The day the music stopped

Mystery of a Rosedale woman who disappeared before a concert lingers a year later, haunting those who love her and hold out hope

March 19, 2006|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

CLARIFICATION

An article in Sunday's editions about the disappearance of Tracey Leigh Tetso incorrectly reported that her grandmother, Rose Smith, had been divorced and remarried. Smith remarried after she was widowed.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Tracey Leigh Tetso loved fast cars from the moment her father first strapped her car seat into his '69 Corvette. When she could afford her own, she bought a black Pontiac Trans Am - one that rode so low to the ground her grandmother refused to get in.

"She would call and she'd say, `Grandma, I'm taking you shopping,'" said Rose Smith, 78. "And I'd say, `Don't bring that car!'"

The car went everywhere else, though. Tracey took it to Ocean City, out on the town in Baltimore and to rock concerts in Washington. That's where she was supposed to be on March 6, 2005 - at the Motley Crue show at the MCI Center. The tickets were a present for her 33rd birthday, two weeks away.

She never made it to the show. The Trans Am was later found in the parking lot of a Glen Burnie Days Inn. Tracey never was.

A year later, after a nationally publicized search, the disappearance of Tracey Leigh Tetso remains a mystery. The case has haunted those who loved her and has torn apart the relationship between Tracey's parents and her husband, Dennis Tetso. They no longer speak to each other, and last month her parents filed in court a petition to gain custody of her house and car.

At a recent candlelight vigil in Tracey's memory, about 40 friends and family members fought back tears in a biting wind. Later that night, her stepmother - who had raised Tracey since she was 10 - suffered a heart attack, which her family believes was induced by stress.

In an interview before she entered the hospital, Cathy Gardner said she was certain she would find Tracey, one way or another.

"I talk to her every day. I can feel her," she said. "And I tell her I'm not going to give up. Everybody else can, Tracey, but I will not give up and I will bring you home. Sooner or later, before I close my eyes, I will bring you home."

Daddy's little girl

Tracey was always close to her dad, Rick Gardner. He said he took her everywhere in his blue Corvette, and she loved to ride along. He had gained full custody of Tracey when she was 13 months old, after divorcing her mother, Diane Stephens.

At the time, Gardner was a Marine at Camp Lejeune, N.C., so he took Tracey to live with his parents in Ferndale. He moved there a few years later.

When Tracey was 9, he took her along on his first date with his future wife, whom he had met while shopping at her parents' general store in Severn. He took her and Tracey to a drive-in movie theater.

"I thought, `Oh, this is really good,'" Cathy Gardner said, recalling her surprise that Tracey went along on the date. But it worked. Cathy and Rick married a year later. The family went on vacations to Ocean City and Assateague Island, and Tracey modeled her wardrobe and hairstyle after her new stepmother's.

They lived in Pasadena, and Tracey started attending Northeast High School in 1986. She got into the heavy metal rock bands popular at the time - including Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue and Pantera - and played the music so loud that her parents bought headphones for her. She would walk around the house bopping her head to the angry beat.

At Northeast, Tracey fell in with a bad crowd, her parents said. She started using alcohol and drugs. Rick Gardner remembers one boy who showed up at the house to take her on a date: "His hair was down to his butt, and he had earrings all around and what looked like a bone in his nose. I slammed the door in his face."

The next time the boy came by, Tracey made him wait outside.

Rick and Cathy Gardner decided to move from Pasadena to Glen Burnie to get their daughter away from that crowd. They enrolled her at the Kiva House shelter in Arnold, a place for teenagers with substance-abuse problems to straighten out their lives.

Tracey pulled herself together, and after she completed the program and earned her high school degree, the Kiva director asked her to return as a counselor. Soon, she was taking the teens on day trips to places like Ocean City.

"She was really good with the kids there," said Laura Pryor, who became Tracey's friend when they both worked at Kiva. "She was like a big kid at heart. She would goof around with them like she was one of them, but she was still grounded as an adult."

You could find her on the infield at the Preakness every spring and at every Motley Crue concert in Baltimore or Washington. She loved Secrets and the Bearded Clam in Ocean City. She already had two dogs, but when she found a German shepherd abandoned in a parking lot, she rescued him and called him Rusty.

"He was so full of bugs," Cathy Gardner said. "He looked horrible. She took him to the vet and got him all fixed up."

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