An Alabama man was convicted on Tuesday in a controversial cold case that has roiled the Wiregrass region of the state for decades.
Coley McCraney, 49, was found guilty on four counts of murder in the deaths of high school friends J.B. Beasley, 17, and Tracie Hawlett, 17, who were shot and killed after getting lost on their way back home from Beasley’s birthday party on the night of July 31, 1999.
The defendant was also found guilty of raping Beasley. It was his DNA on her body that led to him being charged in connection with the slayings in March 2019 – based on a genetic report produced by Parabon NanoLabs at the request of the Ozark Police Department. After receiving that report, police recognized McCraney’s name, questioned him, obtained a DNA match, and made an arrest.
But McCraney was not the first arrest made in the case.
Just weeks after the Alabama teens, who both hailed from Dothan, were killed some 20 miles away in Ozark, police arrested a man for their murders – but a grand jury declined to indict him when presented with the evidence, Dothan-based CBS affiliate WTVY reports.
That man, since-deceased Johnny Barrentine, reportedly gave investigators conflicting information after originally claiming to have witnessed a man killing the girls in real time on the night in question. According to the TV station, the local public has been skeptical of law enforcement claims and narratives since the failed Barrentine arrest.
Additional developments further soured the public’s mood.
Former Ozark auxiliary officer Rena Crumb, 53, long alleged that a former OPD officer drunkenly confessed to killing the two girls and was then protected by corrupt local law enforcement. The defense’s theory of the case had largely hinged upon Crumb’s accusations – but she recanted those claims under oath during the defense’s own questioning at a pre-trial hearing in August 2022.
A defense attorney for McCraney then reportedly speculated that she was being leaned on by the current Ozark police chief to change her story when it mattered. The officers said to have been involved have all denied any such conspiracy.
McCraney’s trial began on April 17. He testified in his own defense and claimed that he had consensual sex with Beasley on the night of the murders, according to Dothan-based ABC affiliate WDHN.
Defense attorney David Harrison repeatedly argued that the state only had his client’s DNA on Beasley – insisting that was their whole case, and offered one question as a refrain in his opening and closing statements: “Where is the evidence?”
The defendant, then a truck driver who would have been around 25 years old, said he knew the girls after meeting them at a local mall a couple of months before they were killed. McCraney testified that they had all planned to meet up on the night in question but that Beasley was late, so he went home to wait for a phone call from her but never received one, WDHN reported.
At around 11:30 that night, McCraney told the jury, he decided to finally head home when his car’s alternator gave out at a gas station. There, he said, he eventually saw Beasley and Hawlett at a pay phone, talked to them for a few minutes, and they gave him a ride to another gas station where his semi-truck was parked. At the second filling station, McCraney said, he and Beasley had sex in the cab of his truck before the girls took him home in Beasley’s car at around 12:45 the next morning, according to WDHN.
Prosecutors gave jurors a shorter story.
They said there was never any plan for the three to meet and that the girls were simply lost – originally heading back home but stopping to extend their curfew so they could head to another party in a field.
After phoning Hawlett’s parents at the gas station, the state argued, McCraney appeared with a gun and ordered the victims back into their car. Then, prosecutors said, the defendant and the girls drove to the second location where he raped Beasley, put them both in the trunk of her Mazda, and executed them with a single shot to each girl’s head.
They were found dead the next morning.
Bolstering their case, prosecutors noted that McCraney, when he was arrested, told investigators that he had never met Beasley or Hawlett – only changing his story when he took the stand. The defendant himself addressed that inconsistency – telling jurors he was afraid and initially dissembled because he panicked.
“When they put those cuffs on me I figured they had already made their minds up,” McCraney testified, according to WDHN.
After one day of deliberations, jurors had made up their minds, and convicted the man who has otherwise lived a crime-free life, and whose DNA was connected to the case through an online database of results from at-home ancestry kits. In the past 20-plus years, the defendant built a family – he has long been married to the woman who was his girlfriend at the time of the murders – and became a preacher.
McCraney was found guilty of two counts of capital murder-vehicle, one count of capital murder-rape, and one count of capital murder of two or more persons. The sentencing phase of the trial begins on Thursday. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Dale County jurors will decide the condemned man’s fate.
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