Following an hours-long search that Wednesday in March 1986, authorities discovered Michella’s body in a gulch not far from the playground. Prosecutors said an investigation revealed that she had been sexually assaulted and killed.
For years, Michella’s sisters had few answers.
They knew how she died — by blunt-force trauma to the head — but they didn’t know why she was killed or, most important, who had done it.
More than three decades later, detectives have used the latest DNA technology and genealogy tools to track down a suspect in the case, Gary Charles Hartman, using his own napkin. Hartman, 66, was arraigned Monday on charges including first-degree rape and first-degree murder, according to an account from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. Hartman has pleaded not guilty in the case.
Following the recent break in the 32-year-old cold case, Michella’s younger sister, Nicole Eby, told ABC affiliate KOMO it was “very unfair that he cut such a precious life short.”
Eby said she wants justice for her sister.
“Since Michella didn’t get to live her life out, I want to live my life out for good,” she told KOMO. “His choices will hopefully put him behind bars and where I think he should live the rest of his life.”
Tacoma Police Chief Donald Ramsdell said during a news conference that Hartman was arrested Wednesday during a traffic stop in Lakewood, less than 10 miles from the park.
“If you think you can run, you’re wrong,” Ramsdell said last week. “If you think you can hide, you’re wrong. If you think that the Tacoma Police Department is going to give up, you’re wrong. The Tacoma Police Department will never give up. Our priority is public safety. Our priority is bringing justice to victims of crimes and their families.”
After Michella’s death, Ramsdell said, investigators interviewed potential suspects based on witness testimony but never spoke to Hartman.
In 2006, forensic experts created a DNA profile based on evidence that had been collected during the initial investigation, but it did not lead them to Hartman — or anyone else. Prosecutors said the DNA did not match that of anyone in the police databases. It wasn’t until this year, they said, that Tacoma police cold-case detectives, working with a genetic genealogist, were able to match that DNA profile to one of Hartman’s family members and then use genealogy websites to help trace it to him.
“The genealogist identified two brothers who had the correct amount of shared DNA to match the DNA in evidence,” according to the recent statement from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. “They both lived in the north end of Tacoma during 1986.”
Hartman, prosecutors said, “was one of these brothers.”
Authorities did not release details about the investigation.
Earlier this month, detectives with the Tacoma Police Department began surveilling Hartman. On June 5, they watched Hartman leave Western State Hospital. (A person matching Hartman’s name is listed as a registered nurse in a Washington Department of Health database.) Detectives then followed Hartman to a nearby restaurant, watching as he “wiped his mouth several times with a brown paper napkin, then crumpled it up and placed it into a bag,” according to the statement from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.
Prosecutors said that an employee who “was cleaning up the area and collected the bag” gave the evidence to the detectives at their request.
The DNA from the napkin, according to the prosecutors, matched the DNA that had been collected years earlier during Michella’s autopsy. Hartman was taken into custody last week and charged in the sixth-grader’s rape and murder.
Bryan Hershman, an attorney representing Hartman in the case, called the girl’s death “an unspeakable tragedy” but said his client deserves a fair trial.
“It was terrible,” he said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “That said, Mr. Hartman is charged with as terrible a crime as anyone can be charged with. He is claiming innocence. And he is entitled to the presumption of innocence.”