Suspect linked to 1986 murder of girl by DNA he provided police

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Pattie Bastian and her daughter Theresa thank the support of the community and the dedication of the Tacoma Police Department in the decades-long investigation into the murder of Jennifer “Jenni” Bastian in 1986. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma Police detectives made an arrest in a long-open murder case last week. The arrest came after DNA that Robert D. Washburn provided matched samples collected at the crime scene in 1986. 

The department had started testing DNA samples from open cases in 2016, thanks to funding from a $200,000 federal grant. The department would send the samples in batches so the lab would not be overwhelmed. Washburn’s sample was in the last batch of 20 DNA swabs the Tacoma Police Department submitted for testing.

The samples matched. The estimated probability of DNA he provided matching DNA from a semen stain at the crime scene is one in 57 trillion. Washburn has now been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Jennifer “Jenni” Bastian, a 13-year-old girl who disappeared while riding her bicycle through Point Defiance Park.

The effort to test the backlog of DNA samples, which lead to Washburn’s arrest, had been championed by Jennifer Bastian’s mother, Pattie, who continues to volunteer at the police department, where detectives kept her updated about the investigation into her daughter’s murder as the years passed.

“Everyone in the community was affected,” Pattie Bastian said, noting that 1,500 people attended the funeral and many of her daughter’s former classmates remain friends today – now with children of their own. “We were overwhelmed with this 32 years ago, and we continued to be overwhelmed to this day.”

Jennifer Bastian, a girl who loved kittens, bike rides and softball, had been training for an upcoming trek through the San Juan Islands when she did not return on Aug. 4, 1986. Her body and bicycle were found 24 days later. The Green River Task Force had been called in to assist because of their experience in processing outdoor crime scenes from the trail of bodies Green River Killer Gary Ridgeway had left before his arrest. Investigators concluded that Jennifer Bastian had been sexually assaulted and strangled and that the location of her body had been prepared before she was kidnapped and killed there.

Washburn, now 60, had first entered the police files in 1986, when he had reported seeing a suspicious man jogging in Point Defiance during the investigation of another murder, that of 12-year-old Michella Welch. Welch had disappeared March 26, 1986, when she was looking for her younger sisters in Puget Park after returning home to make their lunches. Her sisters had walked to a nearby business to use the restroom. Welch’s body was found in a nearby gulch hours after she was reported missing. She had been sexually assaulted, and her throat had been cut.

Washburn had called police months later about seeing a man resembling a composite sketch of Welch’s suspected killer that had been circulated around the region. Jennifer Bastian disappeared four months later. Detectives conducted a follow-up interview with Washburn later that year to gain details about his encounter with the mystery jogger. Washburn then also mentioned smelling a foul odor while jogging along Five Mile Drive at a time when police had closed the park to search for Jennifer Bastian. 

Time passed without an arrest. Washburn had since moved to Illinois. But the investigation continued.

DNA samples collected in Jennifer Bastian’s murder investigation back in 1986 were compared in 2013 to samples of convicted murders and sex offenders in state and federal databases. None matched. But the investigation continued.

Detectives then made a list of possible suspects that didn’t already have samples of their DNA in those databases. Washburn’s name was on the list. He voluntarily gave a sample to the FBI earlier this year that later matched the crime-scene samples.

“Our police department will never give up,” Police Chief Don Ramsdell said, noting that a generation of officers continued to investigate and reexamine the case, helped by FBI agents, U.S. Marshalls and a host of other law enforcement agencies. 

Washburn was arrested by Illinois State Police and Tacoma detectives without incident and is scheduled to return to Tacoma later this month to face trial.

“This case was one of the main reasons we formed a cold-case team in 2011 with the Tacoma Police Department and the FBI,” said Prosecutor Mark Lindquist. “We are committed to closure for victims and the community. Justice may be delayed, but it won’t be denied.” 

Detectives had long believed the assault and murder of Michella Welch and Jennifer Bastian in 1986 were committed by the same man. That changed five years ago, when DNA tests from those crime scenes didn’t match each other. 

Michella Welch’s murder remains unsolved but is still being investigate. Detectives are also still gathering evidence in Jennifer Bastian’s murder even after the arrest. 

“This case has been under investigation for 32 years,” said Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool, who knew Jennifer Bastian from their interactions at the YMCA a generation ago. “It is still under investigation.”

Anyone with information about either case should call Tacoma police at (253) 591-5968.

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