A genealogist used a DNA sample from the crime scene to build a family tree using public websites, then ran it through a public database and received “a significant match” that led to an arrest, police said.
It was DNA, a genealogist and perseverance that zeroed in on Michella Welch’s suspected killer after 32 years.
On Friday, Pierce County prosecutors charged Gary Charles Hartman, 66, with first-degree murder and first-degree rape in the death of the 12-year-old Tacoma girl.
Hartman is to be arraigned Monday and is being held in lieu of $5 million bail.
Timeline of the Michella Welch homicide case
March 26, 1986, 10 a.m. — Welch and her two younger sisters leave their home in the 1500 block of North Oakes for Puget Park at 3100 N. Proctor St.
11-11:30 a.m. — Welch leaves her sisters in the park and pedals her bike home to make lunch.
1-1:30 p.m. — An employee at Welch’s school saw Welch speaking with a man gesturing toward the gulch inside Puget Park.
1:15 p.m. — Welch’s sisters return to the park but don’t see Welch. They continue playing.
2 p.m. — Welch’s sisters find her bike and the lunches, then call their regular baby-sitter. She alerts the girls’ mother and police.
3:10 p.m. — Police begin searching the park for the missing girl.
11:25 p.m. — Welch’s body is found in the gulch near a makeshift fire pit.
Aug. 4, 1986: Jennifer Bastian, 13, disappears during a bike ride in Point Defiance Park.
2009 — Tacoma police create a cold-case unit to investigate more than 150 unsolved murders, including those of Welch and Bastian.
2013 — Detectives test a DNA sample from the Bastian crime scene and discover different men killed Welch and Bastian.
2016 — Parabon develops phenotype composites to find out characteristics of the two killers.
May 2018 — Tacoma police hire a genetic genealogist to test DNA sample from Welch’s killer.
June 19— The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab notifies the department that Gary Hartman’s DNA matches DNA from the Welch crime scene.
June 20— Hartman is arrested during a traffic stop in Lakewood.
Compiled by Stacia Glenn
After more than three decades of working the cold case, police in May called on a genetic genealogist to help.
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The genealogist used a DNA sample from the crime scene to build a family tree using public websites, then ran it through a public database and received “a significant match,” according to charging papers.
That process led to Hartman and his younger brother, who both lived in Tacoma’s North End at the time Welch was killed in Puget Park.
Police said Gary Hartman did not submit a DNA sample to a genealogy database, and it was a relative whose DNA was first found and traced to Hartman.
Laboratory technicians and the genealogist told police they believed one of the Hartman brothers killed Welch and recommended obtaining DNA samples from them to compare to the DNA sample from the crime scene.
Detectives began running surveillance on the Hartman brothers in early June.
Gary Hartman’s DNA was collected June 5 when a detective followed him to a restaurant where he was lunching with a co-worker.
The detective sat within 10 feet of Hartman’s table and watched as he repeatedly used a brown paper napkin, then crumpled it up and put it in a paper bag, records show.
After Hartman and the co-worker left, the detective got the paper bag — and the paper napkin — from a server cleaning the lobby.
Police collected DNA from Hartman’s brother by following him to a restaurant where he was having dinner and collecting a straw he used, cold-case detective Steve Reopelle said.
On Tuesday, the crime lab alerted police that Gary Hartman’s DNA on the napkin matched the DNA found on Welch’s body.
He was arrested Wednesday during a traffic stop in Lakewood.
Police Chief Don Ramsdell said officers served search warrants at Gary Hartman’s home on Steilacoom Lake and at his job at Western State Hospital in Lakewood.
Hartman has no prior criminal record. He lived in the 4600 block of Huson Street, less than two miles from Puget Park, in 1986, the year Welch was killed
He obtained an active license as a registered nurse in 1998 and worked as a community nurse specialist at Western State, helping discharged patients reintegrate into society.
It’s unclear what he did or where he worked between 1986 and 1998.
Neighbors described Hartman as cordial and sweet, a positive presence in the neighborhood. He often was seen driving around with his third wife in vintage cars.
But Stephanie Brookens, a nurse who crossed professional paths with him over the years, said several co-workers believed him to be a liar.
“The first time I met him and shook his hand, he made my skin crawl and my creep-o-meter went into the red,” she said Friday. “I had to wipe my hand off, it felt that creepy.”
Welch was killed March 26, 1986, after taking her sisters to Puget Park to play.
She went home hours later to make sandwiches. While she was gone, her two younger siblings ran to a nearby business to use the restroom.
They tried calling Welch at home but there was no answer, so they returned to the park and continued playing.
Shortly afterward, they found brown-bag lunches on a picnic table and Welch’s bike but no sign of her.
Detectives believe she returned to the park before her sisters and went looking for them. Witnesses saw her talking to a man pointing down a trail into a gulch.
A search dog found Welch’s body that night near a makeshift fire pit in the gulch, about a quarter mile from the play area.
She had been sexually assaulted and killed by a cut to the neck and blunt force trauma to the head.
Five months later, a second young girl was killed in another North End park.
Jennifer Bastian, 13, disappeared Aug. 4, 1986, during a bike ride in Point Defiance Park. Her body was found in a wooded area off Five Mile Drive weeks later.
Investigators initially believed the same man killed both girls because of the physical appearance and proximity of attacks.
But in 2013, a cold-case detective noticed a piece of evidence found near Bastian’s body had not been tested for DNA, so he sent it in.
The results shocked investigators. The DNA found near Bastian’s body did not match DNA found at the Welch crime scene, indicating that there were two killers.
DNA profiles from both killers were run through a national database of felons but did not match with the 11 million or so profiles in the database. Police used new methods to drum up leads.
In 2016, they activated the department’s Child Abduction Response Team to rework the homicides as if they were recent. The department also paid $7,000 for two composite renderings of what the men who sexually assaulted and killed the girls might have looked like.
Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company, analyzed DNA from both killers, identified genetic markers such as hair and eye color and used phenotyping to predict what the men might have looked like.
The technology was developed in 2014 and Tacoma was the fifth law-enforcement agency to use it and release the suspect composites publicly. Over three decades, police considered more than 2,000 possible suspects in the Welch and Bastian cases. They vetted more than 200, none of which panned out.
Hartman was never listed in the massive Welch case file.
Pierce County prosecutors last month charged Robert Washburn, 60 — once under suspicion for killing Welch — with killing Bastian. In 2016, he had agreed to provide DNA to the FBI. In May, the DNA results came back, linking him to Bastian’s death, according to charging papers. He was arrested at home in Illinois.
Ramsdell said solving both cold cases in two months was “extraordinary,” and had a message for people who commit crimes in Tacoma.
“If you think you can run, you’re wrong,” he said. “If you think you can hide, you’re wrong. If you think that the Tacoma Police Department is going to give up, you’re wrong. The Tacoma Police Department will never give up.”
Welch’s family is returning to Pierce County to attend Hartman’s arraignment Monday. When Ramsdell called to tell Welch’s mother about the arrest, “she was ecstatic and said it sent chills down her spine,” said Reopelle, the cold-case detective.
When Welch died, her youngest sister, Nichole Eby, was 9 and their other sister was 11.
“You think 32 years later, you should be OK,” Eby told KING5. “But it’s not. It’s still real all the time.”