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Maryland murder suspect Tyler Tessier dies in jail cell just before start of his trial

Montgomery County Police charged Tyler Tessier, 32, in the murder of his girlfriend, Laura Wallen, who was reported missing on Sept. 4. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

For nearly a year, Tyler Tessier woke up in the same place: a Maryland jail, accused of luring his pregnant girlfriend to a remote field, shooting her in the back of the head and burying her in a shallow grave.

Thursday arrived with added weight: the start of his three-week trial, expected to reveal one detail after another of his double life.

“It was,” prosecutor John McCarthy said, “to be a day of reckoning for Mr. Tessier.”

By 4:15 a.m. Thursday, Tessier was showered and getting dressed, according to officials at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. Thirty minutes later, breakfast was served. And by 5:32 a.m., having tied one end of a bedsheet around his neck and the other to the edge of his top bunk, the 33-year-old was dead.

“We were robbed this morning of the opportunity to allow the public to know the true nature and details of this crime,” McCarthy said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, speaking in the lobby of the Montgomery County Circuit Courthouse.

Evidence that Tessier had killed 31-year-old Laura Wallen, McCarthy said, was “overwhelming.”

Tessier’s attorney, Allen Wolf, declined to say Thursday what defense he and his client would have mounted.

“The Tessier family is distraught over the news of their son Tyler’s death,” Wolf said. “They want to express their condolences to the Wallen family for their loss.”

Wolf had said after his client’s arrest last year that he was innocent of the charges against him.

From the time Wallen went missing last year over the weekend of Sept. 2, her case had drawn attention. The well-liked teacher had just been named teacher of the year at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md., yet did not show up for opening day after spending time prepping her classroom.

As friends and police searched for her, what would become a defining image of Tessier took hold. Tessier spoke at a news conference, pleading for Wallen to return. “Laura, if you’re listening, it doesn’t matter what’s happened,” Tessier said before a bank of cameras. “There’s nothing we can’t fix together.”

Beside him sat Wallen’s parents, knowing police suspected Tessier, as they also did by then, and agreeing to be part of a tactic to see what their daughter’s on-again, off-again boyfriend might say.

“To Tyler Tessier, lying was like breathing,” McCarthy said. “He lied about everything.”

Wallen’s parents gathered alongside McCarthy on Thursday, as he and prosecutors Donna Fenton and Mary Herdman spent an hour describing the case they had planned to lay out.

Earlier coverage: ‘Very unlikely’ jurors will visit site where teacher was killed

Over 10 years, Tessier and Wallen had cycled in and out of dating. “It was rocky,” Fenton said. “But they got back together always.”

Tessier eventually had another girlfriend, also a teacher, and had moved in with her in 2012, even as he regained his relationship with Wallen.

“He led a double life,” Fenton said. “He kept both of these women available to him.”

In the summer of 2017, Wallen told family members she was pregnant with Tessier’s baby. The paternity was borne out by DNA tests, his attorney later agreed.

Laura’s father, Mark Wallen, asked to get together with Tessier, and at a Starbucks in Olney, “Mark put the question to him,” Fenton said. “Mark said, ‘What do you intend to do?’ ”

“We’re going to get married. I love her,” Tessier answered and pulled out an engagement ring and discussed wedding plans, according to Fenton.

Mark Wallen asked about the other woman.

Tessier “looked Mr. Wallen dead in the eye and said he had not seen her in two years,” Fenton said.

That same night, Tessier used the same ring to propose to the other teacher.

At some point, Laura Wallen grew concerned about the other woman and texted her — and within days, prosecutors say, Tessier began plotting Wallen’s death for the September weekend.

His first step, according to prosecutors: getting out of a trip to Pennsylvania with his fiance to look at bridesmaids dresses, which he did by feigning a knee injury while on a walk with her dog. He couldn’t accompany her on the four-hour drive, he claimed, because of the strained knee.

In Maryland that weekend, according to prosecutors, Tessier took Wallen to a remote field in Damascus in Montgomery County.

“Tyler has me on an ad­ven­ture in the country,” Laura wrote by text to her sister, investigators later found. “Don’t know why I’m here but it’s for something.”

The couple returned to the site the next day — it was not clear how he got her there again — and Tessier shot and killed her, prosecutors said.

He immediately set about covering his tracks, telling Wallen’s family and police he didn’t know where she was.

Detectives quickly uncovered his other life and caught him in lies.

Instead of saying he knew nothing, Tessier shifted his story, eventually telling detectives a concocted tale that he had helped Wallen disappear because of her supposed embarrassment that a student of hers, not Tessier, was the father of the child she was carrying.

On Sept. 13, police found Wallen’s body.

Detectives interviewed Tessier again and got yet another story, they said.

Tessier said Wallen had lunged at him during an argument, run into a post, collapsed and appeared to be dead. He buried her in the field, as investigators recounted the exchange. In trying to explain why Wallen was found shot, Tessier told detectives he had worried he might have buried her alive and fired one round at her to make sure she was not suffering.

On Thursday, Laura’s mother, Gwen, called Tessier a “diabolical human.”

“As awful as today is, I feel at peace,” she said.

Mark Wallen spoke of his grief over his daughter and his unborn grandson, whom Laura planned to name Reid. “Laura was a wonderful, remarkable woman,” he said.

The riveting image of Tessier’s public appeal for Wallen to come home carried echos of Californian Scott Peterson in 2003 giving tear-filled interviews about his missing, pregnant wife, Laci. “She knows how much she’s loved, how much she’s missed,” he told NBC 11, as if sending a message to Laci. “And be strong, and we’re working to get you home.”

He was convicted of her murder a year later.

Tessier’s initial accounts to detectives, as relayed in court filings, said he and Wallen had fallen prey to random attackers, an account in the public manner of Susan Smith of South Carolina or Charles Stuart of Boston.

Smith claimed in 1994 that her two young sons had been abducted by a carjacking suspect she described as African American. “We just got to get them home,” she told TV cameras.

She was convicted of drowning the boys in a pond.

Stuart claimed in 1989 that he and his pregnant wife were shot by an African American attacker in an incident that left his wife dead and him wounded.

Later, as detectives closed in on Stuart, suspecting he’d shot himself as part of an insurance hoax, Stuart killed himself by jumping off a bridge.

In 2017, as detectives focused on Tessier, he allegedly invoked surprise, lethal attacks as the cause of Wallen’s death in explanations investigators later dismissed as not credible.

“After initial denials,” Montgomery prosecutors wrote, “the defendant stated he and Ms. Wallen had been kidnapped by several African American men in Olney at Ms. Wallen’s home, and they were forced to drive to the field in Damascus in the defendant’s vehicle, where the men proceeded to shoot Ms. Wallen. The defendant stated his life was spared because he pleaded with the men.”

Had the case gone to trial, McCarthy said, jurors would have watched and listened to more than 10 hours of recorded police interviews with Tessier in which his story kept changing.

“It’s impossible to catalog all the lies, and all the people to whom he in fact did lie to maintain this dual existence,’ McCarthy said.

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