A man whose wife disappeared five years ago was found guilty Friday of second-degree murder by a Baltimore County jury. The case is believed to be the first of its kind in the county to be tried without a body, and family members said they will persist in trying to find the remains of Tracey Leigh Gardner.
Dennis J. Tetso, 45, who had been free on bail since his arrest in June 2009, was led away in handcuffs and faces a 30-year term when he is sentenced on Nov. 23.
Tetso and his 32-year-old wife had been having marital problems when she vanished in March 2005 on her way to a Motley Crue concert in Washington, according to testimony. Prosecutors said during the trial that Gardner was planning to join a man at the concert with whom she was allegedly having an affair. She never showed up.
The band Motley Crue later offered a $10,000 reward for information in her disappearance and appeared on a segment of America's Most Wanted that featured her case.
Police and prosecutors said Tetso quickly became the primary suspect. However, without a body, it was several years before Tetso was charged in Gardner's death.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said that as far as he knew, the Tetso case was the first in the county in which a defendant had been tried for a murder in which no corpse had been found.
"You cannot prove the manner of death," he said, but a fresh look at Gardner's disappearance in 2007 indicated that the case against her husband remained viable. "I had no doubt that Tracey was dead and no doubt in my mind that Dennis Tetso had done it," Shellenberger said.
David B. Irwin, Tetso's attorney, described his client as "stoic" after hearing the jury's decision. There was a "lack of sufficient evidence to support a murder verdict," Irwin said. "There's no way that a reasonable jury could find the intent to commit murder based on no facts."
Still, Irwin said, he was "thrilled" his client had not been found guilty of first-degree murder, which would have exposed Tetso to a prison term of life without parole.
The missing woman's stepmother, Cathy Gardner, said the guilty verdict meant "justice for Tracey," a phrase she said she plans to inscribe on a large photograph of the missing woman displayed on the Gardner family's front lawn in Glen Burnie. The worst aspect of the case is still "not knowing where she is," Gardner said. "We want to give her a proper burial. It has been hell and back, the last five years."
A vital piece of evidence, Shellenberger explained, was a remote key for Gardner's Pontiac Trans Am, a vehicle that a surveillance camera showed was left outside a Glen Burnie hotel by an unidentifiable man on the night the woman disappeared. Gardner had bought the key from a car dealership not long before she went missing, and a receipt introduced as evidence showed it was the only key programmed for that car.
Assistant State's Attorney Garret Glennon told the jury in Baltimore County Circuit Court that the key was in Tetso's possession when he was questioned by police, leading the prosecution to conclude that if Tetso had the key, he must have dropped off the Pontiac.
Glennon's fellow prosecutor, Michelle Samoryk, said the case was strong despite its reliance primarily on circumstantial evidence. "We certainly had challenges, but we presented a lot of information," she said. "All the evidence pointed in the direction of guilt."
Brian G. Thompson, a Baltimore defense attorney and former city prosecutor who is not involved with the case, agreed that "it's pretty rare but not unheard of" to prosecute a murder case without a body.
Prosecutors often have a tough road in proving a missing person is dead and was killed by the defendant, not by someone else. "You have to disprove all other explanations," he said.
Prosecutors can show that the victim has had no contact with family, nor accessed bank accounts, to show the person is not alive, and attempt to prove "ill will" of the defendant, or some sort of motive, he said.
In Baltimore County, another case is scheduled for February in which the body of a missing 16-year-old has never been found. Police searched through a trash-collection facility for the body of Rochelle Denise Battle, who went missing in March 2009. Jason Matthew Gross of Edgewood was charged in April with first-degree murder in her death.
During Tetso's trial, jurors heard testimony suggesting that Gardner might have been murdered because she was having an affair. A man who had worked at a cement company with both Gardner and her husband told the jury that Tetso was suspicious of his wife and feared that she was "fooling around."
The witness acknowledged telling Tetso in December 2004 that Gardner appeared to be in a relationship with another co-worker, Christian Sinnott — the man she was to join four months later at the concert.