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)

Describing him as a "monster hiding behind the softness of human skin," a Howard County judge sentenced Robert Jarrett Jr. to the maximum 30 years in prison Thursday for killing his wife and concealing her remains under a shed behind his Elkridge home.

The conclusion of the trial brought some closure but few answers to Christine Jarrett's relatives, who said they're still struggling to understand why she was killed.

Though detectives and some relatives had long suspected that Jarrett was responsible for the disappearance of his wife in 1991, his sons believed their father's account that she had walked out on them.

When Robert Jarrett III received a phone call in April 2012 telling him that his father had been charged with murder, he said he asked, "Of whom?"

In the intervening years, he said Thursday, he sometimes thought he saw his mother — leading him to follow middle-age women down escalators at the mall or make an abrupt U-turn while driving to get a better look at the driver.

"At the time of her death, I was old enough to be told that our mother abandoned us, but young and naive enough to trust a man that murdered our mother, a trust that went unchallenged for 21 years," he said tearfully. "As young children, we didn't know any better. This was our life."

Robert Jarrett III, 33, said he sought answers from his father repeatedly, but any hope they might come at sentencing was dashed when the elder Jarrett declined to speak.

Defense attorney George Psoras signaled that Jarrett would appeal his conviction for second-degree murder. Prosecutors had pushed for a first-degree murder conviction.

Jarrett appeared unmoved and did not look at him as his son spoke in court.

"I remain silent," Jarrett said quietly when offered the chance to speak.

Psoras had argued during the trial that it could not be determined whether the remains were those of Christine Jarrett, and if they were, how she died. Psoras said any number of scenarios were just as plausible as the prosecution's theory that Jarrett killed his wife; she could have taken her own life, died of natural causes or been killed by a lover, he said.

At sentencing, Psoras argued that Jarrett, who worked as a steamfitter, should be spared a heavy prison sentence. He read passages from the Bible about forgiveness and said that by keeping the death a secret for two decades, Jarrett was able to stay and raise their sons.

"We'd have two orphans — no mom, no dad," Psoras said.

Circuit Judge Richard S. Bernhardt rejected Psoras' argument and wondered aloud how Jarrett had been able to drag his wife's body into the shed and pour concrete without anyone noticing.

"The only person his conduct seems calculated to protect is his own interests," Bernhardt said.

With little direct evidence, the prosecution's case revolved around a theory that the Jarretts' marriage was crumbling and Jarrett had grown to hate his wife. Divorce would have been a financial burden that Jarrett was unwilling to bear, said Assistant State's Attorney James Dietrich.

She was "an impediment to what he wanted to do, which was to work and see other women," Dietrich said.

Christine Jarrett was last seen the night of Jan. 3, 1991, and was believed to have left home on foot with a stack of cash and few belongings.

Police searched the home but not the shed. Police declined again Thursday to explain why they were unable to do so until 2012, when they received permission from Jarrett's second wife after he left her.

During the hunt for his wife, Jarrett handed his elder son a newspaper clipping about the case, told him to read it and to ask questions if he had any.

But by the end of the summer, all signs of Christine Jarrett had been removed from the house, and the woman who would become Jarrett's second wife had moved in. In court, Robert Jarrett III referred to her as a "prop, a stand-in" and said the boys never got along with her.

"I struggle with the fact that it didn't need to happen this way, that we could have been happier and shared all of those years with our mother," he told the judge.

A week before the discovery of his mother's body, Robert Jarrett III said, they asked their father about the case "and were met with the same cold, dismissive responses." After his father's arrest, he visited the jail on the anniversary of his mother's death and again sought the truth.

"I left the jail with no answers, less respect for my father, and permission for myself to let go of the guilt," he said.

After the sentencing hearing, Robert Jarrett III wrapped his arm around his younger brother, Michael, who was 5 when their mother died and has few memories of her.

"We really had to look back at our entire lives and realize the manipulation and deceit through all of these years. It was tough but therapeutic," he told reporters outside the courthouse. Asked about Bernhardt's remark that his father was a monster, Robert Jarrett III replied, "I think he got it dead on."

jfenton@baltsun.com