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Tetso guilty of second-degree murder in ‘no-body’ case

A defendant is charged in the death of a Baltimore County woman last seen and heard from on a March day. Prosecutors, though unable to find the victim’s body, build a circumstantial evidence case using surveillance videos and cell phone records and obtain a guilty verdict.

It happened to Dennis Tetso, who was convicted Friday of second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Tracey Gardner-Tetso, missing since March 6, 2005. But it could also happen to Jason Gross, who will face murder charges next year in the death of teenager Rochelle Battle, missing since March 6, 2009.

“I’m not trying to start a trend,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said Friday afternoon after the Tetso verdict. “If we think it’s a good case and a strong case, we’re going to go after it.”

Tetso, 45, faces a maximum of 30 years in prison when he is sentenced Nov. 23 by Judge Patrick Cavanaugh in Baltimore County Circuit Court. David B. Irwin, one of Tetso’s lawyers, was relieved that his client was not convicted of first-degree murder but still plans to appeal the conviction.

The defense argued throughout the seven-day trial that there was no forensic, DNA or physical evidence connecting Tetso to any crime. They also accused police of zeroing in on Tetso from the start of the investigation. Tetso took the witness stand as the defense’s only witness and said he never physically harmed his wife and does not know where she is.

“There’s no way a reasonable jury could find intent to convict for murder based on no facts,” said Irwin, of Irwin, Green & Dexter LLP in Towson.

The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for four days. They issued a joint statement saying they would not comment on the case.

“When you don’t have a body or mechanism of death, it was a very logical outcome,” Shellenberger said of the verdict.

Shellenberger also made a point of praising Detective Philip G. Marll, the lead investigator in the case. Irwin had alleged during the trial Marll gave perjured testimony related to the search of Gardner-Tetso’s car when it was initially recovered in March 2005.

“I think this is a validation to what a great detective he is,” Shellenberger said. “He never gave up.”

Marll was not one of the lead investigators in Battle’s disappearance, according to court records. Gross, 35, was indicted in April for the teen’s murder and faces the possibility of life in prison without parole. His two public defenders, Hossein R. Parvizian and James R. Dills, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Shellenberger said prosecutors learned from Tetso’s case “what negatives you have to prove” in a murder case without a body, such as using a lack of bank account activity to demonstrate the victim is dead, not just missing.

That prosecutors showed Gardner-Tetso is dead was difficult for her family and friends to hear. Cathy Gardner, her stepmother, said the trial “brought back everything as if it was yesterday.” Gardner said she vowed to find her stepdaughter the day she went missing, a promise she will strive to keep.

“This is justice for Tracey, [but] we want our closure,” Gardner said. “We want to give her a proper burial.”