TACOMA, Wash – Gary Hartman was arraigned Monday on rape and murder charges for his alleged role in the brutal killing of 12-year-old Michella Welch more than 30 years ago. And Michella's family was there.
Welch’s body was discovered near Tacoma’s Puget Park in 1986, around the same time another young girl was found murdered, Jennifer Bastian.
The murders stunned and forever changed families living in Tacoma at the time.
Now decades later, new DNA technology is finally bringing justice to a community longing for closure.
Welch’s family traveled from afar so they could be in court to see the man police say killed Michella. It was a moment some thought would never happen.
“Just an amazing, amazing girl,” said Michella’s sister, Nicole Eby. “Super talented, beautiful artist. Played the piano and the violin.”
Tacoma Police say they used DNA to determine that Gary Hartman, 66, of Lakewood, was the person who killed and raped Michella.
“For me, it was very emotional,” said Barbara Leonard, Michella’s mother. “Finally I feel I have a little bit of closure. You never expect the face of somebody that’s done something this terrible to look normal, somebody that’s maybe your neighbor friend.”
In the spring of 1986, Michella and her sisters were playing at a Tacoma park, but when Michella went home to get them lunch she never returned.
“She took a very long time,” said another sister, Angela Velazquez, who was in court Monday. “Her bike was locked up and the bag was ripped open, it was very bizarre and we went looking.”
“I remember the babysitter at the top shouting, ‘Angie, Nicki!’ recalled Michella’s sister Eby. “I so thought it was Michella but it wasn’t.”
Hours later police discovered Michella’s body less than half a mile away – investigators say she was raped and died from a blow to her head.
Investigators say they used genetic genealogy to identify Hartman as the suspect. It was only recently that detectives were able to gather a new DNA sample and it matched what was found at the crime scene in 1986.
“We’re at a point, if you’re a criminal and you’ve left your DNA at the scene you might as well turn yourself in now,” said Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist during an earlier press conference announcing the arrest of Hartman.
“It’s hard to know what justice is because it’s never going to bring her back,” said Leonard.
Michella’s mother thanked the Tacoma community for the letters of love and support. She also thanked the relentless effort of law enforcement to find her daughter’s alleged killer but she also shared a warning to other moms and dads.
“Know who your children are playing with, know where they go,” said Leonard. “I was an innocent mother; I didn’t think things like this could happen.”
Hartman pleaded not guilty Monday to murder and rape charges and is being held in jail in lieu of $5 million bail.