The Michella Welch Murder Case Arrest:
Old crime scene DNA, a modern napkin discarded and arrest of a 66-year old nurse
June 23, 2018
Tacoma Police Chief Donald Ramsdell at Friday news conference discussing an arrest made in the decades old Michella Welch murder case
Michella Welch was murdered in March 1986 in Tacoma, Washington
(TACOMA, WA.) – Some of the first words spoken at Friday’s news conference by Tacoma Police Chief Donald Ramsdell were these: “It is extraordinary that I would be standing here again just a little over a month after bringing you news of the Jennifer Bastion case, another 32-year old cold case.”
And extraordinary it is. Cutting edge DNA analysis combined with genealogical DNA matching has produced a potent new weapon that police can now use for the first time to find a suspect-in-a-haystack and effect an arrest in a decades old murder case that prior to now would have been next to impossible to pull off.
How potent a tool is it? At the same news conference Friday to discuss the arrest of 66-year Gary Hartman of Lakewood, Washington, Mark Lindquist the Pierce County Prosecutor said, “There have been advances in DNA technology and we’ve been staying on top of those advances. Today we’re at a point where if you’re a criminal and you’ve left your DNA at the scene you might as well turn yourself in now because we will catch you.”
And the “catch” in this case is a man, a suspect who was never on police radar 32 years ago in March of 1986 when 12-year old Michella Welch was raped and murdered.
The arrest of a suspect
“On Wed. June 29th in the city of Lakewood we arrested Gary Hartman as a suspect in the murder of Michella Welch,” said Police Chief Ramsdell at the Friday news conference. “He was taken into custody during a traffic strop following several days of surveillance by our detectives. The suspect was cooperative and the arrest occurred without incident….search warrants have been executed at the Hartman residence in Lakewood as well as his place of employment.”
“We’ve charged Mr. Hartman with murder in the first degree and rape in the first degree. We’ll be arraigning him on those charges Monday,” said Lindquist.
Ramsdell did not say what, if anything the suspect said to officers when he was arrested. And how did police narrow in enough to make an arrest with probable cause?
Using a DNA sample from the decades old crime scene, a genealogist was able to construct a “family tree” using public websites, then ran that family tree through a public database and got a significant match.
That DNA sleuthing produced the names of two brothers (Hartman and his younger brother) that were, based on their DNA profiles possible suspects who would have been of the right age at the time to have committed the murder and lived in the general area of the North End of Tacoma where the crime occurred.
A genealogist and lab techs told police they believed that one of the Hartman brothers had killed Welch. They recommended that officers get DNA samples from them to compare to the DNA sample from the crime scene.
The lunch, the napkin, the crumpled up sack
Police then followed Gary Hartman as he walked into a restaurant on June 5th with a co-worker to eat. An officer observed Hartman use a napkin to wipe his mouth more than once and observed Hartman, at the end of his meal, place that napkin in a sack which he thing crumpled up and discarded.
The officer retrieved the napkin, sent it to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and the lab on Tuesday declared Gary Hartman’s DNA a match with the DNA recovered 32 years ago from the Michella Welch crime scene. Police also collected a DNA sample from Hartman's brother. Officers followed him also to a restaurant where he was having dinner. There they collected a straw he had used.
On March 26, 1986, at about 10 am, 12-year-old Michella Welch and her two younger sisters were visiting Puget Park at 3100 North Proctor Street in Tacoma. Michella left the park to get lunch for her sisters.
When she returned, she may have gone looking for her sisters who had gone to a nearby business to use a restroom. When Michella’s sisters returned to the park around 1 pm., they found Michella’s bike and lunch on the table, but could not find Michella.
A search was conducted of an adjacent gulch where Michella’s body was discovered several hours later.
While awaiting his arraignment on charges Monday, suspect Hartman is being held in lieu of $5 million bail in the Pierce County Jail.
The News Tribune in Tacoma said neighbors described Hartman as cordial and a "positive presence" in the neighborhood. But the paper also spoke with Stephanie Brookens, a nurse who'd had contact with Hartman over the years.
She told the paper that several co-workers believed him to be a liar. Bookens told the newspaper on Friday, "The first time I met him and shook his hand, he made my skin crawl and my creep-o-meter went into the red.”