspection
Authorities believe that she arrived at the location alive but had posthumously floated slightly south to the discovery site. This location wasn’t unusual, as Tracey and her friends would often spend afternoons at the beach area next to the river, so it was high up on the investigators’ list of places to search. What was notable were the findings from the autopsy.
The findings reported that Tracey had drowned due to the water and debris found in her lungs, which was an immediate red flag since every single person the police interviewed mentioned that Tracey was petrified of water and couldn’t swim. In addition, the report showed that she had marks and bruises on her neck that indicated she was strangled.
From Missing Person to Homicide Case
Her death went from a missing person case to a homicide case. The local police began speaking to the people closest to Tracey: her friends and neighbors and her ex-husband Carl, with whom she still shared the house. Carl had let the police in several times to search their house to determine if there were any clues that could help them find the killer.
They didn’t find anything out of the ordinary or anything that led them to believe that she had been forced out of her home. Ozark police believed that Carl had been the last person to see Tracey alive because he had picked her up from her restaurant job, dropped her off at their house, and then left for his shift at the supermarket.
Special Attention Paid to the Ex-Husband
When there is a homicide investigation, law enforcement tends to look at the romantic partners of the deceased. This investigation proved no different as the Ozark police and the Dale County District Attorney’s office paid special attention to Carl Harris. As far as they were concerned, Carl was at the top of their suspect list.
Even though they didn’t find anything unusual inside of the home that Carl and Tracey shared with their daughter, Carolyn, something told them to keep digging. As they took witness testimonies, they learned more about Tracey and Carl’s relationship, including allegations of abuse. More and more signs seemed to be pointing to Carl. Had they found their murderer? How did Tracey Harris end up in this mess?
Who Was Tracey Harris?
Tracey Harris was born and raised in Ozark, Dale County, Alabama. She was one of the most incredibly kind, shy, and humble people they knew to her friends and people around town. Despite her quietness, everyone enjoyed her company and had a lot of respect for her.
She always saw the best in people and was loyal to a fault. Despite being so shy and quiet, when it came to water, Tracey was vocal about her fear of it. Tracey never learned how to swim because of how much it frightened her.
Growing Up in Ozark
Selina Dodson, one of Tracey’s closest friends from childhood, can remember just how hysterical Tracey was when the two girls were baptized and made to submerge themselves in the water. Selina and Tracey spent most of their time together while growing up in Ozark, oftentimes hanging around at their church.
The church is where Tracey was first publicly seen with Carl Harris. Carl was another Ozark local about three years older than Tracey and Selina. The couple really liked each other and started officially dating when Tracey was about 16 years old.
The Birth of Baby Carolyn
When the girls were seniors in high school, Tracey found out that she was pregnant with Carl’s baby. They decided to get married and build their family together. A few months after their wedding, they welcomed a daughter named Carolyn. The baby reminded everyone of Tracey and was loved by everyone who met her.
At the time, Tracey’s mom stepped in quite a bit to help take care of the baby since Tracey and Carl were struggling young parents. Not only were they struggling financially, but the health of their relationship was also at risk.
District Attorney’s Office Begins Investigations
After Tracey’s body was discovered, police investigators did their initial interviews with family and friends. Dale County District Attorney Kirke Adams and Assistant DA Jordan Davis were assigned to Tracey’s case and began collecting evidence. When they did their initial interview with Carl, he claimed that their marriage and life were problem-free and that everyone was happy.
He said that Tracey was the love of his life. His assessment of their relationship was curious since 15 other Ozark residents had volunteered statements recounting when they had witnessed domestic violence involving Carl and Tracey.
Meet Dawn Beasley
One of those Ozark, Alabama residents who had made a statement was a woman named Dawn Beasley. Her fiancée, Jeff, became friends with Carl through work which led Dawn and Jeff to live with Carl and Tracey for a short period of nearly a month.
Dawn and Tracey became good friends since Tracey was taking care of her daughter, and Dawn was pregnant at the time. Dawn noticed how controlling Carl was about who Tracey could be friends with, so she could tell how important her friendship with the young mother was.
Witnessing Domestic Abuse
During the time that Dawn and Jeff lived with the Harris’s, Dawn witnessed some dangerous behavior from Carl. She and Tracey were sitting at the kitchen table when Tracey told Carl that she needed some money to help cover the water bill.
