The search for the killer of Tracey Harris

Tracey Harris search
Dale County District Attorney’s Office

For 30 years, investigators only had one suspect — until a witness revealed the real killer.

On March 14, 1990, the body of 22-year-old missing woman Tracey Harris was pulled from the Choctawhatchee River in Dale County, Alabama. 

Who was Tracey Harris?

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Dale County District Attorney’s Office

Tracey Harris was a young mother from Ozark, Alabama. She was reported missing by her ex-husband Carl Harris on March 7, 1990. Her body was found seven days later.

A Homicide Investigation

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Facebook/Justice For Tracey Carol Gunter-Harris

The autopsy revealed that Tracey Harris drowned, but also noted marks around her neck likely indicating strangulation. Ozark Police declared the case a homicide investigation.

A Troubled Relationship?

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Dale County District Attorney’s Office

Tracey met Carl Harris when she was in high school. They married in her senior year in 1986. Their daughter, Carolyn, was born a few months later. Rumors about domestic violence in the couple’s relationship spread around Ozark quickly.

Some wondered if Carl had something to do with her disappearance.   

Tracey’s Last Night

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Dale County District Attorney’s Office

Although they were divorced, Tracey and Carl Harris still lived together. On the night she disappeared, Carl picked Tracey up from the restaurant where she worked, dropped her off at home and went to his job at a supermarket. Carl was believed to have been the last person to see Tracey alive. 

Covering All the Bases

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Dale County District Attorney’s Office

The Harris house was one of the first places investigators checked for clues. Carl Harris allowed police inside his home to look around. Police took several photos inside the home, including this one. Nothing significant was found. 

She Couldn’t Swim

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Dale County District Attorney’s Office

Friends described Tracey Harris as shy and sweet. The Choctawhatchee River was several miles away from her house. Around the river was a sandy beach area where Tracey would get together with her friends, but friends say she would never get in the water because she didn’t know how to swim

“I Want My Mom”

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Carolyn Aznavour

Carolyn was just 4 years old when she lost her mom. She was raised by her grandmother in Texas and didn’t have contact with her father.

In an interview with “48 Hours,” she remembers growing up without her mother, Tracey. “When I was 4 or 5, I would cry nonstop if I would get in trouble… and say, ‘I want my mom, I want my mom.'”

Allegations & Denials

Carl Harris
CBS News

Authorities interviewed those who were close to Carl and Tracey Harris. More than a dozen people told police they had witnessed abuse. Carl also had a young girlfriend.  Although Carl admits to having a girlfriend, he denies he was ever violent with Tracey as he told “48 Hours” correspondent Maureen Maher:

 “So all those people were lying?” Maher asked.

 “Yes, ma’am.,” carl Harris replied. “I loved Tracey. She was the love of my life.” 

Under Suspicion

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Carolyn Aznavour

Carl Harris lived under suspicion for the murder of his ex-wife for years. “Everybody thought I killed her,” Harris said. “Everywhere I turn, you know, you hear them whispering in the background, ‘there’s the man that killed Tracey.'”

Several years after the murder, Carl relocated to start a new life. The case eventually went cold.

No Other Suspect

D.A. Kirke Adams
CBS News

District Attorney Kirke Adams said Carl Harris was still the police department’s No.. 1 suspect. “There was nobody whose name had ever come up that had any reason to kill Tracey Harris,” Adams said. “And I think when they reopened the case, they were just trying to prove Carl did it, not look for anybody else.”

Hope On the Way

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CBS News

By 2015, the case of Tracey Harris was cold for 25 years. Her daughter Carolyn, now an adult, was still curious to learn more about what really happened to her mother. She went back to Ozark and asked questions about her mother and the investigation. At the same time, the Ozark Police cold case unit was starting to reopen the investigation. Dale County District Attorney Kirke Adams, right, and Assistant District Attorney Jordan Davis would go on to prosecute the case.

An Arrest

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WTVY

In 2016, Carl Harris was living in South Carolina when he received a call from Ozark investigators informing him that the case was reopened. He says he hoped they had found the person who murdered Tracey but they informed him that they were looking at him as a suspect again. 

On September 13, 2016, Carl Harris was arrested for the murder of Tracey Harris. He was extradited to Alabama and spent two-and-a-half weeks in jail before he was released on bail to await trial. 

Signpost Under the Bridge

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CBS News

To prepare for trial, investigators went back to the scene where Tracey’ Harris’ body was found. They found the name “Beasley” spray-painted in big letters. Prosecutors do not know why or who spray-painted the name under the bridge.

An Important Witness

Assistant District Attorney Jordan Davis
CBS News

Reopening the case also meant reevaluating all the evidence on file from 1990. Authorities listened to interviews, read statements and reached out to witnesses again for more information.

The week before trial, one old witness statement caught the attention of Assistant District Attorney Jordan Davis. No one had spoken to the witness since 1990. After several phone call attempts, she reached a woman named Dawn Beasley, a friend of Tracey Harris’.

A 30-Year Secret

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CBS News

In 1990, Dawn Beasley and her then-fiancé Jeff Beasley, were friends with Tracey and Carl Harris. Dawn told police back then that she had witnessed Carl abuse Tracey and that Carl threatened to kill Tracey in front of her. When asked to testify at trial, Dawn refused but after being subpoenaed she told prosecutors, “the most important reason I can’t testify is because  you have an innocent man on trial.”

Find out who prosecutors learned was responsible for Tracey Harris’ murder in an all-new “48 Hours” reported by correspondent Maureen Maher, “The 30 Year Secret — The Tracey Harris Murder” airing Saturday, January 23 at 10/9c on CBS.