DNA Left On Napkin Cracks 32-Year-Old Cold Case

Michelle Halsing works on mitochondrial DNA testing
Jeff Chiu / AP Photo

A 12-year-old girl was murdered in 1986 in Tacoma, Washington, and her case remained unsolved until a discarded napkin helped police solve who killed her, reports KMOV4. The person that the DNA revealed as having killed Michella Welch was a man by the name of Gary Hartman.

The 66-year-old man, who would have been around 34 at the time of the crimes, was arrested Wednesday and charged with rape and murder, both in the first-degree, according to Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell, who shared the information with reporters at a news conference. Hartman will be arraigned on Monday.

Police say Welch and her two younger sisters were riding their bikes around Puget Park on March 26, 1986. Reports say that around 11 a.m., Michella took her bike and headed home to get lunch. While she was gone, her sisters needed to use a restroom and visited a business nearby, but by the time they returned to the park, there was no sign of their sister. The pair remained there playing until 2 p.m., when “they noticed the bicycle and lunch at the spot where they were supposed to meet for a picnic, the chief said. The girls notified their regular baby sitter, who contacted the girls’ mother. Police were called and a search began,” reports KMOV4.

“A search dog found Michella’s body just before 11 p.m. that night in an isolated area in the gulch, more than a quarter mile away from the play area,” Ransdell said. “Michella had been sexually assaulted and murdered.”

Authorities gathered as much evidence as they could find at the crime scene, but no arrest was made. Then in August of that same year, another girl, Jennifer Bastian, 13, was found murdered and the police wondered if the two horrible crimes were connected, while a community was in shock.

“Police developed a male DNA profile from crime scene evidence, but found no match in state and national databases. In 2016, police began working with a genetic genealogist,” reports KMOV4.

“Genetic genealogy uses a DNA technology to identify subjects by matching the unknown profile to a family member,” Ramsdell said. “Traditional genealogy is then used to build a family tree from publicly available websites.”

Two brothers came under suspicion because of it, so police got to work with surveillance.

Detective Steve Reopelle followed Gary Hartman into a restaurant and noted that he saw him use his napkin a couple of times and threw it into a bag, which he abandoned. Once the suspect left it behind, Reopelle retrieved it and sent the napkin to the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory for testing. When they were told it matched, Hartman was taken into custody. As for the Jennifer Bastian case, DNA revealed she was killed by someone else. That person, Robert D. Washburn, 60, was arrested last May and charged in her murder.