Tina Caronna murder investigation uncovers financial fraud, secret affair

Will secret recordings help police catch a killer?

Produced by Sara Ely Hulse, Ruth Chenetz and Charlotte Fuller
[This story first aired on March 2, 2013. It was updated on Sept. 7]

(CBS News) MEMPHIS Tenn. -- Tina Caronna had it all - a great job, a garage full of fast cars, a doting husband and an active social circle. So when she suddenly disappeared on Oct. 25, 2008, friends knew something had to be wrong.

Fellow members of the Corvette Memphis club put together a search party to find Tina. They got terrible news two days later when she was found dead in the backseat of her Chevrolet Avalanche. Was Tina Caronna the victim of a carjacking... or was it something else?

Shelby County prosecutor Tom Henderson had a mystery on his hands.

"When they see Tina Caronna in the backseat wrapped up with blankets obviously this is not -- this is not a suicide, it's not a natural cause. They know they have a homicide," Henderson told "48 Hours" correspondent Maureen Maher. "They find no gunshot residue, no knife wound ..."

Investigators weren't even sure yet how the 44-year-old had been killed. For that they'd have to wait for the medical examiner.

Meanwhile, friends tried to process the news that Tina had been murdered.

"We were devastated because we were hoping to find her alive of course," friend Cathy Struna said. "You always have hope until it's over, and then it's just overwhelming."

It's hard for Struna to picture Tina gone, as life with her close friend was always an adventure.

Tina's social life revolved around cars. As active members of a Memphis Corvette club, she and her husband, Joe, travelled in their three Corvettes to various events, frequently socializing with Cathy and her husband, Matt.

"I would put Tina in my top five friends from my lifetime. She made you feel that special and she was that special," said Matt Struna.

That charm helped Tina professionally. Despite never graduating from college, she earned about $200,000 a year as a vice president with the financial firm, Cantor Fitzgerald.

Joe Caronna was also involved in finance, running his own company, Caronna Investments. In his spare time, he tinkered on cars with friends like Gary Hathaway.

"He had a great sense of humor and he was a funny guy to be around. And I actually did enjoy being around him," said Hathaway.

Tina met Caronna in 1993. She was divorced, with a 4-year-old son, Todd. Joe, also divorced, was managing a shoe store, where Tina, known for her collection of hundreds of shoes, was a regular.

The couple married several months after they met and holidays quickly became family affairs.

"She loved decorating for Christmas," said Todd Gray.

Gray, now 24, has fond memories of those early years with Caronna.

"He loved me and tried to act like my father," he said. "We had fun together ... We've been to baseball games together, football games together. We went all sorts of places."

Over their 15-year marriage, Tina and Joe Caronna enjoyed a lifestyle filled not just with cars, but also cruises and casinos - pastimes they shared with fellow Corvette club members, Gary Hathaway and his wife, Pat.

Asked how they were as a couple, Gary Hathaway told Maher, "A very happy couple. You know, she called him "Joe-Joe.""

"They were always holding hands," Pat said. "He would always buy her jewelry. If it wasn't every week, it was every other week -- or flowers,"

"They were a great couple," Todd Gray said. "I never really saw 'em fight, argue or anything."

Caronna accompanied Tina most everywhere -- behavior that could seem doting, but to friends, it was peculiar.

"He would never let her go to a nail appointment or a hair appointment on her own," Cathy Struna explained. Turning to her husband, she said, "He would never go with me at gunpoint."

"And did you ever talk to her about it?" Maher asked.

"She wanted desperately to please him because she really thought he was all that. She had chemistry for him," she replied.

More time with Joe meant less time with Tina's mother, Clara Murphy.

"I could see a change in Tina, you know, after she married Joe," Murphy said. "I felt like Joe was trying to keep Tina from me."

Eventually, daughter and mother were completely estranged - a rift stemming from an argument over thousands of dollars Murphy said Joe Caronna owed her family.

"After it was all over, Tina gets up from the table ... and she said, 'I've lost my family.' And they left. And I never talked to her again for 14 months," said Murphy.

Murphy says she tried communicating with Tina, but her daughter refused ... until she received a surprising email.

"And Tina writes to you, 'I guess as long as I'm married to Joe and I pray that we stay married as long as you and Dad did, we will never ever work things out. I know how you feel about him,'" Maher read aloud.

"That's exactly right," an emotional Murphy said, nodding in agreement.

While the message may not have seemed hopeful, it did end with the words, "I will always love you mom..."

One month later, Tina was dead.

"I can't imagine what it was like for her mother and son," Cathy Struna said. "They'll never be the same.

Friends gathered at the Caronna home to support a distressed Joe.

"He walked in and there was this glass bowl with marbles in it and a candle on the table. And he flung that on the floor," recalled Pat Hathaway.

"He did seem upset," Todd Gray said. "He came up to me and gave me a hug and says, 'You're not gonna leave me now, are you?'"

Joe Caronna told friends and police he believed Tina may have been murdered in a gang-related carjacking gone bad.

"Is it conceivable ... that people might have said, 'Hey, you know, she was carjacked,' or it was a random act of violence?" Maher asked Henderson.

"I think it's conceivable that the average person would believe that. The average law enforcement officer would not believe that," the prosecutor replied.

The carjacking theory would immediately be called into question when it was revealed how Tina's body was found. She was in the backseat of her Chevrolet Avalanche, partially nude with her hands loosely bound together with duct tape. Thousands of dollars worth of jewelry had been left on her body.

"I'm thinking, 'Why would a criminal or a robber or somebody do that?" Cathy Struna said. "It didn't make sense to me, it didn't add up."

There was a lot that didn't add up for Henderson and the rest of the prosecution team of Danielle McCollum and Karen Cook.

"She was wearing sandals and the sandals were placed perfectly, side by side, just to the right on the front driver's side..." said Cook.

"Law enforcement officers who looked at the scene would think this has gotta be staged," added Henderson.

Then there was the location: Tina's body and truck were actually found in a suburb of Memphis, on a safe, residential street in the town of Bartlett.

"Crime is everywhere, but certain types of crime are not everywhere. And there weren't many carjackings in the suburbs," explained Henderson.

So, you'd expect law enforcement to be suspicious -- but not Gary Hathaway, Joe's friend and alibi, who was about to make a disturbing discovery.

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