He lost it, threatening to kill her and choking her around the neck. Dawn tried to help her friend by telling Carl to get off of her. Later, when Dawn asked Tracey why she was still with Carl, Tracey admitted that she simply wanted to be a family unit for Carolyn.
No Reports Filed for Domestic Abuse
Tracey’s thought process was that if she could just ride it out through the tough times, she and Carl could be the family she always wanted to be. Dawn wasn’t so convinced that Tracey’s dream was achievable, especially since she didn’t care for Carl. Dawn saw many fights between them and didn’t think that he treated Tracey well.
And it wasn’t just kept to the Harris’ kitchen. Many people around the community had either seen or heard one of their fights. Despite encouragement, Tracey never filed a single report about these allegations of domestic abuse.
Why Were There No Reports?
District Attorney Kirke Adams thought that the lack of reporting in Tracey’s case was because of the times. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, if the police arrived on the scene but none of the involved parties wanted to file an official report, there was simply no evidence that the house call took place.
The witness testimonies of abuse weren’t the only thing that made police investigators focus their efforts on Carl. In addition to his recent divorce from Tracey, Carl admitted to having a girlfriend who was seventeen years old.
An Alleged Misunderstanding
According to Davis and Adams, Carl had talked to his girlfriend about their future together. He told her that he couldn’t leave Tracey because he wouldn’t be able to afford the child support. He also told her questionable things before and after Tracey disappeared, including, “Come back whenever. Tracey won’t be home.”
Carl disputed both the abuse allegations and that he told his girlfriend that Tracey wasn’t coming back. When investigators confronted him about both of these things, he credited it to a misunderstanding of what he intended to say.
No Arrests Were Made
Whatever Carl’s arguments were for his behavior, the DA’s office stayed firm with their position that most of the evidence, though circumstantial, connected Carl Harris to Tracey’s murder. Despite their confidence in their case, no arrests were made, and investigation into Tracey Harris’ disappearance and murder slowed down.
Even more strange was how investigators disagreed about whether or not Carl ended up calling in to make sure that investigators were still looking for Tracey’s killer. Carl claims that he did try to contact them, and yet law enforcement says otherwise.
Chaos Within the Family
Tracey and Carl’s daughter was only four years old when her mom was murdered. Though she was young, she remembers how stressful it was at home since they didn’t have any answers and the authorities were focusing on her dad as the prime suspect.
She was told that her mom had been murdered by someone, but only later did she learn that her dad was connected to it. Due to the fact that her mother was gone and her father was under such tight scrutiny from the authorities, Tracey’s mother officially adopted her granddaughter.
No Relationship With Her Dad
Soon after investigations got underway, Carolyn and her grandmother moved to Texas in the hopes of a fresh start. Carolyn later heard how abusive and awful Carl had been towards her mother when they were married.
And Carolyn essentially had no relationship with Carl since she didn’t really spend time with him while she was growing up. Tracey’s mom had stepped in to help Tracey and Carl with raising Carolyn, and their daughter is so thankful for that. Her grandmother provided her a safe and loving place to grow up.
Father and Daughter Meet Again
Until her 21st birthday, Carolyn didn’t really express an interest in building a relationship with Carl. But when she was 21, he reached out to her to see if they could meet. Carolyn agreed, and the two of them sat down for a conversation. Whether intentionally or not, they avoided the topic of Tracey altogether.
As is only natural, Carolyn had her fair share of questions for her father when it came to his relationship with her mother and her mother’s murder. But based on her knowledge of Carl, she didn’t think that he’d give her truthful answers.
Determined to Make Sense of the Tragedy
For years, Carolyn yearned to find the answers to all her unanswered questions about her mother. She tried to make sense of what happened with the limited information she did have. Her grandmother gave her as much support as she could provide.
But, without any real developments or new evidence, Carolyn didn’t have much to go on. She was determined to try to make sense of everything for her own sanity. But at the end of the day, she was passionate about ensuring that her mother got the justice she deserved.
Returning to Ozark for a Funeral
In 2015, Carolyn’s grandmother passed away. This death in the family brought Carolyn back to Ozark, Alabama, to bury her grandmother next to her mother in the cemetery. Being back in her hometown and the place where her world was turned upside down brought back a lot of feelings for Carolyn.
She decided to seize the opportunity and began asking community members if they knew anything about her mom and investigating her murder. Initially, Carolyn wasn’t very successful and disappointed as she only heard things she already knew.
