Tacoma community feels closure after man arrested for 32-year-old rape, murder of child

TACOMA, Wash. -- In about a five-week time period, Tacoma police made arrests in two different brutal murder cases involving young girls that date back to 1986, and people who live in the community say they finally feel a sense of closure.

On Friday, 66-year-old Gary Hartman, of Lakewood, was charged with first-degree murder and rape of 12-year-old Michella Welch of Tacoma.

Police say on March 26, 1986, Michella went home to make lunch for her younger sisters. Police say Welch’s sisters found Michella’s bike, and the sandwiches she made for them, but they could not find their older sister.

It would be police who found Welch, hours later, in an isolated part of Tacoma's Puget Park; her body was naked, and she had a 3-inch-diameter skull fracture.

For more than three decades, Welch’s murder and rape case went unsolved.

“It doesn’t leave you -- you just hold your children closer,” said Linda Tee.

On the day Welch was killed, Tee says she drove past the park with her baby in the car. She says even though it’s been 32 years, she still vividly remembers seeing the police tape and dozens of officers.

“It was terrifying, nobody knew what was going on,” she said.

Tee says finding out what was happening was even worse.

“This horrific crime shook our community,” said Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell.

Police say they tracked Hartman down using ancestry services. They say they confirmed his DNA was linked to that from the crime scene by going undercover and obtaining one of Hartman’s used napkins from a restaurant.

“It is an emotional thing,” said Detective Steve Reopelle. “I don’t know if it brings closure to anybody, but I think it brings a sense of justice."

Tee says it gives her more than just closure.

“It’s Christmas in June; someone is off the streets that will never be on the streets again,” she said.

In early May, Tacoma Police made an arrest in another cold case.

On August 28, 1986, about five months after Welch’s body was found, police found the body of 13-year-old Jennifer Bastian. Police said she, too ,was raped and murdered.

For years, law enforcement thought the same person committed both murders.

But investigators discovered later that DNA evidence left at each of the scenes did not match.

In May, Police charged Robert Washburn, who was recently living in Illinois, with first-degree murder in the Bastian case; they say DNA was also used to connect him to the case.