DNA cold case: Alabama man charged in 1999 double murder of teen girls

Genealogy websites have helped police capture yet another alleged murderer, this time an Alabama man who authorities say killed two 17-year-old girls and left their bodies in a car trunk in 1999.

Coley Lewis McCraney, 45, of Dothan, is charged with five counts of capital murder and one count of first-degree rape, according to records from the Dale County Jail. He is being held without bond following his first court appearance Monday morning.

McCraney is charged with multiple counts of capital murder each in the deaths of J.B. Beasley and Tracie Hawlett, whose bodies were found in the trunk of Beasley's car Aug. 1, 1999, in Ozark. The grim discovery was made in a woody area about a mile from where McCraney lived at the time of the slayings and less than a mile from where the girls were last spotted, according to The Dothan Eagle.

In the years since the girls were killed, McCraney has served in the military, worked as a truck driver and in 2013, created a nonprofit called Spirit and Truth Lifeline Ministries, the Eagle reported.

Meanwhile, the families of the two slain teens have held a vigil every year on the rural roadside where their bodies were found, the newspaper reported.

Ozark Police Chief Marlos Walker said during a news conference Monday morning that he was startled when he learned DNA evidence linked McCraney, who he said he knows, to the unsolved slayings. Like Walker, McCraney grew up in and around Ozark, which, as of 2017, was estimated to have just over 14,000 residents.

“I was very surprised … I was surprised when I saw the results. Every person I talked to said the same thing. But the DNA doesn’t lie,” Walker said.

Dale County District Attorney Kirke Adams explained during Monday’s news conference that two murder charges for each girl stem from two allegations: that two or more people were killed and that they were killed with a deadly weapon while in a vehicle.

The fifth count of murder stems from the fact McCraney is accused of killing Beasley during the commission of a rape, Adams said. The capital murder charges make McCraney eligible for the death penalty.

A reporter asked the district attorney if he’d decided whether his office would seek the death penalty against the teens’ alleged killer.

“Yes, about 10 years ago,” Adams said.

Credit: Google

Credit: Google

The killings of Beasley and Hawlett have haunted the Wiregrass region of southeast Alabama for nearly two decades. Adams, Walker and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall thanked the victims’ family members, some of whom were at Monday’s news conference, for their patience over the years it took to track down the teens’ alleged killer.

“I can pledge you this: That my office will be the voice for J.B. and Tracie,” Adams said.

Walker thanked the families on behalf of investigators, whose names and faces changed over the years as the case remained unsolved. Retired detectives who were part of the initial investigation were on hand for Monday’s announcement.

“We know it has been a tough road. It’s been a long road,” said Walker, who was appointed as police chief in 2015.

Marshall told the girls’ parents their daughters were never forgotten.

“You hear this referred to as a cold case,” Marshall. “What I hope you recognize today is that it was an open case, an ongoing investigation.

“Today is a beginning. It’s not ultimately justice for you, but what I hope it does is begin to provide some answers that you’ve thought about for almost 20 years now.”

Two girls lost forever

AL.com reported that Beasley and Hawlett, both seniors at Northview High School in Dothan, vanished July 31, 1999, after they got lost on their way to a party being held in nearby Headland in honor of Beasley's birthday. Hawlett's mother, Carol Roberts, said at the time that the girls ended up at a convenience store in Ozark, about 20 miles away, where her daughter called home to say they had gotten lost, but were on their way home.

The Southeast Sun in Enterprise reported in 2001 that two women told police investigators they ran into the girls at the store and gave them directions back to Dothan.

It was the last time Beasley and Hawlett were seen alive.

The teens’ bodies were found about 2 p.m. the next day in the trunk of Beasley’s black Mazda 929. Each had been shot once in the head.

They had not been robbed; their purses, cash and jewelry were still in the vehicle, AL.com said.

State forensic experts said at the time that neither girl appeared to have been raped, but semen was found on Beasley's clothing and skin. That physical evidence was used to clear another man who allegedly told detectives he was at the scene of the crime in an effort to be awarded $25,000 in reward money in the case, AL.com reported.

Walker declined Monday to disclose the source of the DNA that tied McCraney to the scene where the girls were found, but a news release from Marshall's office confirmed that it was the evidence taken from Beasley's body and clothing. The police chief also declined to say if McCraney confessed to the slayings following his arrest, which took place Friday during a traffic stop.

Investigators are also mum on how or where they believe McCraney encountered the girls after they left the convenience store near where their bodies were later abandoned.

