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Cops Use DNA From Napkin To Nab Suspect In Cold Case Murder Of 12-Year-Old Washington Girl

Michella Welch was abducted from a park, sexually assaulted and found with her throat slit on March 26, 1986. This week, Tacoma police arrested Gary Charles Hartman and charged him with her murder.

By JB Nicholas

Police in Tacoma, Washington say they used the same advanced DNA profiling technique that cracked the Golden State Killer case to catch the man who sexually assaulted and killed a 12-year-old girl more than three decades ago.

Gary Charles Hartman, 66, was arrested on Wednesday and charged with first degree murder for killing Michella Welch according to the News Tribune, a local newspaper in Tacoma. 

Using unknown DNA the suspect left at the scene, a genetic genealogist at Parabon Nanolabs found comparable DNA in publically available samples and narrowed down the search to Hartman and his brother, Tacoma police said during a Friday news conference. Police then secretly — and without a search warrant — obtained a sample of Hartman’s DNA he left on a napkin in a coffee shop.

Police then sent Hartman’s DNA to a Washington state crime lab, where testing matched it to DNA left at the scene of Welch’s murder.

“If you left your DNA at the scene, you will be caught,” Tacoma prosecutor Mark Lindquist said, summarizing the power of the new technology.

Welch was abducted on March 26, 1986 from a large, thickly-forested Tacoma park. Her body was found by searchers later that day. She had been sexually assaulted by a unknown assailant, and killed with a knife, by a cut to the throat, police said.

At the time Welch was killed, Hartman lived little more than a mile away from the entrance to the park, named Point Defiance, the News Tribune reported. In the years since, Hartman stayed in the area and became a registered nurse. He had never been arrested before Wednesday.

In 1998, Hartman was hired by the state of Washington and worked at Western State Hospital, an in-patient psychiatric facility that includes a secure ward for the criminally insane. The actress Frances Farmer was incarcerated at Western State for more than five years in the 1940s, and in her memoir, “Will There Really Be A Morning,” said she was repeatedly raped by orderlies.

Hartman worked at Western State as a community nurse specialist. His job was to facilitate the discharge of patients from the hospital to less restrictive community facilities, according to the Spokesman-Review, a newspaper in Spokane.  

One of his co-workers spoke to the paper and said: “I’ve known him. I’ve supervised him in the past. He interviews patients and so forth for placement, to go to a specific group home or facility. He’s gotten a couple of very troubled patients off the ward that have been there for decades.”

One of his Hartman’s neighbors spoke to the Spokesman-Review too and said everyone thought he was “greater than sliced bread.”

“This is completely from left field for us,” the neighbor added. “I mean like way left field. He had four or five collectible cars that he and his wife would always drive around. Very cordial and very sweet older people.”

Hartman was arraigned on Thursday and as of Friday was still being held in lieu of $5,000,000 bail, jail records show.

[Photo: Tacoma Police Department]

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