For 30 years, Tacoma police hunted an unknown man they believed abducted, sexually assaulted and killed two young girls in separate parks in the city’s North End.
Law enforcement was convinced the same man was responsible for both deaths in 1986.
They pointed to Michella Welch, 12, and Jennifer Bastian, 13, being close in age; similarities at the crime scenes; and the close proximity of the attacks.
Police looked for new ways to generate tips over the years after the cold cases stalled, even developing a behavioral profile of the suspect in 2013 and doing new DNA tests.
On Thursday, the cases took a surprising turn when police announced they no longer believe the same man killed Welch and Bastian.
“There are two separate suspects for two separate cases,” police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said.
Few details about the new twist were released but more information is expected to be released Wednesday. That’s when the department will activate its Child Abduction Response Team (CART) and begin investigating the deaths of Welch and Bastian as if they just happened.
About 75 people from the Tacoma Police Department, FBI, Pierce County Department of Emergency Management and South Sound 911 will participate in the exercise.
A tip line will be open, detectives will be sent out to follow up on leads and a breakdown of the cases will be released to the public.
“It probably sounds odd we’re going to do this as if it’s just occurring,” Cool said. “But in using technology we have available today, we’re hoping maybe one of those older leads or new information will bring us that last little piece so we’re able to solve them.”
CART typically activates when an Amber Alert is sent out regarding a child abduction. This is the first time Tacoma police will use it to work on a cold case, a practice they said they might continue if it proves successful in the Welch and Bastian cases.
The girls’ deaths are two of the most heartbreaking in the city’s history.
Welch, a petite girl with long blond hair and glasses, went missing March 26, 1986.
She took her two younger sisters to Puget Park about 10 a.m. and then rode her bicycle home about 11 a.m. to make lunch for them.
When she returned, she chained her bike to next to one of her sister’s bike, set the lunches on the table and went looking for her siblings, who’d went to a nearby business to use the restroom.
A 13-year-old classmate later told detectives he saw a man in the park that day under the Proctor Bridge who kept looking at the girls. The man was never found.
He was described as white, 24 to 26, 5 feet 9 and skinny. He was wearing a blue jean jacket with holes in it, blue jeans and dirty, ripped white tennis shoes.
When Welch’s sisters returned to the park about 1:15 p.m., they didn’t see her so they went and played near a cave under the bridge for another half an hour.
An employee from Welch’s school reported driving by Puget Park about 1:30 p.m. and seeing Welch speaking with a man pointing toward the gulch that runs from the park to the waterfront.
He was described as possibly Hispanic, 25 to 35, 5 feet 8 with black hair, a possible mustache and light-colored clothing.
When Welch’s sisters went back to the park, they found a brown paper bag with their lunches on the table but no Welch.
They called her name from the edge of the gulch and started down a trail looking for her before their babysitter summoned them back.
By 3:10 p.m., officers arrived at the park and started searching for the missing girl. A tracking dog found her body about 11:30 p.m. in a makeshift fire pit area in the gulch.
She died of a cut to the neck.
Bastian disappeared less than five months later in Point Defiance Park.
The 13-year-old was training for an upcoming bike tour in the San Juan Islands and on Aug. 4, 1986, asked her father for permission to ride her new 18-speed Schwinn bicycle around Five Mile Drive.
She promised to be home by 6:30 p.m.
Three boys who went to school with Bastian saw her about 4:10 p.m. riding her bicycle in the opposite direction on Five Mile Drive. They recalled seeing a man riding near her but said she did not seem concerned or in danger.
Two people spoke with a girl fitting Bastian’s description between 3 and 5 p.m. at the Dalco Passage viewpoint. The girl dropped her helmet on the ground, drank from a water bottle and spoke about training for an upcoming ride.
Bastian’s parents reported her missing at 8:30 p.m.
Scores of officers and search-and-rescue parties scoured the park for her. Bloodhounds finished searching the park by 5 the next morning but didn’t find her.
Point Defiance Park was closed for two days while the search continued with the help of the Green River Killer Task Force. The unit 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.
Joggers reported a strange odor Aug. 26, 1986, in a section of the park between Five Mile Drive and the cliffs. That’s where Bastian’s body was found, in a wooded area concealed with brush. Her bike was yards away.
She’d been strangled.
A six-person task force was formed after Welch and Bastian were killed. More than 10,000 investigative hours went into the cases in 1986. Thousands of tips were looked into but no one has ever been linked to either slaying.
DNA from the killers hasn’t matched any of the 11 million or so DNA profiles in a national database of felons.
Over the years, three sketches of suspicious men related to the deaths have been drawn up.
A 16-year-old girl reported that shortly after Welch’s death a white man jumped out from beneath the Proctor Bridge, grabbed her arm and tried to pull her off the sidewalk. She managed to pull away, cross the street and meet up with her friends.
The man followed her the whole way but fled when her friends chased him off.
He was described as white or Hispanic in his late 20s or early 30s, 5 feet 7 with a small build and black wavy collar-length hair. He had a dirty face, stubble and body odor. He was wearing a black waist-length jacket, blue jeans and a large ring on his right ring finger. He was also smoking a cigarete.
Police again are asking anybody who can remember anything from the days Welch and Bastian died to come forward.
“Somebody somewhere saw something that wasn’t reported,” Cool said. “Somebody knew something and felt like we already knew it or they didn’t call because of fear or shame.”
Every detail, every lead, every suspect possibility is worth reporting, detectives said.
Police said discovering they’re looking for two killers rather than one hasn’t changed the way they investigated the cases and could bring forward new information from people who long ago ruled out a possible suspect because the person couldn’t have committed both homicides.
“Both crimes are so horrific whoever did them needs to be held accountable,” Cool said. “More importantly, the families need to know that the people who committed these crimes. I believe that missing piece will give some sense of relief to the families.”
Anyone with information about the Welch or Bastian cases is asked to call Tacoma police at 253-591-5968.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653
Timeline of March 26, 1986, the day Michella Welch disappeared:
10 a.m. — Welch and her two younger sisters left their home in the 1500 block of N. Oakes for Puget Park at 3100 N. Proctor St. Welch and one sister rode bicycles; the other sister roller skated.
11-11:30 a.m. — Welch left her sisters in the park and pedaled home to make lunch. A classmate spoke with her as left.
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.
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.
Timeline of Jennifer Bastian’s disappearance:
Aug. 4, 1986, 2:30 p.m. — Bastian left her home at 2100 N. Winnifred and rode to Point Defiance Park’s Five Mile Drive to train for an upcoming bike tour.
2-2:30 p.m. — A witness reported seeing a girl matching Bastian’s description being forced into a black van. Police later ruled this out due to credible sightings of Bastian in the park after that time.
4:10 p.m. — Three boys from Bastian’s school rode their bikes past her on Five Mile Drive.
3 p.m. to 5 p.m. — Two people reported speaking with a girl matching Bastian’s description at the Dalco Passage viewpoint.
6: 30 p.m. - Bastian did not return home.
8:30 p.m. — Bastian’s mother called police to report her missing.
Aug. 5, 1986, 5:30 a.m. — Bloodhounds conclude an unsuccessful search of the park for Bastian.
Aug. 5-7, 1986 — Point Defiance Park closes for an exhaustive search for the girl.
Aug. 26, 1986 — Bastian’s body is found in a wooded area of Five Mile Drive between the road and the cliffs.