GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s been nearly 26 years since a delivery driver came upon a woman’s body rolled up in a blanket in southern Kent County.
Sharon Kay Hammack, 29, had been raped, strangled, stabbed, hogtied and dumped on the side of 76th Street west of Kraft Avenue near Caledonia.
Hammack, a mother of two, was one of a dozen women killed in the 1990s in and around Grand Rapids. Most of the victims, including Hammack, struggled with addiction and did sex work to survive.
Regional law enforcement agencies formed a task force in 1996 to investigate the string of murders to determine if it was the work of a serial killer. But investigators were unable to draw any conclusion, and, until this week, no charges had been filed in any of the killings.
In some cases, there were only skeletal remains left by the time the women were discovered.
But Sharon Hammack was found the same day she was murdered, and her killer left traces of himself behind.
FLORIDA TRUCKER WITH VIOLENT HISTORY ARRESTED
It was detectives with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department and advancements in DNA that led to the arrest of Garry Dean Artman, a Florida trucker who lived in Michigan at the time of Hammack’s murder.
Artman, who’s also suspected in the murder of a woman in Maryland, is being held in a Mississippi jail awaiting extradition to Michigan. According to jail records, Artman was arrested by the Mississippi Highway Patrol on Tuesday.
Artman is a trucker with a violent criminal history, including a rape conviction for which he served 11 years in a Michigan prison. Kent County court records show Artman has a current address in White Springs in northern Florida.
In a Friday afternoon news release, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department announced Artman had been charged with open murder, felony murder and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Hammack’s murder.
“KCSD are investigating the 1996 homicide of a local prostitute that took place on 76th St. between Patterson and Kraft,” a detective wrote in a probable cause affidavit filed Tuesday in 63rd District Court on the East Beltline.
“The victim was strangled to death amongst other injuries. The assailant raped the victim leaving DNA vaginally and rectally as well as DNA on other items including the rope used to hogtie the victim. Further, the assailant stabbed the victim in the head twice with a knife,” read the affidavit.
GENEALOGY TESTING LED TO ARREST
Sheriff’s detectives previously submitted DNA from the Hammack crime scene for genealogical testing in an effort to track down relatives of the killer.
“In 2006, Maryland State Police were investigating a homicide of a (woman) who was raped and stabbed to death. The assailant left DNA in (that) victim as well,” wrote a detective.
“Familial DNA was done on both the Grand Rapids case (Hammack) and the Maryland case. It was determined that the assailant in each case was in the fact the same person,” the detective wrote. “Additionally, the DNA exam determined that the person who committed each offense came from the same parents.”
The sheriff’s investigator went on to explain they had traced the DNA to the parents of four sons.
“Further review showed that only one son had any ties to Michigan and that was Garry Dean Artman,” the detective wrote. “Artman, by his own admission, was living and working near the murder scene and was present in the state of Michigan when the homicide was committed. Further investigation revealed that shortly before the homicide victim (was) found in Maryland, she was in Ontario, California. It was found that around the same time Garry Dean Artman was within 20 miles of Ontario, Ca(lifornia) when he was cited by local authorities.”
Detectives have not revealed if they believe Artman was responsible for any additional murders in the Grand Rapids area.
According to the news release from the sheriff’s department, investigators will hold a news conference Monday morning regarding Artman’s arrest. Hammack’s relatives are expected to attend.
In the news release, the sheriff’s department thanked multiple law enforcement agencies for their assistance, including the Mississippi State Highway Patrol, Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, Forrest County Sheriff’s Office in Mississippi, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama, Columbia County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, the Michigan State Police Crime Lab, the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
SISTER: ‘MAMA, WE GOT JUSTICE FOR HER’
On Thursday, one of the cold case detectives knocked on Terri Navitskas’ door in Walker. Navitskas is Hammack’s sister and the investigator wanted to make sure the family learned of the arrest first. He also got on the phone with one of Hammack’s other sisters, Tina DeYoung.
“We got him,” DeYoung quoted the detective as saying as soon as she got on the phone.
DeYoung was stunned.
“It’s just a flood of emotions,” she told Target 8. “I’m happy, but I’m sad too.”
DeYoung said the news brings up the pain of losing her sister all over again, but she’s grateful to the Kent County Sheriff’s Department for never forgetting her sister.
Unfortunately, Hammack’s parents Jacob and Lois Gross are both deceased.
“Mama, we got justice for her,” DeYoung said Thursday night, looking toward the sky. “I’m sorry it didn’t happen before the good Lord took you, but justice will be served. You can celebrate with her up there.”
Target 8 had been working on an in-depth examination of the 1990s murders and spoke with Terri Navitskas in mid-May.
“We would love to know who did this to her. It wasn’t right for any of the girls to have this done to them. Just terrible,” Navitskas said tearfully. “(Sharon) was a loving sister, a loving daughter and a loving mother to two children, and we miss her so bad.”
Navitskas said her sister was three to five months pregnant when she was killed.
“So there’s a baby we don’t even know,” she said. “(Sharon) wanted everything out of life for her children. I don’t know who she got hooked up with on the drugs. When she first got into it, she wanted to get clean for her children, but then she got so far into the crack, it took her downhill… It was just terrible to see her on the streets. I hated seeing her there.”
Navitskas said the family worried about Hammack every day, especially when someone started killing sex workers in Grand Rapids.
Hammack, whose body was discovered Oct. 3, 1996, was the ninth woman killed in the string of 12 murders that began in March 1994, with the discovery of the body of Lesa Otberg, 25, in Muskegon.
“Me and my mom would drive up and down Division Avenue and (Sharon) would be right there behind a little motel near 28th Street. We’d see her and when we’d come up to her and stop, she’d run because she didn’t want us to see her like that,” Navitskas said.
She said her mom tried to put Hammack in rehab, but Hammack was always kicked out because they lacked insurance.
“I think about her all the time,” Navitskas said. “What a wonderful sister she was. She was just so loving.”