Gary Charles Hartman was arrested on June 20, 2018 and charged with the March 26, 1986 rape and murder of 12-year-old Michella Welch in Tacoma, Washington.
Welch had been spending the afternoon with her two younger sisters in Puget Park. She went home to make them sandwiches, when she returned with lunch her sisters had left the park to use the restroom. Welch was last seen looking for her sisters. She was found by a tracking dog at 11:30 pm that night in a fire pit area. She had been sexually assaulted and her throat had been cut.
This murder was long thought to be linked to the similar murder of 13-year-old Jennifer Bastian, but DNA testing in 2013 showed that two different men killed the girls.
The FGG investigation was conducted by Parabon Nanolabs. Hartman and a brother were both identified as possible suspects. Investigators made the initial confirmation through surveillance and the surreptitious sampling of a napkin Hartman had used and discarded at a restaurant.
Hartman is described as a nurse and a family man with no criminal record.
On March 22, 2022, Hartman was found guilty on all charges at a bench trial before a judge alone in Pierce County Superior Court. He was sentenced to 26 years and 6 months in prison.
A victim impact statement submitted by Michella’s aunt read, “Even though it took 32 years to arrest Gary Hartman the hole is still there. We will never get Michella back but the arrest of Gary Hartman and bringing him to trial is a sad win for our family.”
Hartman appealed his conviction to the Washington State Court of Appeals, which handed down its decision on August 22, 2023. Hartman argued that the DNA evidence should be suppressed. The Court rejected Hartman’s argument that he had a privacy interest in the semen he had left on Welch’s body. The Court noted that while random and suspicionless searches of abandoned DNA are prohibited, in this case there were strong grounds to suspect that the person whose semen was found in the victim’s body had killed her. The Court further stated that a warrant is not required to collect and examine DNA found at crime scenes where the DNA is used only for the purpose of identifying the suspect.
The court noted that more than 100 men had their DNA taken and sampled prior to Hartman’s identification. The steps the police took to use the DNA evidence to narrow the suspect pool, including forensic phenotypic and genetic genealogy, were justified in the circumstances.
The Court also found that Hartman had no privacy interest in portions of his relatives DNA that he shared in common with him, and that had been used to match him to his relatives on GEDMatch.
At his bench trial and at his appeal, Hartman had stipulated that it was his DNA which was collected from Welch’s body. The RMP in this case was 1 in 6.0 quadrillion individuals selected at random.
Ashley, Megan. “New DNA Evidence Used to Solve Two Cold Cases from 1986.” Medium, August 17, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020. https://medium.com/the-true-crime-edition/new-dna-evidence-used-to-solve-2-cold-cases-from-1986-ae278243466b.
KING-TV. “DNA on Napkin Leads to Charges in 32-Year-Old Cold Case.” USA Today, June 23, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/06/23/dna-napkin-leads-charges-32-year-old-cold-case/728082002/.
Parabon Nanolabs. “Murder of Michella Welch.” Parabon Nanolabs (Snapshot Case Summary), 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020. https://snapshot.parabon-nanolabs.com/snapshot-case-summary–tacoma-wa–michella-welch-murder.html.
Spargo, Chris. “Nurse Convicted in 1986 Rape and Murder of 12-Year-Old-Girl Whose Body Was Found Dumped in a Ditch.” Law & Crime, March 23, 2022. Accessed January 13, 2023. https://lawandcrime.com/crime/michella-welch-cold-case-murder-rape-conviction/.
State v. Hartman. Case No. 56801-2-II (Wa. Ct. App. 2d. 2023).