In an effort to shake loose new leads in the slayings of two Tacoma girls in 1986, police are using DNA to predict what the men responsible for the killings might have looked like.
Police on Wednesday released two composite renderings of the men who are believed to have sexually assaulted and killed Michella Welch, 12, and Jennifer Bastian, 13, in two North End parks.
Detectives last week said for the first time that they no longer believe the same man killed both girls, giving new direction to two of the most heart-wrenching cases in the city’s history.
The images were created by Parabon NanoLabs Inc., a Virginia-based company that analyzed the DNA samples, identified genetic markers, such as eye and hair color, and used phenotyping to predict what the men might have looked like.
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“After 30 years, we’re using the most advanced technology that’s available now to provide the public with descriptions of possible suspects that will trigger a memory and prompt them to call in a tip,” police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said Wednesday. “Then we can go out and contact them and hopefully make an arrest.”
This is only the fifth time a law enforcement agency using Parabon’s new Snapshot technology, developed in 2014, has gone public with suspect composites.
Using another rare investigative tool, Tacoma police on Wednesday activated its Child Abduction Response Team to rework the Welch and Bastian homicides as if the girls were recently kidnapped.
More than 60 people from the Police Department, the FBI, the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management and South Sound 911 are participating in the two-day exercise, which will wrap up late Thursday.
A new tip line (253-798-TIPS) was opened Wednesday and call-takers were accepting new tips and entering them into a database that detectives then sorted and will follow up on.
The database includes thousands of tips accumulated over the past three decades in the Welch and Bastian cases.
Police said they have considered more than 2,000 possible suspects over the course of the investigation and vetted about 200, none of whom panned out.
That’s why the CART team, which has activated about four times since it was accredited 2 1/2 years ago, was brought in. It’s the first time CART was activated for cold cases, and, depending on its success with this exercise, it might not be the last.
DNA LEADS TO NEW PROFILES
Although the Welch and Bastian cases are 30 years old, detectives have never stopped working the cases.
They’ve stayed in touch with both families. At least six DNA tests have been run on evidence since the first test was done in 1988. A behavioral profile of the killer was developed in 2013.
Detectives Gene Miller, who is now retired, and Lindsey Wade, who heads up the cold case unit, presented the cases to a 20-member panel of experts at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children three years ago.
While reviewing the case in 2013, Miller noticed a piece of physical evidence found near Bastian’s body that had never been tested for DNA so he sent it in.
The results were shocking.
The DNA found near Bastian’s body did not match DNA found at the Welch crime scene, leading police to believe two different men killed the girls.
“I am just totally surprised in our advancements in technology. It’s mind-boggling what they have come up with,” said Wulf Werner, a retired detective who worked the Welch and Bastian cases in 1986 and attended Wednesday’s press conference out of curiosity.
“I just hope someone out there will come forward,” he said. “Every little bit of information is useful.”
DNA profiles from both killers were run through a national database of felons but did not match with the 11 million or so DNA profiles in the database.
Determined to find new leads, police asked Parabon to develop composite images of the two men.
The FBI paid $7,000 for both pictures. Tacoma-Pierce County Crime Stoppers chipped in another $500 to have the images updated with hairstyles from the 1980s.
Steven Armentrout, CEO of Parabon, stressed that the process was based in science but the images aren’t necessarily an exact representation of what the men might have looked like.
“This is not a photo identification,” he said. “We’re providing an approximation of what the individual looks like. It’s supposed to jog memories and help investigators narrow their suspect list.”
The process takes 30 to 45 days.
Parabon analyzes a DNA sample and determines the individual’s physical characteristics in a kind of reverse-engineer process. It can tell eye color, hair color, ancestry, skin complexion, face shape and freckling.
The analysis cannot read height, weight or other environmental characteristics.
Then the company gives a confidence rating to let agencies know how sure it is about each particular physical trait.
In the Tacoma cases, Parabon applied the traits of each suspect to a three-dimensional model of a 25-year-old man.
“We don’t know what the suspects’ weight or height was,” Cool said. “What we’re hoping is that with this visual reference, someone can see some resemblance to a neighbor who lived up the street or maybe a family member.”
MANY SIMILARITIES IN CASES
It’s understandable why detectives for so long believed the girls’ killings were linked.
Both were blond and petite. Both were killed in North End parks. Police said there were similarities at the crime scenes. Both were killed within a five-month period. Both were snatched during broad daylight.
Welch disappeared March 26, 1986, from Puget Park. She left her sisters there and went home to make lunch. Her sisters found the lunches on a picnic table and Welch’s bike but never saw her again.
Her body was found later that night near a makeshift fire pit area in a gulch. Her throat had been cut.
On Aug. 4, Bastian took her new Schwinn 12-speed for a spin around Five Mile Drive to prepare for an upcoming bike tour in the San Juan Islands. A search was launched when she failed to return home for dinner.
Joggers found her body 22 days later near her bike in a wooded area between Five Mile Drive and the cliffs. She’d been strangled.
Police believe Bastian’s killer likely tried to grab other girls before or after her death. It’s possible he tried to use a ruse on other potential victims. Investigators want to hear about those tips as well.
“We believe these cases are solvable and we’re not going to quit trying,” Cool said.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653
Timeline of March 26, 1986, the day Michella Welch disappeared:
10 a.m. — Michella Welch and her two younger sisters leave their home in the 1500 block of North Oakes for Puget Park at 3100 N. Proctor St. Welch and one sister ride bicycles; the other sister roller skates.
11-11:30 a.m. — Welch leaves her sisters in the park and pedals home to make lunch. A classmate speaks with her as she leaves.
1-1:30 p.m. — An employee at Welch’s school sees 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.