bad TV, movies, narcissists, true crime

I just watched Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer…

About fifteen years ago, when Bill and I were still living in my native state of Virginia, I read a true crime book by Kathryn Casey. The title of the book was She Wanted it All: A True Story of Sex, Murder, and a Texas Millionaire. At the time that I read the book, Bill was serving a deployment in Iraq. As worried as I was about him, I was also freaked out about his ex wife, who had done some extreme things in the previous year to mess up Bill’s relationship with his daughters. In so many ways, Celeste Beard Johnson’s story reminded me of Ex, only there wasn’t a murder involved.

I reviewed Kathryn Casey’s book on, noting that the story of Celeste Beard Johnson reminded me a lot of my husband’s ex wife, and the drama she was visiting on us at the time. I got nightmares after reading that book. You can find my review here; when died, I managed to save some of my old reviews and have put them on my blog.

Last week, I noticed that a lot of people were reading my review of She Wanted It All. I am Facebook friends with Kathryn Casey, and she had posted about how Celeste’s daughters, Jennifer and Kristina, had done an interview for 20/20. I wasn’t able to watch the show because I live in Germany, and I wasn’t home when it aired, anyway. Maybe I’ll see if I can find it on YouTube or iTunes.

Anyway, when I noticed I was getting a bunch of hits on that old book review from the spring of 2007, I did some Internet sleuthing and discovered that last year, Lifetime put out a made for TV movie about Celeste’s story. The movie, Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer (2021), stars Julie Benz, whom I knew from Desperate Housewives. Julie Benz and I are about the same age, but she’s still very attractive. I liked her in other things I’ve seen her in, so I downloaded the movie and watched it yesterday.

One thing it’s important to remember, of course, is that a made for TV movie is really a movie that’s based on a true story. It also requires condensing a story so that it fits in a short timeframe. Celeste Beard’s story is a hell of a lot more complicated than the way it was portrayed in the made for TV movie. I think Julie Benz was a good choice to play Celeste, but the story is a bit watered down, as it would be. What’s especially sad about it, though, is that Lifetime’s treatment of this story is actually kind of campy. That’s too bad, because I think there are a lot of women like Celeste in the world… toxic, money grifting, narcissistic assholes who are not much better than vampires.

The official trailer for the movie… At this writing, someone has also uploaded the whole thing, so you don’t have to pay iTunes to see it.

At the beginning of the movie, Celeste (Benz) is shown flirting with an older man at an Austin, Texas country club, serving him vodka tonics. The lonely old man, Steven Beard, is a wealthy Austin area television mogul. He’s loaded with money, but since his wife died, he has no one to share his good fortune with. Celeste zeroes in on him, putting on the charm, batting her eyes, and quickly convincing him to fall in love with her and let her and her two daughters, Jennifer and Kristina, move in with him. The movie doesn’t explain this, but Jennifer and Kristina are twins, and products of Celeste’s first marriage to Craig Bratcher. She alienated the girls from their father, and they even wound up in foster care a few times, when she couldn’t foist them off on family. Bratcher eventually committed suicide, as Celeste drained her subsequent husbands of money and other resources. When she married Beard, Celeste insisted that he adopt her daughters, although in the film, it looks as if adopting them was Steven’s idea.

She would marry twice more before making Steven Beard her fourth husband. At the beginning of their relationship, Beard was very kind and generous, and he was patient and understanding when Celeste would spend his money recklessly. When he finally got fed up with her crazy spending habits, Beard brought up the “D” word. Celeste responded by threatening suicide, which led to her being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. There, she met Tracey Tarlton, who was an openly lesbian woman with anger issues and a history of depression. She and Celeste became buddies, and later, had a relationship.

Tracey Tarlton is played by Justine Warrington, who gives the character an almost comic treatment. She confesses to Celeste that she got in trouble for hitting an ex lover’s husband with her truck. When Celeste asks her if she really did that, Tracey says, with a conspiratorial giggle, “No… but I thought about it.” It was at that point that I realized how tasteless this adaptation of Beard’s story really is. Lifetime turned it into a salacious tale, seeming to miss that a man who had friends and family members who loved him was killed for Celeste’s selfish agenda.

