How napkin led to detectives solving 32-year-old cold case murder

Napkins a man left behind in a restaurant has led to him being charged with the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl – 32 years after it happened.

Gary Hartman, 66, was arrested during a traffic stop this week and charged with the 1986 death of Michella Welch in Tacoma, Washington, the News Tribune reported.

Police say DNA from the napkins Hartman used in a restaurant matched with DNA found at the crime scene, leading to his arrest. He was charged on Friday with first-degree murder and first-degree rape.

Michella was playing in a Tacoma park with her two younger sisters when she rode her bicycle home to get sandwiches, according to prosecutors. Her sisters went to play in another part of the park and when they returned found the sandwiches but no sign of their older sister.

Gary Hartman was arrested and charged on Friday 32 years after his alleged crime. Source: The News Tribune

Searchers found her body later the same day in a gulch around 400m from the play area.

A medical examiner at the time determined that Michella died from blunt force trauma to the head and said there was evidence of sexual assault.

Detectives have continued to investigate and two years ago contacted a genealogist, who used a DNA sample from Michella’s body to build a family tree through public websites, then ran it through a database and received a significant match.

The genealogist identified two brothers who had the correct amount of shared DNA to match the DNA in evidence. One of those brothers was Hartman, prosecutors said.

Michella Welsh was raped and killed in 1986 as she played with her sisters in the city of Tacoma, Washington. Source: The News Tribute

Detectives then began surveillance of Hartman, following him to his job as a nurse at Washington state’s psychiatric hospital and then to a restaurant where he left behind napkins that were later taken by the detectives. A DNA sample from the napkins matched the DNA from the crime scene, prosecutors said.

Hartman, who has no criminal record, is being held on $5 million bail. It wasn’t known if Hartman, of Lakewood, Washington, had obtained an attorney.

This is the second Tacoma cold case arrest in as many months. In May, authorities arrested Robert Washburn at his Illinois home a week after they received results of a DNA test linking him to the death of 13-year-old Jennifer Bastian.

Jennifer disappeared while riding her bike in a Tacoma park on a summer evening, and her body was found in a wooded area more than two weeks later in August 1986.

Washburn has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in that case.

Tacoma police said Friday while they once believed the two cases could be linked they no longer believe that to be true.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell said making the arrests in the span of two months in crimes that were committed decades ago was “extraordinary.”