"DNA technology is rapidly advancing. If you're a criminal who left DNA at a crime scene, you might as well turn yourself in now. We will eventually catch you."
-Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist
It was the 4th of August 1986. A Monday. Thirteen year old Jennifer Bastian left her home in Tacoma, Washington, United States at around 2.30pm that day. She left a note for her parents stating that she would be home by 6.30pm.
Jennifer left her home that afternoon on her bicycle. She had an upcoming bike tour in the San Juan islands that she needed to train for so she decided to go to the Point Defiance Park. She often went to the Point Defiance Park as she could cycle through the park along the Five Mile Drive loop.
Several people saw her that day at the park including a number of people who saw her take a break from cycling, remove her helmet and drink some water and at that point, she seemed fine. She was last believed to have been seen at 6pm. But Jennifer never made it home. And when she still wasn't home by 8.30pm, she was reported missing.
A search of the park and surrounding area took place, but nothing was found. Two weeks later, on the 28th of August, Jennifer's body was found by a jogger in a wooded area close to where she had been seen. The jogger stopped due to a strong odor along the Five Mile Drive. Jennifer's body was hidden under some bushes. Police believe that the area where her body was found had been prepared before she was brought there. Her bicycle was found close by.
An Autopsy was carried out and it was confirmed that Jennifer had been sexually assaulted and then strangled to death. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxia.
Police began the homicide investigation but they believed that Jennifer wasn't the killer's first victim. Five months before her body was found, another girl, twelve year old Michella Welch, also went missing.
Michella was reported missing on the 26th of March 1986. She was last seen at the Puget Park in Tacoma, Washington at about 10am.
Michella was at the park that day with her two younger sisters. Like Jennifer, she also had her bicycle with her that day. One of her sisters had a bicycle too and the other one had a skateboard and Michella pulled her along behind her on the bicycle until they reached the park. When they got there, the two younger girls ran off to play and Michella cycled home at 11am to make lunch for the girls. When she got back to the park, she discovered that her two younger sisters had gone to a nearby business to use the restroom so Michella left their lunch on the table at the park and went to look for them.
Her sisters got back to the park at around 1.15pm and Michella wasn't there so they went to play in a cave under the bridge for another thirty minutes or so. Just before 2pm, one of her sisters noticed Michella's bicycle was beside her bicycle so they were concerned that she wasn't there. They went to look for her but couldn't find her.
Michella still wasn't back at the park by 3pm and she was reported missing. By 3.10pm, police arrived at the park to help search for her. One thirteen year old boy told police that he saw a man in the park under the Proctor Bridge looking at the girls. That man was not identified.
Later that night, at 11.30pm, Michella's body was found in a makeshift fire pit area in an isolated area in the gulch, more than a quarter mile away from the play area of the park. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten and her throat was cut.
The Medical Examiner conducted an Autopsy and determined that Michella died from blunt force trauma to the head. There was also evidence of sexual assault and her throat had been cut. Swabs were collected but at time, DNA wasn't as advanced as it is now and despite tips and calls, police did not have any evidence to link anyone to the murder.
At the time of Jennifer's murder, nobody had been charged in relation to Michella's murder and due to the similarities of the cases, police believed they were looking for the same killer. But despite thousands of tips, both cases went cold.
Over the years, the cases were looked at time and time again but nothing of any significance showed up. In 2006, a male DNA profile was developed from the swabs collected at Michella's Autopsy. State and national data bases were searched but no matches were found.
In 2013, a Detective looking at Jennifer's case decided to have Jennifer's swimsuit tested for DNA. When Jennifer's body was found, her swimsuit was around her ankle so it was never tested for DNA as it was believed it had been removed before the sexual assault took place. That assumption was incorrect. Testing confirmed there was DNA in the form of semen in the crotch area of the swimsuit.
That DNA was then compared to the DNA that had been obtained in Michella’s case. It wasn't a match. That was the first time, after almost thirty years, police knew that there were now two killers. Whoever killed Michella was not the same person who killed Jennifer. That changed the course of the investigation and the two homicide investigations were separated. They did not need to find someone who was connected to both crimes. They needed to find two completely different killers.
The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab created a DNA profile from the semen that was found on Jennifer’s swimsuit. Like in Michella's case, no matches were found on the state and national data bases. Police created a list of potential suspects who they needed to obtain DNA samples from. One man on the list was a man called Robert Washburn.
