Skip to main content

Nurse Convicted in 1986 Rape and Murder of 12-Year-Old Girl Whose Body Was Found Dumped in a Ditch

Michella Welch

On Tuesday, Gary Hartman was convicted of murdering Michella Welch (above in a photo taken just before her death, provided by the Tacoma Police Department).

A judge found a Washington man guilty in the 1986 cold case killing of a 12-year-old girl and handed down more than 26 years in prison at the end of a bench trial on Tuesday.

Gary Hartman, 70, will serve 320 months in prison for the rape and murder of Michella Welch, whose body was found dumped in a gulch near a playground where she had been watching her younger sisters.

In a livestream of the proceedings, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley J. Rumbaugh told Hartman that he would likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Judge Rumbaugh also permitted the victim’s family members to read impact statements in court.

“I say lock him up and throw away the key,” said the victim’s mother, Barbara Leonard.

In another statement entered into the record, Michella’s aunt Linda Maguire wrote: “Her murder was the worst and most devastating event in our family. There is a hole in our lives no one can fill.”

Hartman, a divorced nurse with two children of his own, could be seen crying throughout the 90-minute proceedings and frequently wiping his face with a tissue.

“I’m so sorry. God knows I’m so sorry, and that doesn’t help. I’m just sorry,” Hartman said to the judge and gathered family members after the statements were read in court.

Michella went missing on March 26, 1986.

She had been at the playground with her two younger sisters on that day, according to the probable cause affidavit filed in the Hartman case.

She then rode her bike home to get the group lunch while her sisters sought out a nearby bathroom.

The affidavit states that the two younger girls tried to telephone Michella after using the bathroom and returned to the playground upon getting no response.

Michella was not back with lunch when her younger sisters returned, so the two went off to play.

According to the affidavit, they returned to the playground just a few minutes later to find Michella’s bike, and their sandwiches set out, but no sign of their sister.

Police eventually arrived on the scene and, after an 8-hour search, located Michella’s body. According to the probable cause affidavit:

At the time of discovery, the victim was lying [sic] on her back with her head turned to the left. Her arms were away from her body at approximately shoulder height. Her upper body was clothed, but her shirt had been raised just above her rib cage. The victim was not clothed from the waist down. Her pants and underwear had been pulled down and left around her right ankle.

The next day, An autopsy found that Michella had died of blunt force trauma to the head. According to the medical examiner, she also had a seven-inch laceration to her neck and evidence of both anal and vaginal trauma.

There were no eyewitnesses to the crime, however. Eventually, the case went cold.

michella welch victim impact

The victim impact statement submitted to the court by Michella’s aunt Linda Maguire (above)

Investigators with the Tacoma Police Department got their first break back in 2006 when they were able to take the semen collected by the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and develop a male DNA profile of Michella’s killer, as explained by the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office back in 2018 upon charging Hartman.

That profile was then run through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a tool developed by the FBI to match DNA samples.

There were no matches in CODIS at that time.

Then, in 2018, Det. Steve Reopelle of the Tacoma Police Department began working with a genetic genealogist at Parabon Nanolabs.

Genetic genealogy has proven to be a crucial tool in closing cold case investigations. It is a science that utilizes DNA technology to identify a subject by matching unknown profiles to family members. And with millions of Americans taking at-home DNA tests year after year, the databases that these anonymous profiles can be run through continue to grow.

In the case of Michella, genetic genealogy revealed that the DNA extracted from the semen on her body belonged to one of two brothers in the state of Washington, according to the affidavit of probable cause.

Upon getting this news, Det. Reopelle began surveilling Hartman to obtain a DNA sample. After following the nurse to work one day, Det. Reopelle was able to do just that, according to the affidavit:

[Hartman] and a female co-worker drove to a nearby restaurant and ordered breakfast. Detective Reopelle entered the restaurant and sat at a table approximately 10 feet from Hartman. Detective Reopelle observed him wipe his mouth several times with a brown paper napkin before crumbling it up and placing it into a bag. He then crumpled up the bag and set it to the side as he continued drinking coffee and talking with the co-worker. An employee was cleaning up the lobby and collected the bag, which Det. Reopelle retrieved from her.

Law enforcement tailing a suspect only to obtain discarded DNA and solve a cold case finds recent precedent in the case of the Golden State Killer. The prolific serial rapist and killer, unbeknownst to himself at the time, made the mundane yet fateful decision to discard an item that would be used against him to maximum effect.

That napkin in the Hartman case was sent to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, and two weeks later, news came that the DNA was a match.

COVID delays meant that it took almost four years for prosecutors to secure Hartman’s conviction.

Saturday will mark 36 years since Michella’s murder, and the family hopes this latest development can help them find some peace.

As her little sister Nicole Eby, one of the last people to see Michella alive, said in court on Tuesday: “Forgiveness is not forgetting, but it is remembering without pain.”

Hartman will be back in court on May 13 for a restitution hearing. His lawyer did not return a request for comment.

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime: