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Court file: DNA on restaurant napkin led to suspect in 1986 killing of Tacoma girl

Gary Hartman appears in court June 21, 2018 (KOMO News photo)

TACOMA, Wash. - A Pierce County man arrested this week in connection with the 1986 killing of 12-year-old Michella Welch in Tacoma has now been officially charged with her murder.

Gary Charles Hartman, 66, of Lakewood was linked to the 32-year-old case through DNA evidence, according to court documents released Friday.

The documents say a high-tech DNA analysis firm found a match with two brothers who lived in the north end of Tacoma in 1986 when Michella Welch was murdered. Gary Hartman was one of them. They then were able to get a restaurant napkin he had used to confirm his DNA.

“The murders of Michella Welch and Jennifer Bastian stunned our community and were among the main reasons we formed a cold case team,” said Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist. “DNA technology is rapidly advancing. If you’re a criminal who left DNA at a crime scene, you might as well turn yourself in now. We will eventually catch you.”

Tacoma police spent much of Wednesday night searching a home on Lake Grove Street SW in Lakewood after Hartman's arrest. Investigators said they were processing the house in connection to the murder arrest.

According to police files, Michella and her two younger sisters were visiting Puget Park, at 3100 N. Proctor in Tacoma, on March 26, 1986, when Michella left on her bicycle at about 10 a.m. to get lunch for her sisters. Meanwhile, her sisters left the playground area to play near a gulch.

When her sisters returned, Michella’s bicycle was at the playground area and sandwiches were waiting for them on the picnic table, but there was no sign of Michella. The sisters searched and could not find her, the court file says.

Police responded and searched as well. Eventually a search and rescue unit found Michella’s body in an isolated area of the gulch more than a quarter mile away from the play area of the park, according to court documents.

The Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy and determined that Michella died from blunt force trauma to the head. There was also evidence of sexual assault, court documents say.

In May 2006, a male DNA profile was developed from the swabs collected at the autopsy. Detectives searched state and national data bases but did not find any match.

Twelve years later, Tacoma police detectives began working with a genetic genealogist at Parabon Nanolabs. Genealogists used DNA technology to identify a subject by matching the unknown profile to a family member. Traditional genealogy was then used to build a family tree from publicly available websites.

The genealogist identified two brothers who had the correct amount of shared DNA to match the DNA in evidence. They both lived in the north end of Tacoma during 1986. Gary C. Hartman was one of those brothers. according to the case file.

On June 4, Tacoma police began surveillance of Hartman’s home. The next day, Hartman left his home and drove to Western State Hospital where he is employed. Hartman and a co-worker drove to a nearby restaurant and ordered breakfast.

The detective sat at a table approximately 10 feet from Hartman and watched as Hartman wiped his mouth several times with a brown paper napkin, then crumpled it up and placed it into a bag.

An employee was cleaning up the area and collected the bag, which she turned over to the detective at his request. The napkin was submitted to the state crime laboratory for comparison to the unknown DNA profile in this case.

The crime lab reported that a match was found between the DNA on the napkin and the DNA in evidence.

Hartman was arrested and booked into the Pierce County Jail. He was officially charged Friday with first-degree murder and first-degree rape in the case.

Hartman's arrest has stunned long-time neighbors near the Lakewood home where he now lives.

"Still in complete shock. Just kinda looking back on conversations I’ve had," said neighbor Cindy Peterson.

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