For five years, Dennis J. Tetso has steadfastly maintained that he had nothing to do with the disappearance of his wife, who vanished without a trace in March 2005 on her way to a Motley Crue concert in Washington and who has yet to be found.
"I never laid a hand on her," Tetso said from the witness stand last month during his trial on a charge of second-degree murder in the presumed death of Tracey Leigh Gardner. The jury did not believe him, handing down a guilty verdict after four days' deliberation in the first Baltimore County conviction for a killing in which no body was found.
At his sentencing Tuesday, Tetso chose not to address the court, leaving his girlfriend, Carole N. Roche, to plead for mercy on his behalf. "I love him with all my heart," said Roche, a Towson lawyer, who was twice reprimanded by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh for "retrying the case" instead of simply delivering her statement.
The judge noted that Gardner's survivors will forever be affected by her absence. Cavanaugh then pronounced a 30-year prison term for Tetso, prompting a gasp from the defendant's supporters in the courtroom, before suspending all but 18 years of the sentence. Tetso, who could request a parole hearing after serving about half of the lesser term, must be on probation for five years after he is released.
"Were it not for this verdict, he would be a model citizen," said Tetso's attorney, David B. Irwin. His client, he said, is the type who "pays his bills" and has never previously been accused of a criminal act. "He's a very decent human being. It's a fair sentence, under the circumstances."
Irwin said he would file a notice to appeal within 30 days, based on what he called "numerous weighty legal issues" raised by the trial.
Tetso, who will turn 46 on Sunday, had been free on bail since his arrest in June 2009. He was incarcerated after the guilty verdict on Oct. 22.
The judge denied a request Tuesday from Irwin that his client be freed pending an appeal. "Absolutely not," said Cavanaugh. "He's probably robbed Tracey Gardner of 30 to 40 years of her life."
There have been about 1,000 murder cases prosecuted around the country in the last 20 years or so in which a body was not found, Irwin said, with the majority resulting in convictions. "In most of those cases," he said, "you have a confession or forensic evidence," neither of which was a factor in the Gardner case.
As a result, it took several years for prosecutors to conclude that there was enough circumstantial evidence to go after Tetso, who had been the prime suspect from the beginning.
Prosecutors Garret Glennon and Michelle Samoryk said the turning point in the investigation was the discovery that Tetso had in his possession 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 in Tetso's trial showed it was the only key programmed for that car.
Detectives looking into Gardner's disappearance found no reason to believe she had voluntarily abandoned her everyday life, even if, as they found out, she had been having an affair with a colleague, prosecutors said. "She's not the type to never speak to her family again," Glennon said. "It was abundantly clear to us that she wasn't just missing — she was dead."
Testimony during Tetso's trial revealed that he had found out about his wife's affair and was furious at the deception. A former colleague at the cement company where Tetso and his wife worked said the defendant told him he had placed a recording device on the telephone of the couple's home in Rosedale to monitor his wife's calls and had "borrowed someone's van" so that he could follow her undetected.