Laura Wallen was excited that she was becoming a mother.
Wallen, a 31-year-old Howard County high school teacher, was expecting a baby with her boyfriend, Tyler Tessier, police say. The 32-year-old Montgomery County man had asked her father for her hand in marriage.
But unbeknownst to Wallen, police say, Tessier was already engaged to another woman. Police say both women believed they were dating the Damascus man exclusively.
Then Wallen contacted the other woman.
Now Wallen is dead, her body discovered Wednesday in a shallow grave in a secluded field in Damascus. She was shot in the back of the head, according to autopsy findings released Thursday night. Tessier is charged with first-degree murder in her death.
Mark Wallen called his daughter’s death “a senseless tragedy.”
“She was a woman of faith,” he told reporters Thursday outside the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville. “And right now she is in the arms of God.”
A judge ordered Tessier held without bond pending a return to court Oct. 13.
Howard County schools officials sent crisis teams Thursday morning to Wilde Lake High School and Murray Hill Middle School, where Wallen previously taught. Students and their families gathered at Murray Hill Middle School Thursday evening for a vigil for Wallen.
Wilde Lake Principal Rick Wilson called Wallen a talented teacher who looked beyond grades and test scores. She had the ability to connect with her students, he said, and they won’t forget her.
“She’s one of those special teachers that aims for the heart before she aims for the head,” he said. “She touched so many people in 31 short years. She volunteered to give up lots of time. She’s a very special person.”
Days before Wallen disappeared this month, police say in charging documents released Thursday, she sent a text message to the other woman. Four months pregnant, she said she was “just looking for an explanation … woman to woman.”
“It’s important that some things are cleared up and I would imagine that if you were in my position, you’d want some answers as well,” Wallen wrote, according to police. “By no means is this an attempt at confrontation.”
Wallen, a social studies teacher from Olney, was reported missing Sept. 5 after she failed to show up for the first day of classes at Wilde Lake High School.
Wallen and Tessier were seen together on surveillance video at a grocery store near Wallen's home on Sept. 2, police say. Police believe she was killed the next day.
On Sept. 4, police say, Wallen’s sister received a series of text messages from Wallen’s phone that the sister said were inconsistent with her writing style. The messages, ostensibly from Wallen, stated that she was “like 95 percent sure” Tessier was not the father of her baby. The messages named Wallen’s ex-boyfriend, whom police say she had not seen in two years.
Police say Tessier admitted under questioning that he sent those text messages.
They say he had misspelled the ex-boyfriend’s name.
Police say Tessier also admitted to driving Wallen’s car to an apartment complex in Columbia, removing the front tag and disposing of her driver’s license and iPhone. An employee of the complex found Wallen’s license near a dumpster, police say, and investigators found her car backed into a parking space.
On the night police believe Tessier killed Wallen, he texted an acquaintance to ask for a ride to Baltimore, police say. He said he needed help to "clean up a mess.”
Tessier participated with Wallen’s family in a news conference organized by Montgomery County Police Monday to discuss her disappearance and offer a reward for information.
Tessier gripped Wallen’s mother’s hand. Choking up, he made a direct appeal to Wallen, asking her to “let us know you’re safe.”
“Laura, if you’re listening, it doesn’t matter what’s happened,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what type of trouble. There’s nothing we can’t fix together.”
Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger said Tessier was a person of interest at the time.
“The decision to allow him to participate in that news conference was a calculated decision made by detectives in this case, with the expressed purpose of seeing what he had to say,” Manger said. “It was done with the approval and knowledge of victim’s family.”
Mark Wallen, the victim’s father, said sitting beside Tessier was the “hardest thing” for his wife. Gwen Wallen was shaking throughout the press conference.
“It was all we could to do to be seen as a unified family with him,” Mark Wallen told reporters after Tessier’s bail review hearing at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville. “He is a monster and he is a liar.”
After Wallen’s disappearance, police say, Tessier made several trips last week to a friend’s farm on Prices Distillery Road in Damascus. Police say he would sometimes stay at the property, which has open fields and woods.
On Sept. 2, police say, Wallen texted her sister from the property.
“Tyler has me on an adventure in the country,” she wrote, according to police. “Don’t know why I’m here but it’s for something.”
“Really where are you?” her sister responded.
“I’m waiting in a field,” Wallen wrote.
“Take a picture,” her sister advised.
Wallen sent her a photograph of a large field with a treeline, police say.
Police obtained a search warrant and went to the farm Wednesday. Police say investigators found tire tracks and freshly dug ground nearby.
They uncovered Wallen's body at about noon Wednesday.
Police say the property owner had no involvement in her killing or burial.
Tessier’s public defender argued for his release Thursday. Assistant public defender Victoria Kawecki said Tessier has no prior criminal history, and has lived the majority of his life in Maryland.
Prosecutor Donna Fenton called Tessier’s alleged actions “brutal,” and said he poses a danger to the people of Montgomery County.
Law enforcement analysts say that inviting persons of interest to participate in news conferences is legal, but unusual. Susan Smith pleaded for the return of her two young sons, whom she said had been kidnapped in South Carolina, in 1995. Scott Peterson spoke publicly about the disappearance of his wife, Laci, in California in 2002. Both were eventually convicted in the deaths of their family members.
David Waltemeyer, senior law enforcement project manager with the Police Foundation in Washington, says investigators can use press conferences to observe a suspect’s demeanor and look for signs of guilt.
They can evaluate if a person pretends to be emotional, gives contradicting statements or makes any comments that seem out of the norm, he said.
“Does the person refer to the victim in the past tense, indicating they may know the person is no longer alive?” Waltemeyer said.
On Thursday night, a gathering of a few hundred students, parents and school staff quietly gathered outside Murray Hill Middle School’s front doors, where a large poster board declared, “We love you, Ms. Wallen,” and was covered with pictures, hearts and emotional messages to the former middle school teacher.
Students took turns placing and lighting white tealight candles along the brick windowsills Tears were shed and stories were shared, and many students said they would never forget the beloved teacher.
Kathy Hersey, the band teacher at Murray Hill Middle, said she had worked with Wallen since Wallen started teaching.
“When she left here, she told the principal, ‘I want to come back and help Kathy with drama,’” Hersey said. “This would’ve been her fifth year. Teaching was her life. She was born to be a teacher. She did everything she could for kids.”