Man convicted in 1986 cold case murder, rape of 12-year-old sentenced to 26 years

A man convicted for the 1986 rape and murder of 12-year-old Michella Welch in Tacoma was sentenced to 26 years in prison on Tuesday. 

Welch and her two younger sisters were visiting Puget Park on N. Proctor on March 26, 1986. She left the park to get lunch for her sisters. By the time she returned, her sisters had gone to a nearby business to use the bathroom.

When her sisters returned to their park around 1 p.m. that day, she had disappeared. All that was left behind was her bike and lunch.

Authorities searched for Welch for several hours before finding her body in a nearby gulch. 

Gary Hartman, now 70 years-old, was arrested in 2018 after new DNA technology identified him as a suspect. 

In 2006, advances in DNA allowed detectives to use evidence left behind to create a DNA profile of the killer. But when they searched state and national databases, there was no match.

Investigators say they used genetic genealogy to identify Hartman as the suspect in 2018. It was then that they were able to gather a new DNA sample and it matched what was found at the crime scene in 1986.

"Genetic genealogy uses DNA technology to identify subjects by matching the unknown profile to a family member; traditional genealogy is then used to build a family tree from publicly available websites," said then-Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell. 

Detectives say although Hartman never used a site like Ancestry.com, someone in his family did and that allowed experts at Parabon Nanolabs to pick Hartman as a possible match.

Detectives also went undercover to trail Hartman, and were able to get a napkin that he left behind at a restaurant to match the DNA. 

Police say Hartman did not know Welch or her family and that the crime was a crime of opportunity.

Hartman received the maximum sentence of 26 years in prison. He will be 96 when he gets out.  

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