A Daughter on a Mission
After several dead ends, Carolyn spoke with one woman whose son just happened to be close personal friends with the town sheriff. This woman helped organize a meeting with the sheriff and Carolyn. The sheriff, in turn, helped Carolyn find a point person within the Ozark Police Department.
Her meeting with the Ozark Police Department didn’t bring up any new information, but the timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous. While Carolyn was doing her own digging, the cold case unit had chosen Tracey’s case as one to reopen for investigation.
Cold Case Becomes Reopened Investigation
Yes, the same year that Carolyn returned to Ozark for her grandmother’s funeral, the Ozark Police department decided to reopen Tracey Harris’ case. After reopening the case and revisiting the previously collected evidence, the authorities’ prime suspect had remained the same.
They maintained that though the bulk of evidence was circumstantial, it was incredibly strong. Carl Harris, who had denied since day one any involvement in Tracey’s murder or abuse during their marriage, didn’t know that the police were looking at him again because he had tried to move on.
Driven Out of Town
When the cold case unit started looking into Tracey Harris’ case again, Carl Harris attempted to move on with his life. He felt like the entire murder case had ruined his life even though he was never officially arrested or charged with the murder of his ex-wife.
The cloud of suspicion that hung over his head was enough to drive him out of town a couple of years after Tracey’s murder. Carl was desperate to relocate to a new place with unfamiliar faces so that he could find work.
New Beginnings in South Carolina
He didn’t want people to associate him with the horrific crime. He eventually found himself in South Carolina, where he was able to find a job as a bouncer in a construction company. Carl also found love again with a girlfriend, and the two welcomed Carl’s second daughter.
But by 2016, Carl’s stable, new life was going to be flipped on its head with just one phone call. The investigators working on the reopened case called Carl Harris to inform him that they were working to find the killer again and that Carl still remained their main suspect.
The Only One With a Motive
At first, Carl expected the call was going to be news of investigators finding a suspect based on new evidence. But two weeks after that call, the Ozark Police Department came to South Carolina and arrested Carl for the murder of Tracey Harris on September 13, 2016.
Carl maintained that he was innocent when it came to any level of involvement in her murder or abuse allegations from before her death. Still, Carl Harris was the only name that came up in the case of Tracey Harris, who had any motive to murder her.
Political Motivation to Charge Someone
The prosecution team went through the original witness statements and brought in those people who were still alive for a follow-up interview. Tracey’s aunt and Carl’s ex-girlfriend were some of the most memorable interviews. They were among a number of people who recalled instances where Carl Harris had shared incriminating statements.
Upon his arrest, Carl Harris’ defense attorney, David Harrison, argued that there wasn’t any actual evidence that connected his client to the murder and that Carl’s arrest was politically motivated. Carl continued to insist that he had nothing to do with Tracey’s death.
Dawn Beasley Reenters the Picture
More than 26 years later, Dawn Beasley came back into the picture. It had been more than a quarter of a century since Dawn and her then-fiancé lived with the Harris’s for a short period before Tracey was murdered. Ever since then, Dawn had been on edge, especially when she found herself near a police officer.
Carl Harris was being charged with Tracey’s murder, but Dawn had been holding onto a secret all these years that would change everything. The prosecution team’s confidence that they had the right person in custody was about to be shaken.
Dawn Beasley’s Witness Statement
In January 2020, Kirke Adams and Jordan Davis were back at the helm of the prosecution’s case against Carl Harris. When they were sorting the original witness statements that were still relevant to their case, Dawn Beasley’s statement stood out.
She had recounted an instance of domestic violence between Carl and Tracey, which was eerily similar to how Tracey had been murdered. Davis contacted Dawn, who panicked when she saw the police was contacting her. Davis explained the importance of Dawn’s testimony since she was the only person who physically saw Carl’s hands-on Tracey’s throat.
Series of Excuses to Avoid Testifying
Dawn had avoided speaking to the police about this ever since that initial statement and threw out a series of excuses as to why she wasn’t going to be able to come into town and testify. She cited her job and significant strain from travel as reasons for outright refusing to help prosecutors.
After she shot Davis down, Davis got ready to subpoena Dawn – the prosecution was going to get her to that courtroom one way or another. Unsurprisingly, Dawn was upset by the subpoena and ended up calling Davis.
