Discarded napkin led to arrest in 32-year-old murder case

Michella Welch

The final break in a 32-year-old murder case came after Tacoma detectives picked up a napkin that their suspect had discarded after eating with a co-worker. The DNA on the napkin was all they needed to determine that they had their man after decades of investigating hundreds of leads and theories in the murder of 12-year-old Michella Welch in 1986.

The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office charged Gary Charles Hartman, 66, with first-degree rape and first-degree murder last week. Hartman pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Monday. He is being held in Pierce County Jail, with bail set at $5 million. 

Hartman has no prior criminal record. He had never been a person of interest as the parade of investigators took on the unsolved case as the years passed into decades. But those thousands of hours of dogged police work paid off with advances in DNA technology, and ultimately, an arrest. But that arrest means more work is still underway.

“This case has been under investigation for 32 years,” Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said. “The detectives are still working this investigation.”

The case started on March 26, 1986. Welch was playing in the Puget Park with her two younger sisters. She rode her bicycle home to get them some lunch. Her sisters left the playground to go to a nearby store to use the restroom and play nearby. When her sisters returned, Welch’s bicycle was found at the playground. The sandwiches sat on the picnic table. The sisters searched and could not find her.

A search and rescue unit found Welch’s body in a gulch more than a quarter mile away. She had been sexually assaulted and killed with a slash across her neck and a blow to her head. 

Months later, Jennifer “Jenni” Bastian, a 13-year-old girl, was assaulted and killed while riding her bicycle through Point Defiance Park. It was thought that the killing of both girls was connected, putting the community on edge.

“These cases stunned the city in 1986, and they stayed with us,” Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said.

Local law enforcement officials announced at a press conference last week that an arrest had been made in a 32-year-old murder case that had put the community on edge in 1986. The press conference was streamed live on Facebook and has been viewed more than 6,000 people. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

The theory that the murders were committed by the same person changed in 2013, when tests of DNA collected from both cases concluded they came from different suspects. They also didn’t match any DNA profiles filed on national databases of convicted felons.

Robert D. Washburn was arrested in Bastian’s murder just last month after he provided DNA that matched samples collected at the crime scene in 1986. Investigators had created a list of more than 200 possible suspects, who did not already have their DNA on file. Washburn was on that list. His DNA was among the last of the batches Tacoma investigators had submitted for comparison.

Tacoma Police detectives meanwhile had begun working with a genetic genealogist at Parabon Nanolabs who used DNA technology to identify a subject by matching the DNA sample collected at Welch’s murder scene with genetic family trees found on publicly available websites. The genealogist identified two brothers who had the shared DNA with the DNA evidence. They had both lived in the North End of Tacoma during 1986. Washburn also lived in the area, but investigators don’t know if they knew each other.

Tacoma Police then began watching the Hartman brothers. Hartman’s DNA entered the case after he and a co-worker from Western State Hospital drove to a nearby restaurant and ordered breakfast. A detective sat watching just feet away. Hartman wiped his mouth several times with a brown paper napkin, then crumpled it up and placed it into a bag. A restaurant worker then cleaned the table and collected the bag. She then gave the trash to the detective. 

The napkin was submitted to the Washington State Patrol crime laboratory for comparison to the DNA profile in this Welch case. 

It matched.

Hartman was arrested without incident during a traffic stop on June 20. Police then searched his Lakewood home for other evidence.

“If you think you can run, you are wrong,” Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said at the press conference announcing the arrest. “If you think you can hide, you are wrong. If you think the Tacoma Police Department will ever give up, you are wrong. The Tacoma Police Department will never give up.”

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