Most homes along Claire Road in a middle-class Elkridge neighborhood have a backyard shed, but underneath one of them, authorities say, a family secret has been buried for more than two decades.
Robert A. Jarrett, 57, has been charged with murder after what police believe are the remains of his wife, Christine, were found under floorboards and concrete in the shed behind his home. Christine Jarrett vanished in 1991. Police said at the time that she apparently kissed her two children goodbye, took $4,000 and left because of marital problems with her husband of 16 years.
Relatives, friends and neighbors said they never believed Christine Jarrett was the type to abandon her family, and they long suspected her husband had played a role. Nevertheless, they said, the news that her body was found on the property was shocking.
"At least now, her children will know that their mother didn't abandon them — that she didn't run off somewhere," said next-door neighbor Cindy Fryer, who watched from a back window of her home as police removed the remains Wednesday. "They'll know something horrible prevented her from being with them."
Police say they, too, long suspected Robert Jarrett but lacked probable cause to obtain a warrant to do an exhaustive search of the property, said spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.
Not long after his wife went missing, Robert Jarrett remarried and continued living in the same home. But a few months ago, he left his second wife and moved to Calvert County.
Armed with knowledge of the split, detectives visited the home and asked the second wife for permission to search the premises. Police found remains and "personal effects directly connecting them to Christine Jarrett." The remains were sent to the medical examiner's office for confirmation.
Jarrett was arrested Wednesday night while driving in Calvert County. He was charged with first- and second-degree murder and was being held without bond pending a bail hearing. Court records did not list an attorney.
"These are the kinds of cases that don't ever go away for us," Llewellyn said. "We don't see that many homicides each year, and in a situation like this, where we believe there was foul play and it's very likely that the victim is dead and it's just something we can't prove, it's frustrating. There's a sense of satisfaction to make an arrest."
At the home, a two-story Victorian-style residence with a mailbox decorated with tiny hearts, a woman declined to discuss the case. As reporters gathered outside and two television helicopters buzzed overhead, she taped a note to the front door reading, "No trespassing, no media."
Neighbors, a baby sitter and workers doing construction on the street wandered by to take in the spectacle.
"This neighborhood is so peaceful," said Nick Montgomery, 21. "I run past here every day, and you never would've thought twice about something like that."
Christine Ann Jarrett was last seen Jan. 3, 1991. At the time, police said she put her sons, ages 5 and 11, to bed at 10 p.m., and after her husband fell asleep she left their neighborhood on foot. She was believed to be wearing black dress shoes, black stretch pants and a blue-and-white hooded jacket.
Two weeks earlier, police said, she had withdrawn $4,000 in cash from the bank. And police said she had made remarks in the months before her disappearance about domestic problems and "leaving for good to a place where no one would ever find me."
Robert Jarrett, working at that time as a plumbing and heating technician, said his wife had been upset since her mother's death in 1989. He also acknowledged marital problems.
"She did make remarks sometimes that she might leave, but I think it was more like a frustration thing," he told The Baltimore Sun in March 1991. "I don't think she'd just leave. It's hurting us."
Jarrett petitioned the Howard County Circuit Court in 1996 to declare his long-missing wife dead. The petition includes his account of what happened the last night she was seen. He said he had fallen asleep in the basement, where they had been watching television, and when he went upstairs he found his wife wasn't in bed. He said she had left home for a night or two before, so he went to sleep without searching for her.
The next day her two sisters called, and he told them he didn't know where she was. He said he called other relatives, and the next day reported her missing to police. He said he went to five area motels but did not find her, according to the account.
Worried friends hoping to find leads reached out to a local psychic, who told them she had visions of Jarrett willingly climbing into a light-blue car with an unidentified man. "She did not have her purse on. No woman goes anywhere without her purse," the psychic said, predicting that Christine was still in the area, within a 50-mile radius.
In reality, she was much closer, and Robert Jarrett's behavior began to arouse suspicions.
Fryer, the next-door neighbor, said he objected to lending the psychic a personal item to help her connect with Christine. Christine's niece, Karen Hoke, said he also had initially objected to reporting her missing.
And then there was the shed. It was a metal shack to the rear-right of the home, and within weeks, in the dead of winter, Hoke recalls that Jarrett was pouring new concrete inside it. Fryer said he also built a new structure around the shed, and later a second shed was built on the other side of the yard.
When her children would play with his boys in the backyard, he became angry if they got near the original shed, she said.
"They would say, 'Why does Mr. Bob get so mad if we get near the shed?'" Fryer said.
Stephen Greisz, a retired Howard County police detective who initially handled the case and is now living in Florida, recalled that Robert Jarrett gave detectives access to the house, and they used forensics available at the time to search for clues.
Greisz said that after two decades, he's unable to recall whether the shed was searched.
According to court records, Jarrett was charged in Anne Arundel County District Court with driving while impaired by alcohol last May, and received probation before judgment in August.
Family and friends said the discovery of her remains brings closure but renews the grief and pain they felt 20 years earlier. Patricia Mueller, Christine Jarrett's sister, recalled visiting the Elkridge home often, where they would work on craft projects such as dolls and Christmas decorations. Other friends and family members said Christine was a doting mother "devoted" to her sons.
"How could you go out in that yard, and have parties or cookouts, and know she's only a couple steps away?" Mueller said. "How could he raise his kids and look them in the face every day?"
Howard County Times reporters Kevin Rector and David Greisman contributed to this article.