DNA in a genealogy database and a used napkin link suspect to Michella Welch murder

Police use help from genealogy service, napkin to solve decades-old cold case.

A Lakewood man suspected of sexually assaulting and killing Michella Welch, 12, in Tacoma's Puget Park in 1986, has been charged with first-degree murder.
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A Lakewood man suspected of sexually assaulting and killing Michella Welch, 12, in Tacoma's Puget Park in 1986, has been charged with first-degree murder.

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.

After more than three decades of working the cold case, police in May called on a genetic genealogist to help.

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 the North End at the time Welch was killed in Puget Park.

Timeline in Michella Welch's homicide case:

Police said Gary Hartman did not submit a DNA sample to a genealogy database, and it was a relative whose DNA was first found by the genealogist and then 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, court records show.

Gary Hartman's DNA was collected June 5 when a detective followed him to a restaurant where he was having lunch 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 the shores of Steilacoom Lake and at his job at Western State Hospital in Lakewood.

"The investigation does not end with the arrest," police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said.

Hartman has no prior criminal record.

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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 died March 26, 1986, after taking her sisters to Puget Park to play.

Michella Welch, 12, was killed in Tacoma's Puget Park in March 1986.

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 under a bridge.

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’d 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.

Gary Charles Hartman, a 66-year-old Lakewood man, has been arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder in the 1986 killing of 12-year-old Michella Welch, one of Tacoma's most notorious cold cases.

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 close 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, leading police to the revelation 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.

That’s when police used new methods to drum up new leads.

In 2016, they activated the department's Child Abduction Response Team to rework the homicides as if the girls were recently kidnapped.

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 Inc., 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.

This image is a computer-generated image, based on DNA, of the man who killed Michella Welch in 1986. It may not look like the actual killer, but is a composite of average features for males with genetic similarities. Tacoma Police Department Courtesy

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.

Chief Ramsdell said solving both cold cases in the span of 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 King-5. “But it’s not. It’s still real all the time.”

Stacia Glenn; 253-597-8653
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