Like many teenagers, Rochelle Battle was attached to her cell phone.
Battle’s phone was a lifeline to her world to the point that she made 1,900 calls in December 2008. The 16-year-old also made 129 calls from her phone through the first six days of March 2009.
Then, without any warning, the calls stopped on March 6, 2009. No more texts, voicemails or photos. Battle, who lived in the Pimlico community of Baltimore, just disappeared.
Baltimore County prosecutors said Battle was murdered and her cell phone would go a long way toward proving who killed her.
That The Middle River man was convicted in October of murdering the teen. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 6.
Prosecutors obtained a conviction despite never finding Battle’s body. Such no-body cases are difficult to prosecute, let alone win. But Baltimore County prosecutors have proven such cases are not impossible.
“This was the most complex, difficult case of my career,” prosecutor Robin Coffin said. “How do you prove a negative? The key was showing there was no proof that Rochelle was still alive before being able to prove who murdered her.”
Gone Without a Trace
Proving that negative required a 13-month investigation that included extensive use of technological tools, such as examining cell phone records, security footage and even aerial photos to trace the final moments of Battle’s life.
Coffin said Battle told her mother she was taking a bus to Eastpoint Mall to go shopping. But instead, she headed to Middle River to meet Gross, whom she first met in an adult online chat room.
Prosecutors placed Battle and Gross together through cell phone records. This included at a bus stop at Stemmers Run Road and Eastern Boulevard, which placed Gross’ and Battle’s phones together at the same time around 9 p.m. on March 6.
Video footage from a security camera shows Battle getting off a bus at this stop. It is the last photo ever taken of her.
Cell phone records then placed Gross and Battle together again traveling Eastern Boulevard toward Chase. Battle then answered her cell around 10 p.m. near Bengie's Drive-In. She was never heard from again.
Piecing the Puzzle Together
What happened to Battle after that remains unclear.
But, according to prosecutors, at some point not long after that last phone call, Gross killed her and had her body incinerated at a nearby landfill where he worked off Earls Road in Chase. A jury agreed.
“We’ll never know exactly how, when or where Rochelle died, but we spent 13 months proving there is no proof she is alive and Jason Gross was the last person to be with her,” Coffin said.
Gross’ defense was simple: You can’t convict someone of murder when you don’t have proof the victim is dead.
But, through the course of his trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court, prosecutors used technology to tear apart Gross’ alibi and convince jurors that there is no other plausible explanation as to what happened to Battle other than that Gross killed her.
This included placing him in his work truck at a gas station adjacent to Martin State Airport where surveillance photos showed him purchasing condoms there after he told investigators he was at a bar during the same period.
“It was like putting a huge puzzle together without one of the biggest pieces,” Coffin said. “If we would have arrested Gross in 2009, we wouldn’t have done Rochelle any justice. This had to be a methodical investigation.”
No Body Necessary
But she also knew there was at least some very recent history on her side.
Just a year earlier, a Baltimore County jury convicted Dennis Tetso, of Rosedale, of killing his wife, Tracey Gardner-Tetso.
Gardner-Tetso disappeared exactly four years before Battle—on March 6, 2005—on her way to a rock concert. Her body was also never discovered and Tetso became the first “no-body” murder trial in Baltimore County.
The key to that investigation was video that showed Gardner-Tetso’s car in a parking lot found not long after she disappeared. The video showed the car being remotely locked with a key fob, which Testo had in his possession.
Prosecutors argued it had to be Testo who killed his wife because she had the only known fob for the vehicle.
“Without that surveillance video, I’m not sure we’d have made as convincing of a case,” prosecutor Garret Glennon said.
Like the Gross investigation, Glennon said making a case against Tetso—who was sentenced in November 2010 to 18 years in prison —was a slow process.
Again, Glennon said a key to proving Tetso murdered his wife was first to show there is no proof she was alive. This, he added, was slightly easier with Gardner-Tetso compared to Battle, because of their difference in ages.
“With Tracey, she had credit cards, ATM cards, bills, a cell phone, a home and many other items one acquires as an adult,” Glennon said.
“The home she shared with Dennis was in her name and she had him moving out. Why would she have just disappeared without a trace and leave no clue to her whereabouts? She just vanished and that just doesn’t happen in real life.”
Coffin said having the Tetso case precedent helped immeasurably in helping her prosecute Gross.
“The Tetso case proved it can be done in Baltimore County,” Coffin said. “Taking pointers from that case helped us do an even better job in finding justice for Rochelle Battle and her family.”
Coffin and Glennon agreed that neither of their cases would have been successful without the thorough work of Baltimore County homicide detectives. Each called the police work “the best they have ever encountered in prosecuting a homicide.”
Baltimore County police spokeswoman Detective Cathy Batton said success in cases like these requires a coordinated effort between all agencies involved, including the police, state’s attorney and medical examiner’s office.
“These are time- and resource-intensive investigations because we have to rule out all possibilities other than homicide…” Batton said.
University of Baltimore law professor Byron Warnken said the Tetso and Gross trials helped establish important precedent in Baltimore County that you don’t necessarily need a body to convict someone of murder.
“Today, lay people who serve on juries watch much more TV and expect forensic evidence in a murder trial,” Warnken said. “But, that doesn’t necessarily have to be there if enough circumstantial evidence is present to prove a case. You don’t need a dead body to prove murder in Maryland.”