TCF: Let’s Kill Mom

Let’s Kill Mom: Four Texas Teens and a Horrifying Murder Pact
By Donna Fielder

The crime:

Seventeen-year-old Jennifer Bailey, her thirteen-year-old brother David, and Jennifer’s sixteen-year-old boyfriend Paul Henson Jr. conspired to kill Jennifer and David’s mother, Susan. How, exactly, it all went down is still disagreed upon, but Susan was stabbed to death after returning home from work. The three teenagers tried to escape by driving from Texas to Canada but literally ran out of gas. All three pled guilty to get reduced sentences (in this case, avoiding the death penalty), but Jennifer and Paul are likely to remain in prison for life.

The book:

Maybe it’s because of the notoriety of the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case (filmed as Heavenly Creatures in 1994). Or maybe it’s because I’d previously reviewed Bob Mitchell’s book The Class Project: How to Kill a Mother, about a pair of teenage sisters who drowned their mother in a bathtub in 2003. Or maybe it’s just because the killers here were such high-school clichés of disaffected youth: listening to emo music, playing Dungeons & Dragons, pretending to be vampires, practising Wiccan rituals and reading books on devil worship. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t as shocked by the murder of Susan Bailey as I suppose I should have been. To be sure, it was a terrible crime, and it’s hard to understand kids who kill, but it’s not something I couldn’t get my head around.

I believe Donna Fielder was a local reporter who drew on her coverage of the case to write this book. It’s not bad, though there are some places where the editor (if there was one) was taking a nap. I also questioned dramatizing the actual murder, attempting to describe it from Susan’s point of view. This is especially problematic given that the three people involved each have different accounts of what happened. Did Susan really think to herself “Oh God! Her children were killing her! Why?” Or were her last thoughts more along the lines of “Oh God, I didn’t think things had gotten this bad.” I don’t think it makes any sense to speculate.

What I liked about Fielder’s approach is the emphasis placed on the perspective of Susan’s mother, whose journals are quoted from throughout. The catastrophe of having her daughter killed by two of her grandkids presented her with an awesome moral challenge, and I give credit to her for making the right decision in the end and basically giving up on Jennifer. That’s hard on any parent, or grandparent. But if your kids are shit, you just have to make a break.

Another thing I thought worked well was adding separate chapters on Fielder’s three visits to the killers in prison at the end as an epilogue. Given her pretty clear judgment on culpability in the matter, and indeed barely restrained anger at the killers for how they repaid their hard-working mother “with violence and death,” she remains fair in her reporting of these interviews, and we’re left to make our own minds up on the question of crime and punishment.

The question of why kids kill is raised in one chapter, which leans heavily on Michael D. Kelleher’s book When Good Kids Kill. It’s a point that often comes up for debate in reference to school shootings. Parricide doesn’t gather as many headlines, but it’s a phenomenon that has proven equally hard to come to any firm conclusions about. What stands out for me is the way that some kids are able to stand up to the usual storm and stress of their teenaged years quite well, while others have far less tolerance for authority and a greater sensitivity to perceived slights. It doesn’t take much to tip them over the edge. Indeed, it might be something so trivial that bystanders aren’t able to see it at all. Then, when the kid snaps, we’re all left to wonder why.

Noted in passing:

The teenaged trio were picked up in South Dakota in part because Yankton, the town they were driving through, had a teen curfew of 11:30 and it was the wee hours of the morning. I did a double-take at this. There are towns with teen curfews in the U.S.? Is that constitutional?

People were amazed at the kids’ “plan” of escaping to Canada with no money, no jobs or marketable skills, and no friends or family to help them out. Is Canada seen as that much of a land of milk and honey? Even when Jennifer hated the cold of Minnesota so much? Never mind the fact that Canada isn’t some criminal sanctuary, since extradition treaties exist and their arrest would only have been delayed by a bit.

Investigators were gobsmacked when Henson revealed that he was having sex not only with Jennifer, but a younger student at the same high school, and that they would have threesomes and sometimes the two girls would have sex together while he watched. I can understand their incredulity. Jennifer was an above-average looking young woman, and the third girl (whose identity as a juvenile is protected) is described as being pretty. Paul Henson, on the other hand, was a really ugly guy. He also had limited social standing at school (other kids saw him as a weirdo), clearly wasn’t that bright, and lived in a mobile home with his dad. I have a hard time figuring the attraction out. He was over six feet tall though, so it may just have been another case of the well-documented priority, amounting almost to a fetish, that many women place on height when it comes to mate selection.


Everyone comes to Jesus in prison. I guess if you’re a believer you can see this as natural: we only look for help when we are at our lowest, and we find salvation and forgiveness in the Lord. Cynics are more likely to see it as coping or manipulation. Jennifer claimed to have been born again almost immediately after she was caught, and one of her jailers perhaps put it best: “Maybe she was really looking, but I think she was one of those people who was not going to find what she was looking for.”

The abuse excuse is just knee-jerk claiming of victim status now, isn’t it? After her arrest, Jennifer would complain of a “mentally abusive” home, whatever that meant. I really rolled my eyes though at how her father, who seems to have been absent from his children’s lives for the most part, was later said to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder due to his kids killing his ex-wife. Because of this PTSD he was no longer able to work, and so couldn’t even contribute anything to Jennifer’s or Dave’s prison accounts.