Celeste talks Tracey into killing Steven Beard. She convinces her that he’s an abusive man who will leave her destitute and alone if they get a divorce. Tracey got it into her head that if Steven Beard was out of the way, she and Celeste could be together and live happily ever after. But after Steven died, Celeste took up with her fifth husband. That was when the real life Tracey spoke up. The movie makes it appear that the girls had talked her into confessing what really happened. Celeste had signed a prenuptial agreement that would have given her $500,000 in the case of divorce. But if Steven died, she’d get half of his fortune, as the other half would go to Steven’s daughter from his first marriage, a woman named Becky (Patricia Harras) who was older than Celeste. In real life, Celeste was 38 years younger than Steven Beard. Julie Benz is clearly older than the real life Celeste was when this was happening in the early 90s. The actors portrayed Celeste and Steven were too close in age.

One thing I noticed was the detective– Detective Rolands– who seems to pronounce the name so that it sounds like “Rawlins”, which made me think that’s a common name for cops and detectives on TV. Every time he referred to himself by name and flashed a snarky look at Celeste, I was reminded of cheesy 70s and 80s era cop shows.

I didn’t think the acting in this movie was particularly good, either. I remember thinking Julie Benz was so beautiful when she was on Desperate Housewives. I thought she was a good actress, too. In this film, she was all gushy and unconvincing. I came away with the idea that she did this movie strictly for the money. It’s not that I really expected a whole lot better from Lifetime TV. Most of the newest movies I’ve seen made by them are pretty terrible on every level, from the quality of acting, to the veracity of the stories presented, to the way certain things are presented, like crime investigations. They bear little resemblance to the truth and aren’t plausible. Some of it probably has to do with the budget and needing attractive people to star. I’m also sure some people like vapid, shallow, forgettable movies rather than detailed stories.

There was a time when they made movies that were of decent quality, but the ones I’ve seen recently have been disappointing. I saw one they made with Judd Nelson in it. I like Judd Nelson as an actor– I grew up in the 80s, after all. But that movie, Girl in the Basement (2021), which was loosely based on the Josef Fritzl story, was also very campy, salacious, and poorly acted. And both of these movies, made for Lifetime TV, barely scratched the surface of the complexity of the stories. In better hands, this could have been a very compelling movie. I would hope it would have been handled with more respect, too. Lifetime treats it almost like it should be a funny story. There’s nothing funny about what Celeste Beard did to Steven Beard, his daughter, or her daughters, who– thankfully– are much better people than she is.

When I reviewed Kathryn Casey’s book, She Wanted it All, my husband was very estranged from his daughters. As time passed, one of his daughters reconnected and has shown us that, like Jennifer and Kristina Beard, she’s a much better caliber of person than her mother is. Sadly, like Jennifer and Kristina, my husband’s daughters were basically turned into servants, serving their mother’s narcissism and need to take everything from everyone close to her. But when I first read about Celeste Beard, I literally had nightmares, because she reminded me so much of Ex. This movie is laughable and silly… just as Ex has become to me… even if she’s still not a laughing matter to her poor daughter, who still takes her seriously, because she’s still her mother, even if she is a lying, narcissistic twit.

I feel like this true crime story should have been treated with a lot more seriousness and respect. If you are truly interested in this story, I would definitely recommend taking the time to read Kathryn Casey’s book. It’s very comprehensive and well-written, and you’ll get the real story, rather than this appalling bullshit that attempts to turn a tragedy into a comedy show. It’s really not funny, and shouldn’t have been turned into a campy Lifetime TV story.

Celeste Beard is currently serving a life sentence, although she will be eligible for parole in 2042. Tracey Tarleton was released from prison in 2011 and has completed her parole. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.

true crime, YouTube

Just watched Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 special about the Turpin case…

I distinctly remember back in January 2018, when I first heard the horrific story of the Turpin family. Like so many other people who became aware of this story, I wondered how in the world this family remained under the radar for as long as they had, particularly given how connected everyone is by the Internet. Now, having watched Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 interview with sisters, Jordan and Jennifer Turpin, I have more of an idea of what happened. I am astonished by the sisters’ strength and resilience, as well as their attitudes, given everything that happened to them.

