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3 decades after Michella Welch’s death, a picture starts to emerge of suspected killer

News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. logoNews Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. 6/22/2018 Stacia Glenn And Alexis Krell
© Courtesy: thenewstribune.com

TACOMA, Wash. — Gary Charles Hartman wasn't what people expected to see as he shuffled into a Pierce County, Wash., courtroom Thursday.

The 66-year-old had white hair on his balding head, wore black wire-rimmed glasses and appeared timid.

One person who went to court to see him described Hartman as "a little, old man."

But in his younger years, Hartman is accused of luring 12-year-old Michella Welch into a remote area of Tacoma's Puget Park, sexually assaulting her and then fatally cutting her neck.

Prosecutors are expected to charge Hartman on Friday in connection with the girl's death March 26, 1986.

On Thursday, prosecutors told the court Hartman has significant assets that could make him a flight risk and asked for $5 million bail. Superior Court Commissioner Meagan Foley agreed to that, pending Hartman's arraignment.

Paula DeGraw, who told reporters she was a childhood neighbor of Welch, watched the court proceedings and said Hartman was not what she expected.

"He's your everyday little, old man," she said.

Hartman has no prior criminal record and appears to have spent his life in Pierce County.

At the time Welch was killed, he lived in a two-story home in the 4600 block of North Huson Street with a view overlooking Commencement Bay.

The state Department of Social and Health Services hired him in October 1998 as a registered nurse.

In recent years, he worked at Western State Hospital in Lakewood as a community nurse specialist. His job was to help patients being discharged from the state hospital transition back into the community.

No complaints have been filed against him at work.

Hartman most recently lived with his third wife on the shores of Steilacoom Lake. Neighbors described him as a friendly man with a fondness for vintage cars.

"We invited him in our house to have a beer," neighbor Heather Broadmante told KIRO-7. "He seemed like this normal, cool dude."

Hartman was arrested Wednesday in Lakewood and booked into the Pierce County Jail on suspicion of first-degree murder.

Police have given no details of how Hartman became a suspect but said they will release more information Friday.

Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said there is DNA evidence.

On the day Welch was killed, she took her two younger sisters to Puget Park. She and one of the girls rode bicycles. Welch pulled the other behind her on a skateboard.

She left the park and went home to make sandwiches for lunch. When she returned, her sisters had run to a nearby business to use the restroom and Welch went looking for them.

The girls did not see their sister when they returned to the park.

By 3 that afternoon, police were scouring the North End for any sign of Welch.

A search dog found her body late that night in a makeshift fire pit in a gulch near the park.

She died from a cut to the neck.

Just months later, 13-year-old Jennifer Bastian disappeared in Point Defiance Park. Her body was found Aug. 26 in a wooded area off Five Mile Drive. She'd been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Investigators believed the same man had killed the girls until 2016 when DNA from both scenes proved the crimes were not linked.

Police last month arrested Robert Washburn, 60, in Bastian's death. He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

Washburn called police in 1986 to say he thought he'd seen a man fitting the description of Welch's killer, but detectives have no evidence he was connected to her death.

Washburn and Hartman lived close to each other in 1986, but it's unclear if they were acquainted.

Lindsey Wade, a former Tacoma police detective who worked the two cold cases for years, said she was glad both deaths appear to be solved after 32 years.

"I'm relieved," she said. "I'm happy he's in custody and happy we were finally able to give Michella's family some answers."

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