Police nab alleged killer through DNA decades after 12-year-old Michella Welch was raped and murdered

Technological advancements in genealogy and DNA analysis have helped crack another case that was unsolved for decades.

KING-TV reports that Gary Hartman, 66, has been arrested in connection with the 1986 rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl from Tacoma, Washington. Prosecutors on Friday charged Hartman with the first-degree murder and first-degree rape of Michella Welch, who went missing on March 26, 1986.

Welch had been babysitting her two younger sisters in a park at the time. She reportedly biked home to pick up lunch but when she returned, her sisters were at a business nearby using the bathroom.

Investigators believe Welch may have gone looking for the girls when she vanished. The sisters returned to the park and found Welch’s bicycle and their lunch on a table, but their big sister was nowhere to be found.

That night, authorities discovered her body in a gulch.

Investigators collected DNA evidence from the crime scene. The evidence was analyzed and compared to databases in 2006, but no results were found. By spring 2018, genetic genealogy had been used to capture two high-profile criminals on the west coast: The suspected Golden State Killer in California and a man accused of murdering a Canadian couple traveling near Seattle.

Investigators deployed the same tactics in the Welch case. They developed a family tree using the DNA from the crime scene and found two brothers who shared similar DNA. Hartman was one of them.

Then earlier this month, police put Hartman under surveillance and followed him to a restaurant, where detectives collected a napkin that Hartman had used. Analysis of the napkin confirmed a DNA match with the crime scene evidence, and police arrested Hartman in a traffic stop.

Welch’s mother, Barbara, said her daughter’s rape and murder had made her paranoid for years. She thanked investigators for staying on the case.

“I never believed this day would happen,” Barbara said.

Hartman reportedly lived near the Welch family, although Barbara said she had never heard of him. Neighbor Barbara Pinckney told the television station she felt relieved by Hartman’s arrest.

“I am really impressed by the detectives who found these people and their doggedness to find it. They hadn’t forgotten. That really says a lot,” Pinckney said. “It makes us all feel a little better about justice and what is happening.”

[Feature Photo: Michella Welch/Tacoma Police Department]