OZARK, AL (WSFA) - In April 2018, the nation tuned in to hear California law enforcement describe how they made an arrest in the infamous Golden State serial killer cold cases of the 1970s and 1980s.
Among those watching was Ozark Police Chief Marlos Walker, and what he was seeing was the stone that would slowly ripple from the West Coast to his community of 15,000 in south Alabama. It would take nearly a year, but residents had already waited with little to show for it for nearly 20.
“Let’s try that,” Walker explained of the new process he was hearing out of California.
It used to be that for law enforcement to catch a suspect with DNA, they had to find a match in their databases. Then, California officials tried a new approach. They took the DNA from their suspect and created an online genealogy profile in an attempt to match it. It worked.
And much like the Golden State case, a suspect in the brutal 1999 murders of 17-year-olds Tracie Hawlett and J.B. Beasley soon came into focus.
The DNA was analyzed by Parabon Labs, the same lab that cracked the Golden State serial killer case. It helped identify the suspected killer’s family line after a relative upload their own data to a genealogy site. From there, law enforcement was able to narrow down the field of possible suspects to just one person: 45-year-old Dothan resident Coley McCraney.
“I had to sit in my chair for three hours,” Chief Walker said of when he found out there was a match. “Is this really happening? Is this really happening?” he continued to ask himself. After taking some time to think and reflect, the chief said a team was assembled and got to work.
McCraney was arrested without incident during a traffic stop on March 15. He’d grown up in Ozark and attended school there. A DNA sample was taken and it was confirmed to match evidence from the crime scene.
Walker declined to say if McCraney confessed. He also couldn’t say if anyone else was involved in the murders.
With McCraney being a truck driver, Walker said law enforcement is looking into the possibility there could be other victims, but that there is no indication at this point that is the case.
“Our goal was to get there before the twentieth anniversary,” Walker, who took over the department in 2015 explained. The break happened just months shy of that anniversary.
Hawlett and Beasley left for a birthday party in Headland on the night of July 31, 1999. When they got lost and wound up in Ozark, Hawlett called her mother to say they were on their way home. They never made it. Police discovered the girls’ bodies inside the trunk of Beasley’s car the next day. Both had been shot in the head.
To date, authorities have yet to share any details on a possible motive.
McCraney had no prior criminal record, so his DNA had never been entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. Despite having the suspect’s DNA profile, there was nothing to connect it to him. And so the evidence remained in refrigeration for years.
Former Dothan Police Chief John White has remained part of the investigative team through the years and has no doubt they have the right man.
“I don’t think they would have made an arrest in the case unless they’re certain that he is, in fact, the killer," said White.
Also among those speaking Monday about the arrest, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.
“Cases are not forgotten," said Marshall. “Cases are not filed away, but instead we simply are looking for that next lead.” He added, "Today, all who have sought justice for Tracie Hawlett and J.B. Beasley - including all the residents of the Wiregrass - are finally near closure in this long and painful case.”
And the AG addressed the victims’ families saying, “today is a beginning. It’s not ultimately justice for you, but what I hope it does is provide some answers you’ve thought about for almost 20 years.”
McCraney, 45, has since been charged with five counts of capital murder and one count of rape. Despite there being only two victims, legal statute allows for multiple, distinct murder charges, District Attorney Kirke Adams said.
In this case, McCraney is charged with two counts of capital murder because two or more people were killed, two counts of capital murder because a deadly weapon was used to kill the women inside a vehicle, and one count of capital murder because a victim was killed during a rape.
The suspect, whom the district attorney said is eligible for the death penalty, is being held without bond in the Dale County Jail. A preliminary court hearing will happen in the next few weeks.
McCraney’s attorney, David Harrison, called his client an outstanding member of the community and told the Associated Press he’s cooperating with law enforcement. Harrison said his client may seek an change of venue in order to have a fair trial. He said it will be difficult to find a jury in the area that’s not already aware of the case.