Robert Arnold Jarrett

Robert Arnold Jarrett Jr. of Elkridge is accused of killing his wife in 1991. (Photo courtesy of Howard County Police / April 19, 2012)

Christine Jarrett had been there all along.

From the night of Jan. 3, 1991, when the Elkridge woman purportedly left her family without saying goodbye, to the day years later when her husband filed divorce paperwork alleging abandonment, to the moment she was declared legally dead, prosecutors say the body of the mother of two was resting underneath the floorboards of a backyard shed.

The discovery of her remains last April confirmed Christine's death and led to a murder charge filed against her husband, Robert Arnold Jarrett Jr., who had continued to reside at the home, raising their children with a new wife.

In opening arguments of Jarrett's trial Wednesday in Howard County Circuit Court, prosecutors accused him of "living a lie," casting him as an abusive husband who wanted out of the marriage and covered up her death for two decades.

"Their two sons … wondered where their mother was," said Assistant State's Attorney Jim Dietrich. "They lived 21 years thinking their mother had abandoned them, not knowing when they went to that shed to get a tool, to get a toy, that their mother's body was a few feet below."

But Jarrett's defense attorney, George Psoras, said prosecutors lack evidence beyond the body's proximity to the family home, calling their case "a puzzle that is missing its pieces."

"They're asking you to fill in the gaps by asking you to speculate," he said.

Psoras went further in his opening statement, questioning whether the body is that of Christine Jarrett in the first place — he said it was cremated by the family before DNA tests could be conducted. The attorney raised the possibility that if she was killed, it could have been by a married man with whom she was having an affair.

The first witnesses to take the stand were neighbors of the Jarretts, describing an idyllic suburban life for the then-young parents. Jarrett, now 58, graying and old enough to be a grandparent, occasionally smiled as the neighbors described watching their children ride big wheels in the street, taking part in barbecues and the occasional after-work cocktail.

Christine "loved her children dearly," recalled neighbor Marcia Smallwood. "Family was the most important thing to her."

Robert and Christine had met in high school, as students two years apart at Howard County High School. They married young, before Christine had graduated. Robert Jarrett worked as a heating and air conditioning mechanic, and Christine got a job working the line at a local distillery. They moved to Claire Drive in 1983, buying a home built for them that was doors down from Christine's parents.

The marriage became troubled with "secrets that weren't evident," Dietrich told jurors. Jarrett was unfaithful, and the family ran into financial difficulty when Christine got injured on the job.

And there was violence, Dietrich said. Jarrett pushed Christine against a wall by her throat, leading her to run to a local drugstore to call relatives for help, he said, adding that one of their sons twice saw him throw her to the floor.

In late December 1990 on a Christmas trip to Ocean City, the couple agreed that they would separate.

"That was the state of Christine's life; that was the state of Christine's marriage on Jan. 3, 1991," Dietrich told jurors.

The night Christine vanished, Donna Madera, a friend, spoke with her on the phone; she testified Wednesday that she "was very agitated. She was not herself." Jarrett would later tell friends, relatives and the police that the two got into a heated argument, Dietrich said. When he awoke, she was gone.

The next day, Jarrett went to the home of a neighbor, James Wolfe, and told him Christine was missing. Together, they scoured U.S. 1 motels looking for her. He called police as well as one of her best friends, who lived in North Carolina, to see if she might have traveled there.

"He said they had a bad verbal fight, and wanted to know if she was with me," the friend, Cindy Travis, testified.

Psoras said that the friction in the marriage had been continuing. Robert had left once before, living in a mobile home for a summer, and returned. "He [didn't] threaten her, he [didn't] kill her. He moves out," Psoras said.

He denied that the family had financial problems, saying Jarrett was making "damn good money" — $160,000 a year. He acknowledged Jarrett's infidelity.