Celeste Johnson's biological parents are unknown. She claimed that her adoptive parents, Edwin and Nancy Johnson, physically abused her as a child and she made a suicidal gesture during puberty. At age 17 she became pregnant and gave birth to twins, Jennifer and Kristina, with first husband Craig Bratcher. After their divorce, Celeste Johnson lost custody of her daughters.
She married twice more before meeting Steven Beard while she was a waitress at the Austin Country Club. Beard, a retired Fox Broadcasting Company executive and self-made multi-millionaire more than twice her age, was a widower whose wife had died of cancer. Johnson moved in with him after he convinced her that he would help her regain custody of her daughters. After winning the case, they began dating in secret (with Johnson pretending to be Beard's housekeeper) until Beard's daughter discovered them in a hotel room during the 1993 Super Bowl. They were married on February 18, 1995, with Beard's family and friends suspicious that Johnson had married him for his money.
On October 2, 1999, Beard was shot in the stomach while he was asleep, at his home near Jollyville, Texas. The wound became infected, and he died on January 22, 2000. Local police tied the shooting to Johnson's friend, Tracey Tarlton. The women had met in Saint David’s Pavilion, a mental-health facility, after Johnson threatened to commit suicide when she and Beard began fighting over her lavish spending. Tarlton, arrested at home six days after the shooting, was charged with assault. The police began to hear that Johnson had spoken negatively about Beard. She refused to let them interview him while he was hospitalized; her behavior was oddly casual after his death, and she had slept in a different room the night he was shot.
Despite mounting suspicion of Johnson and Tarlton's romantic feelings for her, Tarlton remained silent until July 2000, when she read in a local newspaper that Johnson had remarried, 6 months, after Beard’s death. Realizing that their relationship was a sham and none of what Johnson told her about her marriage was true, Tarlton told police shortly before her murder trial began in March 2002 that Johnson had persuaded her to shoot Beard; Johnson claimed that Beard had emotionally abused her to the point of suicide, and getting rid of him was the only way the women could be together.
Based on Tarlton's statement, Johnson was arrested on March 28, 2002. At the trial, prosecutors charged that she had married Beard for his money and wanted him dead because he had tired of her extravagant spending and was considering divorce. According to Beard's accountant, Johnson spent $321,000 in October and November 1999, an additional $249,000 by December 10 and another $100,000 in the six weeks ending March 31, 2000. The prosecutors alleged that Johnson had never loved Beard because of their age difference and his obesity. She had a hostile relationship with her daughters, who claimed to have heard their mother make threats against Beard. A friend of Johnson claimed that Johnson had hired her a month after Beard's death to kill Tarlton and cover up her crime. Other witnesses testified that they saw Tarlton and Johnson flirting and behaving affectionately, demonstrating Johnson's manipulative personality.
Johnson's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, alleged that she had nothing to do with the shooting and Tarlton (whom he dismissed as an unreliable witness due to mental instability) acted alone; Tarlton was obsessed with Johnson, who denied making sexual advances toward her. According to Johnson, Tarlton tried to kiss her after she had passed out during her daughters' August 1999 high-school graduation. When Tarlton was arrested for drunk driving and Johnson bailed her out, Beard (angered by photos of Johnson and Tarlton together) demanded that the woman stop contacting the couple but Tarlton did not. Several witnesses saw no problems in Johnson and Beard's marriage, and DeGuerin alleged that Kristina and Jennifer lied on the witness stand because they would inherit less money if their mother was acquitted.
In 2003 Johnson was convicted of capital murder, receiving a mandatory life sentence. She will be eligible for parole on April 1, 2042. Johnson continues to maintain her innocence. As of 2017 Beard is imprisoned at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Murray Unit in Gatesville, Texas.
Although Tarlton received a 20-year sentence in exchange for testifying against Johnson, she was released on parole in August 2011 and lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Crime author Kathryn Casey covered the Beard case in her book She Wanted it All: A True Story of Sex, Murder, and a Texas Millionaire,
Author Suzy Spencer wrote the book The Fortune Hunter, with a 2nd edition released in 2015.
The case was covered on Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice, and the crime series American Justice aired an episode on the case entitled "For Love Or Money." The CI network also covered the case with an hour-long show. The television series 20/20 reported the crime on the episode titled "Death on Bethesda Row".
Beard and five other inmates published From the Big House to Your House, a cookbook that lists recipes that can be made in prison cells with ingredients from the prison commissary.
The case was covered in Season 3 Episode 2 Blood for Money, of Deadly Women.