Pattie Bastian wakes every morning to the memory of her dead daughter, Jenny, who is forever 13.
She thinks of the tomboy who was always on the go, who loved to smile, who might have grown up to a veterinarian. She doesn’t think much about the terrible tragedy that happened 27 years ago Sunday or the man who killed her daughter in the woods of Point Defiance Park and left Jenny’s limp body yards from her new bicycle.
Thoughts of the killer, however, weigh heavy on the minds of Tacoma police detectives Gene Miller and Lindsey Wade. They are convinced the same man also killed 12-year-old Michella Welch in Puget Park months before Jenny disappeared Aug. 4, 1986.
Both girls were riding bicycles in North End parks when they were separately abducted, sexually assaulted and killed.
Armed with a newly developed behavioral profile of the killer and DNA profiles expected to confirm the link between the two slayings, the detectives believe they are closer than ever to knowing who is responsible for two of the most heart-wrenching murders in the city’s history.
“My personal opinion is he’s going to get caught,” said Miller, the department’s cold case detective. “It’s just a matter of whether we get to put the bracelets on him. We have the DNA, all we need is the name. I believe somebody out there has a name.”
The detectives have worked with experts at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to develop a detailed profile of the killer in hopes it will trigger the memory of somebody, somewhere, who might then call police and give them a name.
Still, detectives are at a loss for whodunit because the killer’s DNA profile does not match any of the 11 million or so DNA profiles in a national database of felons.
They scoured the state, and farther, for cases similar to the slayings of Michella and Jenny but came up empty-handed, leading them to believe the man is either in prison, a mental institution or dead. They do not believe the killer would have stopped killing on his own.
Although they don’t know the killer’s name, detectives have compiled a profile of the man. It’s complete with details he might not even have known himself, including that he had an intestinal parasite when he killed the little girls.
If you lived or played in Tacoma’s North End in 1986, detectives are asking that you wrack your brain. They say every tip has potential.
They want you to know that the killer probably committed similar crimes, such as child luring, indecent exposure or attempted kidnapping before, between and after the deaths of Michella and Jenny.
He could have lived in the North End or had family there, was very familiar with the parks and wooded areas, and probably was semi-transient for a while, camping out in or around parks with cover.
The killer likely had mental health issues and probably avoided direct contact with people. He could have been violent toward family members, got around on foot or a bicycle and carried a knife.
SIMILARITIES IN CASES
Bastian said she’s never given up hope that one day the man who took away her daughter will be brought to justice. She hopes the new information released by police about the killer will prompt people to think back on who they knew and saw around the area in 1986.
“It was a terrible tragedy for both of those beautiful little girls to be savagely murdered,” Bastian said.
Both girls were blond and petite, abducted in broad daylight from North End parks while riding their bicycles and taken to isolated areas of those parks. Miller said similarities were found at the crime scenes but declined to go into detail.
Michella disappeared March 26, 1986. The 12-year-old had taken her two little sisters to Puget Park to play – pulling one on a skateboard behind Michella’s bike.
At some point she pedaled home alone to fix sandwiches for the girls’ lunch. She returned to the park and presumably went looking for one of her sisters, who had gone to use the restroom.
A tracking dog found Michella’s body later that night in a gulch that runs from the park to the waterfront, about three-quarters of a mile from the popular area of the park. The area where she was left had a makeshift fire pit where high school kids went to party back then, Miller said.
She died of a cut to her neck.
On Aug. 4, 1986, Jenny called her father to ask permission to ride her new Schwinn 12-speed around Five Mile Drive in Point Defiance Park. She was training for an upcoming bike ride in the San Juan Islands, and the girlfriend she usually rode with backed out at the last minute.
Her father said yes and asked her to call when she returned home. The call never came.
Scores of officers and search-and-rescue parties scoured the large wooded park for days but did not find her. Joggers stumbled across the girl’s body 24 days later, concealed with brush. She had been strangled. Her bike was yards away.
Miller and Wade say the girls were not selected ahead of time, but the killer clearly put thought into his plan of attack.
“I think the guy had an idea in his mind, a plan of some sort, and he had been thinking about it for quite a while, and then he decided to act on the plan,” Wade said.
GIFT OF TECHNOLOGY
After the girls’ deaths, police formed a six-person task force that worked closely with the Green River Killer Force, which was known for its ability to process outdoor crime scenes in its search for the man who killed at least 48 young women over two decades.
Miller, who was on the initial task force as a patrol officer, said at least 10,000 investigative hours went into trying to solve the girls’ cases in 1986. Nearly every detective was drafted at one point and a forensic anthropologist was brought up from The Evergreen State College in Olympia to study plants and insects from the crime scenes.
The case stalled without suspects but was revived with the department’s creation of a cold case unit in 2009. Miller said the unsolved homicides of Michella and Jenny fueled his push for the unit, and the push to find their killer has helped him and Wade solve three other cold case homicides and multiple rape cases.
“Kids should not be killed and victimized the way these girls were,” Miller said. “They should be riding their bikes and be safe and adults now with their own children,” he said. “Cases like these deserve answers.”
To help get them, investigators are taking advantage of advances in DNA testing to concretely link the killer to both cases.
Testing had been done using evidence found on Michella’s body in 1986, but a state database that holds DNA from serious offenders wasn’t created until 2001. At that time, forensic experts made better use of the DNA profile of Michella’s killer.
With the technology advancements, it is now possible for physical evidence found near Jenny’s body to be tested for mitochondrial DNA. Detectives recently submitted the evidence and expect to have results within two months.
If a DNA profile can be developed, it will be used to scientifically link Jenny’s case to Michella’s. But the DNA cannot be entered into the state or national database because it will be only a partial profile.
The desire for answers and insight led the detectives to the Virginia headquarters of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in May to present the cases to a 20-member panel of experts. Only a handful of agencies are invited to make presentations each year.
For two days, Miller and Wade discussed the case with forensic specialists, FBI behavioral analysis agents and other law enforcement experts. They came away with 10 pages of suggestions, a more thorough profile of the offender, offers to test old evidence with new advancements in DNA technology and a sense that they’re on the right track.
The detectives have much to work with and could yet identify the killer, said Jennifer Eakin, a senior forensic case manager for NCMEC who also consulted on the cases when she was with the FBI.
“They’ve got an awful lot of information based on the crime scene,” she said, adding that the cases have “two extremely dedicated people who are not going to quit. That’s half the battle.”
Bastian said she will always have faith that the killer will be identified. She wants to know that he can’t hurt any other children or tear apart any other families. She wants justice for Michella, and her Jenny.
“Not a day goes by that we don’t think of her,” Bastian said. “Although she would be 40 now, she’s 13. She’s our little girl.”
THE KILLER’S PROFILE
Characteristics of Michella Welch and Jenny Bastian’s killer:
• Might have lived in Tacoma’s North End about 1986 or had family who lived there.
• Would have been very familiar with North End parks, trails and wooded areas.
• Might have been semi-transient in 1986 and stayed in the parks, causing a disheveled appearance.
• Probably got around on foot or bicycle; possibly used the bus.
• Routinely carried a knife.
• Likely had mental health issues and could have been jailed or institutionalized since 1986.
• Might have shown assaultive behavior toward family and might have become estranged from them.
• Probably did not have stable employment and might have turned to petty thefts and foraging.
• Had a disease called Strongyloides stercoralis, which eventually would have caused abdominal pain, heartburn, a dry cough, rashes and intermittent episodes of diarrhea and constipation.• MORE: Killer was abnormal, knew North End
Source: Tacoma police and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653