GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In the 1990s, more than a dozen women were found dead in the Grand Rapids area.
More than two decades later, a man has been arrested in the death of one of those women: Garry Dean Artman faces multiple charges in the death of Sharon Kay Hammack.
Artman, a 64-year-old trucker from Columbia County, Florida, was arrested in Mississippi following a traffic stop while driving a commercial vehicle. He faces charges of open murder, felony murder and criminal sexual conduct first degree in the death of Hammack.
He is also suspected in the murder of a woman in Maryland.
In a Monday morning press conference, Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young said that since the 1990s, there have been various task forces that try to solve cold cases.
“We try to remember the pain that family suffers when there’s a loss such as this. We remember the person whose life is cut short and the impact that they still had… That’s why we continue to still work on cold cases to the best of our ability throughout all these years,” LaJoye-Young said.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker added that “…every time we do get a solved case, a match like this, it does help proceed investigations locally and potentially statewide or nationally.”
“…It gives hope, I think it, to other families and other victims who are going through some of what you’ve gone through for the last 20 years, and I can’t imagine that and I’m so grateful that you’re here and that we could do something for you,” Becker said to family members of Hammack who attended the press conference.
Hammack, a 29-year-old mother of two with a third on the way, according to family members, was killed in 1996 when detectives say Artman raped, strangled, stabbed and hogtied her. She was dumped on the side of 76th Street near Kraft Avenue in Caledonia Township.
Her body was found the same day she was murdered, giving detectives leads on who her killer could be.
Joel Schultze, forensic DNA supervisor with the Michigan State Police, said during the news conference that MSP “prepped a sample and sent that out to Identifinders, which is the same company that we used for the 1987 homicide out of Niles.”
DNA from the crime scene led investigators to Artman.
But the bodies of many of the other women killed in the 1990s were not discovered immediately — only skeletal remains were left by the time some of the women were found — and arrests have not been made in those cases.
Most of the victims struggled with substance abuse and engaged in commercial sexual activity, though Tara Aday with Safe Haven Ministries said it can be difficult to discern the difference between commercial sexual activity and sex trafficking.
She said if an adult is doing commercial sexual activity as a result of force, fraud or coercion, then they are being trafficked. The differences between the two can be nearly invisible, making it difficult to tell whether someone taking part in the sale of sex is experiencing exploitation or trafficking.
A task force was formed in 1996 to investigate the string of murders, but investigators never reached any conclusions.
News 8 obtained death records of the 12 women who were killed around the same time Hammack was:
LESA IRENE OTBERG
The first body discovered in the string of murders was that of Lesa Irene Otberg. Otberg was a 24-year-old from Grand Rapids.
She died of strangulation sometime around Jan. 1, 1994.
Two months later on March 30, 1994, her body was found on Hackley Avenue and Stein Street in Muskegon.
SHELLY RAE CHRISTIAN AKA KEPHART
Shelly Rae Christian, also known as Shelly Rae Kephart, was a 29-year-old from Minnesota. Her body was found by rabbit hunters on Nov. 6, 1994, in a ditch near 32nd Avenue and Arthur Street in Wright Township.
Her death certificate states she died of “homicidal means,” though the specific cause is unknown.
“It’s sad and heartbreaking to find out … she was murdered,” her sister told News 8 when Christian’s body was identified.
PAMELA LYNN VERILE
A 33-year-old woman from Grand Rapids, Pamela Lynn Verile died on June 1, 1995.
Her body was found one day later.
Her place of death is listed as a “river bank,” at 3600 Veterans Memorial Drive in Walker. Veterans Memorial Drive runs between the Grand River and Millennium Park.
Verile died of grand cerebral trauma and blunt trauma.
GALE ANNETTE COOK
Gale Annette Cook was found in a wooded area near Leonard Street, about a quarter mile east of Crahen Avenue in Grand Rapids Township.
She was 37 years old.
Cook was born in New Jersey and was living in Haslett, Michigan at the time.
She was strangled to death with a ligature.
DAWN MARIE SHAVER
In November of 1995, the body of Dawn Marie Shaver was found in a creek beneath the railroad tracks near Ann Street and Elizabeth Street in Grand Rapids.
Shaver was 25 years old. On Nov. 17, 1996, she was “strangled and beaten to death.” She had blunt force injuries to the head, chest and abdomen.
MICHELLE ANN BECKER
Michelle Ann Becker’s body was found on Aug. 9, 1996, but she died months earlier — some time around April 27, 1996.
Her location of death is listed as “unknown,” killed by somebody “by unknown means.”
SHERRY JEANNE STEWART BROWN
Sherry Jeanne Stewart Brown, 32, died some time around Aug. 9, 1996.
Her death certificate wasn’t signed until three and a half years later, on Jan. 15, 2000.
It’s not known where exactly or how she died.
“Found body – based upon autopsy and a thorough investigation of the circumstances a cause of death cannot be determined,” her death certificate says.
The Grand Rapids resident died somewhere in Walker.
SONYIA MARIE CAMPOS
Sonyia Marie Campos was killed around Sept. 4, 1996. Her body was found on Sept. 21, 1996, off Butterworth by the gypsum mine. According to her sister, her body was found by a jogger.
“It was hot that year and she had been there the whole time she was missing. We wasn’t allowed to see her. Her body was too badly decomposed,” Lisa Rosales, Campos’ sister, told News 8 in a text.
She lived in Wyoming, but it’s not known where she died — her death certificate doesn’t even list a county.
It is not known how Campos was killed.
DAWN SHARLENE PHILLIPS
A woman from Grand Rapids, 26-year-old Dawn Sharlene Philips, died around Jan. 19, 1996.
Ten months later, her body way found in the 600 block of Canright NE in Plainfield Township.
She died of “homicide by unspecified means.”
CHERYL LYNN MASON
Cheryl Lynn Mason was killed some time around Aug. 6, 1996. Her body was found in a wooded area, near 100 Logan SW in Grand Rapids.
The Plainfield Township woman’s body was not found until Oct. 13, 1996.
Mason died of “homicidal means.”
Grand Rapids resident Victoria Moore died around Aug. 1, 1996.
She was found in a field in the 1600 block of 20 Mile Road in Tyrone Township.
Moore’s body was found on Oct. 27, 1996.
She was “killed by (an) assailant.”
STEPHANIE RENEE JUDSON
The death certificate of Stephanie Renee Judson lists her as ‘Jane Doe’ — birthday unknown, parents’ name unknown, hometown unknown — but she was recently identified.
She was killed some time before July 31, 1997, when her body was found at a roadside park in Ada Township by a maintenance worker. She died of “homicidal means.”
Judson was a mother of two in her late 20s and was originally from Benton Harbor.
When her body was identified in January of this year through genealogy testing, her family told News 8 she had a “heart of gold.”
She was the final victim in the series of killings.
— Target 8 investigator Susan Samples contributed to this report.