Police tracked down sixty year old Robert Washburn to an apartment in Eureka, Illinois in 2017. When asked for a DNA sample, he voluntarily provided same. Robert lived with his disabled daughter and was her full time carer. They had lived there for thirteen years.
When police tested the DNA, they discovered it was a match. He was arrested and charged with first degree murder and extradited back to Washington. At the time of Jennifer's death, Robert was twenty eight years old and lived nine blocks from her home. He worked at Boeing as a mechanic and married four years after Jennifer's murder. His ex wife, Cindy Stephens, said that she had no idea that he was involved in Jennifer's murder and she described him as always gentle. Their marriage ended in the mid-1990s.
Neighbors were also shocked when Robert was arrested. They described him as a quiet man who kept himself to himself and spent a lot of time indoors with his daughter.
But it wasn't a complete shock for the police. In fact, Robert's name was already on the police file. He was listed as a potential suspect in 1986 in relation to Jennifer's case and was questioned that same year. Police did not have enough evidence against him to link him to the crime at that time and even though he was listed as a potential suspect or a person of interest, he wasn't the main suspect that they had on file. Robert came to the attention of the police in May of 1986, prior to Jennifer going missing, as he called police himself in relation to Michella's case. He called to give them a tip. Police had released a composite sketch of a man they believed was the suspect in Michella's murder and Robert called to let them know that he frequently jogged in Point Defiance Park and had seen a man who matched the description of the suspect in Michella's case. He told them he sometimes jogged twice a day in Point Defiance Park.
After Jennifer was murdered, police put Robert's name on their list of potential suspects and when they questioned him in December 1986, he told police he was in the park the day Jennifer disappeared and even admitted he used the same trail where her body was later found. Despite that, police had no actual evidence in order to be in a position to arrest him at that time.
Before his Trial began, Robert pleaded guilty to Jennifer's murder and his plea statement revealed some of what happened to Jennifer that day. According to the statement, he grabbed Jennifer by the arm, led her into the woods, then strangled her. The Court heard there were signs of sexual assault.
Robert was sentenced to 26 1/2 years in prison and must serve a minimum of 20 years before he is eligible for release.
During the hearing, he declined to speak but submitted a written statement to the Court which was read out for the purpose of Jennifer's family.
“I strangled her until she died. I am deeply sorry for the death of Jennifer. I recognize there is little that my words can do to diminish the tremendous sense of pain and loss that this crime caused to many people."
Jennifer's mother Patty was in Court and said:
“For us, normalcy disappeared on the 4th of August, the day you decided would be a good day to savagely murder our 13 year old girl."
Jennifer’s sister, Theresa Bastian, told the Court of the impact her sister's death had on her and continues to have on her. She told the Court that she hadn’t taught her own daughter how to ride a bike.
After Court, both Patty and Theresa spoke to the press. They now know who killed Jennifer but do not know why:
“It’s just mind boggling that he went to the park on the 4th of August and just decided, 'I’m going to kill a child.'”
In relation to Michella Welch's murder, in 2015 police requested assistance from Snapshot® DNA Phenotyping in order to obtain a visual of what the suspect looked like. In 2016, Parabon delivered Snapshot Phenotype reports to police. The suspect was predicted to most likely have fair skin, brown eyes, and brown hair.
In 2018, police gave approval to Parabon NanoLabs for the DNA data from Michella Welch's killer to be uploaded to GEDmatch, a public, genetic genealogy database which permits searches of this type. Parabon then proceeded with Snapshot Genetic Genealogy analysis. Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said:
"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."
A family tree was created based on the genetic matches found in GEDmatch and two suspects were identified. They were brothers who both lived in Tacoma at the time of Michella's murder. Police traced the two of them down and obtained their DNA. Police followed one of the brothers, sixty six year old Gary Charles Hartman, to a restaurant and afterwards asked the server for the napkin he had used to wipe his mouth with so that they could test it. The DNA on the napkin matched the DNA found at the crime scene. Gary was thirty four years old at the time of Michella's murder and lived around a mile away from the entrance to the park.
Gary was charged with first degree murder and first degree rape. At the time of his arrest, Gary, a licensed registered nurse in Washington State, was working as a community nurse specialist at Western State Hospital, had a clean criminal record, and lived with his third wife.
Gary has pleaded not guilty and is currently awaiting Trial.
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