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DNA match leads to arrest of minister two decades after murders of 2 Alabama teens

ABC

(DOTHAN, Ala.) — Jeanette McCraney said she once was “living an American dream,” happily in Dothan, Alabama.


“My kids are growing up in church,” she recalled about life in early 2019. “They’re seeing their mom and their dad do the right thing.”

But on March 15, 2019, that dream would quickly turn into a nightmare for the McCraney family. Police arrested Coley McCraney, Jeanette’s husband and father of their two children, for the murders of two 17-year-olds, J.B. Beasley and Tracie Hawlett, who were found in the trunk of Beasley’s car in 1999.

Coley McCraney’s DNA was matched to DNA found on Beasley. McCraney, who was a minister while also working as a truck driver at the time of his arrest, would, eventually, stand trial for capital murder and rape.

A new “20/20” episode airing May 10 at 9 p.m. ET and streaming the next day on Hulu, explores the investigation, including interviews with law enforcement, family members of the victims, as well as Jeanette and Coley McCraney.

On the night of July 31, 1999, Beasley and Hawlett met to celebrate Beasley’s 17th birthday. They set off in Beasley’s car, to join their friends at a field party in Headlands, Alabama, but they couldn’t find the location.

Instead, they ended up at a gas station in rural Ozark, Alabama, where they asked for directions back to Hawlett’s home in Dothan.

While at the station, Hawlett called her mother, Carol Roberts, from a payphone.

“‘We’ve got directions,’” Roberts remembered her daughter saying on the phone. “She didn’t talk like anything was wrong. There wasn’t any fear or anything in her voice. We said, ‘we love you,’ to each other and I went on to bed,” Roberts told “20/20.”

The girls never made it home.

Roberts woke up early the next morning and realized her daughter had not returned.

She quickly alerted the authorities. Within a couple of hours on August 1, 1999, law enforcement spotted Beasley’s Black Mazda sedan on the side of a road less than a mile from the gas station where they made their last phone call. Inside the car, everything looked intact. The girls’ belongings, including purses and wallets with money, and Tracie’s keys, were still there.

Law enforcement patrolled the nearby area in search of the girls but found nothing. Eventually, a police officer decided to open the vehicle’s trunk. Both girls were found dead, each with gunshot wounds to the head.

“That crime scene, that trunk, those two girls is the only homicide that I ever turned around and had to walk off,” Barry Tucker, a now-retired Trooper Captain with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, said. “When you see the innocence and a life that’s just been snatched away, that’s hard to swallow.”

The murders sparked a decades-long investigation that yielded more dead ends than leads. Although few clues existed, a key piece of DNA found on Beasley would play an important role.

Almost 20 years later, in 2018, Ozark Police Chief Marlos Walker saw news that forensic genetic genealogy had been used to catch the Golden State Killer in California.

“This information would be great, and so that following week, I started making some phone calls,” Walker said to “20/20.”

Walker sent DNA preserved in the teens’ case file from 1999 to a lab in Virginia with the hopes of finding names that would link to a specific donor. Five months later, in 2019, Walker received results and noticed a familiar name on the list of possible matches.

“I was looking at the list again, and when I saw the name McCraney,” Walker recalled, “that stood out because I knew of a McCraney in high school.”

In hopes of getting closer to an exact DNA match, Walker then contacted his former classmate, Coley McCraney, and asked if he would voluntarily give a DNA sample. Coley McCraney agreed to help with the investigation by providing a DNA sample at the Ozark Police Department.

Walker said he was “blown away” by the news he later learned from the lab with the results, which confirmed Coley McCraney’s DNA was a match to the traces of DNA solely found on Beasley.

On March 15, 2019, police arrested Coley McCraney and charged him with four counts of capital murder as well as first-degree rape.

Walker said Coley was not a suspect in 1999 and had not been on investigators’ radar. In an interrogation video obtained by ABC News, Coley McCraney denied ever knowing the girls or having anything to do with their murder.

Investigators said they have never found a murder weapon and haven’t found any witnesses who saw Coley McCraney with the girls that night.

While the announcement of his arrest brought some closure to the local community, some still had their doubts about Coley McCraney’s involvement in the teens’ deaths.

McCraney’s defense attorneys claim the DNA evidence, which was found in the form of semen, only proves that McCraney and Beasley had a sexual encounter.

In 2023, McCraney was tried for capital murder with the possibility of receiving the death penalty.

During the trial, Coley McCraney took the stand and claimed he met Beasley at the mall in 1999, a few months before the teens were found murdered. Coley testified Beasley said her name was Jennifer and that he gave her his phone number. He said they made plans to meet that night in Ozark and, according to his testimony, the two had consensual sex in the back of his truck after which he returned home. McCraney told ABC News that he did not make the connection between the girl he met in 1999 with J.B. Beasley until after he was arrested.

On April 26, 2023, a jury found Coley McCraney guilty of capital murder and rape, and he was later sentenced to life in prison.

The sentencing finally brought some closure needed for the families of Beasley and Hawlett, who waited more than two decades for justice.

“I was in shock,” Roberts said. “We’d waited 24 years for this, and finally somebody’s going to be held accountable.”

Cheryl Burgoon, who described her daughter J.B. Beasley as a “beautiful gift” in an interview with “20/20,” remembered her emotional reaction to the verdict.

“When they read, ‘Guilty,’ I fell forward and tears just streamed down my face,” Burgoon said.

ABC News’ Deborah Roberts spoke with Coley McCraney in an exclusive phone interview from his Alabama prison, during which he maintained his innocence.

“They can call me a cheat, they can call me a dog. They can call me a lot of things at that time, but they cannot call me a killer,” McCraney said in the phone interview.

Coley McCraney’s defense attorneys filed a motion with Alabama’s Court of Criminal Appeals, hoping to secure a new trial. That ruling is expected later this year.

ABC News’ Shana Druckerman, Paige Harriss, Kyla Milberger, Emily Moffet and Jeff Schneider contributed to this report.

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