A then-25-year-old McCraney, who was divorced from his first wife, was ordered to undergo a DNA test July 30, 1999 -- the day before Beasley and Hawlett wandered into Ozark -- by a judge overseeing a paternity suit in which he was named. Court records obtained by the Eagle indicated he never complied with the order, or with a second one filed several months later.

He was ordered to support the child, despite his DNA never being tested. Court records show no criminal history for McCraney past a few traffic violations over the years.

Watch Monday morning’s news conference below, courtesy of WTVY in Dothan. 

Marshall confirmed in the news release that McCraney has no prior criminal history that would have resulted in his DNA profile being uploaded to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). McCraney's name never came up as a potential suspect during the investigation in 1999, the attorney general said.

McCraney remarried in 2001. As of last May, he was listed as a "bishop/motivational speaker/working for the Lord" on the Facebook page of H.O.G. Heart of Goal, a ministry that appears to hold services around the Ozark area.

The ministry's chief executive officer, James Lee Fuller, posted videos Monday of news coverage of the murder case. On Sunday, Fuller posted a video of him leading a prayer.

The caption read, “Praying for my God-loving, family first, peaceful military-serving, hardworking father/husband/son/uncle/cousin/brother Coley McCraney.”

An arrest ‘a long time coming’

Walker said the identification process began when his office reached out to Parabon Nanolabs Inc., a private, Virginia-based company renowned for its work helping to solve cold cases, last August.

Parabon technicians obtained a profile using its "snapshot DNA analysis." Genetic genealogy narrowed it down to a family, Walker said.

Kinship inference narrowed the suspect down to McCraney. Walker did not say which relative of McCraney’s had uploaded a profile to the genealogy website on which it was found.

Investigators obtained DNA samples from McCraney during the subsequent investigation, Walker said. The Alabama state crime lab confirmed the match between his DNA and that which was left at the crime scene.

Walker said he was stunned to learn that investigators had identified a suspect in the long-unsolved case. He said he had to sit in his office chair for three hours to process the news.

“It’s one of those things where you say, ‘Is this really happening?’” Walker said.

He said the arrest was “a long time coming” for the community.

Credit: Ozark Police Department via AP

Credit: Ozark Police Department via AP

“Everywhere I’ve been the last 48 hours, people just have a sigh of relief to know who was responsible for this crime,” Walker said.

The chief said he never doubted that the case would someday be solved.

“As far back as last year, our goal was to get there before the 20th anniversary,” Walker said.

Investigators were encouraged last spring when police in California arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former policeman who is suspected of being the infamous Golden State Killer. DeAngelo’s identification came after cold case detectives used open-source genealogy websites to link the DNA profile of the prolific serial rapist and killer to family members of his.

The investigators tailed DeAngelo and surreptitiously obtained a sample of his DNA, which matched the profile of the killer.

Walker said his investigators were told that McCraney’s DNA matched the evidence at the Beasley-Hawlett crime scene a few weeks ago. They have spent the time since investigating the suspect’s background and tying up loose ends in the case.

They have not determined a motive for the slayings.

Beasley's father, Hilton Beasley, told WDHN in Dothan that he is skeptical that McCraney acted alone in the girls' shooting deaths. He said an "adviser" he has on the case told him it would have been difficult for a sole individual to kill both girls alone.

"May be wrong, but my attitude is, I just have to wait and evaluate," Beasley told the news station.

He remembered the teens for the happiness he said they brought to those around them. He described his daughter as intelligent, energetic, kind and funny.

“She was just a joy to be around,” he said.

The teen's mother, Cheryl Burgoon, said in 2009, during the annual vigil in her daughter's honor, that losing a child "takes you to places you could never expect," according to the Eagle. She praised the community that has kept the slain girls in their thoughts throughout the years.

“For people to come out and care this much, it’s a miracle,” Burgoon said at the time. “I can’t do it alone.”

Members of Beasley's family declined to comment following Monday's news conference, the Eagle reported.

Roberts told the newspaper God got the family through the first 10 years of mourning her daughter, who she said would have wanted her loved ones to keep going.

"It's hard, but I pray every day law enforcement will come up with some answers," Roberts said in 2009.

Following McCraney’s arrest, Roberts said she hopes Adams keeps his word about seeking the death penalty for the alleged killer.

"These girls did not deserve this," Roberts said Monday. "I want to see justice happen for these two girls."

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