The Real Reason She Didn’t Want to Testify
During this phone call, Dawn admitted that the biggest reason she didn’t want to testify was that the man who murdered Tracey Harris 30 years earlier had admitted it to her that fateful night. Assistant DA Davis was convinced that Dawn was desperate enough that she was going to say anything to get out of testifying.
But as Dawn shared more details, Davis knew that this woman was telling the truth. When Dawn exclaimed that Carl Harris shouldn’t be on trial because he didn’t kill Tracey, Davis asked her how she was positive that he was innocent.
Finally Admitting a 30-Year-Old Secret
Dawn finally confessed the secret that had been eating her up inside for three decades: the man who confessed to her that he killed Tracey was her ex-husband, Jeff Beasley. On the night of March 7, 1990, Dawn was pregnant and about to celebrate her 21st birthday.
That was also the night that Tracey Harris disappeared. Dawn had gone to bed when her then-fiancé, Jeff, woke her up late at night. Dawn told Davis that Jeff had admitted that he unintentionally hurt Tracey, and that’s what ended up killing her.
Dawn’s Account of Jeff’s Confession
Dawn admitted that, at first, she had no idea who Jeff was talking about. She asked Jeff what happened, and his account of the story was that he had gone to speak to Carl, but Carl wasn’t home. Instead, Jeff ended up speaking to Tracey, and he tried to convince her to leave Carl.
Jeff claimed that Tracey got upset, the two started physically fighting, and then he fatally injured her by accident. Then, he brought her body to the river so that Carl didn’t come home and find his ex-wife.
Torn Between Right and Wrong
After hearing this whole story, Dawn tried her best to convince Jeff to go to the police, but he refused and said that they couldn’t tell anyone. Dawn was torn because she cared about Tracey and wanted justice for her friend.
At the same time, getting justice for Tracey meant Dawn would have to raise her baby alone and marry Jeff inside of a prison. Dawn decided to keep quiet so that she could raise her baby in a two-parent household and because she didn’t think anyone would believe her.
Jeff’s Criminal Record
When Tracey’s body was found and Dawn was brought in for a statement, she truthfully described the abuse she had been an eyewitness to. She was relieved when none of the officers asked her if she had any idea who had murdered Tracey because then it wasn’t technically lying.
The Ozark Police only interviewed Dawn back in 1990 even though Jeff also lived in the Harris’ house before Tracey’s murder. Had they questioned Jeff, the police would’ve noticed his criminal record filled with burglary attempts and prison time.
Not the Picture-Perfect Family
Dawn overlooked Jeff’s criminal activity and confession for killing Tracey to have the family she always pictured. The Beasley’s never spoke about what Jeff had done after the night he confessed to murdering Tracey Harris and continued life as usual. They had more children, and Jeff did another stint in jail.
When he got home, Dawn alleges that Jeff was abusive, and so, after thirteen years together and four kids, they got divorced. Dawn considered telling authorities about Jeff, although she was more afraid of her children’s reactions.
Confession of the Real Killer
With this new information, provided less than 72 hours before Carl Harris’ trial was set to begin, the prosecution put the trial on hold. They followed this new lead and brought Jeff Beasley in to speak with investigators and sit for a polygraph test.
He maintained his innocence, even with a failed polygraph, but after four hours, he finally confessed to Tracey’s murder. His version was that he and Tracey were secretly having an affair. They had been swimming in the river when they started to argue, and Jeff pushed Tracey down, and she never resurfaced.
Last Minute Case Switch
There were a few inconsistencies between Jeff and Dawn’s stories, namely the alleged affair and Tracey willingly getting into the river. But Jeff had explanations for both things, and his version of the events matched the evidence.
On the morning of January 13, 2020, on what was supposed to be the first day of Carl Harris’ trial, the prosecution team stood before the press and announced that the case against Carl Harris was dismissed. Instead, they had arrested and charged Jeff Beasley with Tracey Harris’ murder. Jeff pleaded guilty and got a sentence of 30 years in prison.
Finding Closure and Honoring Her Memory
Carl Harris was relieved but angry with the whole process. He and his defense attorney claimed that police made-up information and were incompetent when it came to this case. Carl filed a lawsuit against the City of Ozark for $6 million in damages – pain, suffering, and false imprisonment – on August 19, 2021.
After 30 years, Tracey’s community finally has answers. With this conviction, Tracey’s daughter Carolyn can focus on the fact that justice was finally delivered for her mother. Hopefully, Tracey’s friends and family have found peace and closure, as they continue to honor their beloved friend.