DNA on Napkin and Family Tree Constructed from Internet Solves 32 Year Old Tacoma Cold Case

An undated photo of Michella Welch.

An undated photo of Michella Welch.

A Washington state man was arrested on June 20th in the 32-year-old rape/murder of a 12-year-old girl that occurred on March 26th, 1986 using DNA identification and computer modeling reported Tacoma Police Chief Donald Ramsdell.

It was on that day in March 1986 that Michella Welch, age 12, went to the Puget Park in Tacoma with her two sisters. Welch left at approximately 11 am to go home to get lunch for herself and her two siblings. The two siblings, who remained at the park went to use a restroom at a nearby business at 12:30 pm and returned at 1 pm and continued to play. At 2 pm, the sisters found Michella’s bicycle and the lunches at the park but didn’t find their sister.

An active search was carried out throughout the day, and at 11 pm that night, a search dog located Michella’s remains, dead from blunt force trauma to the head it was reported at that time.

66-year-old Gary Hartman, who worked at the Western State Hospital, was not one of several originally investigated in the rape/murder of the 6th grader. He was tracked down using DNA evidence taken from a discarded napkin at a restaurant near where Hartman worked on June 5th, investigators said.

66-year-old Gary Hartman in court.

66-year-old Gary Hartman in court.

The 1986 murder went cold for 20 years after no arrests were made. Then in 2006, a DNA profile was developed from the crime scene. But, unfortunately, there were no matches in the database at that time and the case went cold once again.

Then 12 years later, the case was re-opened and investigators, assisted by genetic genealogists and DNA technology, were able to identify family members of the unidentified suspect. Following that, investigators went online and constructed a family tree from readily available information on public websites. Using this information, they were able to narrow down suspects to Hartman and his brother, who both lived in the Tacoma area at the time of the murder.

Detectives began monitoring Hartman on June 4th, and on June 5th, followed him to a restaurant near his work where he went to eat breakfast with a  co-worker. Investigators took Hartman’s discarded napkin from an employee at the restaurant and delivered it to the lab where they found a positive match.

On June 20th, Hartman was pulled over during a traffic stop and taken into custody. he was arraigned on charges of Murder I and Rape I, and his bail was set at $5 million in Pierce County court.

The police chief credited “advancements in DNA identification and computer modeling combined with tried and true police techniques” in solving the 32-year-old case.