Who are the Turpins and why did Diane Sawyer interview two of them?

David and Louise Turpin lived in Perris, California with their thirteen malnourished children. Their home was filthy, and the children lived as prisoners, sometimes even chained to their beds. On January 14, 2018, 17 year old Jordan Turpin slipped out of an open window in her parents’ house. She knew she had to act fast, since her parents had announced that they were moving to Oklahoma, and everyone would be in chains. Several of Jordan’s siblings were so debilitated by malnutrition that the move might kill them.

Jordan had her brother’s cell phone. It didn’t have service, but was capable of making emergency phone calls. She called 911, even though she was terrified. She told the dispatcher about the filthy house she lived in, and how two of her little sisters were chained to their beds. Even though Jordan had never spoken to a stranger before, and had no concept of addresses, or other aspects of everyday life that most people learn in early childhood, she bravely spoke to a stranger who would help her save herself and her siblings. The dispatcher sent a deputy to meet Jordan. She told him her story, and showed him photos she took of her sisters in chains. He called for backup, and later that morning, the police raided the Turpin home. That was the day Jordan and her twelve siblings were finally set free, although sadly, some of the older children are still struggling as they try to launch into normal life.

They’re so incredibly strong.

My thoughts on the 20/20 interview…

I was really impressed by both of the Turpin sisters who were interviewed. Jordan Turpin, who is now 21 years old, is still very tiny, and could pass for a much younger person. In spite of being kept out of the world her entire life, she’s friendly and seems optimistic about her future. She finished high school in just one year, and is now taking college courses. Through school, she has gotten access to food stamps and housing. Justin Bieber, of all people, is responsible for teaching Jordan some new vocabulary. So is Miley Cyrus.

Jennifer Turpin, who is about 32 years old, is now in training to be a restaurant manager. She also looks very young, although she’s obviously more mature than Jordan is. Jennifer is the one child who had the benefit of attending school. She said that kids in school avoided her, and admitted it was probably because she was dirty and smelled bad. It surprises me that her teachers didn’t find Jennifer’s appearance concerning, but I also know that many people hesitate to get involved when it comes to abusive situations.

One of the brothers, Joshua Turpin, did not want to appear on camera, but did send a video diary to 20/20, shedding some light on his perspective of what happened to him and his siblings. All of the shots including him were shown from the back, with beautiful California mountains and a white picket fence as a backdrop.

At the end of the program, 20/20 revealed that some of the children were re-victimized in foster care. One child was told by a foster parent that they could understand why David and Lousie Turpin had chained them. To be sure, it is probably very challenging taking care of children who have had such a horrifying and abusive upbringing. However, regardless of the challenges the foster parents have faced, there is no excuse for telling a child that they deserve to be chained, especially a child whose parents actually resorted to chaining them.

I know there are good foster parents out there, but I’ve also read and heard some accounts of foster parents who aren’t much better than natural parents and are only seeking money. Unfortunately, it sounds like some of the Turpin children have landed with such people. It also sounds like at least one of their caseworkers was simply collecting paychecks, rather than doing her job. I am glad she doesn’t work with the agency anymore, although it sounds like there are a number of officials who are supposed to be helping the Turpin and haven’t done much for them. Hopefully, the 20/20 interview will light a fire under them.

I wanted to watch this special when it aired, but being in Germany makes it difficult to see programs from the United States that get a lot of buzz. Fortunately, ABC News has uploaded the show, and some kind YouTuber actually uploaded the whole show without any breaks.

This special is well worth watching.

I really hope this show helps the Turpin kids. Although a lot of money was raised for them by GoFundMe, they’ve been unable to access it. And no matter what, they all have to somehow recover from their delayed access to the world. These are people who never got to go to school and learned from watching videos on secret cell phones. They never learned basic life skills as children. They’re clearly very bright and want to learn, but now they’re adults who somehow have to sink or swim. That seems wrong to me.

When this case was fresh, I wrote about it a few times on the Blogspot version of this blog. I will probably repost some of my early blog entries about the Turpins. I might even do it today, if the mood strikes. The weather is yucky, and COVID-19 is on the rise, so I’ll probably have time.