Unsolved crimes are not only difficult for the officers and investigators who worked so hard only to come to no conclusion, they’re hardest for the families, whose subsequent years following the crime, are filled with doubt and a feeling of injustice.
Every so often though, these grieving unfulfilled loved ones will find their patience rewarded. Law enforcement does catch a break now and then, and sometimes the most valuable clues come from the most overlooked sources…
More Like a Mom
Even as a bespectacled 12-year-old, Michella seemed like more of a mom than an older sister: at least as far as her two youngest siblings were concerned. If one of them fell and scraped their knee, she was the first one to jump in and try to help with a band aid and some boo-boo kisses. She was talented, intelligent, and above all else, kind.
On the day of her disappearance, Michella had taken her two younger sisters to the park not far from their house for a lunch picnic. They had planned to spend the whole day in the park but Michelle had left their lunch at home in the fridge. After all, it was a short bike ride back down the road to get it…
While Michella was off getting lunch, the two younger girls crossed the street from Puget Park to use the restroom at one of the local businesses. Young as they were, they went back to the park to play. As children do, they lost track of time and in no time at all three hours had passed with no sign of their sister.
The girls came out of the gulch they had been playing in around 2 p.m. and noticed something strange. Michella’s bike and the lunch she had gone to get were at the spot where they were supposed to picnic, but Michella herself was nowhere in sight. For a girl who was always one to look out for her sisters, it seemed odd that she’d just run off and leave them without supervision…
Call For Help
The girls did what they had been taught to do, they notified their regular babysitter, who in turn contacted their mother. Before long, the police were called and a search of the area was quickly initiated. Seeing as they were already a few hours behind the criminal, they knew they had to work fast to find Michella.
Howl in the Dark
Around 11 p.m. that night, after a mere eight hours of searching, a howl went out in the night. The search dogs had found something deep in an isolated patch of the gulch. It was more than a quarter mile away from the area where the girls had been playing. There, in the mud, was Michella’s body….
Michella’s sisters were heartbroken. Their surrogate mom, the link between them and their parents had not only been brutally murdered, she’d been sexually assaulted as well. “She was just a beautiful child. She loved music, was an amazing artist…she played the piano, she played the violin, loved to read…” explained Michelle, her younger sister years later.
Michella’s mother was similarly torn apart by the loss. The police had few leads, no one had seen her taken away by anyone in the park that way and her sisters had been too busy playing to notice anything. Things were not looking very good as far as finding her killer. Until they killed again that is…
In August of that year, not long after Michella’s murder, thirteen-year-old Jennifer Bastian was also killed. At first, police thought the two killings were related, mainly due to the fact that the circumstances behind both killings seemed similar: at least in some respects.
Police were even able to collect a sample of male DNA from the crime scene evidence. They even developed a DNA profile as well but could find no match from it in either the state or national databases. Thus the case would remain cold for the next several decades. Until, in 2016, when the case was reopened…
It was 2016, 30 years since Michella Welch had disappeared and been found murdered when police began working the case again. This time, they employed the assistance and expertise of a genetic genealogist. Their job was to use DNA mapping technology of today to create a sort of genetic profile of the killer.
“Genetic genealogy uses DNA technology to identify subjects by matching the unknown profile to a family member,” explained Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell. “Traditional genealogy is then used to build a family tree from publicly available websites.” Michella’s sisters, for their part, were hopeful that they would finally get answers…
As remarkable as it sounds, the genealogical tests identified two brothers as possible suspects. Police began surveillance and had Detective Steve Reopelle follow one of the men, a former male nurse named Gary Hartman, around as he went about his day. He even followed him to a restaurant when he met a coworker for coffee.
In days gone by, Mr. Hartman worked for the state Department of Social & Health Services as a registered nurse. He had spent time working at Western State Hospital as a community nurse specialist and it was there that he met fellow medical worker Stephanie Brookens. Stephanie, as it happened, knew something was wrong with Hartman from the start…
Stephanie Brookens, who worked with Hartman in 2007 said: “I knew there was something off but I didn’t know how bad it was you know? I would have figured cheat on his wife or something minor…A murder and a rape? I don’t understand how you can put that in a little box in your mind and then go into a helping profession.” And yet, that was apparently exactly what he’d done.
The Smoking Napkin
It was in that restaurant, waiting and watching from the booth across the way, that Detective Reopelle recovered what would become a necessary piece of the puzzle in solving Michella’s murder. During the course of the meal, he used his napkin several times. Then, thinking nothing of it, he crumpled the napkin up, put it in a paper bag, and threw it in the trash can before he left…
One Man’s Trash…
The fact that he’d voluntarily discarded the used napkin was enough to allow the detective to retrieve it from the garbage and use it to test for a DNA match. They compared Hartman’s DNA on the napkin to the sample from the case and found that it was a clear match to the older evidence.
Soon after the DNA was matched, a warrant was issued. The police used a routine traffic stop in order to track down the now 66-year-old Hartman and take him into custody. He was arraigned soon after and the judge, taking into consideration how brutal the accused crime actually was, set bail at $5 million. Now the Welch sisters just had to wait for justice to be served…
“It’s really sad to think that he’s been out there living a free life when he cut my sister’s life short…” said Michelle Eby, Michella’s sister. “You always hope they catch the guy. But in the back of my mind I figured that he was probably dead or maybe he found the Lord and is a great guy…” Now though, they were confident that Hartman would serve punishment for his crimes.
As for the other girl killed, Jennifer Bastian, well that was a different story. Unfortunately, the DNA comparison ruled out Hartman as the culprit for her murder. It seemed that both girls were killed by different people. The silver lining is that the same new DNA evidence led to the arrest of 60-year-old Robert D. Washburn, who was charged with Jennifer’s murder.