Wake Forest has long been known as a turnstile for aspiring lawyers, with liberal arts majors using their diplomas as admission tickets to some of the nation’s best law schools. Rarer, however, is the Wake alum who gains renown for pioneering a field of law.
Thomas A. (Tad) DiBiase (’87) is making a name for himself by helping to prosecute murders when there are no actual bodies as evidence. The self-styled “No- Body Guy” graduated as a political science major, went on to Brooklyn Law School, then worked for 12 years as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, where he prosecuted homicides.
Now Deputy General Counsel for the U.S. Capitol Police, DiBiase moonlights as a consultant on no-body cases across the country. Of the 20-odd cases he has worked on, five have gone to trial, all resulting in guilty verdicts. Still “extremely rare,” the number of no-body cases “has clearly increased greatly in the last five years,” DiBiase says. That is largely due to advances in forensic science, but DiBiase’s painstaking documentation of all 300 or so no-body trials in U.S. history, and his No Body Murder Cases Web site and blog, have encouraged police and prosecutors that such cases, while challenging, can be won.
“Murder is the ultimate crime, and a murder with no body is the ultimate murder,” says DiBiase. “When you get rid of the body, you get rid of the best evidence of the murder: How was the person killed? When was the person killed? Where was the person killed? Figuring out all those things becomes so much more difficult to prove when you don’t have the body.”
No-body murder trials have always been permitted in the United States. The legal term “corpus delicti” has never meant only a (dead) human body can prove a murder, just that the body of evidence, even circumstantial, must prove a murder, legal scholars say. The infamous Caylee Anthony case, which ended in a not guilty verdict for her mother in July 2011, was a no-body case until the 2-year-old’s body was found (DiBiase was interviewed by The Huffington Post in that early stage).
First case in 2005
“When I think of Tad at Wake Forest, I mainly remember his perseverance,” says Kevin Krause, who roomed with DiBiase for several years. “I think his perseverance has suited him well for no-body cases.”
In fact, that reputation earned DiBiase his first no-body case, when his supervisor in the District turned to him in 2005 about the disappearance and presumed murder of Marion Fye. An unmarried mother of five, alcohol and drug abuser, unemployed and reliant on public assistance, Fye’s erratic behavior and lack of connections seemed to militate against proving anything. But DiBiase won a murder conviction and 42-year prison sentence.
For that he relied on forensics. “We didn’t have the victim’s DNA so we proved the blood on her mattress was hers by using her mother’s DNA, and proved that the blood on the mattress had to have come from a female decedent of the mother’s,” DiBiase explains. “We then had each of her three living sisters testify that they had never bled in Marion Fye’s bed, so the logical conclusion was that the blood was Marion’s.”
No-body prosecutions are also being enabled by modern communications, surveillance and records — bank cards, credit cards, cell phones, email and Twitter accounts, and much more. “There are so many electronic traces now that if they all went dead for someone, you’d get suspicious,” says DiBiase.
In the case of Tracey Tetso, which DiBiase consulted on with Baltimore prosecutors in 2008-09, phone records were crucial. Husband Dennis tapped their home phone to catch Tracey in an affair, and Tracey’s employer recorded all her phone calls “for quality assurance,” according to Garret Glennon, chief of Baltimore County’s Circuit Court Division. “We had the luxury of having a library of about three months of her daily calls, most of which were talking about her failed marriage or screaming at Dennis himself,” he says.
Also, a motel surveillance video showed Tracey’s car parking and a grainy figure get out. Then the car’s lights flashed twice, signaling the alarm had been activated. Confronted with that, Dennis gave police a “spare” key and remote, but further sleuthing determined there was only one set of keys for the car — Dennis had to have been the driver and he had to have gotten the keys from Tracey the night she disappeared.
Still, “we had a massive amount of tiny, individualized pieces of evidence that alone meant next to nothing,” says Glennon. “No one in my county had ever tried a no-body case before. We had ideas but, since we were in uncharted waters, we didn’t know if we were thinking crazy or right on point.”
With DiBiase’s help, however, the Baltimore team developed themes in the case to show that Tracey would not have voluntarily abandoned her family, friends, beloved pets, good job, every personal belonging and money. “He confirmed our game plan, and since he had experience in this area, it gave us a lot of confidence that we were doing things right,” Glennon says. Indeed, Dennis Tetso was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
A ‘crime-fighter’ at Wake Forest
DiBiase’s days at Wake Forest might have presaged his time as a tenacious prosecutor, and now consultant. “He was determined to do well,” says Krause. “Tad spent every evening in the library, no matter what was going on around him. He wasn’t the most gifted runner on the track team but he worked harder than anyone else.”
In some sense, DiBiase began his crime-fighting careers as a sophomore in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library. According to longtime roommate Rob Duckwall, rumors circulated in 1984 that someone was stealing unattended textbooks, probably to be sold back to the bookstore. The two agreed to scope the stacks and study areas, and soon DiBiase witnessed a theft, reported it, and the thefts ended, Duckwall says.
Although he is no longer a prosecutor, DiBiase says that gives him freer rein over his involvement in no-body homicides. And he doesn’t expect to become less involved anytime soon. “I certainly get many, many calls from folks who before had no one place to go to learn about these cases,” he says.
Tim Breen (’88) is a writer and editor in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife and two children.