A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge handed down an 18-year prison term to Dennis Tetso Tuesday in the death of his wife, Tracey Gardner-Tetso, who has not been seen or heard from since March 6, 2005.
Tetso was convicted of second-degree murder last month and faced a maximum of 30 years in prison, although sentencing guidelines called for a term between 10 and 18 years.
Judge Patrick Cavanaugh sentenced the man to 30 years, with all but 18 years suspended. Tetso will be placed on five years’ probation upon his release.
“They’ll never have another Christmas together and they can’t go to a cemetery,” Cavanaugh said, referring to Gardner-Tetso’s family. “He can’t be punished as much as he deserves to be punished.”
Tetso, who will turn 46 in four days, declined to speak when offered a chance by Cavanaugh. Tetso’s lawyers indicated an appeal is forthcoming.
The sentence elicited audible gasps from Gardner-Tetso’s family and friends, who packed the courtroom benches behind the prosecutors’ table as they did throughout the seven-day trial. Several people, including Gardner-Tetso’s stepmother, wore T-shirts with Tracey’s photo on them at Tetso’s sentencing.
The stepmother, Cathy Gardner, read aloud a letter from Gardner-Tetso’s father. Richard Gardner, who was in the courtroom, wrote how his anger has turned into sadness and how, if he falls asleep at night, he dreams of his daughter. The pain and grief forced him to retire early from his job and has aggravated his diabetes.
“Half of me has died inside,” he wrote.
Prosecutor Garret Glennon also submitted letters from friends and family.
Tetso “did so much more than murder his wife,” Glennon said. “Over the past six years, he’s robbed Tracy’s family and friends the ability to mourn, to grieve, all the rituals called for when someone dies.”
The “no-body” murder case is believed to be one of only a handful of such trials ever to be held in Maryland and one of the first in Baltimore County.
David B. Irwin, one of Tetso’s lawyers, said his client had no prior criminal record and supports two children from a previous relationship. Irwin reminded the judge of the circumstantial case built by prosecutors against Tetso in asking for a lenient sentence.
“They sold successfully to the jury a crime of passion, and therefore it mitigates the sentence,” said David B. Irwin of Irwin, Green & Dexter LLP in Towson, who was joined by co-counsel Jose A. Molina.
Tetso’s family and friends filled two rows of courtroom benches behind him. His girlfriend, Carole N. Roche, said Tetso has become a second father to her young son and repeatedly described Tetso’s life since Gardner-Tetso’s disappearance as a “long and cruel sentence.” Tetso had been a suspect in his wife’s disappearance since 2005 but was not indicted on murder charges until June 2009. He had been living at home with a monitoring system prior to his conviction.
“If he’s guilty of anything, it’s believing in people,” said Roche, a Towson solo practitioner. “As a woman, I’ve never worked so hard to get a man to trust me. It’s been worth it.”
Roche tried several times to argue on behalf of Tetso, leading to admonishments from Cavanaugh. When she tried to read from an opinion in another murder trial, Glennon stood up and began to object before the judge intervened.
“We’re not going to retry the case,” Cavanaugh said.
Roche stood and looked at Tetso as he was escorted out of the courtroom.
“I’m going to get you home,” she said.
Seated next to Roche during the hearing was former State Public Defender Nancy S. Forster. Following the hearing, Forster said she will be representing Tetso on appeal. Forster declined to discuss the grounds for an appeal because she had not yet read the trial’s transcripts.