Cold case team’s success lauded by Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist
Tacoma police detectives were surprised in May and June to hear their in-house cold-case unit described as an arm of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.
High-profile arrests in two long-unsolved cases — the 1986 murders of Jennifer Bastian, 13, and Michella Welch, 12 — marked moments of quiet triumph for the department. They also provided a publicity opportunity for Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who appeared at news conferences tied to the arrests and charges of two suspects, using rhetoric that police department insiders found hard to fathom.
“This case was one of the main reasons that we formed a cold case team back in 2011 in conjunction with the Tacoma Police Department and the FBI," Lindquist said on May 14, following the arrest of Robert D. Washburn, 60, charged with first-degree murder in Bastian’s death.
At another news conference five weeks later, Lindquist used similar phrasing after the arrest of Gary Charles Hartman, 66, charged with murder in Welch’s death.
“Jennifer Bastian and Michella Welch were among the main reasons that we formed a cold case team with the Tacoma Police Department in 2011."
Lindquist, running for re-election this year, subsequently added a similar reference to the “news” section of his campaign website, again referring to the Bastian and Welch cases.
“These two cases were among the main reasons we formed a cold case team in 2011 with the Tacoma Police Department,” the site states.
What did Lindquist mean by “we?” What did he do to form a "cold case team" in his office?
News Tribune archives and statements from Tacoma police in the present and past show the department formed a cold-case unit in 2011, driven by the efforts of detectives Gene Miller and Lindsey Wade. Both have since retired from the police department.
Miller joined the prosecutor’s office as an investigator in 2015. Records show he is assigned to the prosecutor's high-priority offender unit.
Wade, who declined to speak for the record, now works for the state Attorney General's Office.
The News Tribune sought clarification from Tacoma police, asking if the department is a member of a cold-case unit within the prosecutor’s office.
Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool forwarded a one-word answer from department commanders:
Asked whether the department was aware of any deputy prosecutor being assigned to a cold-case unit or team prior to the arrest in the Bastian case, commanders again gave a one-word answer:
The final question — did the prosecutor’s office play any role in the origin of Tacoma’s cold-case unit? — led to a longer answer from Tacoma commanders.
“One of our detectives went through the chain of TPD command with the idea of a cold case unit in 2009. Det. Miller was approved to work cold cases part time, in addition to his active homicide cases.
“Det. Miller learned of a grant, ‘Solving Cold Cases through DNA,’ a National Institute of Justice grant. Det. Miller went to the Prosecutor and advised him of the grant and asked for the support of the prosecutor’s office. Prosecutor Mark Lindquist wrote a letter of support for the Tacoma Police Department which was submitted as part of the grant application.
“The Tacoma Police Department was awarded the grant which then allowed the funding to establish the TPD Cold Case Unit.”
The prosecutor’s office was not mentioned as a partner in various News Tribune stories about Tacoma's cold-case unit published between 2009 and 2015.
The articles, written by several different reporters, typically featured lengthy interviews of Miller and Wade, and their efforts to compile DNA evidence in dozens of unsolved cases. The then-unsolved murders of Bastian and Welch featured prominently, along with Miller's frequently stated hopes that the cases could be cracked.
Does endorsing a grant and agreeing with an idea add up to Lindquist's office forming a cold-case team in 2011 in conjunction with Tacoma police and the FBI, as his recent phrasing suggests?
Even his own staffers aren’t sure. Deputy prosecutors who don’t want to be named, fearing retribution from their boss, say the prosecutor’s office doesn’t have a cold-case team. It has a homicide team led by chief criminal deputy prosecutor Jared Ausserer, which fields all homicides, not just those connected to rare cold-case breaks.
The News Tribune recently sought clarification from the prosecutor’s office about its cold-case team. Who was assigned to it? What was its budget? When was it formed, and by whom?
Spokesman James Lynch provided a quote from Lindquist via email:
“When Gene Miller first presented this idea to us, I thought there was great potential,” Lindquist said. “The success of this project has exceeded my optimistic expectations. We continue to be impressed by the Tacoma Police Department and all of our other partners who commit time, resources, and passion to this important project.”
Lynch added a separate statement, naming Ausserer and Miller as members of the cold-case team. He said it has no separate budget.
Asked about the origins of the team, Lynch referred to Miller’s work with Tacoma police.
“Gene Miller came to Prosecutor Mark Lindquist in October 2009 while he was still with TPD seeking support and partnership for this cold case effort,” Lynch wrote. “Mark agreed with the importance of a partnership and provided support in obtaining funding for TPD through the National Institute of Justice. The National Institute of Justice awarded TPD a $225,000 cold case grant in 2011.”
Lynch also provided two letters written by Lindquist in 2010 and 2011, endorsing a grant application sent to the National Institute of Justice, seeking funding for cold-case work. Additional records show that $225,000 grant was obtained by Tacoma police, leading to the formation of the department’s cold-case unit.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the origins of the cold-case unit came from Lindquist himself, prior to the recent arrests in the Bastian and Welch cases. In July 2011, he wrote a column for The News Tribune about the Tacoma Police Department. He didn't use the word “we,” nor did he refer to a team within his office.
“Suppressing violent gang activity is not the only area where the department is a leader in the state,” Lindquist wrote. “Earlier this year, it created a cold-case unit to investigate unsolved murders dating to 1961.”