There were two things Clifford M. Carden Jr. loved more than anything else: his family and NASCAR. Carden especially loved racer Dale Earnhardt and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr., and collected their memorabilia. In fact, a valuable keepsake from his collection would eventually help solve his murder.
Born in 1956, Cliff Carden grew up outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and gravitated toward automobiles at an early age, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “My father was a mechanic for 30-plus years of his life and he loved cars,” his daughter, Sandora Carden, told “Snapped” on Oxygen.
Although his first marriage ended in divorce, Cliff moved across the street to be near his two children and remarried in 1991. “I fell in love with him because he was so kind and so gentle,” second wife Cindy Carden told “Snapped” producers. “He was just an awesome person.” Cindy had two children of her own, who Cliff helped raise.
Unfortunately, Cliff started to have serious health problems at age 50. “My Dad, he ran at 350, 375 pounds. He needed to lose weight,” son Chris Burgess said. Cliff had diabetes and heart disease, which took a toll on his marriage. Eventually, he and Cindy were separated.
But Cliff and Cindy began to talk about reconciling around Christmas 2010. “We were discussing me coming back home. He said, ‘I want us to work,’” Cindy told “Snapped.” That February, however, she couldn’t get Cliff to return any of her phone calls. After seeing their dog tied up outside his home, she began to worry. She called Sandora, who said she hadn’t heard from her father in days.
Cliff would be found soon after: On Feb. 3, 2011, a man out collecting cans saw a dead body floating in the Sequatchie River, according to court documents. There was blood and drag marks on the nearby riverbank. The dead man was missing his wallet and had no cellphone or anything else that could identify him.
Earlier that day, the remnants of a 1996 Chevrolet Monte Carlo was found in the woods 10 miles away, according to local news website The Chattanoogan. An accelerant had been used to burn the car down to its frame, but a sheriff’s deputy found a nearby handicapped driver sign that identified the owner: Cliff Carden.
Cindy received a phone call from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, asking if Cliff had any identifying marks. “I said, ‘Yeah, he’s got tattoos on his arms,’ and I described the tattoos and he goes, ‘We’ve found your husband,’” she told “Snapped” producers. “I said, ‘Is he OK?’ and he said he was dead. It was like my heart got broke and then all of the sudden I got numb.”
After speaking to the medical examiner, detectives learned Cliff’s cause of death. “They let us know right off the bat he did have a single gunshot wound to the head,” Sequatchie County Sheriff’s Jody Lockhart told producers.
But after learning of Cliff’s death, his son Chris Burgess went to his home and noticed something missing. “Dale Earnhardt 1:18 scale porcelain car. It was one of Dad’s prize possessions as far as his collection goes and I noticed immediately that it was missing,” Burgess told “Snapped.” It wasn’t the only valuable missing from the home.
“You could tell the house was in disarray,” Lockhart told producers. “There was stuff on the floor; someone had went through it like they were looking for something.”
Although the home showed no signs of forced entry, Lockhart noticed a tank of propane gas set up against a heater. “In my opinion that was set to try to burn the house down after someone had went through and tried to steal what they needed out of the house,” he said.
Detectives began to retrace Cliff’s steps preceding his murder. At the time of his death, he was wearing a shirt for Fuzzy’s Bar in Sale Creek, Tennessee. Detectives spoke to the owner, who told them Cliff was a regular and that on the day of his murder he was drinking there with an unknown woman.
A tip also came in from a man who said that on the night of the murder he had given a ride to someone already known to local law enforcement: Thomas “Bryan” Bettis, 35. He had picked Bettis up not far from where Cliff’s car had been found. Bettis was with an unknown woman at the time and they were both covered in mud. They asked to be driven to Walmart, where they spent an excess of $300 dollars, and then to a Mountain Inn and Suites motel.
Detectives converged on the motel and confirmed Bettis had been there. "They paid in cash...They were no trouble,” the owner told Chattanooga NBC affiliate WRCB.
Footage from the hotel’s security camera all but confirmed their guilt. “They’re in Mr. Carden’s car and they’re carrying in Dale Earnhardt memorabilia,” Assistant District Attorney Steven Strain told producers.
After searching the motel’s trash, detectives found Walmart shopping bags and a pill bottle of Cliff’s with blood on it, according to court documents. “At that point we had enough evidence to bring charges,” Steven Strain said.
But before he could be arrested, Bettis turned himself in to authorities. Bettis claimed he had never met Cliff before but that he was an old acquaintance of his girlfriend, Susan Baker, 35.
Susan Lynette Baker had grown up in Texas where she excelled in school and was a good mother, according to her two children. Unfortunately, she began using opioids to battle chronic pain from pre-existing health conditions and later became addicted to them.
Baker’s drug use increased after she began dating Bettis, according to her children. “She always had a pill addiction. She was never abusing it too much until she met Bryan and then it got worse,” her daughter Autumn Baker told “Snapped” producers. “She stopped for awhile, then she met him and they started doing pills together.”
Bettis told detectives Baker and Cliff met at a local bar and she began seeing him on the side. “We found out she was using Cliff for money and for pills and she was actually in love with Bryan,” Lockhart told producers.
Bettis said the robbery and murder was Baker’s idea. “She just called me and asked me did I want to go make some money,” he is heard telling detectives on tapes from his interrogation obtained by “Snapped.”
Later that day, Baker and Cliff picked Bettis up and as they drove around, Baker tried to rob Cliff. Cliff fought back, at which point Baker pulled out a pistol and shot him in the head, according to court documents.
After dumping Cliff’s body, Baker and Bettis ransacked his home. They made off with $1,006, racing collectibles and prescription drugs, according to The Chattanoogan. Upon returning to their hotel room, Bettis said the couple had sex. “She said that it made her horny, for her to do that,” Bettis said during his interrogation.
Baker was subsequently found at the home of a friend in Chattanooga. During her interview with detectives, video of which was obtained by “Snapped,” she described Cliff as her “boyfriend” and said, “He paid attention to me.” She also confirmed he sometimes supplied her with Oxycodone and Xanax. Although she initially claimed Bettis was the shooter, she eventually admitted to pulling the trigger. “I snapped. I did. I snapped,” she said, according to court documents.
Baker and Bettis were arrested for the murder of Cliff Carden on Feb. 8, 2011, according to The Chattanoogan. Because Cliff was killed during a robbery, they were charged with felony murder as well as destruction of personal property, according to Strain.
After several years of delays, Baker’s trial began in late winter 2014. After deliberating for two hours, jurors found her guilty of felony murder, especially aggravated robbery, and setting fire to personal property, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The murder conviction alone meant she must serve 51 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.
Not wanting to take his chances with a jury trial, Bettis pleaded guilty in January 2015 to facilitation to commit felony murder and facilitation to commit especially aggravated robbery, according to WRCB. He was sentenced to serve 25 years on the murder charge and 10 years for the robbery charge.
Having been in custody since 2011, Bettis became eligible for parole in May 2015 and has a parole hearing in February 2020, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction. Baker will not be eligible for parole until 2070, when she is 94 years old.
“Snapped” airs Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
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