published Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Walker County cold case stirs up harsh memories

Carmen Webb talks about her father while she was with him 33 years ago.
Carmen Webb talks about her father while she was with him 33 years ago.
Photo by Tim Barber.
  • photo
    Carmen Webb pauses as she talks about her father while she was with him 33 years ago.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

RINGGOLD, Ga. — After Carmen Webb's daddy died in the spring of 2009, she kicked her front door so hard that the frame broke.

After his body was turned to ashes, she took down all his photos from the wall. She didn't want to see his face.

She had always wanted Jimmy Cardin Jr. to pay for the things he had done, and it had taken her nearly 30 years to move on. She thought she had forgiven him, but when a cold case was reopened, she had a sickening revelation: Her father was linked to something terrible.

And this time she couldn't forgive.

•••

Before murder cases go cold, police hustle to solve the crime. They interview dozens of people, look for leads, scour the scene and hope for a witness. But after enough years go by some cases are shelved. More people go missing. More people are shot. Investigators retire or die.

The files get lost, like this one.

Then sometimes, rarely, police get lucky. A single person can answer questions left open.

For investigators, Carmen had the answer.

•••

In April 2008, when Carmen was watching the evening news with her live-in boyfriend, she saw an old, familiar building.

The television camera zoomed in on a faded yellow garage with peeling paint. The broadcast said the building, on a used-car lot, was the spot where Harrell "Sonny" Hulsey was shot in the stomach 30 years ago. Police never found the killer.

The image jogged Carmen's memory.

She remembered when she was 9, sitting in her daddy's truck with her younger sister, Lena. Her dad stomped from that same building toward the truck with a bleeding dog they called Champ. Her daddy bred dogs like Champ to fight, Carmen said.

He threw the bloody dog in their laps. Lena, just 7, screamed.

Then Carmen watched her father reach behind his seat and pull out a revolver. He shut the door and walked away.

In the distance, she heard two shots.

•••

Carmen doesn't remember thinking about that day again. She never thought about the shots. Her father was a tough man who earned his living raising black pit bulls to fight other dogs to the death. And he didn't take well to being questioned, said Jana Bean, Cardin's first wife.

What Carmen does remember were the times he beat her, the time he fed her pet dog's puppies to one of his prize-winners. She learned to keep quiet.

But he could also be charming. He doled out money from a pocket full of cash.

She heard him brag about killing other men, Hulsey included. Still, she thought it was part of his show.

On the television that night it was a blood-curdling reality.

"My daddy done that," she told her boyfriend that night.

He didn't believe her.

•••

It wasn't long before word got to the police that a witness had surfaced in a nearly 30-year-old case. They were quick to follow up. Two of the three original investigators were dead. The third had moved to Texas.

Walker County detectives came knocking on Carmen's door, and she told them what she remembered. She called her daddy right after they left.

"They're wanting to know about Hulsey, daddy," she said over the phone. "I don't know what to do."

She had wanted to get back at him, all these years, but when the moment came, she hesitated.

"Do what you need to do. You don't know anything that would put me away," he told her.

Over the years she had tried to distance herself from her father. She got addicted to meth. She married at 15 and later became a prostitute, she said.

When she was 26, not long after her daughter, Madison, was born, she took herself to a mental hospital.

She sat down with a preacher, who said, "You're never going to be happy with you, your child or another man until you let what happened with your father go."

So she had chosen to forgive him. But now she had the chance to turn him in and to make him pay.

•••

The morning Jimmy Cardin died, he called Carmen and told her he wanted to pay off her probation fees.

Carmen didn't have a job in the spring of 2009, and her boyfriend was in jail.

Detectives had been watching Cardin and had interviewed him multiple times. Since he was on probation, he could be forced to take a polygraph about the killing. He failed it, and afterward slit his wrist with a knife, police said.

After he recovered, he talked about the crime, though he did not admit committing it, and Carmen began to believe he was going to go to trial.

But on the way to her house, he died.

He was driving fast. His Ford Ranger rammed the back of a truck pulling a trailer. The pickup burst into flames, and he was thrown out onto Battlefield Parkway.

No autopsy was done, and Carmen and her sister were never told all the details of how he died.

But before Cardin wrecked, Lena told her sister that she saw him eat through a pocketful of painkillers.

After his death, one of Hulsey's sons emailed Carmen and asked what happened.

"He took the easy way out," she wrote.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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