True Crime Files

TCF: She Wanted It All

She Wanted It All: A True Story of Sex, Murder, and a Texas Millionaire
By Kathryn Casey

The crime:

In the early morning hours of October 3 1999 retired Texas businessman Steven Beard was shot by Tracey Tarlton with a shotgun while he was sleeping. He would die of complications related to the injury several months later. Tarlton had acted at the behest and with the assistance of Beard’s wife (and Tarlton’s sometime lover) Celeste. For cooperating with the D.A. in prosecuting Celeste, Tarlton received a reduced sentence of ten years. Celeste was convicted of capital murder in 2003, receiving a life sentence.

The book:

This was Kathryn Casey’s second book and I think it’s still her best known. She clearly put a lot of work into it and it shows. I particularly liked how it told the story in-depth chronologically and still avoided the transcript trap so many true crime books fall into, with a final act in the courtroom just giving us play-by-play of the trial.

It reads well because it’s a classic soap opera, and Casey even describes it at the end as being like the plot of a Coen brothers movie. Celeste is the heartless gold-digger marrying a millionaire who was in poor health and nearly forty years her senior (they met when she was a waitress at his country club). Steven Beard had plenty of evidence supporting the conclusion that Celeste was only after him for his money, and indeed seemed at times to be well aware of what she was after (if not how ruthless she could be), but . . . men are fools when it comes to pretty young women. For her part, Celeste only had to wait to get everything, but she was impatient to go into full shopaholic mode and started trying to kill Steve off in various ways almost as soon as they were married.

While it’s an old story, there were some strange elements and weird moments. The relationship between Celeste and her teenaged twin daughters, for example, was something I couldn’t understand even at the end. I guess they were both just afraid of her. Steve’s 9-1-1 call for help after he was shot (in the gut, because Celeste didn’t want a lot of blood spatter) was stunning too. One can’t imagine waking up to something like that, but his confusion about what had just happened was luckily matched by incredible presence of mind. He immediately gave his address to the operator before calmly trying to explain how “My guts just jumped out of my stomach.”

The biggest mystery to me had to do with Celeste’s sexuality. On the one hand she was voracious, behaving like a horny party girl on boozy road trips, sleeping around while married, and even marrying for a fifth time just before going to trial. But at the same time several partners complained of her not enjoying sex, and she seems not to have felt a great attraction to any of the men in her life, from husbands to pick-ups. The relationship with Tracey Tarlton was typical of this ambiguity. Until the hatching of the murder plot she really had no use for Tarlton, and it doesn’t seem as though she felt any attraction to her, much less sexual desire. Lesbian love was just another sexual flavour that she took up in a compulsive but disinterested way.

The only person I could relate this to in my own life was a hypersexual, early middle-aged woman who was living with a friend of mine years ago. She’d been married several times, had several children, and would end up dumping my friend as well in due course. Given how she carried on you would think she had a tremendous sex drive, but she actually didn’t like sex and hated men. I don’t know what the current scholarly literature on hypersexuality (formerly known as nymphomania) is, but I’ve always suspected this is how most such people are wired. They have a lot of sex, but they don’t really enjoy it.

A couple of other points stood out. For example, cramming didn’t help Celeste very much in planning the perfect murder. She was a voracious reader, going through three to four books a week, most of which were true crime. She was also a big fan of Court TV and homicide investigations on A&E and printed out grisly crime scene photographs as study material. When trying to convince Tarlton to kill her husband she explained how “I’ve read so many books on things like this, watched so many movies. I know what I’m doing.” And yet, she seems to have learned nothing from all this research.

Some people shouldn’t be parents. When Casey describes Celeste as “a mother who’d never known how to love” her children, I thought that was putting it mildly. Not surprisingly, Celeste’s own upbringing had been chaotic and dysfunctional (though her claims of abuse were unproven). She’d been adopted, along with a couple of other children, by a couple who both had mental problems. The thing about bad parenting is it just keeps getting passed down the line.

Finally, we are reminded yet again of how important it is to always, always, claim victim status. I know this could be taken as a mantra for our age, but it’s something that stands out clearly in a lot of true-crime stories. When charged with serious crimes the best defence is a good offence, so accused killers and cheats always seek to shift the blame on to others. Celeste did this as a matter of course, claiming to have been abused as a child and telling Tarlton that Steven was going to kill her if she didn’t kill him first.

Noted in passing:

When you’re rich you can waste your money in all kinds of stupid ways. Since shopping was, like sex, a compulsion for Celeste, and she had no concept of the value of money, she was an easy mark for high-end stores and services. Particularly eye-opening was her spending $3,000 to decorate her Christmas tree one year, and $950 for an antique pickle jar. Unleashed, in the seven months after Steven died she burned through half a million dollars. This made me reflect on the lottery fantasy of what I’d actually do, or even what I could do, if I won $50 million in a lottery. I don’t think I could spend money like Celeste, and even if I did I still wouldn’t have enough time left to spend half of my winnings. Which makes playing the lottery seem all the more pointless.


I mentioned how obvious it was – even to Steven, I believe – that Celeste was a gold-digger as well as a nut-job. But even the people around him, including close friends and family, realized it was useless saying anything to him about it. There’s no warning men (or women) in such situations. All you can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

True Crime Files